Canadian universities moving to cloud

Canadian universities are hailing the flexibility and project management capabilities of cloud-based messaging and collaboration tools. Some are gradually replacing legacy e-mail and learning management systems with the new technology.

More than a decade after they were introduced, virtually all major universities in Canada use on-premise online learning management systems in which students can share documents, post to forums and communicate with professors. You also won’t find many schools that don’t provide on-campus e-mail services.

But the world is changing, and those systems are starting to be supplemented (and in some cases, replaced) with more nimble, cloud-based solutions like IBM Corp.‘s [NYSE: IBM] IBM SmartCloud for Social Business and Google Inc.’s [NASDAQ: GOOG] Google Docs.
York University’s Schulich School of Business first adopted IBM SmartCloud for Social Business in 2010, initially for a pilot run. Now it’s using the software suite to teach management and leadership skills to first-year Bachelor of Business Administration students.
“While the school does have a learning management system,” wrote Kurt Binnie, executive director of information services and technology at Schulich in an e-mail message, “it is not well suited to support ad-hoc collaboration, unscripted activities or project management tasks.”
In today’s 24/7 business climate, he says, students need to learn to use “enterprise-grade” collaborative tools before playing in the big leagues.
“With the introduction of IBM SmartCloud Engage [part of the software suite] we are now helping them reflect on the use of different technologies from a management/leadership perspective and [they] are using the technology as a catalyst to learn,” he wrote.

Professor Jean Adams, who teaches at Schulich, wrote that her students preferred IBM SmartCloud over their usual social media sites for a number of reasons:

“Students reported it was superior because of all of the project tools and features included in the professional tool. They also found the pop-up ads a distraction on the free-for-use sites. And lastly, they realized there were privacy and data security risks using Facebook.”

Following the successful launch of the software suite over two course cycles, there are plans to “drive further adoption within the business school,” Binnie says.

The University of Alberta is another example. It began migrating its email and calendaring services to Google beginning in September 2011, and should be finished this spring. The goal is to replace at least 30 different email systems with a centralized one, which should have the advantage of easy scalability, not to mention 25 times more storage space than campus e-mail provided beforehand.
The university still has the typical course management software found at most institutions, says University of Alberta School of Business web and e-learning specialist Lorraine Nichols. “Students can do work online together, they can upload documents,” she says. But now, after the migration, “they can collaborate using Google Docs as well,” she says.

Online collaborative tools are especially useful at her institution because it has many part-time students, she adds. “It’s just making it easier for them to collaborate without always having to meet up in person.”

There are other, more cautious adopters of new educational technology, such as Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Thomas Buckley, assistant vice-president of academic services, says the university is not in a rush to adopt the latest solution unless it sees a clear advantage in doing so.
“We’re very careful and very deliberate to ensure what drives the choices in technology is the pedagogy that’s happening in our classrooms,” he says. “People will often ask me … where do I see technology in the classroom in 10 years, or where do I see technology in 10 years? And the best response I can give is, ‘Tell me what teaching and learning looks like in 10 years and I can start answering that question.’”
The tools in the school’s learning management system, while fairly basic compared to those offered in IBM’s SmartCloud, have proved their worth, he says. “An instructor can construct a group of students to work on a project, for example, and they would have their own online virtual meeting room where they can collaborate on documents …or communicate with the entire class, open discussions, that sort of thing.”
He says his experience in both the academic and business spheres has taught him that the value of new technology must always be seen in relation to the ends it is meant to achieve. “Technology is an enabler for teaching and learning in an academic context, in the same way when I was in the private sector it was an enabler for us to deliver business solutions.
“If it’s not based on sound pedagogy it’s like automating a bad business process. You just make mistakes faster.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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