Education

Why 4-year colleges are tapping Amazon to help deliver cloud computing degrees

Hassan Asqiriba, a computer science student from Mexico, dreams of working for Amazon Web Services or helping businesses use the cloud once he finishes his master’s degree at California State University Channel Islands.

That’s why this winter, Asqiriba plans to take one of the university’s several cloud computing courses, which it launched with the help of Amazon’s cloud computing arm. “I see that as a trampoline,” Asqiriba said, noting that the class will prepare students to take an AWS certification.

Cal State Channel Islands is part of the growing list of AWS Academy institutions, a group of mostly colleges that select at least one instructor to be authorized by the cloud computing giant to teach its courses to students.

AWS has been laying the groundwork for years to influence how cloud computing education is conducted worldwide. In the U.S. alone, 84 two-year institutions, districts or systems — including the Maricopa Community Colleges, in Arizona — and 67 four-year colleges have taught at least one of its courses, according to an Education Dive analysis of its publicly available list. These schools are AWS Academy members.

Community colleges are used to working hand-in-hand with employers, including AWS, to develop curriculum. But these kinds of partnerships aren’t as typical for four-year schools, which tend to value academic freedom over corporate influence.

Yet rising demand for cloud computing skills has made these relationships more attractive to four-year schools, and many are tapping AWS for help with their courses and degree programs.

College officials who’ve worked with the technology provider say these partnerships forge a clear connection to the job market and familiarize students with the world’s leading cloud computing platform.

Workers trained on one platform can cross over into another, said Pat Phelan, vice president of market research for software company Rimini Street. “The skills are not one-to-one transferable, but the learning gap is much smaller than it would be if you had never used cloud.”

Still, there may be drawbacks. There is a “small risk” that colleges could bet on a vendor that doesn’t end up being a primary player in the cloud market, Phelan said. “There’s a lot of territory out there. They all seem to be doing well.”

A gambit for market share?

While AWS controls the largest share of the cloud-computing market, Microsoft and Google aren’t far behind, according to industry reports. Educational outreach may be one way AWS is keeping competitors at bay.

House Democrats recently released a sweeping report arguing that Amazon and several other tech companies hold monopolistic power and should be subject to further regulations and restrictions.

Among the myriad findings, several employers told the report’s investigators that “the availability of AWS-trained engineers” is one reason they use AWS over other cloud vendors. They also cited it as a barrier for switching platforms or using multiple providers.

Amazon broadly rebuffed the report’s conclusions in a lengthy blog post.

When asked by Education Dive whether AWS’ educational outreach aims to increase how many companies use its cloud infrastructure, Ken Eisner, director of worldwide education programs at AWS, stressed that the work it does with institutions is meant to “bridge that education-to-career divide.”

The market for cloud services is vast and growing. Companies are moving en masse to the cloud, where they can store information over the internet as needed, rather than in on-site servers they must maintain.

In a recent survey of more than 300 chief information officers and senior technology executives, the majority said their companies would moderately or heavily adopt some form of cloud computing in 2020.

The need for cost-savings and business continuity may have hastened those initiatives. Companies were already facing a talent crunch for technology jobs, and mass migration to the cloud is expected to make it even harder to hire for those roles.

Enter AWS. Students can schedule AWS certifications through its website and find courses that prepare them for the exams within degree programs at scores of community colleges nationwide and, increasingly, at universities.

Microsoft and Google also offer cloud computing certifications, but some sources Education Dive interviewed suggested AWS has been leading the industry in working with higher education institutions.

Google has a platform for college faculty to access cloud resources and it offers curriculum they can embed into their courses. It also partnered with the City College of New York to provide students with hands-on training on cloud technologies. And Microsoft offers similar resources for students and instructors.

Universities see a large market for cloud computing education, and they’ve begun to create four-year degrees in the field. Two of the largest online colleges, Western Governors University and Purdue University Global, debuted programs in the last few years. Others have since followed suit.

Some colleges have worked closely with AWS or other cloud vendors on their curricula, including to embed certifications. These partnerships also may help them attract students who might otherwise look to alternative education providers to enter the industry.

“These days, having a certification from somebody like AWS or Microsoft Azure is often more compelling to a hiring manager than the degree,” said Katie Bullard, president of A Cloud Guru, a cloud computing education platform.

While higher education experts note relationships with companies can benefit students and colleges, they warn about potential pitfalls. “Criticisms are going to be around whether colleges … are actually doing right by their students in the long term,” said Elizabeth Popp Berman, a professor and author of the book “Creating the Market University,” which explores the history of university-industry relations.

While it’s important for colleges to be responsive to the industry, they also should be the ones controlling their curriculum and deciding what’s most important for students to learn, rather than “effectively doing job training for companies that don’t want to pay for it themselves,” she said.

Working with AWS

Western Governors worked with AWS earlier this year to refresh its cloud computing curriculum. Together, they crafted new learning objectives and hands-on projects, such as simulations and labs.

The university trumpets the partnership as a way to meet employer demand. “We thought it was really important to help our students really understand the biggest cloud computing provider,” said Andy Igonor, the associate dean of the university’s information technology college.

Although Western Governors had one AWS certification embedded into its program, the new partnership gives it access to the vendor’s suite of courses.

Western Governors instructors receive free training from AWS to become AWS-certified, and the university covers the costs for their certification exams.

AWS provides free training to Academy members and gives them a 50% discount on their exams. For some intermediate-level courses, instructors must also complete a technical validation, which includes giving a demonstration.

Michael Soltys, chair of the computer science department at Cal State Channel Islands, recently became AWS-certified to teach several courses. He also is an AWS Educate Cloud Ambassador, joining a legion of roughly 750 students and instructors who promote the company’s educational programs.

Cal State Channel Islands is incorporating AWS-provided curriculum throughout its classes, usually in the form of hands-on projects or examples. Instructors freely choose which they include in their courses, Soltys said.

He thinks students will be able to transition to working on another provider’s platform even if they’re only familiar with AWS. “If you learn one of them, you’ll learn the other,” he said. “It’s really enough to just pick one of those technologies and work with that.”

Yet Bullard, of A Cloud Guru, contends they are different enough that workers typically will have to get certifications from other vendors if they plan on working with their products. A Cloud Guru offers training on all three leading platforms and has a partnership AWS.

Cal State Channel Islands offers several courses developed by AWS.

Cal State Channel Islands” by Tom Emens is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Western Governors is gearing up to launch another cloud computing degree next year with an AWS specialization.

Igonor hopes to bring other vendors into the fold as well. Eventually, he’d like the university to add degree specializations for Microsoft and Google products.

He envisions students being able to choose among the specializations, as needed. “If you’re in an industry where Google is really what they’re using, you’ll go through the generic program and add a Google certification,” Igonor said. “Same thing if you’re an AWS shop.”

Institutions that mostly cater to working adult learners, which includes Western Governors, have been more open to working with a company to craft curriculum, said Michael Horn, a senior strategist at Guild Education, which offers a platform for companies to provide tuition benefits. Regional comprehensive universities, whose curricula tends to straddle job training and traditional education, may also be willing partners, he said.

Still other colleges may want to join forces with a company to help keep pace with the fast-changing job market, Horn said.

Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Maryland, debuted a cloud computing program this year in part to graduate more students into the lucrative field. One industry report estimated that in 2019, cloud computing skills translated to a roughly $111,500 salary.

Not everyone enters the computer science field to get a Ph.D., said Paul Wang, chair of the university’s computer science department. “The majority, they come to get a job.”

Morgan State also has included some AWS content in its curriculum, and some labs feature work on the cloud provider’s platform. However, the university also includes other vendors, such as Microsoft. College officials took cues from industry and academia when developing the program so students would have a balance of real-world skills and creative problem-solving, Wang said.

AWS representatives approached Morgan State’s president last year, though no official partnerships materialized, a university spokesperson said.

AWS’ Eisner said the company approaches colleges, and institutions seek out its services. “Some criteria that we do look at is the ability of the institution to move at speed, … the excitement of their educators and academic team, and obviously, the need in their community,” he said.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Not all universities look to AWS or other tech companies for help with their cloud computing degrees, though many still have an eye toward industry. Purdue Global partnered with ManTech, a large government contractor focused on cybersecurity and data analytics, to launch its four-year cloud computing degree in 2018. The program draws roughly one-quarter of its students from the company, which subsidizes their tuition.

“They were looking for the cloud computing skill set in their organization, and it was kind of a priority for them to find the right fit from an academic standpoint,” said Tina Burton, associate dean of the university’s business and information technology school.

ManTech predominantly uses AWS and Azure, Burton added, so those are the cloud service providers the degree focuses on. Students can also receive college credit for completing certain certifications on either platform, though neither vendor has been involved in curricular development.

Offering training on multiple platforms can be expensive, however. The cost to use cloud platforms is generally calculated by usage time, and students can easily rack up hours working on projects, Burton said.

Vendors tend to offer students a limited number of free credits to use their platforms. However, Purdue Global subscribes to A Cloud Guru, a third-party provider that offers access to AWS and Azure test environments. It’s more cost-effective than paying for them separately, Burton said. More than 120 colleges use A Cloud Guru, which offers resources to build cloud computing curriculum.


“If you learn one of them, you’ll learn the other. It’s really enough to just pick one of those technologies and work with that.”

The accelerated cloud computing program at Marymount University, in Virginia, also aims to align with industry needs. It’s designed for students who already have completed or are underway with a bachelor’s degree.

While the university’s curriculum includes information about a wide range of providers, it offers hands-on learning experiences mostly in AWS and Azure.

Northern Virginia is home to Amazon’s second headquarters, which is expected to eventually employ some 25,000 workers. The surrounding Washington, D.C., suburbs are also brimming with AWS data centers and government contractors.

The region houses one of the largest concentrations of data centers in the world, and cloud computing jobs there are poised to grow. AWS wants to build a massive data center campus in the area. Microsoft and Google are also planning to expand in the region.

Local companies influenced how Marymount structured its cloud computing program, which debuted last year. “We’ve recognized that cloud is an important employment area in our region,” said Diane Murphy, director of the university’s school of technology and innovation.

The university takes advantage of AWS’ offer to let students freely access their platform, Murphy said, calling the company “a big gorilla in the room.”

The program also incorporates Azure because it’s what many government contractors prefer to use, Murphy said. The Department of Defense awarded its coveted $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft last year. A federal judge, however, has halted work on the contract while Amazon challenges the Pentagon’s decision in court.

But Murphy offered another, simpler, reason the university limits its hands-on focus, at least for now: “There are only so many hours in a day.”

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