Learning in the cloud

01 Dec 2014

It’s late 2014 as I write this post, and we’ve reached a point where we can do pretty much everything ‘in the cloud’. Whether you’re shopping, selling, dating, divorcing, reading or writing (to give just a few examples) there’s an online service to help you do it.

But what is the cloud? In a recent article, the Daily Mail helpfully explained to its readers that it was not in fact an “actual cloud”1 - but I’m very confident that anyone reading this post already knows that. The cloud (or cloud computing to give it its full name) is really a modern name for something that has been around for a long time - since the 70’s at least.

Put simply, it is the use of large groups of servers to deliver services and store data. If you use a webmail service like Gmail or Hotmail then you are using a cloud service. If you upload photos to something like Flickr or Instagram, those photos have become cloud data.

The true origin of the term ‘cloud’ isn’t certain, but a useful way to think about it is to use the scientific idea of a cloud as “any set of things whose details are not inspected further in a given context”2. In practical terms, a user knows that they can start watching a Netflix movie on their TV at home, and then pick up where they left off using their tablet on the train. They don’t actually care how that works - they just know it does.

Learning and the cloud

In a previous post I’ve touched on the pros and cons of different hosting models, which included software as a service (SaaS), a cloud based approach to running an LMS. In this post I want to focus on the way that a cloud based approach can benefit learners and learning, as well as potential issues that need to be considered.

The benefits

The primary benefit is much greater access to learning:

  • Access from anywhere - the learner isn’t confined to accessing content only within the corporate network. Learning at their desks isn’t always ideal.
  • Access on any device - although access on multiple devices isn’t limited to a cloud based approach, the two go hand in hand.
  • Access at any time - despite concerns that some people may have about work life balance, learners seem keen to make use of otherwise dead time (commuting, travelling, hotel stays) to keep up to date with their learning.
  • The ideal scenario would be similar to the Netflix example from earlier. The learner should be able to access learning content from any device, in any location at any time - and then pick up where they left off on another device, in another location at another time.

The issues

Like anything else involving technology, there are potential issues that must be considered.

  • Being able to access anything, anywhere does mean having good access to the internet. In some cases this issue is mitigated by web apps and mobile apps that let you download content for access offline, but if your learners spend most of their time away from an internet connection the cloud isn’t going to help.
  • Similarly, while accessing content on any device is becoming the norm, it may require greater time, effort and cost to create content that works well on any device and any screen size.
  • If you are using an external provider to host or manage your content you need to be very clear about who owns the data. Generally this is less of an issue with corporate services, but much has been made of the rights users give away when they post content to services like Facebook or Google Docs - often without reading the terms and conditions.
  • Detractors will say that using the cloud is inherently less secure than keeping data in house, but data storage is always potentially risky. Whether it’s hacks or malicious (or careless) employees data can be lost and sensible security measures should be taken.

Are you ready to move your learning to the cloud? If not, what’s stopping you?

1) Honestly, they said it: https://twitter.com/BuzzFeedUK/status/507130913142996993
2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing

About the author
Barry Samson

Barry Sampson is a consultant focusing on the use of technology to improve workplace performance. In 2009 he co-founded Onlignment, a consultancy specialising in organisational communication and learning. Previously he worked in a range of delivery and management roles in HR and Learning & Development before becoming Learning Technology Manager at B&Q where he led a number of award-winning elearning and blended learning programmes.

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