Posted by Caveo Learning ● November 13, 2015

Cloud-Based Learning Gains Steam—Is It Best for Your L&D Organization?

cloud-based_learningThe accumulation of cloud computing across the learning & development industry continues its upward climb.

Brandon Hall Group’s 2015 LMS Trends Study found that nearly two out of every three (66%) learning management systems currently in use exist on a cloud platform, compared to just over half (52%) three years ago. Moreover, interest in moving to the cloud is now the number three reason that organizations decide to replace their LMS; the cloud didn’t even register among the top 10 motivators in past Brandon Hall surveys.

Cloud computing holds a number of benefits for the learning & development industry, primarily around efficiency of eLearning deployment and the administration of learning management systems. Infrastructure costs of the cloud are considerably less intensive than purchasing and installing hardware and software, while the cloud's comparatively minimal up-front financial commitment means organizations are not locked into using aging systems that no longer fit their needs.

Furthermore, cloud computing provides midsize organizations with the opportunity to deploy enterprise-level eLearning programs that they may not have otherwise had the infrastructure or resources to attempt. In optimal scenarios, the cloud gives learning organizations an unprecedented degree of responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability to technological advancements, due in part to the freedom from long-term commitments and major up-front capital outlays, as well as access to enterprise-level technical resources.

What Is Cloud-Based Learning?

First, a quick primer on the cloud, since the exact meaning can be something of a moving target. Most commonly, cloud computing refers to a method of enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned. The software as a service model (SAAS) is the best known example of cloud computing, allowing users to access applications over the web, rather than having to download and run them from a hard drive. In general, the cloud user has limited control over the application’s underlying infrastructure or capabilities, although they typically have some varaying ability to modify or customize the application. Cloud environments can be private or public; access to a private cloud is restricted to members, while a public cloud can be accessed by anyone (though other credentialing, such as free or paid registration, is often required).

The cloud model’s flexibility and cost-effectiveness facilitates niching of platforms and applications. An organization with multiple business units might select an installed system that is somewhat generic—able to serve all the business units fine—even though the ideal option might be to deploy several different systems specific to the business units’ disparate needs. Installing multiple systems would be cost-prohibitive, however, whereas paying for multiple cloud systems may be perfectly feasible.

For some organizations, particularly growing companies and those in volatile business climates, not being tied down long-term to any given system is a tremendous plus. If organizational goals and needs change, an installed LMS or eLearning environment may not be suited to the new requirements. Even though an installed system will be more customizable than a cloud system, an organization using a cloud system is not hampered by the sunk costs that might prohibit it from starting over with a new system that would better meet its changing needs.

Arguably the most exciting advantage of cloud-based eLearning is the freedom for users to train on just about any connected device without needing to download software. While mobile learning is certainly not restricted to cloud programs, the cloud environment makes m-learning much more accessible and implementable. Likewise, opportunities for social learning, particularly related to the burgeoning use of user-generated learning content, become more easily facilitated through the cloud. The interconnectedness of the cloud makes it simple for learners to record images or video on their smartphones and upload the content to a shared library within the cloud environment. Collaborative learning can also be more easily achieved in the cloud, with integrated chat tools enabling learners to discuss concepts with each other or instructors, either in real time or on integrated message boards.

The cloud also eases the pressures and responsibilities on an organization’s IT department, as providers are responsible for some or even most of the infrastructure and application maintenance. This obviously reduces the need for tech resources, freeing up budget that can be allocated toward the creation of training deliverables or the hiring of additional training facilitators.

Drawbacks to Learning in the Cloud

There is a significant potential downside to this offsite systems administration arrangement—it requires placing trust in the third-party provider to handle sensitive data, as well as relying on the external organization to keep the systems in working order and to fix any issues quickly. Today, most major cloud services providers layer their systems with large-scale redundancies, and they are staffed with IT professionals who have expertise with their particular systems to an extent that an internal IT department could not match.

There are a number of other reasons for learning organizations to be wary of committing too aggressively to the cloud, data security being the most obvious and pressing concern. Organizations with extraordinary operational security concerns—defense contractors, for instance—should obviously have greater hesitancy about engaging in cloud computing. Relative data risk should factor into whether an organization uses a public cloud service or a more expensive private cloud—or if it should use the cloud at all—but suffice to say that the major cloud vendors recognize and respect the critical importance of data integrity to their business model.

An organization’s lack of ownership over clould-based applications and systems has its own set of challenges, as well. Aside from the comparatively limited ability to customize functionality and interface, cloud computing is, in many ways, the technological equivalent of renting real estate instead of owning—while it may be initially cheaper to rent an apartment than to buy a home, the renter is ultimately at the mercy of the landlord. Just as leases may not be renewed or rents may be raised, cloud providers could discontinue services or increase fees at any time, leaving organizations that have heavily intertwined training operations with cloud services in a difficult spot.

The decision to swap out an installed system in favor of a cloud system is a complex one. Here are six factors that organizations ought to weigh when choosing whether to jump into the cloud:

What is the system’s scalability?

Confirm the ability to add seats or users (or reduce the number of licenses) easily and without paying a penalty. Additionally, research the firm’s reach, both in terms of size and geography, to make sure it has the capacity and competence to grow in tandem with your enterprise.

Can the provider meet your deployment timeline?

This is especially relevant if your organization requires significant customization to the off-the-shelf product. Although cloud providers tend to be agile, don't assume that systems will be ready to launch on a quick turnaround.

Are there any hidden fees?

Know what the added costs are, if any, for upgrading to newer versions of an application or if the provider charges for tech support issues.

What are the data migration parameters?

Confirm that relevant legacy data can be imported, and that data from the cloud system can be extracted for custom reporting purposes.

Will you have access to security audit reports?

Make sure the cloud provider engages in security best practices and independent audits, and that the results are made available for review.

Does the provider abide by recognized industry security standards?

Look for data security certification by a reliable third-party firm.

Cloud computing offers endless opportunity for the learning & development industry to deploy cutting-edge systems in a cost-effective way. While SAAS doesn't make sense in every situation for every L&D organization, the flexibility offered by the cloud has learning leaders are embracing it in record numbers.

Topics: Learning Technologies