Library Student Journal: Cloud Computing in Higher Education

Cloud Computing in Higher Education

Marwin Britto
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States

Library Student Journal,
January 2012


With significant budget cuts in higher education coupled with growing demand for information technology (IT) services, institutions are quickly considering and adopting cloud computing strategies to meet their needs. Although there are still challenges with the cloud computing model, the potential benefits appear to greatly outweigh the risks. These changes also necessitate a new type of IT leadership and IT workforce. As this model matures and the risks are mitigated, it is expected that greater numbers of institutions will implement and scale cloud computing services more extensively as an alternative to current IT practices and services. This paper describes the reasons for the rise of cloud computing in higher education, its evolving definition and models, examples of cloud computing in higher education today and its potential in the future.


Institutions of higher education, in the United States and globally, are in the midst of historic times. In the U.S., the deep recession and depleted budget reserves have contributed to a diminishing tax base resulting in drastic budget cuts to state-funded and state-assisted universities and colleges. Endowments at private and public institutions of higher education in the U.S., typically relied on as a source of relief during financially troubling times, have experienced losses not seen since the Great Depression (Lewin, 2010). To backfill the deficit and in the climate of unprecedented budget cuts, institutions of higher education are invoking mass layoffs, steep tuition hikes, department closures, mandatory furloughs, and early retirements; even the threat of closures of university and college systems looms, as evidenced by events in July 2011 that threatened to shutter the entire Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (Budig, 2011). In 2011, it was reported that 43 states in the U.S. had imposed funding cuts to higher education in the coming budget cycle (Johnson et al., 2011). Consequently, 2011 fiscal budgets for U.S. universities and colleges appear much worse than the previous biennial, and sadly, it seems that there is no promise of reprieve in the foreseeable future.

To address their financial shortfall during this economic downtown, institutions of higher education have resorted to a variety of cost-cutting measures, including significant cuts to information technology (IT) budgets. For example, for the 2009-2010 academic year, 50 % of IT leaders at universities and colleges in the U.S. reported decreased funding in their IT budgets over the previous year (Green, 2009). To compound the problem, the purchasing power of these IT dollars has decreased; IT costs have increased at a faster rate than the rate of inflation (Golden, 2009).

IT areas are perceived as significant cost centers, and for many administrators, despite the institution’s reliance on technology in every aspect of its operation, it is difficult to accurately calculate the return-on-investment (ROI) from the cost of information technology; similarly, it is challenging to attribute the benefits of technology directly to the institution’s vision, mission and goals. This lack of a transparent ROI has contributed to bigger cuts in the IT budgets than many other areas on campus. The Campus Computing Project (Green, 2010), which annually surveys IT leaders at institutions of higher education in the U.S. regarding critical issues in IT, reported that 42 % of colleges and universities experienced a budget cut in their IT centralized services for the 2010-2011 academic year. (As indicated earlier, 50 % had already taken cuts to their IT budgets the previous year.) Yet, in sharp contrast to this decrease in availability funding for IT services and support, the demand and expectations for IT services and resources on college and university campuses from students, staff and faculty are at an all-time high. These increasing expectations have been ushered in largely by the growth of a new breed of incoming students.

These students, known as digital natives (Prensky, 2001), the Net Generation, Generation Y, or even Millennials, have not known a world without the Internet (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). Through programs such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and Flickr, students already are well versed and frequent consumers of cloud-based technologies (Ercan, 2010). Accordingly, they expect to have 24/7 access to digital technologies in their educational environment, including cloud technologies which support social media.  In addition, research has demonstrated that cloud-based solutions can be very effective in supporting collaborative and cooperative learning as well as other socially oriented theories of teaching and learning (Thorsteinsson et al., 2010). With the opportunity to facilitate these student needs, coupled with the cost-savings, administrators are asking IT leaders to provision the necessary training, support and resources to implement and support these cloud-based strategies.

The age of doing more with less has been described as the new normal in higher education (Duncan, 2010; Durso, 2011; Sharma, 2011). With escalating expectations for IT resources and services yet diminished funding, doing more with less has been on the radar in IT for some time (Green, 2003). For example, to address the topic of doing more with less, in 2004 EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association concerned with information technology in higher education, assembled and interviewed an expert panel of eight CIOs and VPs of IT at higher education institutions in the U.S. and published their results in the article, “Doing More with Less: Obstacle or Opportunity for IT?” (Goldstein et al., 2004). It is interesting to note that cloud-computing was not seen as a viable strategy or solution at the time. A review of current IT conference programs (e.g. EDUCAUSE, Campus Technology), IT listservs, and journals in IT (e.g. CIO, Journal of Information Technology, Campus Technology, Journal of Information Technology in Education) demonstrated the persistence of this theme of doing more with less.

In the past few years the concept of “cloud computing” has emerged as a viable and promising solution to the challenges associated with shrinking IT budgets and escalating IT needs. Journals (e.g. Cloud Computing Journal), conferences (e.g. Cloud Computing Expo), listservs, consulting firms, and service providers dedicated to cloud computing services and strategies have sprung up virtually overnight; this increasing exposure and media attention and the promise to address IT budget shortfalls together have created a tremendous buzz and further escalated discussions, interest and evolution in this area. EDUCAUSE has created a dedicated cloud computing area on its website, which includes sections on related publications, presentations, podcasts, blogs, newsfeeds, and information on the basics of cloud computing, decision-making and implementation (EDUCAUSE, 2011b).

Despite this proliferation of cloud computing resources and interest in such resources, for some IT leaders and institutional administrators, the jury is still out. Some claim there is too much hype and not enough substance nor adequate research and convincing case studies to fully commit resources and funding to move in this direction; others are concerned about the security and data protection risks (Mircea & Andreescu, 2010). In addition, a commitment to this model fundamentally and radically changes the modus operandi of IT groups on college and university campuses, their power and influence, and their function and perception of value within the institution, which consequently would have serious implications for personnel and allocation of resources in these areas. There are other worthy concerns which warrant greater examination of the implications of cloud computing in higher education; these concerns are the focus of this paper.

This paper will provide an overview of cloud computing in higher education. The intent is to first familiarize those unfamiliar with the concept with its definitions, its defining characteristics, its service and deployment models and examples of institutions currently employing this model. These initial areas regarding cloud computing are provided as background information and context to then help frame discussions. These discussions include its potential as a sourcing alternative, its current implications, examples in higher education, and the changing IT leadership and IT workforce needed to successfully manage this concept. Lastly, the final section offers a reflection on the future implications and role of cloud computing in higher education.

Defining Cloud Computing

In early 2009, McKinsey & Company reported that there were 22 distinct definitions of cloud computing in existence. The surge of interest in cloud computing in the last two years has undoubtedly increased this list. In addition, one of the challenges is the evolving and expanding nature of the cloud computing concept, which will propagate new definitions over time and make it difficult to pinpoint a single definition. McKinsey & Company (2009) define cloud computing as hardware-based services offering computing, network, and storage capacity where the management of hardware is highly abstracted from the buyers, buyers incur variable infrastructure costs, and infrastructure capacity is highly elastic. Any reference to the Internet, a basic premise of cloud computing, is curiously missing. However, the term ‘network’ does infer a connection and the avoidance of the word “Internet” might have been intentionally chosen due to private clouds. Gartner Research takes a broader approach, defining cloud computing as “an alternative delivery and acquisition model for IT-related services” and “...a style of computing where massively scalable IT-enabled capabilities are delivered 'as a service' to external customers using Internet technologies” (Plummer et al., 2008, p. 3). This definition is quite general and avoids the specific service model types which are important attributes of this concept. CDW-G, a technology solutions provider for government agencies and higher education institutions, offers a simple yet thorough definition of cloud computing as “a model for enabling convenient, on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g. networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned” (2011, p. 1).

It appears that CDW-G adapted this definition from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST, under the U.S. Department of Commerce, defines and describes cloud computing as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction” (Mell & Grance, 2011, p. 2). This cloud model promotes availability and is composed of five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models (Mell & Grance, 2011). Despite varying definitions of the term “cloud computing”, there appears to be consistency and general consensus in the literature on the general characteristics, service models and deployment models described by NIST. Since these characteristics and models are useful to understand the context within higher education, they are described briefly in the next three sections.

Five Essential Characteristics of Cloud Computing

The following five characteristics, as defined by NIST, are considered inherent in cloud computing services (Mell & Grance, 2011):

  • On-Demand Self-Service: Customers can automatically provision computing capabilities and resources on their own when needed without necessitating any human intervention.
  • Broad Network Access: Access and capabilities are available over the network through standard devices, such as cell phones, laptops, PDAs, etc.
  • Resource Pooling: Resources such as network bandwidth, virtual machines, memory, processing power, storage capacity, etc. are pooled together to serve multiple customers using a multi-tenant model. That is, virtual and physical resources are dynamically assigned and reassigned based on need and customers’ demands.
  • Rapid Elasticity: Depending on demand, resources and capabilities can be quickly and automatically deployed and scaled at any quantity and at any time.
  • Measured Service: Customer usage of the vendor’s resources and services are automatically monitored, controlled and reported offering a high level of transparency for the customer and vendor.

It is interesting to note that some vendors claim cloud computing as a service, but fail to include one or more of the characteristics listed above. For example, cloud computing vendors which fail to provide transparency (e.g. a detailed report of consumption per service) of your services consumed are not offering true cloud computing services.

Service Models

NIST (Mell & Grance, 2011) also describes three service models:

  • Cloud Software as a Service;
  • Cloud Platform as a Service; and
  • Cloud Infrastructure as a Service.

The differentiators among these three service models are the nature of the service and the level of customer-vendor control and engagement. Furthermore, it should be noted that these models are not mutually exclusive; organizations can and do employ different cloud service models on varying scales for different departments within the organization based on specific needs.

Cloud software as a service (SaaS): The vendor provides, manages and controls the underlying cloud infrastructure, including individual applications, network, storage, servers, operating systems, etc. The customer is able to fully access the vendor’s applications in the cloud via a variety of devices (e.g. cell phone, laptop, PDA). SaaS examples include, and Docs, Twitter and Facebook also fall into this category.

Cloud platform as a service (PaaS): Similar to SaaS, the vendor provides, manages and controls the cloud infrastructure, except for applications, which the customer has control over. The vendor provides tools and resources allowing the customers to create and/or acquire applications to meet their specific needs. PaaS vendor examples include Wolf Frameworks, Dell-Boomi Atmosphere, Heroku, App Engine and Microsoft’s Azure (Metz, 2010).

Cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS): The vendor provides, manages and controls the general cloud infrastructure but provides the customer control over operating systems, storage, processing, and networks on demand. IaaS vendor examples include Flexiant’s Flexscale, Rackspace and Amazon’s Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) and their Simple Storage Service (S3).

Deployment Models

These deployment models, as defined by NIST (Mell & Grance, 2011), are not defined by operator, location or physically but by the service offered and type of community. Similar to cloud service models, the deployment models are not mutually exclusive. Redmine (see is an open source web-based project management tool which utilizes all of the cloud computing deployment models in a variety of ways. Examples of its use with each model are provided after each of the deployment models’ descriptions.

Private cloud: This cloud infrastructure is managed by the organization or a third party and is operated solely for the needs of the organization. This may exist on or off premise. An example of this is Redmine, which uses its own VMware vCloud installation to deploy its system.

Community cloud: This cloud infrastructure is shared by more than one organization and support a specific community that has common considerations. This may be managed by the organizations or a third party. This may exist on or off premise. Redmine is a member of an academic consortium (open source), which entitles Redmine to use the academic consortium’s cloud.

Public cloud: This cloud infrastructure is available to a large industry group or the general public and is owned by a vendor selling cloud services. Redmine subscribes to Amazon Web Services for cloud services.

Hybrid cloud: This cloud infrastructure is composed of two or more types of clouds listed above that remain unique entities but are connected via standardized technology that affords portability of data and applications. Redmine uses Amazon Web Services to maintain the interface and VMware vCloud for the MySQL database system.

It is essential to understand that the service models, deployment models and the five characteristics of cloud computing as described by NIST (Mell & Grance, 2011) do not run independently but are necessarily interrelated and connected to each other. Jerry Bishop, the Chief Information Officer at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Wisconsin, created a visual (see Figure 1) that displays these inter-relationships and necessary connections of the NIST cloud computing characteristics and models (Bishop, 2011). This visual demonstrates that a cloud-based strategy can take on different configurations depending on the institution’s needs. It is not uncommon for institutions to begin with one service model, such as SaaS and a Public Cloud deployment model as a pilot, and then slowly scale if the pilot proves successful. It is also possibly to use several deployment models to support one or more service models (as indicated by the various red, green, and grey arrows) depending again on the institutional needs and costs.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Interrelationships with Characteristics, Service Models and Deployment Models

Prevalence of Software as a Service (SaaS) Cloud Computing in Higher Education

Although Cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) are relatively new occurrences of cloud computing in the mainstream of higher education, Software as a Service (SaaS) models have been popular across industries including in higher education since the mid-1990s. For example, Windows Live Hotmail, Microsoft’s popular email and messaging service and one of the first on the market, has enjoyed a steadily increasing user base since 1996; it now has more than 400 million users worldwide (Microsoft, 2010).  The growth of SaaS is expected to continue; Gartner (as cited in Katz et al., 2010) predicts that by the end of 2012, more than one-third of independent software vendors will be offering their applications as SaaS.

In the past few years, ’s Gmail, Yahoo’s Zimbra email and Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail have made significant inroads in higher education at universities and colleges in the U.S. The Campus Computing Survey (2010) reported that over 80 percent of U.S. colleges and universities use hosted email solutions; of these institutions, 60 percent use Gmail, and the remaining 40 % use Zimbra and Hotmail.

In 2007, Arizona State University, the largest university in the United States with a student population of approximately 58,000 (List, 2011), adopted ’s Gmail to replace 65,000 student and alumni email accounts (Todd, 2008). Soon after, the University of Central Florida, the second-largest American university, also adopted Gmail. Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota, the third and fourth largest universities in the U.S., respectively, with more than 50,000 students each, adopted (Windows Live) Hotmail over the last few years. Ohio State University activated more than 140,000 Hotmail accounts for their current students and alumni. The City University of New York chose Microsoft’s Hotmail as its communication email solution across all 23 colleges (Microsoft, 2010). This widespread adoption is not limited to U.S. institutions; institutions around the world are also adopting also adopting Gmail or Hotmail to replace their email systems. For example, the University of Queensland in Australia created 83,000 Hotmail accounts initially for its students and faculty and has plans to create 100,000 additional accounts for alumni (Microsoft, 2009).

and Microsoft have created their own suite of software applications and tools, including email, and have provided them for free to institutions of education.  Apps for Education, a college/university branded Gmail, Calendar, Contacts, and a suite of collaborative tools is offered in addition to ’s other popular consumer products such as Blogger, Picasa, and YouTube. By 2010, more than 8 million higher education students in the U.S. were using Apps (Weintraub, 2010). Similarly, Microsoft created Live@edu, which is a suite of free Microsoft services and applications including Hotmail. In early 2009, there were more than 3.5 million Live@edu higher education students (Microsoft, 2009). Just two years later, that number more than quadrupled to more than 15 million (Schaffhauser, 2011a).

Although SaaS is not the only service that higher education takes to the cloud, it is the most popular because with scarce IT resources, cloud computing becomes a highly viable option for low-value software needs and with cost savings. With limited resources yet escalating demand for IT resources, institutions can focus their scarce resources on institutional differentiators (EDUCAUSE, 2009a) and the most essential technologies and consider leveraging the cloud for other services. Arizona State University took this approach by adopting Apps Education and Gmail in 2007 as part of a strategy to “get out of businesses that aren’t core to the university” (Smith, 2009, p. 1).

Cloud Computing in Higher Education

According to the CDW 2011 Cloud Computing Tracking Poll, 28 percent of organizations use some form of cloud computing. By industry, 37 percent of large U.S. businesses employ cloud computing strategies followed by 34 percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. This latter figure may not be accurate as another 2011 survey which revealed that as many as 63 percent of those completing the survey representing higher education reported that they were confused regarding the differences between cloud computing and virtualization (Schaffhauser, 2011). Regardless, a growing number of higher education institutions in the U.S. are adopting some form of cloud computing for various reasons and only 5 percent are not considering it in the near future (CDW-G, 2011).

Katz et al. (2009) identify 10 important features of cloud computing in higher education with respect to on-demand SaaS, PaaS, and IaaS:

  1. Increasing access to scarce IT expertise and talent.
  2. Scaling IT services and resources.
  3. Promoting further IT standardization.
  4. Accelerating time to market through IT supply bottleneck reductions.
  5. Channeling or countering the ad hoc consumerization of enterprise IT services.
  6. Facilitating the transparent matching of IT costs, demand and funding.
  7. Increasing interoperability between disjoint technologies within and between institutions.
  8. Supporting a model of a 24 x 7 x 365 environment.
  9. Enabling the sourcing of cycles and storage powered by renewable energy.
  10. Driving down capital and total costs of IT in higher education.

Institutions will gain the benefits of cloud computing in varying degrees contingent upon their level of deployment and extent of service models. As institutions become further entrenched and engaged in cloud computing configurations, they will be able to realize greater advantages, such as increasing access to scarce IT expertise and talent, promoting further IT standardization, the transparent matching of IT costs, demand and funding, and increasing interoperability between disjoint technologies within and between institutions.

Through a “utility model”, a scalable 24 x 7 x 365 model can be employed, which can drive down the capital and total costs for IT. The utility model is a pay-as-you-go model of cloud computing and is a welcome strategy and cost-saving measure for institutions of higher education in the face of rising IT costs, decreasing IT budgets, yet escalating demand for IT services and resources. Services and computing resources are deployed in the cloud on an as-needed pay-for-service basis, thereby avoiding capital costs and internal operational expenditures; institutions can make on-the-fly adjustments to increase or decrease capacity to accommodate temporary spikes in demand, which are often dynamic and elastic. There are numerous examples of when institutions need IT cloud resources scaled to meet temporary needs. For example,

  • the final examination period when thousands of students simultaneously need access to computing resources and exams;
  • the registration period;
  • during staged events such as a conferences where additional resources are needed to stream presentations and provide IT support and Internet access for conference participants;
  • the fluctuating IT needs for distance learning environments; and
  • research projects and experiments that require considerable storage space or processing capacity but only for a limited period of time (EDUCAUSE, 2009a; Goral, 2009).

With as many as 84 % of cloud users experiencing reduced annual costs averaging 21 % in savings as a result of moving to the cloud, cost savings is the greatest incentive for institutions to adopt cloud computing (CDW-G, 2011). Utah Valley University (UVU) struggled with attempting to easily and cost-effectively scale, maintain and support their content management system for their institution’s website, and struggled to provide quick editing and publishing access to staff responsible for updating the content (Gerber, 2010). The website was used as a recruitment tool, and since UVU discovered that 92 percent of prospective students reported that they would remove an institution from their potential list if they couldn’t find the information they were seeking (Noel-Levitz, 2010), the consequences of not arriving at a solution were severe. Cloud computing provided the answer UVU was looking for. Through the employment of a SaaS web CMS “in the cloud”, UVU was able to drop the average editing time from 30 minutes to 2 minutes and the publishing time from 6 hours to less than 10 seconds. In addition, their previous commitment of 57 man-hours per week for CMS system administration and database responsibilities was reduced to just 5.5 hours, a savings of 91 % or 1.2 FTE. In all, UVU initially saved $58,000 and approximately $10,000 annually.

By using cloud computing to support a virtual computing lab, North Carolina State University was able to save software licensing costs and reduce IT staff from 15 to 3 (Wyld, 2009). Eastern Washington University saved $70,000 over three years by choosing Live@edu for their email service (Microsoft, 2010). Larger universities tend to enjoy even greater savings through economies of scale. Lakehead University in Canada, one of the first major Canadian university to outsource their email services to , saved $250,000 a year and students were given storage space in the cloud equivalent to 250 fold what they were getting at the university (Todd, 2008). By using Gmail for its student email needs, Arizona State University saves $500,000 per year (Smith, 2009), and Vanderbilt University saves $750,000 annually (Weintraub, 2010). ASU is also able to provide 40 times the student storage space by moving this to the cloud. In addition, many students, staff and faculty already use ’s Gmail or Microsoft’s Live@edu prior to an institution’s decision to adopt one of them. Many students begin using cloud-based technologies in high school due to the convenience, flexibility and ubiquitous access needed for their active, mobile and always connected lifestyles (EDUCAUSE, 2011a). Faculty also like using the cloud-based services to stay organized and connected (EDUCAUSE). Consequently, the decision and transition from institutional email systems to third party vendors such as or Microsoft offering services in the cloud meets little resistance (Ercan, 2010).

The Challenges of Cloud Computing in Higher Education

Despite the growing acceptance of cloud computing and documented cost savings made possible by cloud computing in higher education and with SaaS models in particular, concerns about the vulnerability to security breaches are the biggest obstacles to cloud computing adoption in higher education, according to recent surveys of IT leaders in higher education (Jitterbit, 2010; Schaffhauser, 2011b). The most important of these security risks includes the loss of governance, lock-in issues, isolation failure, compliance risks, management interface compromise, data protection, incomplete or insecure data deletion and malicious insiders (Catteddu & Massonet, 2010). In addition, concerns regarding privacy, data integrity, intellectual property management, regulation issues (e.g. HIPAA and FERPA), and audit trails are significant barriers to adoption of cloud-based solutions (EDUCAUSE, 2009a).

Consequently, risk assessment becomes a critical task, although some argue that many of the risks related to cloud computing is transferred to the cloud vendor/service provider (Patterson, 2010). To help mitigate these risks for higher education institutions, several organizations have emerged in the last few years. The Cloud Security Alliance was launched in 2009 as a non-profit organization tasked with conducting research in cloud security and offering information and resources about best practices in security protection in cloud computing (EDUCAUSE, 2010a). The Higher Education Information Security Council, a subgroup of EDUCAUSE, provides membership, comprehensive resources and engages members in an ongoing dialogue and issues, challenges and solutions in this area. As noted above, EDUCAUSE (2011b) also has a dedicated area on its website for cloud computing issues in higher education complete with publications, presentations, podcasts, blogs and news feeds.

Similar to computer security programs, cloud security involves the same general concerns: maintaining the integrity of data, ensuring access is limited to authorized users and maintaining the availability of data and services (EDUCAUSE, 2010a). With cloud computing, the data and services are external to the campus and therefore controlling and protecting these assets becomes a much more complex and challenging proposition. Data encryption, e-discovery, frequency and reliability of data backups and recovery of data, the long-term viability of the cloud vendor and laws regarding storage and access to data all become critical issues. Typical service level agreements (SLAs) that cloud vendors provide are not specific and detailed enough to meet college and university requirements. Fortunately, through the Higher Education Information Security Council, a toolkit called the Data Protection Contractual Language is available to provide guidance and languages to assist institutions in crafting appropriate SLAs and contracts to meet their specific needs. This is an evolving area, and although much progress has been made, much more is needed before colleges and universities can place their complete trust in these third party cloud vendors. As increasing numbers of institutions move to the cloud, their collective bargaining power will help them create appropriate policies and contracts to meet their needs. Through the leadership of institutions such as Cornell University, and Microsoft have already agreed to amend its contract language regarding FERPA and other required compliance and regulatory matters to meet institutional expectations. Tracy Mitrano , the Director of IT Policy and University Computer Policy and Law Program in the Office of Information Technologies at Cornell University, has developed a useful checklist of the top ten the legal and policy contractual considerations between institutions and outsourcing entities (i.e. cloud computing vendors) including recommendations for internal procedures and a collaborative approach involving other institutions of higher education (Mitrano, 2010). In addition, Thomas Trappler (2010), the Director of UCLA software licensing, provides extensive guidance and wisdom on cloud computing contract issues in his EDUCAUSE article titled “If it’s in the Clouds, Get it on Paper: Cloud Computing Contract Issues”. His companion wiki (EDUCAUSE, 2010b) which was launched with the online publication of his article contains sample contract and contract clauses around a number of pertinent issues. He, too, discusses at length the importance of developing and implementing sound policies to manage these issues. EDUCAUSE (2010a) puts it best when it states “Cloud security is at least as much about policy as about technology” (p. 2). IT leaders in higher education appear to be optimistic that these issues will be resolved similar to the introduction and many challenges of wireless technologies in higher education ten years ago; security and data protection concerns are no longer a barrier to wireless access on campuses. One indicator of this optimism related to cloud computing is a recent survey of higher education IT professionals that reported these individuals indicated they will be spending 15 % of their IT budgets on cloud-based technologies in the next two years, and 24 % of their budgets in five years (Nagel, 2011).  This is consistent with the 2011 Horizon report (New Media Consortium, 2011) which predicts increasing numbers of institutions of higher education will be adopting cloud-based technologies and decreasing reliance on in-house IT services in the near future.

The Need for New IT Leadership

The cloud, which is rapidly and permanently altering the ways that institutions deliver IT services, is changing expectations for what institutions require from IT leadership. In the recent past, Chief Information Officers or CIOs, the highest position of IT leadership in higher education have been tasked to support and maintain administrative and research computing and network services (EDUCAUSE, 2009b). For today and tomorrow, CIOs and IT leaders require a new set of diverse skills which includes the ability to manage contracts and vendor relationships, oversee integration between in-house and outsourced services, master a different model of IT budgets, become fluent in security, compliance and risk-management issues, and learn to optimize the value of existing IT investments (EDUCAUSE, 2009a; EDUCAUSE, 2009b). Accordingly, a new breed of IT leadership is emerging that meets the changing IT needs of institutions in higher education moving to cloud computing. Some argue that the role and influence of the future CIO will be diminished and even unneeded, thus CIOs will need to be proactive in redefining their new roles, sources of influence and authority (Goldstein, 2008; Sullivan, 2009). Goldstein suggests that the re-envisioned role of the CIO will move them from a position of “chief” to a position of “influence” with evolving roles that can include useful dimensions such as a Services Architect, Data Evangelist, Innovation Incubator, Process Architect, Orchestrator, Information Policy Manager, and Proactive Strategist. In addition, as growing numbers of higher education institutions move IT services to the cloud, there will be less need and demand for in-house IT staff to manage servers, databases, applications and resources. Similarly, IT staff will need to reinvent themselves to fit new and emerging IT positions of support. Potential IT areas of emphasis required in the cloud computing world could include project management, vendor relationships, security and compliance management, process analysis, group facilitation, data analysis, business intelligence and data management (Goldstein, 2008). In addition, the need for faculty to learn how to effectively integrate technology to support and enhance teaching and learning outcomes will continue to be a priority (Green, 2010; Thomas, 2011).

Due to the expanding and evolving portfolio for the future CIO demanding a unique and often difficult combination of skills, experience, flexibility and political knowledge, a growing number of higher education institutions, particularly those in highly rural or highly urban areas (where CIOs may be reluctant to move to), are outsourcing their CIOs (Schaffhauser, 2011a). Other institutions may outsource technology services such as IT strategic management services, IT security services, academic and administrating computing and help desk support, and look for CIOs who can manage these external relationships. A June 2011 posting for a CIO/Associate Vice President for IT at Seattle University (HigherEdJobs, 2011) is one such example. The position description states that the CIO would serve as the client liaison to the university’s technology services providers and manage the contract. Familiarity with negotiating and administrating contracts is listed as a minimum qualification for the position. As increasing numbers of higher education institutions outsource to vendors and the cloud, these new expectations for future CIOs will quickly become the norm.

Reflections and Conclusion

Despite some of the challenges currently slowing the widespread adoption of cloud-based computing strategies in higher education, the current and ongoing economic crises and resulting decrease in IT funding, higher costs and escalating demand and expectations for IT services and resources will accelerate solutions to these issues. As reported in Katz et al. (2009) and Sullivan (2009), Nicholar Carr, author of “IT Doesn’t Matter” and “The Big Switch” argues that within the next five to ten years, all IT services and resources including the many infrastructure, application, and support tasks currently being addressed in-house will be outsourced to cloud computing vendors. McKinsey (2009) suggests that cloud computing will revolutionize IT similar to the birth of the Internet and e-commerce. Others challenge this notion and warn against the overdependence on cloud computing (Bajarin, 2009). Which of these scenarios will come to fruition is difficult to tell. However, mounting evidence suggests that cloud computing is not a fad, and institutions of higher education, if not already in the cloud, must consider new ways of leveraging its benefits in order to optimize their use of IT funding and of IT services and resources. Those already subscribed to cloud-based technologies and succeeding in the deployment of such technologies will undoubtedly investigate opportunities to further deepen their commitments to these strategies and potentially realize even greater cost savings.

The introduction and proliferation of cloud computing in higher education has forever transformed IT practices. Consequently, these resulting changes require a reconceptualization of IT leadership in higher education and a growing demand for a new breed of IT leaders. The search has never been greater for the right IT leaders who are comfortable adapting and adopting to their dynamic leadership role in the advancing area of cloud computing. Current CIOs and IT staff in higher education will need to re-invent themselves, and learn how best to enhance their skill sets to meet the new responsibilities of emerging and evolving types of IT positions in this era of cloud computing.

Lastly, what is missing and desperately needed is substantive and comprehensive research on the efficacies and shortcomings of cloud computing strategies. Although a dialogue has begun in this important area, a framework is needed to help organize and assess the implications of cloud computing today and in the near future. The creation and dissemination of case studies of various cloud-based configurations at institutions will inform other institutions as to what is possible today as well as the current limitations and future challenges. Only through a concerted and coordinated effort and ongoing opportunities for discussion, communication and collaboration, can institutions collectively expect to rapidly move the concept of cloud-based computing to a level of maturation that will address many of today’s issues.


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Author's Bio

Marwin Britto serves as the Executive Director for Lone Star College-Online. He is also working part-time on his MLIS degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Defining Cloud Computing
  4. Five Essential Characteristics of Cloud Computing
  5. Service Models
  6. Deployment Models
  7. Prevalence of Software as a Service (SaaS) Cloud Computing in Higher Education
  8. Cloud Computing in Higher Education
  9. The Challenges of Cloud Computing in Higher Education
  10. The Need for New IT Leadership
  11. Reflections and Conclusion
  12. References
  13. Author's Bio

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