eLearning in ‘the Cloud’: Should you go with a brand name or look deeply at the facts?

Several eLearning pundits predicted that 2012 will be “the year of the cloud” for those delivering education over the Internet.  While I don’t disagree that cloud computing will continue to be an important, evolving service, its use loosely as a term makes it difficult to pin down an exact definition for this buzzword or how it will impact eLearning in 2012.  What is true is the buzz about using a Cloud service is reaching a fever pitch.  So let me ramble a bit in hopes of educating managers about the cloud and suggest questions to ask vendors.

The term has only recently become popular, but the concept of “the cloud” has been around much longer and is often used to describe software delivered to users as a service via the Internet Browser.  The idea is that the guts of the software you are using lives in the cloud, not on your personal computer.  Software as a Service has been with us for some time.  This is a decades old concept.  What is different is the acceptability of housing personal files and company data files in the cloud.  Educators, for example, have been using cloud hosted services to deliver education for over a decade.   What is different is what a user should expect from the cloud: in terms of features, security, redundancy, power/scalability, and automation.

What is “the cloud?”

From the user standpoint, the concept of cloud computing can best be explained as a collection of server delivering resources that can be accessed remotely via the Internet in real-time.  These servers are housed in a bunker like structure called a Data Center.  In other words, your data, your software applications are not housed on your computer; they’re on a service’s cloud of web servers (often virtual servers) usually accessed by you via the Internet using a browser like Chrome or IE.  You are renting the use of the software and storage space.  The cloud is effectively a group of servers; more specifically– “virtual servers”–which simulate running multiple computers on a single piece of hardware.  This is beneficial since it’s possible to get more use out of the piece of hardware than if it was just doing the work of one.  A simple explanation:  if I have ten Dell servers each at 10% utilization I will have ten physical pieces of equipment to maintain and upgrade or using the cloud I can have only one server at 100% utilization. The term cloud leverages the fact that these virtual servers can be started up, shut down, upgraded, moved from physical machine to physical machine, etc all through software and in response to demand or other event.  For example, you might want to have more web servers running during the day when traffic is high and fewer during the evening when traffic is low.  Typically cloud servers cost out per hour.  This can be more economical than keeping all of your web servers running all of the time.

What defines a cloud for eLearning?

Clouds are defined by the technology they provide: computation, software, data access, and storage services.  A cloud can be defined as a place for users to create or store files, but has alternative meanings that, for example, explain how using a cloud can optimize processing power on the user end through its network.   Services now deliver software such as Microsoft Office from the cloud.  This means a computer user is renting the use of the software- usually via a monthly payment automatically deducted from a credit card.

Enterprises have been using hosted applications for learning software for over a decade. Software as a service (SaaS) is one type of computing that is almost always in the cloud and delivers a single application through the browser to thousands of customers using a multitenant architecture.  The biggest change in attitude towards the cloud has come over time as Chief Technology Officers realize they do not have to maintain software and services within their own buildings and can maintain the same control via renting the software and server capacity.   Or, the CTO realizes their kingdoms are at capacity and welcome departments outsourcing to the cloud.  Think– enterprise sales tracking installed on each salesperson’s desktop containing a copy of ACT or a ten dollar a month bill for each salesperson’s online log-in to SalesForce.com.

So it goes for distance education using the Internet.  Advanced Learning Management Systems now also come with services attached.  Often administrative support and consulting services are included on the use of the software, allowing the customer to build corporate eLearning viability and online education business offerings.

Learning Services:  Delivery of Learning Website- eCommerce/content delivery/tracking of learner performance

A learning management system (LMS) delivered via the cloud is generally a web application seamlessly delivered over the Internet, accessible from anywhere in the world.  It is hosted on servers at a third parties’ data center.  The use of the Learning Management System is rented.  Advantages for the enterprise are that the software is updated frequently, and does not have to be maintained by the customer.  The application is essentially “version-less” in the customer’s mind since only one active code release exists.  Usually the LMS SaaS provides updates on a quarterly or bi-yearly basis.  The using enterprise does not have to purchase hardware or people to operate/set up the servers.  And during peak usage the cloud service increases capacity to service more users.  Sophisticated clouds will automatically spawn virtual services to meet increasing demand.  Some purists claim that this capacity to automatically spawn virtual services is a key part of being a cloud service.  Others use the term more loosely.

Learning Services:  Authoring SCORM Learning Objects/Modules

What the eLearning pundits are talking about for 2012 is authoring content in the cloud. The cloud provides the capability for collaborative development tools for creating, reviewing, and publishing interactive tutorials, assessments, and learning objects.  Typically the control of authoring eLearning content rested with individuals working with specific authoring software installed on desktops.  Project managers looking for efficiency and repeatability have longed for online systems that allowed for distributed workflow that is scalable.  Imagine an online system where subject matter experts can review module pages anytime/anywhere and comment in context and where comments are captured in a database.  The pundits are saying that if websites can be built on a “what you see is what you get” model so should it be for eLearning content.  Content can be meta-tagged, stored for re-use and re-publishing to new formats.  In other words, the eLearning development department is sophisticated to the point where people are asking:  Isn’t there an online system out there that can make us faster and better?

Biggest Concerns Hidden in Cloud Rhetoric

As an eLearning manager, it’s imperative to make sure you’re getting the advantages of the cloud when a company uses the buzzword in their product promotion. Perhaps some of the biggest concerns hidden in the haze of the cloud’s popularity are its ability to deliver on the promise of redundancy, scalability, and security.  Where these virtual servers are housed is a legitimate question to ask.  What data center are the servers being housed at?  And what type of certification does the facility hold?

There are no guarantees. Amazon had a 2011 publicized service hiccup due to human error and Sony has been hacked. Known security issues exist with larger brands, whereas many good SaaS providers have impeccable records.  So go figure.  Here are few topics to ask questions about.

Redundancy and Scalability

The key to redundancy is to design an architecture that does not have any single point of failure. A cloud computing system must make multiple copies of client information and store it on other devices and transfer workloads for easier information retrieval or in case of a break down. Redundancy enables the central server to access backup machines to retrieve data that otherwise would be unreachable. The redundancy associated with clouds is not always a given, but it’s easier as a side effect of this structure.  Since most of the cloud serving a site should be made out of disposable machines (since it’s ideal to shut them down, start them back up, rebuild them, clone them frequently) the loss of one or more virtual machines due to a software or hardware issue is less of a problem than it would be otherwise.  This doesn’t apply to all, but to most.


The security of the software running on the cloud is up to whoever’s managing it.  The security benefits of running in the cloud at a reputable data center must meet certain physical location security measures to accommodate; like HIPPA or other guidelines.  Some data centers are certified (SSAE 16) and must submit to security audits.  Regularly performing a security analysis is vital to the security of any network. It is the only way to ensure that firewalls and access controls are properly configured and that server updates have been applied.  Consider the importance of both physical and electronic security: escort-only physical security, alarm system, video surveillance, motion detectors and glass break detectors, and dedicated network security experts.  Ask your cloud provider if the data center is certified.

All of this can be thrown out of the window when talking about many uses of the cloud.  It’s a big buzz word/ marketing term and gets thrown around a lot.  In some cases it means that someone has placed one or more constantly running virtual machines on a provider,  but it isn’t anything new.  It just has a new name.

As an eLearning manager looking to deliver, author and store content in the cloud, you should be asking questions about auto redundancy, scalability and security. A reputable company with a handle on these important aspects of cloud computing is much more reassuring than just a brand name.

Disclaimer: Web Courseworks offers CourseStage, a learning management system and CourseCreate, a web based authoring system.