Dark stories, tales of whimsy and random brain droppings.

Hey! You! Get Off of My Cloud! (Or Why SharePoint and Not X?)

As has become obvious over the last couple of years, higher education has to move past the firewall and traditional computing services such as the “alphabet soup” that comes with campus file/print servers and a sprawling enterprise fleet of desktops.

Learners often provide their own laptops and netbooks — Internet connectivity to the home is nearly as assumed a technology as the telephone.

Moving storage and application services to the web is the next clear action to take in response to this growth.

So, questions emerge: “Public Cloud versus Enterprise Cloud”, “Google Apps versus SharePoint”, “Gmail versus Exchange”, or “Wither Google Wave”?

Of course, the public cloud contains far more than Google’s not-so-evil suite. There are parallel offerings by others including Microsoft’s own Live@EDU suite. Therein lies one of higher education’s biggest challenges: an overwhelming deluge of choice.

So, why choose between cloud services?

Well, clearly, IT support groups can’t be masters in all technologies at once. Even in the traditional imaged lab desktop, IT folken can at best make sure that apps, which vary widely from AutoDesk to VisualStudio, will install and run correctly, but the application expertise has to come from subject matter experts, namely faculty. This won’t go away with cloud computing. If anything, it will become expansive and far more difficult to manage.

As an aside, there is an implicit expectation that IT service groups in higher education provide application training to staff and faculty however there is rarely explicit mandate or resources to do so. It is very difficult to overlook the juicy irony (lots of that here) that a polytechnic community college, specializing in educating adults in a staggering array of computing technologies, fails to provide internal training on the same software matrix, relying instead on an IT group that is not necessarily resourced with educators.

The story goes that in order to transition from traditional computing models to cloud computing, there are many things to consider — variety, training and support only make up one set of components — meaning that the institution is best served by (and IT can only sustain support for) standardization.

So, which applications, public or enterprise, are to be where standards lie?

The trifecta balance is between cost, convenience and capability. The guiding constraints are with intellectual property, information management, privacy/security and overall sustainability. This should be framed as constitutional strategy — a “Learning Technology Principles” foundation.

Freedom of choice is somewhat illusionary and certainly not free.

The raw reality is that as soon as a choice is made and enterprise technology resources are thrown in to support said choice, the shine and lustre are gone — the novelty lost, the siren song of the Next Big Thing grows its audience.

A great example is with the trend for semi-grassroots movements (resisting using the term “rogue” as some wear that moniker as a badge of honour) to supplant enterprise learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn and TLM with more open platforms like Moodle as the LMS of record. Of course, the driving forces are about freedom, flexibility and local control. Interestingly, if Moodle were to become the new de facto LMS, it would require an enterprise construction and with it strict rigour and high availability requirements. The sought-after freedom and control that those self-styled rogue agents would hold sacrosanct would no longer be there. Funny how that works, eh?

Technology choice brings with it technology change. This also has to be managed. Learning curves are a fact of life and personal commitment and buy-in are pivotal in flattening/shortening the journey.

With open choice, the fractured-nature of many, many learning curves not only dramatically increases the direct costs with training and support, but also balloons the indirect costs with lost productivity and compatibility issues.

Standardization is important — it makes IT sustainability possible. Flexibility is also important — it makes effective education delivery possible.

That said, it doesn’t have to be so dichotomous. Both approaches can be employed. Innovation absolutely needs to happen in the trenches — it just needs to be rationalized and responsibly governed.

Public cloud applications have their place for any given set of requirements so long as the “Learning Technology Principles” are adhered to. There is little wrong with YouTwitFace and their ilk once clear policy is established. The risk of using non-enterprise systems like these remains that support requirements befall upon the initiant user of the technology choice in question. In particular, faculty agencies need to recognize and address the not-so-hidden burden that comes with this direction.

Regardless, everything else needs to go to the enterprise. It must.

Labelling enterprise solutions a “Walled Garden” as a bad thing is not only unhelpful but inaccurate. There are good sound reasons why certain solutions are brought forward.

Most enterprise IT shops are Microsoft shops. Even those that espouse that they are not are really just in denial.

Exchange is often the standard email platform for at least staff and SharePoint is becoming the penultimate collaborative platform for enterprise content.

Are there better choices? Perhaps. Is SharePoint hard? Probably. If one is emotionally committed or otherwise predisposed to another tool, then most certainly, SharePoint is a dog.

The real issues are about use-case application, not the specific technology solution itself.

For example, if a SharePoint team site admin (faculty or staff) creates a house of cards within the tool or otherwise poorly uses it (regardless of the reason), it is more than just a technology training issue. It is a business functional concern — what are the desired outputs given the available inputs? How can technology be used to develop a workable and ultimately sustainable solution? It’s still end-user support, but very different in mode and requiring a more mature business analyst consultative skill-set.

We all know this and recognize a resourcing gap rampant through all higher education — the line-of-business-side of IT needs to grow. Campus operations and end-user support, while always critical to the credibility of IT, are becoming insufficient in meeting maturing information technology needs.

The “I” is almost more important than the “T” in IT management. It’s being whispered a lot lately (and sometimes quite loudly): securely managed content, quality user experiences, efficient process engineering, and effective sustainability are all more important than the actual technology solution.

So, why SharePoint and not X? If it was only that simple…

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