Is higher education serving cloud computing?

The ongoing debate since I taught college back in the 90s is: Should higher education lead technology or follow it?

The fact of the matter is that most colleges and universities follow. This due to the demand for courses before courses can be offered, and demand comes with an increasing market. So college administrators would argue that they are forced to be followers.

The rise of cloud computing turns the existing role of higher education a bit on its head.  The explosion of cloud computing projects led to the rising demand for cloud computing skills.  Enterprises look to the colleges and universities to produce cloud-literate graduates to fill these positions.  However, for the most part, candidates are coming to their first jobs with basic IT skills.

I would argue that cloud computing is so much of a systemic change that it needs to be considered at a much higher priority level, in terms of universities creating course work to teach cloud-related concepts and skills.  It really should be a part of most traditional courses, including networking, database, programming, software engineering, etc..  Cloud does not need its own thread.  It needs to be a foundational part of what universities and college already teach in most computer science and information technology courses.

The current path is to provide new courses that cover cloud computing.  Indeed, there are about 44 cloud computing-related courses that are taught at major colleges and universities, and I suspect many more will be added to this list in short order, if they are not already in the catalogue.

Examples of cloud-related courses are fairly tactical, such as this course taught at my alma mater, George Mason University: Best Practices Managing Security and Privacy for Cloud Computing.  “This course offers a survey of security and privacy issues in Cloud Computing systems, along with an overview of current best practices and available technologies. In this course, we examine cloud computing models, look into the threat model and security issues related to data and computation outsourcing, and explore practical applications of secure Cloud Computing.”

Not to pick on GMU, but this is an example of a tactically-focused course about cloud computing, when the use of cloud computing should be considered in context of the more strategic or mainstream courses.  Thus, the message is that cloud computing is new and different and requires a very different approach to security and privacy.

To address the real cloud world’s needs, cloud computing should be taught as a new deployment model that must be considered with the existing best practices in technology which govern how we approach enterprise security, governance, database, business continuity, etc..

This all-encompassing approach to cloud computing is one that is unlikely to take hold in universities anytime soon. This is due to the fact that most professors are not comfortable with the concepts of cloud computing as of yet, and, most importantly, most of the teaching materials have not been updated to include cloud computing concepts.

What can we do to improve things?  I have a few suggestions:

First, industry and higher education need to work together around the needs of the market, and thus the college or university’s ability to deliver the skills and training.  While this has received a lot of lip service in the past, lucrative donations from larger corporations do not mean cooperation and information sharing, at least, not in the US.

Second, use more cloud expert adjuncts from the industry.  Colleges do use part-time professors; I was one of them.  However, I believe cloud providers and enterprise IT should supply the teaching talent for higher education, with the objective of providing students with more real-world applications of cloud computing technology.  This needs funding and coordination.  Those enterprises that seek cloud talent from college grads would find this is a well-placed bet.

Finally, more donations of cloud technology resources to higher education, including free public cloud accounts for students and faculty.  You can learn more through doing than through lectures, in many instances.  We should provide those who are willing to self-teach with the opportunity to try things out.  The public cloud provides a very simple Internet-delivered mechanism to offer these opportunities.

I suspect that higher education will continue to struggle to keep up with emerging technology.  However, the systemic nature of cloud computing within IT means that cloud computing is becoming a part of everything we do.  Thus, it’s difficult to break it out into its own educational discipline.

Colleges need to understand this trend, and bake the use of cloud into everything it teaches.  Industries that demand cloud talent need to work more closely with higher education to make sure that the educational institutes understand their needs, as well as provide funding and experts to teach the teachers, as well as the students.