The Fall edtech conference season was certainly in full swing this month. Eduventures attended Dreamforce 2016 and PESC EDiNTEROP and even hosted thought leaders and innovators from higher education at our own Eduventures Summit. Our research team then capped off a busy October with a trip to EDUCAUSE 2016 last week where over 8,000 attendees packed the Anaheim Convention Center to get up to speed on the latest education technology trends.

At EDUCAUSE we met with more than 30 vendors to learn more about a multitude of product announcements and initiatives. Emerging from these conversations was a renewed focus on improving the student experience across the education lifecycle. While each company demonstrated a vastly different way of achieving that goal, two trends were clear: a willingness of vendors to outsource cloud operations and security management, and the integration of the latest advances in analytics and artificial intelligence within the user experience of all types of platforms.

Cloud Operations No Longer Seen as a Core Competency

Two case studies illustrate the growing view among vendors that data center management is no longer a core competency. For example, D2L announced that it would be standardizing on the Amazon Web Services cloud platform. Its aim is to standardize on a single cloud infrastructure, leveraging the continuous innovations in storage, security, and analytics that Amazon provides, while at the same time redirecting critical development resources to focus on the student learning experience.

This announcement follows a similar one from Blackboard at its BBWorld16 conference over the summer. It announced an initiative to transition management of its cloud operations to IBM.

Higher education institutions, of course, have been following this trend for some time. One company that serves higher education with data center and infrastructure operations is Dell Technologies. We spoke with Jon Phillips, Director of the Dell EMC Center of Excellence for Education, to get his take on why institutions—and now vendors—are ready to outsource data center operations.

He confirmed that, apart from the obvious benefit of reducing overall costs, the primary driver for outsourcing among institutions is security. It is still common for administrators and information technology specialists to believe that institutions should run computing infrastructure themselves because student data is too important to trust to third parties. Unfortunately, with thousands of attacks on campus computing infrastructure daily, institutions can no longer take a reactive stance to security.

Even a small data breach, network intrusion, or overloaded instructional services results in lost class time, negative brand reputation, and real costs in the form of lawsuits or identity protection fees. So now, many institutions trust their critical systems—and student data—to vendors that specialize in secure network operations. These include vendors like Dell, IBM, Akamai, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Vendors seeking assistance in managing their cloud operations are doing it for wholly different reasons. Some of the younger edtech companies utilize the latest platform as service technologies from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google Cloud. The surge in the number of successful edtech launches is due in no small part to cloud platforms giving small development teams the tools they need to build scalable education solutions almost overnight. The older education technology vendors have had a more difficult time standardizing their cloud operations on a single platform.

When Blackboard decided to outsource management of its data center operations to IBM and lead the transition to cloud infrastructure across all product lines, it was in part a response to customer and market feedback that the company was getting the cloud wrong. As more and more institutions moved their heavily customized Blackboard solutions to managed services and then on to Blackboard’s latest cloud offerings, the company found itself in the position of needing to invest heavily in data center operations. This development detracted from its ability to develop new user experiences and products for student success.

It is also important to note that some vendors, such as Ellucian, still believe that managing cloud infrastructure on behalf of their institutions is core to their value propositions and will continue to offer this service for years to come. Ellucian used EDUCAUSE to hone its value proposition as the only vendor institutions need for all administrative systems and related services for outsourcing data center operations.

A Changing Analytics Landscape

Also at EDUCAUSE, another primary aspect of Blackboard’s partnership with IBM became clearer. The company announced that it will leverage Watson Education Cloud services (Watson)—IBM’s cognitive computing platform—in both current and forthcoming products. A panel moderated by Michael King, Vice President and General Manager for Global Education Industry at IBM, positioned Blackboard and Pearson as partners in developing solutions for higher education that will leverage Watson.

IBM demonstrated similar projects that it has done with Apple and Sesame Street. These collaborations show what is possible when you merge cognitive intelligence and analytic tools into the experience of tools meant for everyday use in the classroom. A post-panel discussion with Doug Hunt, Global Business Leader for Education at IBM, qualified the types of edtech companies with which working was the most interesting.

IBM is seeking out key relationships with leaders in each phase of the learner lifecycle to build out exemplar applications and show the world what is possible. When married with IBM’s Kenexa learning management system for corporate learning, it hopes to show that a single data and analytics platform that spans the entirety of the learner lifecycle is not only possible, but a reality supported by the biggest names in education technology.

Stay tuned for future Tech Alerts that will highlight additional technology vendors and trends to watch as we enter 2017. Additionally, look for an Eduventures update to our Higher Education Technology Landscape. Our goal is to keep our readers and members informed of the latest advances in technology as you are embarking on technology projects and vendor selection efforts in the coming year.