For most of us, 2020 was the year when the world shifted to working from home (WFH) and online learning. In reality, though, it was the year of cloud computing.
Those in education institutions have talked for years about the potential of anytime, anywhere work and eLearning, but, before 2020, efforts to change the status quo were minimal. As the saying goes, however, necessity is the mother of invention.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) proved to be the trigger to bring about massive digital transformation in education. New opportunities for equitable and innovative ways to learn have emerged out of the crisis. The very backbone of these fundamental changes is the power of cloud-based collaboration platforms. They not only sustained education during very challenging times, but also paved the way to change the future of education forever.
The Borderless Classroom
In the spring of 2020, both kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) schools and higher-education institutions came under scrutiny. Due to large populations of students and educators all being in close, dense proximity, schools were deemed to present among the highest risk of spreading COVID-19. They had no choice but to shut down overnight. According to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), at the peak of the crisis, almost 1.6 billion children in 195 countries worldwide could not use their classrooms. The closures affected 94 percent of the world’s student population.
The onerous task of converting in-person curriculums to online courses and quickly putting in place virtual classrooms to allow students to continue to learn from home fell to educators and administrators. Secure remote links to log in to virtual classrooms and cloud videoconferencing helped schools and teachers around the world shift to remote virtual learning immediately. Teachers and students found ways to collaborate and create plans and assignments using cloud-based meeting apps.
In a matter of days, the cloud changed from being a buzzword that mostly applied to transforming business communications to being the foundation of “the borderless classroom.” It moved education from the four walls of a school building to people’s kitchens and bedrooms, and it did so just when we needed it most. There has certainly been some healthy debate about the value of certain lesson materials and technologies to support virtual learning during the pandemic, but there can be no debate that all models—both successful and unsuccessful—had the same common backbone. The cloud has successfully moved from enterprise to education.
This shift made perfect sense, as the cloud is the great equalizer. No matter where students and teachers are located, cloud services give them instant access to coursework, homework and test-related materials on remote servers over an internet connection. Students working on group assignments now have new ways to collaborate and brainstorm with peers, without having to be in the same room. And for the many students who are not comfortable speaking up in live classes (or live video classes), in-meeting chat and online communities provide an opportunity to ask questions and share ideas.
Eventually, we will move beyond the pandemic and in-person instruction will return as the dominant form. However, cloud-based learning has democratized education and extended its reach to those who, previously, were inaccessible. Cloud-based hybrid education offers new avenues to support those who are unable to make it to a physical classroom. This means there is an unprecedented opportunity to make education available to previously untapped demographics, as well as those living in far-flung or rural areas. Similarly, illness will no longer put students at a disadvantage because they will be able either to join hybrid classes from their home or to catch up later via on-demand videos.
Time & Cost Savings
The COVID-19 pandemic and its immediate aftermath left many education institutions—especially those in higher education—in a deep financial crunch, as enrollment dropped and budgets took a hit. Making the infrastructure upgrades to support remote learning could have meant building and maintaining on-premises data centers; such capital expenditure (CapEx)- heavy investments would have entailed significant costs. Switching to the cloud not only allowed schools, colleges and universities to reduce their upfront investments and operating costs, but also enabled them to adopt a pay-as-you-go model. This allowed education institutions to allocate their limited budgets to other critical resources.
Utilizing the cloud’s elasticity, education institutions have gained the agility to scale up during peak usage times and scale down during school breaks. Cloud meetings are also producing a significant time savings by creating easy access to information for all, and by offering the ability to store and exchange files and lesson-planning resources instantly. Educators are also empowered to provide student support and help right when it’s needed most (as opposed to having to accept email communications’ lag time).
Futureproof Your Investments Now
Cloud-native education platforms have enabled education institutions to keep their students and educators safe during a pandemic, while, at the same time, futureproofing their investments. For many, the move to the cloud was an immediate measure to keep schools and colleges running during the pandemic. Going forward, however, the cloud will become a critical part of a holistic strategy toward digital transformation. It will facilitate a highly collaborative environment and it will allow the following:
- Rapid innovation to respond to students’ and educators’ fast-evolving needs more nimbly. That includes the use of cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics to improve the delivery of education materials.
- Reduced risk of technology obsolescence from fixed server-based investments.
- Enhanced manageability and performance metrics, enabling educators to view student engagement and performance. Thus, they can identify and solve potential issues more quickly.
- Architectural extensibility to integrate with third-party apps easily and with a greater degree of cost effectiveness.
- Greater business continuity and disaster preparedness.
COVID-19 has tested the limits of education institutions in ways that were previously unimaginable. The outcome, although far from perfect, showed the inherent resiliency and creative spirit of our educators and our student community. The benefits of the cloud and digitization have led to a fast and furious transformation of education and, thus, opened up a world of new opportunities. This presents a chance to modernize decades-old education systems. Doing so will improve learning, keep students and their data safe, implement new cost savings, and increase equity and inclusion for the most vulnerable and marginalized population groups (e.g., those with disabilities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged).
In-person learning is powerful, and it will never go away. Learning during the pandemic further established that students learn best when they are physically present in the same classroom, and when they’re engaged in meaningful and energizing ways. However, the introduction of cloud-based digital technologies to the in-person classroom experience means there will be newer, more innovative ways to complement traditional modes of learning. We simply cannot afford to go back.
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