Ascending Cloud—the Role of Cloud Computing in Continuing Education

The Economist red and gray logo
Continuing education has long held a special place in society as the school for adults on bridging the skills gap. That is a reputation it deserves—according to the US Department of Education, US adult learners are older (average age, 31), are more likely to have full-time jobs and are more likely to come from the 30 million students who dropped out of school earlier in their lives.

Yet continuing education may be playing an even larger role in today’s turbulent times. It is a vehicle for workers transitioning from fading industries. A high percentage of “adult ed” courses focus on digital and computer skills. Globally, over 375 million people are learning English as second language, many of them in after-hours education.

But as inspirational as continuing education can be, it has always been a tough road for its students. After-hours learning is a challenge for the student with a full-time, demanding job. Regular attendance is tough for the working mother. Tuition costs—though usually lower than traditional campus learning—can be beyond the reach of the working poor.

A further problem can be fitting the education to the needs of the adult learner. A common set of core classes may be a good fit for the first-year university freshman, but the returning adult student may need a personalized curriculum—the few classes needed to finish a degree, or specialized English geared to a profession such as nursing. No wonder less than two-thirds of returning students in the US complete their degree.

Enter the Technology—Online Learning

Future of cloud in education chartIt would seem that cloud-based online learning—accessible, available 24/7 and highly configurable—would be a particularly worthwhile solution for online learning. The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by VMware, decided to explore this issue by conducting a survey of 360 leading technologists and executives on the future of cloud computing across different industries. This included a subpanel of teachers, administrators and educators who focused on education specific issues.

In the view of the entire panel, education is a relative latecomer to the world of cloud, trailing behind the banking, retail and manufacturing sectors in cloud use and penetration. Some believe that education lags because it is not as keenly competitive as other industries (as, for example, financial services), and therefore has slower adoption rates.

But there is a consensus that cloud adoption will rise quickly throughout education. Over two-thirds of respondents believe that cloud will become a major factor in education in just five years.

Our research found that cloud is expected to play a particularly strong role in supporting continuing education. When asked about cloud’s contribution to the field, a total of 84% of respondents judged it to be Somewhat to Very important. Clearly, cloud will not be the only technology vehicle for education. But it appears its role will be an important one, and one worth understanding.

Continuing Education, Online Education and Cloud Computing

One thing online education, cloud-based or otherwise, can clearly support is meeting the challenge of accessibility. Learning is no longer tied to the physical classroom – the harried office worker can cram for an exam during lunch breaks, and the single mother can plan study hours around her children.

Importance of cloud supporting education chartWhere cloud can particularly help is supporting education on multiple devices. “You have to reach today’s students through all kinds of devices—mobile is growing particularly fast,” says Dr. Michael Eisenberg, Dean and Professor Emeritus of the Information School at the University of Washington, who has overseen the launch of multiple cloud-based courses. “A cloud based platform is the logical way to do that.”

Another benefit of a cloud-based platform is the ability to create “niche education”— configuring curricula specifically for the individual student’s needs. “What we are witnessing is the great unbundling of the university,” says Jennifer Scott, senior vice-president of Academic Services and Products at Academic Partnerships, a for-profit enterprise that helps universities develop and manage online-learning programs. “Traditional education models…are being rebuilt to meet the needs of the student, not the institution.”

This is particularly useful for the professional who is targeting a specific set of skills. Terry Chen is a San Francisco-based computer programmer who is planning a career change to marketing. “I have been able to set up my own courses from three different schools. It is what is right for me…and nowhere near as expensive as the degree courses I don’t need.” Carrying the volume of courses, lectures and study aids that can give this kind of choice is “really only practicable through cloud” says Dr. Eisenberg.

Education has always required a lot of “back office”—handling payment (tuition and fees), monitoring students’ progress, conducting testing and managing accreditation. “This is where cloud comes into its own,” says Dr. Eisenberg. As continuing education grows in numbers of students, classes and schools, a scalable solution like cloud computing is likely to become more valuable.

The Challenges in Online Continuing Education

As noted above, a particular challenge for the adult learner is simply affording the service. It cannot be forgotten that 60% of the world’s population does not have access to the internet, primarily because they cannot afford it. These are also the target populations who could most benefit from basic education services.

This is not a problem that technology, including cloud, is going to solve by itself. But with increased penetration of low-cost smartphones and tablets as personal devices, and the extension of educational materials that are almost free, technology is likely to lower the cost barrier and increase enrollment.

But the real challenge to technology-based learning—cloud or otherwise—comes from the absence of the teacher. “Education needs human interaction to make it meaningful and to keep people engaged. Having a hangout is a poor substitute, but better than nothing,” says Esther Wojcicki, an American educator, vice-chairperson of the non-profit Creative Commons and teacher at Palo Alto High School in California.

Even at Harvard University’s prestigious HarvardX program (which focuses on continuing education), completion rates are a dismal 6%. While part of that low return is due to a high number of non-serious registrants, there is a consensus that online learning—particularly the much touted Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), popular courses offered for a large audience—has been disappointing. As in so many technology revolutions, a retrenchment is taking place on earlier forecasts of total transformation. Educators are trying to find the right balance between online and the classroom for the continuing education student.

The Long View

While having to work through these challenges, continuing education would appear to be the beneficiary of the new technologies. Flexibility in time and location, access over multiple devices and the ability to tailor-make your education are real benefits, and ones that are supported by cloud. The end result, as Dr. Eisenberg states, is that “the winner in all of this technology meeting education is going to be the students”.