There are a few things institutions can do to ensure students can leverage cloud computing without impacting budgets or compliance protocols.

A lack of cloud experience could harm students’ job prospects

There are a few things institutions can do to ensure students can leverage the cloud--without impacting budgets or compliance protocols

Key points:

  • Students need access to the cloud to build valuable skills before they enter the workforce
  • There are a few days institutions can foster this access without running into trouble

Most organizations have either adopted the cloud or have plans to adopt the cloud in some capacity in the coming years, creating more employment opportunities in the cloud market. This is a competitive job market, and students who have had their hands in the cloud are going to be more attractive to hiring businesses.

But this is a catch-22 situation. Students need hands-on experience in cloud environments for post-graduate employment, yet these learning opportunities are not offered to them during their education. 

Higher education institutions have a long-standing apprehension with scaling cloud usage. When they were first introduced to the cloud, they realized that they had to switch from the predictable cost model of data centers to a utility model. This caused education institutions to hesitate, given the potential for overspending and difficulty in proper cost estimation.

In addition, outside of the security concerns of the cloud, institutions were also concerned that a ‘bad actor’ could do something nefarious–such as mine cryptocurrency, stand up non-academic infrastructure, or expose university data. The financial concerns and foundational trust risks exponentially increase when you introduce cloud computing to the student population.

Institutions put themselves in a position to essentially give students access to a university credit card and institutional resources and ask them to behave, yet there is no confidence that they will and no guardrails in place for administration to enforce.

The cloud can give students a better academic experience

The lack of hands-on cloud usage in colleges and universities is not just impacting students in degree programs with a heavy computational focus, such as data science or information technology. It can impact any student who needs to work in a lab, such as architecture, graphic design, and geographical studies. These students often must spend hours, days, and weeks in the lab because that is the only place where they can access the software they need on a computer that is powerful enough to run it.

This can impact them in two ways:

  1. Property management issues. Not every institution is able to build and operate computer labs that are open 24×7—a common problem amongst urban campuses. This means that students are limited to using the software only when the lab is open and accessible, unlike other students who can do schoolwork from wherever, whenever.
  2. Campus safety. If a student wants to work on a project late at night or early in the morning, they would be required to travel to and from campus during periods of time when it may not be the safest for them to do so.

Offering cloud services allows the university to expand that student experience to wherever the students are, which unlocks online learning potential. Any course that is taught in a lab can most likely be offered with a cloud computing component. Consider geography students who leverage ArcGIS, a web-based geographic information system mapping software. This tool enables students to create maps—which is a lot more complicated than it sounds, as troves of geographical data has to be manipulated—and requires robust computers in a lab. This task could easily be done via an AWS WorkSpaces, for example. Utilizing AWS WorkSpaces would give students more flexibility on when and where they do coursework and research.

Preparing students for the real-world is a win-win for everyone

For students in technical degree programs, we want to avoid them entering their job​​—whether as a SysAdmin, engineer, developer, or similar—without ever being in the AWS Console. Consider graphic designers–you wouldn’t want them to graduate without having been able to dabble in Photoshop, InDesign, or Illustrator, because these are tools they will be using on a daily basis in their future careers.

When Adobe made the switch to Adobe Creative Cloud, it changed its whole business model to make it easier for faculty, staff, and students to get access. Adobe enabled colleges and universities to become ‘creative campuses,’ which granted them Adobe licenses for all faculty, staff, and students to help the entire university become digital native or digital fluent. These individuals can install Adobe programs on their laptops and allow them to access the software at any time from anywhere, regardless of their major or whether they’re enrolled in a traditional “art” program. A business student learning how to build a video to “sell” their vision, or a philosophy major animating a graphic to get their point across, are building critical skills they’ll be able to use in their career.

This same principle needs to be applied to the cloud, giving faculty and students access to what they need regardless of their program or major–wherever they are, however they need it, for whatever purpose. Giving students cloud access is also a win for universities. Higher education institutions want to be known for producing high-quality job applicants. They want their students to have a leg up over other candidates from other universities because that helps them in their student recruitment process. Universities that give students cloud access will help them develop students that are differentiated from the pack.

How can higher education do this effectively?

I would advocate for higher education institutions to set up controlled or gated environments in the cloud for their students. Cloud service providers and other cloud-native tools can help organizations do this. First, users can take advantage of offerings such as Free Tiers or Getting Started Credits in AWS and Google Cloud, respectively. In addition, cloud providers give a number of free credits to universities interested in offering these types of services as part of the curriculum.

For controlled environments, universities should create financial guardrails that ensure students cannot spend more than an allocated amount in the cloud per semester (similar to lab fees in a traditional curriculum). I would also recommend that these universities set up alerts, so students know when they are approaching their budget threshold and do not blow an entire semester’s allowance in the first month. Automation should be introduced to stop cloud expenses from accruing once the budgets are exhausted.

Institutions can also limit access to only specific cloud services and resources to ensure sensitive university resources are protected. This would give students enough bandwidth to explore the cloud, try out cloud tools, and use new services all within reason and without jeopardizing any security or compliance protocols. This would also help administrators attribute cloud activity back to individual students, so if something goes wrong—intentionally or unintentionally—they can use it as a learning moment or for disciplinary action. This approach will significantly reduce risks to higher education institutions and give their students a leg up in the marketplace.

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