At its annual conference Ellucian Live, the higher education software vendor previewed its new technology platform and announced its plans to move aggressively into the embryonic competency-based education market. Jeevan Thankappan caught up with John Kopcke, CTO of Ellucian, to talk about the company’s technology strategy.Ellucian

Isn’t it way too early to be talking about CBE, given the technology landscape for it is still evolving?

I don’t think so. It’s a hot topic in the industry today, But, it certainly reminds me of cloud because ten years ago if you talked about it, people would say, ‘yes, I am interested in the cloud but I am not really sure what it means’ and then that changes to ‘I know what it means but I am not sure about all the implications.’ We are entering into CBE at the right time so we are not playing catch up. However, it would be too early to say it is clearly defined and all the requirements are well understood. The only way to understand those requirements is to get into the game and play it.

What will be the implication of CBE on existing networks and business processes?

I don’t see anything in the CBE world that is dramatically different from learning management systems (LMS). Most institutions have been moving their LMS into the cloud, so the traffic is routed through a cloud service so it doesn’t have much of an impact on infrastructure. Where there are still things to be determined are the changes to business processes. For Ellucian customers who want to move into CBE in the future, we will take care of most of the changes to the back office.

Your CBE solution– Brainstorm – is still in beta. Have you set a launch date for it yet?

It is a work in progress. When the requirements are still not nailed down, it is hard to claim victory. There is a lot of difference in attitude towards cloud than what we are used to with on-premise software because it doesn’t really matter whether you are in alpha, beta or general availability stage. A case in point is Google mail, which was in beta for over eight years and that didn’t stop people from using it. The difference with cloud software is that you are updating it weekly or monthly and making continuous improvements. With Brainstorm, there is a lot yet to be figured out, not just by us but by our customers as well, and that is why we haven’t set a launch date.

When it’s finished, will you offer customers the flexibility of buying it in modules?

First off, in the case of Brainstorm, you are not going to buy anything; you are going to have a subscription because it is a completely cloud-based product. As it matures and our Ethos platform evolves, if someone wants to integrate something else, we are not going to stop them and we would obviously tell them that it’s better to use CBE with our student systems and all of that.

Is the Ellucian Ethos platform the key to integration?

Ethos is a platform for our solutions. We are not going to sell Ethos to someone else to do something else. One of the reasons for is that there are lot of general purpose platforms and this one one is specifically for higher education. Having said that, one of the major components of Ethos is integration and we want to make it easy for others to integrate with Ellucian ecosystem, so that our partners and customers can benefit from it.

You are making a major cloud push but the adoption has been rather slow in the education sector. How do you plan to address this challenge?

We have been talking to our customers about cloud for a long time and one of the things that we see repeatedly is when asked the cloud question, customers would be cautious but they change their minds quickly. People who were cautious about cloud have changed their opinions and more and more education institutions are moving to cloud. Of course, it will take time for it to happen across the world but I think that will happen eventually   Is Ellucian offering any BI and analytics tools?

Historically, we have done what most ERP vendors have done – to have a BI offering as an add-on to another product. So you would see BI products for our Banner, Colleague and CRM software and they do a very good job within their world. This year, we have started promoting our cloud-based analytics product and it is the first time we are not thinking about higher education analytics as a part of an another product. It is a product in its own right and its data could be coming from anywhere – be it Ellucian or non-Ellucian products. We think there is a big market out there for higher education analytics.

Traditionally, higher education has always been intimate, and face-to-face, but is rapidly moving to online now. How do you see future learning models evolve?

If you look up education in any dictionary, it never refers to schools or colleges; it refers to transfer of knowledge. One of the stumbling blocks when it comes to innovation is that people tend to think in terms of status quo. What I have seen in my life is that you have a new idea emerge and then you have the status quo, and it never ends up one or the other; it ends up in another idea that is an amalgamation of them both. Frankly, what I am excited about is CBE and its impact on higher education.

What do you think are the top technology priorities for higher education CIOs?

I think the top priority for higher education institutions is their cloud strategy and I think many of them don’t have one in place yet. This is going to be particularly important when a higher education institution has a hardware refresh coming up and it seems to the forcing function for cloud.


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