EDU: What is cloud computing and why should higher education institutes (HEIs) use it?
Lalit Kathpalia: Cloud is a metaphor for the internet and the delivery of storage and computing capacity through the internet to the end users is cloud computing. Every HEI was an isolated silo before the internet. It is cloud that has made an interconnected world possible. With cloud HEIs can solve problems of infrastructure and lack of resources, including money and faculty. This is possible as cloud providers can make infrastructure (servers), platform (operating system) and software (application software and databases) available as services. These can be rented as per the requirement, obliterating the need to buy and store, thus saving money, space and manpower. The servers and the system software are also remotely managed by the cloud provider/s, doing away with the need for a system manager. Cloud technology, with its obvious advantages, is the future of higher education. It is the best platform for education delivery, available anywhere, anytime. It also enables HEIs outsource most of the administrative work and focus on their core activity education delivery. Those who jump on to the bandwagon fast will be the prime movers and can leapfrog into higher levels of learning. The rest will be left behind and seen as luddites.
EDU: What are the things for which cloud can be used in an HEI?
Lalit Kathpalia: Institutions can use cloud depending on their own innovative ideas. Universities like MIT and Harvard are using it for delivering massive open online courses. Universities are being created, in the cloud, without any physical building. If two HEIs have an expert faculty each, they can offer a blend of courses using webinars, video-conferencing, without the faculty ever getting together. Cloud can bring down the manpower used and the time taken for administration to a fraction by doing everything online from processing applications to collecting fees; admission to exams. With cloud, HEIs can deliver personalised educational experience. Teachers can connect with students through email groups, social networking sites like Facebook, and Twitter, blogs, Skype, YouTube, Slideshare etc. Learning management systems like Moodle can be used by educators to create effective online learning sites. They can get students to explore other material in Wikipedia and e-books. Whats more, students can take their lessons at their own pace in these virtual classrooms and also practice what they learn via simulation. Even research can be organized and research collaborations can take place online through academic social networks like Mendeley. Student placements and recruitment of faculty and staff can also be done through social networking sites.
Cloud can also be used to issue digital certificates to students in a demat format. This way the certificates submitted by students can be authenticated in an easy manner.
EDU: What does an HEI need, to implement cloud technologies?
Lalit Kathpalia: The only thing needed mainly is a connection to the internet. Apart from that some basic computers depending upon the function required. If you want to apply the cloud for teaching and learning, then you need as many computers as there are students and teachers. However, if you are using it to manage the student lifecycle, you may not require so many computers. You also need somebody who is (internal or outsourced) knowledgeable about web/cloud applications. Organisations like Educause and School 2.0 handhold HEIs who need help with the applications.
EDU: What changes is the cloud bringing in higher education?
Lalit Kathpalia: The biggest change is the transformation of the educational experience. Earlier if students had trouble understanding something, they either went to the teacher or the library. Today, they go online. Students learn through video lectures on YouTube, which they can attend any time they wish and submit assignments and take exams online. Students are becoming smarter than the teachers, as they are more internet-savvy. This has changed teachers role from an information provider to a facilitator and a mentor. The economics of computing has changed as its available on tap and you pay as you use. By enabling server and desktop virtualization, it also results in 95 per cent less power usage. Even more importantly, it helps students, teachers and HEIs share knowledge among themselves and thus, break walls.
EDU: Will cloud completely replace physical infrastructure?
Lalit Kathpalia: Absolutely. It is only a matter of time. However, online education may not be a perfect replica of what you get in the classroom. So, blended learning, which is a combination of classroom teaching as well as online learning, is a good idea.
EDU: How will cloud impact the IT strategy of an HEI?
Lalit Kathpalia: Long-term IT strategies of HEIs involve buying hardware and software and storing it. It requires frequent investments in capacity expansion and infrastructure management. With cloud, you do not need to buy all these resources, you just `pay-as-you-use like you do for utilities such as electricity. Now IT strategy would rely on the cloud as a platform to deliver all services required for education with added flexibility of providing it Anytime, Anywhere. IT strategy earlier was inflexible because you were stuck with you bought. Now it can be optimized as per requirements and is cost-effective, better and faster.
EDU: What are the challenges to deploying cloud in an HEI?
Lalit Kathpalia: Access to the internet, which is still very limited in our country, is a major challenge. And then the speed of the internet connection is too slow in most places. There is also the problem of mindsets, which view cloud as a threat. Then there is a challenge of education itself. Educators need to be educated on cloud technology. At present students are learning things on their own. Also, we are just aping the west. Where is the Indian context, in terms of language, low bandwidth and access to the net?