A Review of Online Education and Web Services: A Consideration of Cloud Technologies on Learning Systems

By Dr. Mark Zecca, Executive Director of Educational Business Systems, San Diego County Office of Education

Mark Zecca HeadshotThere are industries that are always on the leading edge of technology and first to leverage the benefits of digital solutions. Education and Online Learning has not been one of those industries in the past, but new and exciting cloud solutions can change that.
John Dewey, a pragmatic philosopher and educator of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s stated that education occurs through the transfer of information from knowledgeable others. This was seen as the interaction between a Teacher and a Student. Although traditional forms of education or the transfer of knowledge continue to exist, there has been an explosion of new and varied methods of knowledge transfer through technology. Dewey saw Amateur or Ham radio used in the early 1900’s as a means of doing distance learning. In the early 1950’s the FCC paved the way for television to be used for educational purposes, followed by the establishment of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in 1967 (Kentor, 2015).
Online learning started to appear in 1989, with elemental programs through the University of Phoenix. In 1993, the growing need for an information controller using the Internet drove the development of one of the first Internet Browsers by the University of Illinois (Miller, Benke, Chaloux, Ragan, Schroeder, Smutz, Swan, (2004). By 1998, the first fully online (Internet based) courses of study were introduced by institutions such as Western Governors University, New York University Online, and Trident University. In 2000, almost 8% of the student population were involved in online learning. In 2013 that number swelled to 30%. Today that number has increased even more to around 45% (n.a. 2018).
Technology has not stopped affecting the user experience or the methods of online learning. In the early stages of web-based classrooms, a synchronous learning environment mimicked the traditional class room with students experience knowledge transfer in real-time. However, as the need for giving the student a similar traditional classroom experience lessened, more asynchronous learning methods became prevalent supported by increased digital functionality in not only knowledge transfer but in digital research engines, collaboration tools, and remote interactive graphics.
As the demand increased for digital educational services, providers were challenged in meeting the increased demand for functionality. Learning Management Systems (LMS) became more complex so did the need for more ubiquitous delivery and reception platforms. Delivery has now expanded from the one screen of the PC or Laptop, to the three screens of PC, Tablet, and Smart Phone. Platforms have also changed from individual educational institutions producing and hosting their own LMS to now over 77% being provided by external vendors (Radford, 2011). A majority of these third party LMS’ are hosted either in educational institution’s premises or in their managed data web services data center or private cloud. Like many other industrial functions today, cloud technologies and managed services have stepped in and created broad opportunities for both learner and educator to transfer knowledge (Haynie, 2015).
Before looking at what this means for the future of online learning, it is important to understand the basics of cloud technologies and the functions it can provide. Many people hold the myth that the Internet is equivalent to the Cloud. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has defined cloud computing as a “Model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction” (Mell, Grance, 2011, p. 2). The NIST goes further to support the myth-busting position that the Internet does not equal the cloud by further stating the major benefits of Cloud Computing:
• On-demand self-service
• Broad network access
• Resource pooling
• Rapid elasticity
• Measured service
The delivery models of these computing benefits can be summed up in three general categories:
• Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
• Platform as a Service (PaaS)
• Software as a Service (SaaS)
Today’s online learning environments can reap the rewards of Cloud Computing capabilities along with the strategic choice of platform delivery. A simple review of the NIST benefits highlight the possibilities that educational institutions can leverage to bring new pedagogical technologies to bear for the transfer of knowledge (Harms, Rolf, & Yamartino, 2011).
On-demand self-service
Educational Institutions provide the needed course material, research and library resources, and learner/instructor storage areas that can service asynchronous learning. This facilitates the use of the LMS 7/24 as well as limits the data storage management and retention on the learners or instructors device to a minimum. This supports the three-screen delivery edge while enhancing the user experience with a minimum of logistic issues. Imagine a learner that is enrolled in an online course, who is called up by his/her Military Reserve Unit and is sent half way around the globe for duty. The learners experience is in the cloud, and not in a classroom or physical book.
Broad network access
The use of the three-screen experience is based on an architectural design called Responsive Web Sites. This allows full optimization of any smart device that connects with the application as well as interfaces with a myriad of common web browsers and applications. Many Educational Institutions have developed their own smart phone apps for Android and IOS, but many are still more informative than interactive and the delivery and operation are somewhat unstable. This is where the power of on-demand, self-service comes in. Without needing to rely on external space, memory, or adjunct applications, the app and the smart device along with the cloud based LMS need only be the tool for the learner or educator.
Resource pooling
Another benefit for the Educational Institution is the ability to pool computing resources and create a multitenancy within the LMS application. Not only can the student or instructor engage the course room from anywhere or any smart device, but they can engage multiple entities (courses, webinars, and podcasts) within the cloud service without jumping out of the institutions system. This also allows for dynamic data storage and management by the institution; allowing for more efficient and cost effective management of resources.
Rapid elasticity
The fluidity of Cloud services specifically play to this capability. The demand for increased storage, bandwidth, and compute power is significantly important in an LMS service. The ability to leverage Cloud based services, especially deep pocket Virtualization, can provide the Educational Institution with rapid and secure (not to mention cost effective) growth quickly and easily. If a new LMS were being implemented on premise and the Educational Institution required a construction and testing site for the new LMS, but had to operate the legacy one at the same time, the cost in additional resources would be significant. With Cloud services, these functions can expand and contract as needed, without the additional long-term investments or time-consuming justifications.
Measured service
As a part of various Cloud services, delivery, not just uptime, can be measured and monitored in a variety of ways. The requirement to keep track of not only courses and student progress within the LMS but also the thousands of transactions within a learning discourse can be exposed to various levels of monitoring and data capture. The use of big data instruments for further research and prediction brings a whole new aspect to seeing the road ahead for extensive learning possibilities (Mell & Grance, 2011).
Educators and learners can benefit from a progressive cloud strategy that leverages power of new and flexible LMS’ while extending connectivity anywhere and on any platform. Using the cloud to launch educational services offers a faster time to market and a rapid change foundation for the teachers and the students of tomorrow.