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Future of education: How cloud computing is supporting a new hybrid model of learning

The coronavirus pandemic and a rapid digital transformation process means universities around the globe are embracing online learning like never before. So what happens now? Laura Dawson, CIO at the London School of Economics, explains all.




Universities and their students around the globe have embraced the potential of online learning.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Academics and executives at the world’s biggest universities have talked for years about the potential of electronic learning to create new and better forms of education – but before 2020, the evidence to support that optimism was pretty thin.

One study at the start of 2019 concluded that online education had failed to reduce costs or improve outcomes for students. Additional surveys showed that the number of students using online learning internationally was modest and, worse still, often in decline.

Such was the lack of progress that Richard Garrett, the director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, wrote a paper asking, ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. His research suggested electronic education was no match for the immersion and networking available in traditional classrooms.

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Yet less then 18 months later, the outlook for online learning has changed radically. The coronavirus pandemic and a rapid digital transformation process has led universities around the globe – albeit initially reluctantly – to embrace the potential of online learning like never before, and now they are grappling with what to do next.

That’s certainly the case at the London School of Economics (LSE), says CIO Laura Dawson. Like her peers at higher education institutions in the UK and abroad, Dawson established the technical foundations to shift all learning online when the lockdown came in spring 2020.

The story of LSE’s rapid digital transformation at that time will be one that’s familiar to tech leaders at other organisations around the world: in a matter of days, Dawson and her IT colleagues secured remote links, sent out Windows 10 laptops, and established cloud-based services such as Zoom for the provision of online education.

The move online was a big break from the norm at LSE, where academics had spent many years teaching people face-to-face in classrooms. Dawson accepts that some of these lecturers were sceptical about the potential success of digitisation. However, the successful shift online has helped to remove some of these doubts.

“I think that’s the biggest thing in terms of change for education – it’s giving educators the confidence that online is not a big, scary beastie that they can’t do or isn’t going to be as good, because they’ve done it. And they proved they can do it. I think that’s a big shift and that will make things a lot easier going forward,” she says.

Such has been the level of success at LSE and other universities that experts around the world recognise that there is now no going back to how things were before.

Cloud-based services have proven their value and are helping institutions like LSE to connect with students around the globe who might previously have been unreachable. “It hasn’t gone unnoticed that those opportunities exist,” agrees Dawson.

This new-found positivity is in sharp contrast to some experts last year, who feared that academic institutions and their IT infrastructures would be badly prepared for the rapid shift to online learning.


Dawson: “It’s giving educators the confidence that online is not a big, scary beastie.”

Image: LSE

While there’s still work to done on refining the online user experience, most experts agree that universities have established the groundworks for a new hybrid model, where a mix of online and offline teaching defines the future of education.

SEE: Digital transformation: The new rules for getting projects done

That hybrid vision chimes with Dawson, who says that – despite the success of LSE’s rapid digital transformation process – lessons won’t all stay online forever. She says there is still “real value” in face-to-face education, especially the opportunity to discuss and debate topics and trends with lecturers and students.

“I think there will be a desire or a need for it, particularly for things like executive education, because it isn’t always the teaching in the room that’s the key differentiator. It’s the networking and the collaborating that makes the difference,” she says.

Dawson says some elements of this collaborative interaction can take place via a hybrid mix of offline and online methods, but key conditions must be met. Any form of hybrid teaching must ensure people inside and outside the classroom have an equitable experience.

“I think it can be done; I hope it can be done, because I can see that that’s what potentially a lot of organisations are going to want,” she says. “But the people in the room can’t have more say than the people who are not in the room.”

Academic institutions, therefore, will have to ensure they focus on refining how technology is used as part of the customer experience that they provide to students, whether they’re in the classroom, at home, or video-conferencing in from abroad.


Lessons won’t all stay online forever, despite the success of LSE’s rapid digital transformation process.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dawson gives the example of virtual whiteboards that are used in online mathematics lessons. It’s far too hard right now for tutors to be able to write complex statistics on a whiteboard and to successfully convey the details of a lengthy formula, as they would be able to in a traditional classroom setting.

“One of the key reasons we have in the past struggled to get those subjects online is the ability to recreate writing formula up on the screen in a way that can be read by anybody. Because it’s often so small that you can’t see it, so there’s some work to be done there,” she says.

Yet Dawson says it’s important to recognise just how far the move to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic has helped to boost the electronic educational experience, particularly in the case of asynchronous teaching, where teaching materials are posted online and learners work through them in their own time.

Dawson says the good news is academic institutions won’t necessarily need to invest heavily in a suite of new tools to improve the hybrid teaching experience. Most of the key technologies – like video-conferencing tools and online-learning platforms, such as Moodle – have been implemented to help support the shift to online learning in the past 12 months.

“I think good video conferencing, like we’re doing at the moment with Teams and Zoom, really helps create the collaborative environment to discuss the topic. The value is not necessarily in the material that you’ve just watched, but in the discussion that you have afterwards with the tutor. And I think we’ve seen it works – we just need to hone everyone’s skills and just make it better,” she says.




Comcast gave me good, precise news. The truth was precisely the opposite

Many companies believe that technology is perfect for customer service communication. Often, though, it just isn’t.




Please be infinitely accurate, Comcast.

These things happen.

Yes, all too often they happen at very awkward times.

But we’ve allowed ourselves to be at the mercy of technology these days, so who are we to complain.

There I was on a recent Friday afternoon, writing several things and watching something on TV. This was my form of dedicated multitasking.

Suddenly, my tasks ground to a halt: All of my Comcast systems went down.

No TV, no internet, no life. (Schopenhauer was the first to say that.)

At least my iPhone was working, so I went to the Xfinity website to see what had happened and when it might unhappen.

The engineers were working on the outage, I was told. Would I like to sign up for texted updates? Of course I would.

Precision Is A Wonderful Thing.

So I sat, waited, and watched.

The first texted offering was that the outage would be fixed by 5:54 p.m. I sat, waited, and remembered I had an Xfinity app on my phone. I tried opening that too, just in case there was more immediate news.

I tried reading a book, but I had those things to do. They were quite urgent, so I became somewhat itchy.

5:53 p.m. came along. It had been more than three hours. But, when you’re told such a precise time, you believe that the texting entity is very sure that the outage is fixable by that time.

At 5:54 p.m. came the bad news. It would be precisely 9:54 p.m. Oh dear. This evening wasn’t going well.

My wife and I cooked. We sat at the dining table, facing each other. We talked. You see, there’s something marvelous about a Comcast outage. It eliminates the temptation of a TV dinner. Instead, you chat about how annoying it is that there’s a Comcast outage.

But I needed to get those things done that night. Because I did. We had plans for the weekend and we wanted to stick to them.

After Midnight. You Can’t Let It All Hang Out.

Next came a new update. The outage wouldn’t be fixed at all that day. Instead, it was now going to be 12:10 a.m. the next day. Precisely.

Please forgive me if, by this stage, I was getting a touch annoyed with this useless precision. Why be so exact when all you’re doing is exacting my nerve ends?

I can appreciate that some things are harder to fix than others. Yet if you’re giving customers such precise information, shouldn’t they expect to trust that information?

And when they discover that the information is precisely useless, won’t you be driving them precisely bonkers?

As the evening began to concede that night was approaching, I kept refreshing my Xfinity app. I feared the next update would say “in three days time, at precisely 3:43 p.m.” I feared I may not even get a text to confirm it, as the texting machines hadn’t been in touch.

Somewhere near 10 p.m., the app refreshed and there was suddenly no mention of an outage.

I tried turning on the TV. It worked. The internet chugged back up. I could do the things I had to do, through yawns of joy.

Curiously, though, I hadn’t received a text to say that everything was working again. Which, lest you forget, was the reason I signed up for the texted updates in the first place.

Of course I could forgive Comcast. It’s compulsory. The company has become somewhat more customer-oriented over the last couple of years. I know it’s been trying.

Oh, but then came Saturday. I could watch Premier League football (saacker) from the very earliest hours. I could watch golf. I could ignore college football.

Good News. Really Good, Imprecise Late News.

Later we went out, sticking to our plans. It was a lovely afternoon. We were in Safeway buying soup and chicken.

Suddenly, a text. Yes, from the Xfinity out there, also known as Comcast.

It began: “Good news.”

I was going to get a rebate for the complete lack of services that lasted seven hours?

Hope is the mansion with non-existent foundations.

Instead, Comcast texted me: “The outage has been resolved at approximately 3:28 p.m. PDT.”

Please imagine the depths of my pained chuckle. Comcast wanted me to know that it had just fixed the outage that it had fixed the previous evening.

So who had I been receiving Comcast services from the previous night and that morning? From the Xfinity Space Station?

And please note the utter deliciousness of the word approximately. Having been so definitive about the time of fixing, now I was only offered an approximation.

The text didn’t stop there, though.

It added: “Thanks for your patience. Your services should be back up and running. Let me know if you’re still experiencing service issues.”

Should be back up and running? But you told me precisely that the outage was resolved.

Naturally, this all caused me to worry.

As with my abject text-based experience with FedEx a couple of weeks before, I fear that companies have no control over the texts they send to customers.

If you’re going to do it, please be accurate. If you’re going to use such technology, make sure it’s not dribbling finger-in-the-air precision that can only frustrate your customers more.

It’s fine to apologize. It’s less fine to offer the wrong information.

If you can’t make the system work, don’t have the system.

Oh, what am I saying? Technology is customer service these days.



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Even computer experts think ending human oversight of AI is a very bad idea

The UK government is thinking of scrapping the right to ask for a human to review decisions made entirely by AI systems, but some experts are warning that it is not the right way to go.




The right to a human review will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, said a consultation from the UK government.

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

While the world’s largest economies are working on new laws to keep AI under control to avoid the technology creating unintended harms, the UK seems to be pushing for a rather different approach. The government has recently proposed to get rid of some of the rules that exist already to put breaks on the use of algorithms – and experts are now warning that this is a dangerous way to go.

In a consultation that was launched earlier this year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) invited experts to submit their thoughts on some new proposals designed to reform the UK’s data protection regime.

Among those featured was a bid to remove a legal provision that currently enables citizens to challenge a decision that was made about them by an automated decision-making technology, and to request a human review of the decision.

SEE: Report finds startling disinterest in ethical, responsible use of AI among business leaders

The consultation determined that this rule will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, and planning for the need to always maintain the capability to provide human review becomes unworkable.

But experts from the BCS, the UK’s chartered institute for IT, have warned against the proposed move to scrap the law.

“This rule is basically about attempting to create some kind of transparency and protection for the individuals in the decision making by fully automated processes that could have significant harms on someone,” Sam De Silva, partner at law firm, CMS and the chair of BCS’s law specialist group, tells ZDNet. “There needs to be some protection rather than rely on a complete black box.”

Behind the UK’s attempt to change the country’s data protection regulation lies a desire to break free from its previous obligation to commit to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The “right to a human review”, in effect, constitutes the 22nd article of the EU’s GDPR, and as such has been duly incorporated into the UK’s own domestic GDPR, which until recently had to comply with the laws in place in the bloc.

Since the country left the EU, however, the government has been keen to highlight its newly found independence – and in particular, the UK’s ability to make its own rules when it comes to data protection.

“Outside of the EU, the UK can reshape its approach to regulation and seize opportunities with its new regulatory freedoms, helping to drive growth, innovation and competition across the country,” starts DCMS’s consultation on data protection.

Article 22 of the GDPR was deemed unsuitable for such future-proof regulation. The consultation recognizes that the safeguards provided under the law might be necessary in a select number of high-risk use cases – but the report concludes that as automated decision making is expected to grow across industries in the coming years, it is now necessary to assess whether the safeguard is needed.

A few months before the consultation was launched, a separate government taskforce came up with a similar recommendation, arguing that the requirements of article 22 are burdensome and costly, because they mean that organizations have to come up with an alternative manual process even when they are automating routine operations.

The taskforce recommended that article 22 be removed entirely from UK law, and DCMS confirmed in the consultation that the government is now considering this proposal.

According to De Silva, the motivation behind the move is economic. “The government’s argument is that they think article 22 could be stifling innovation,” says De Silva. “That appears to be their rationale for suggesting its removal.”

The consultation effectively puts forward the need to create data legislation that benefits businesses. DCMS pitched a “pro-growth” and “innovation-friendly” set of laws that will unlock more research and innovation, while easing the cost of compliance for businesses, and said that it expects new regulations to generate significant monetary benefits.

For De Silva, however, the risk of de-regulating the technology is too great. From recruitment to finance, automated decisions have the potential to impact citizens’ lives in very deep ways, and getting rid of protective laws too soon could come with dangerous consequences.

SEE: Programming languages: Python just took a big jump forward

That is not to say that the provisions laid out in the GDPR are enough. Some of the grievances that are described in DCMS’s consultation against article 22 are legitimate, says De Silva: for example, the law lacks certainty, stating that citizens have a right to request human review when the decision is solely based on automated processing, without specifying at which point it can be considered that a human was involved.

“I agree that it’s not entirely clear, and it’s not a really well drafted provision as it is,” says De Silva. “My view is that we do need to look at it further, but I don’t think scrapping it is the solution. Removing it is probably the least preferable option.”

If anything, says De Silva, the existing rules should be changed to go even further. Article 22 is only one clause within a wide-ranging regulation that focuses on personal data – when the topic could probably do with its own piece of legislation.

This lack of scope can also explain why the provision lacks clarity, and highlights the need for laws that are more substantial.

“Article 22 is in the GDPR, so it is only about dealing with personal data,” says De Silva. “If we want to make it wider than that, then we need to be looking at whether we regulate AI in general. That’s a bigger question.”

A question likely to be on UK regulators’ minds, too. The next few months will reveal what answers they might have found, if any.

The consultation determined that this rule will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, and planning for the need to always maintain the capability to provide human review becomes unworkable.



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National Australia Bank keeping staff connected with Google Pixel rollout

More than 2,000 Google Pixel devices were issued to NAB’s customer contact teams to enable them to support customers remotely.



15664-android-nab-blog-v2-max-1000x1000.png Image: Google

When National Australia Bank (NAB) recently revised its device strategy to look at new ways it could support the mobility of its employees and reduce the time and cost of support legacy devices across multiple platforms, the big bank partnered with Google to issue more than 2,000 Pixel devices to its customer contact teams.

Each device, managed with Android enterprise, was rolled out by Vodafone using “zero-touch” enrolment to set up the devices and configure each one with the necessary applications.

“With zero-touch enrolment, each Pixel setup was 20 minutes faster than our previous device enrolments, saving our IT team and colleagues over 500 hours during the initiative. With our communication and collaboration apps available right out of the box, our teams could get to work right away to help customers,” NAB Mobility manager Simon Thoday said.

Another consideration of the rollout was how customer data was going to remain secure, with Thoday pointing out that using Android Enterprise provided the solution to that question.

“Pixel security updates from Google provide a reliable cadence of ongoing protection as threats evolve, and the work profile hits the right balance between security and privacy for our teams,” Thoday said.

“Our contact centre teams use Pixel devices that are fully managed, which allows us to provide the necessary security controls, and wipe and re-enroll them when transferred to a new employee,” he said.

“Branch managers use Pixels with the work profile, separating work and personal applications. This gives employees the ability to use the device in a personal capacity while our IT team manages and ensures data security over the work profile.”

Additionally, with managed Google Play, NAB can assign the apps that are necessary on its managed devices.

“Providing our teams the flexibility to assign apps to the right teams is a major time saver and ensures everyone has the resources they need,” Thoday said.

“Branch managers can look up customer service records or answer a ping more quickly from their Pixel, instead of returning back to their desk and logging back on to their desktop computer. Android Enterprise has been a catalyst in a more mobile and responsive environment for our various teams.”

Earlier this month, the red and black bank completed its transition to TPG to deliver fixed and mobile network services across the bank.

The transition follows a deal struck between the two companies in September for the newly merged telecommunications giant to deliver fixed network services across NAB’s corporate offices, business banking centres, and branches, as well as providing mobile connectivity to the majority of the NAB workforce.

Vodafone delivered the solution to more than 80% of NAB’s mobile fleet across corporate offices and branches in metro and major regional areas. The company said Vodafone, alongside Google, would also be providing those who opt for a company phone with the Pixel 4a.

Related Coverage

Another consideration of the rollout was how customer data was going to remain secure, with Thoday pointing out that using Android Enterprise provided the solution to that question.



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