Google Capital has invested $40 million in online Web and learning company Renaissance Learning, according to Venture Beat. Jack Lynch, Renaissance’s chief executive officer, says over 20 million students already use the cloud-based education system and Google’s investment “opens the door” for further growth opportunities. As student needs and teaching methods evolve, the company will have to answer a crucial question: How can it deliver content quickly to children worldwide?
While Lynch wouldn’t confirm specific revenue numbers, he noted that Renaissance was valued at over $1 billion. Part of that valuation comes from the company’s use of big-data analytics to bolster student success. Using desktops or tablets, teachers are able to access the online Web and learning firm’s cloud to input student data. If students are having difficulty with concepts such as fractions or algebra, the system automatically seeks out content that may be of use to them.
In addition, educators are able to perform group searches to determine whether certain grades or classes are falling behind national averages. Lynch describes the process as “strategic intervention,” which permits teachers to assist children on demand and based on particular learning needs.
The advent of cost-effective cloud computing combined with widespread mobile device use has led to a shift in education techniques. Students are accustomed to online Web and learning content on demand, from pictures and music to videos and interactive applications. As a result, the U.S. government has created a set of guidelines for learning management system (LMS) technologies called the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). Developed under the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative of 1999, SCORM focuses on creating “accessible, interoperable, durable, and reusable content and systems.”
According to the Renaissance Learning website, its Accelerated Math and STAR systems were recognized in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education as valid and reliable tools built on performance-evidenced strategies for student learning. In other words, the cloud-based education company has been keeping pace with government expectations, and its data center now hosts information from over 3,800 U.S. schools. However, with increasing investment — European company Permira acquired the firm in 2011 — and a worldwide focus, can the company’s existing LMS keep pace?
A study conducted for the Trans-European Research and Education Networking Association (TERENA) illuminates a crucial point: the perception of end users in learning systems. Educators and students typically view their school networks and content providers as connected by a single, unbroken pipeline of Internet that delivers content on demand. In fact, the route is much more complex, beginning with Internet Service Provider (ISP) access to the World Wide Web at large and limited by both ISP and intranet capacity. What’s more, cross-connections are required across the Internet backbone at high-traffic peering points before content ever arrives at a local loop and makes to the “last mile” of school networks.
If databases are too far from school networks or traffic isn’t handled properly, application performance suffers, streaming media content isn’t a possibility, and teachers simply won’t use the service. Should local servers spend more time querying instead of delivering content, it’s all too easy for schools to cut out LMS access to reduce costs. As Renaissance Learning and similar cloud-based educators take their services worldwide, the gap between user expectation and actual network efficacy can quickly widen. Ultimately, it’s not the job of educators and students to understand the difficulty of content delivery, but the work of providers to ensure user perception appears true.
Passing the test
According to the TERENA research, content delivery networks (CDNs) are the most effective way to ensure reliable delivery of curriculum materials with no perceptible slowdown. The association points to a combination of the “pull” and “push” models of caching and content delivery to create the ideal user experience. Caching grabs frequently requested content from edge server nodes and stores it closer to home, then reactively “pulls” it to users on demand, speeding up the request process. Meanwhile, intelligent content delivery proactively pre-populates content by “pushing” it from edge nodes before it is requested. This allows teachers easy access to frequently used materials and pre-loads materials they will need in the near future.
For Renaissance and similar online Web and learning companies to effectively serve the global market — even with Google’s backing — they need reliable CDNs. Beyond having server capacity and worldwide distribution, these networks must be easy to implement, scale up on demand, and provide real-time feedback to identify areas where software and content downloads aren’t performing as needed. Full technical support is also necessary, since educators cannot be called upon to dig into the Internet service’s mechanics; their time is better spent creating individualized learning plans for students and developing new ways to engage classrooms.
Renaissance has a sound learning model, one recognized by the Department of Education and now funded by Google. To realize their full global potential, cloud-based educators need to ensure the quality of their innovative content is matched by speed quality.
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