Education, education, education ... why cloud will have an impact

Could cloud computing get us thinking more constructively about how to develop our skills?

It didn’t make much of a splash – who notices these things a week before Christmas? but the announcement by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that it will be launching an online learning platform later this year, deserved wider exposure.

The prestigious college said that the project, known as MITx, will become available around spring 2012 and will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will, according to MIT, allow students to learn at their own pace. Amazingly, all the courses will be free.

There are, of course, plenty of online learning websites, the Internet has long been a fertile area for training, but there are few that are free and there are certainly few that I know that offer such level of interactivity: online laboratories and student-to-student communication. And, more importantly, while MIT is not offering degrees, it is looking at offering certificates of completion – through an independent body – that will demonstrate that students have been prepared to stick at their courses.

This looks like a brilliant idea: I have gone through two online courses – the Cisco CCNA and the Microsoft MVA. The Cisco course (which was not solely online and necessitated some lab work) was not free and the Microsoft course may have been gratis and contained plenty of content,  but, as I said at the time, was not well executed and lacked the bells and whistles of the Cisco effort. And, of course, neither of the courses has the independence and reputation for MIT

Julian Box’s blog draws attention to the way in which educational establishments have failed to take advantage of the technology that’s transforming so many workplaces. The MITx launch could transform that – it’s a concrete example of how an academic institution could use technology in a transformative way

But it’s not enough in itself. A perennial favourite topic in the IT world is how to cope with the skills shortage. It doesn’t matter what technology is being spoken about, there are going to be difficulties finding the right people. And in the nascent cloud computing industry, there are already signs that demand for cloud skills is outstripping supply.

Education is ripe for reform.There have been plenty of changes but, fundamentally, schools haven't changed much since the first Education Act was passed in 1870 and are operating on a model that William Forster would have recognised. Universities have shifted their approach considerably but there's a lot more work that can be done.

The Coalition government is already exploring ways to change the nature of education with some schools already looking to move away from the 9.00 to 3.30 (interspersed with long holidays) model - even if plans like these are more about childcare than education. But the government is looking at other initiatives too, such as a privately-funded science university, so there are plenty of options.

Cloud computing offers an opportunity to change things. Students will no longer need be bound by proximity to education establishment. Students no longer need to rely on text books - which can be prohibitively expensive - but could have course material delivered online. Students will no longer be tied to a particular lecturer - or even university. As the MITx example shows, students at one university could complement their notes by referring to the MIT material.

There are opportunities for companies too. Instead of griping about skills shortages, here’s a chance to do something about it. The MITx initiative has shown the way (and there are sure to be other universities who will follow suit). There are hundreds of courses that are going to be available within the MITx initiative, companies who complain about skills shortages should be working with MIT to ascertain which parts of the MITx courses will be useful, building on those courses with some more vendor-specific material - it should be possible to create customised courses without a student having to leave the workplace.    

Cloud is set to transform the way that we operate businesses, let it transform the way that we operate education too.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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