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The 'cloud' is shifting tech-based education

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ORLANDO, Fla. — The “cloud” is bringing changes to distance education.

In the 1990s, emerging software companies were the forerunners in online education, developing proprietary learning management systems (LMS) to serve colleges and jostling for clients.

Today, “cloud” computing—the delivery and storage of an array of computing services on the Internet—coupled with the increased use of mobile devices and other changes in the industry are poised to again alter the face of online education.

A new report from the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), using findings from its annual survey of distance education practitioners at community colleges, says that two-year colleges are increasingly using cloud-based solutions, which is accelerating the shift toward using shared applications and mobile devices to access content.

“A growing number of learning management system platforms are now cloud-based, providing colleges with an alternative to corporate-based models,” the report said.

In addition, changes in the industry are prompting some educators to question the future of LMS, according to the report. Mergers and acquisitions of LMS companies often frustrate client colleges because they typically require migrating into new systems, which can be costly and time consuming, said Fred Lokken, associate dean of TMCC WebCollege at Truckee Meadows Community College​ (Nevada) and author of the ITC report.

Cloud computing offers an alternative platform that gives educators more control over their virtual learning environment, the report said. Although colleges can use free, open-source cloud programs to develop their own systems, fledging companies are licensing to colleges systems that manage cloud platforms, Lokken said. Cloud-based systems are also less expensive than computer-tethered LMS programs.

Online educators and IT staff realize that cloud-computing may face a similar fate as older LMS platforms when new technology emerges. However, the cloud is likely to be the dominant form of technology for at least the next decade, Lokken said.

“This will be the technology that defines the language for the time being,” he said.

Lokken added that colleges are becoming more savvy working with prospective vendors and quiz them about “exit strategies,” meaning what happens when a college no longer wants to use the system or if the company is bought or goes out of business.

Slower growth

Online education programs continue to grow at community colleges, though at a slower rate, according to the ITC report. That is, in part, due to the economic downturn, with many campuses seeing significant cuts in online education student services staff because of budget cuts. For the first time since ITC started its annual survey in 2004, respondents indicated that their top challenge is providing adequate student services for distance education students.

The staffing issue, coupled with other budgetary constraints, has prompted many colleges to curtail growth and even reduce the number of online courses that they offer, Lokken said. In some cases, the slowdown is intentional, as colleges are trying to grow their online programs systemically to ensure that the programs are of high quality, he said.

Out-of-state enrollment

The growing popularity of online education has also caught the attention of lawmakers and other stakeholders.

According to the ITC survey and a recent Alfred P. Sloan Foundation ​report, online enrollments have been the predominant source of enrollment increases in higher education for the last decade, far exceeding traditional enrollments. As a result, lawmakers and other stakeholders are paying closer attention to issues surrounding distance education.

One such issue is providing distance education out of state, and what authority states have to require out-of-state colleges to obtain permission to teach their residents online. During the past year, many states have been working on their regulations, as they have been swamped with requests from out-of-state colleges to offer online education in their states, ITC said.

“States continue to require authorization for out-of-state colleges that have a ‘point of presence’ within their borders, but they have different definitions for what constitutes ‘presence,’” the report said. For example, the trigger could be an out-of-state college advertising its online program in the state or employing state residents as online instructors.

The State Higher Education Executive Officers has created directories to help colleges comply with state regulations. In addition, the Council of State Governments is working to create a state compact or reciprocity agreement through which states would agree to recognize accredited, out-of-state institutions. A draft is expected this summer, according to ITC.

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