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I had followed developments in cloud computing and saw salesforce.com’s Force.com development platform as a way for students to try their hands creating the next generation of products. Photo quote2.gif

- Asim Roy, Professor, Arizona State University


Bringing the Cloud to the Classroom
A professor turns Force.com into a laboratory for application development

It was the second day of class and Sandeep Bhanot, Developer Evangelist from salesforce.com was presenting in Information Systems Professor Asim Roy's cloud computing class. Bhanot walked students through a brief history lesson that started with the mainframe era and proceeded through the emergence of client server environments to the latest in cloud computing. Then he issued the challenge. Working in teams, students would spend the semester using Force.com—a development platform offered by salesforce.com—to develop marketable applications in the cloud. Prize money and the possibility of creating a commercially viable product waited at the end of the term.

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Spring 2011 is the fourth semester that the Department of Information Systems has partnered with salesforce.com to offer students this real-world simulation in class.The story began in 2009, when Roy was preparing to teach CIS 430. After a few semesters teaching the class—titled Networks and Distributed Systems—to seniors at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business, Roy saw room for improvement. He thought the coursework spent too much time looking “under the hood” of computer networking instead of introducing these business majors to the cutting edge of IT: cloud computing.

“We were teaching bits and pieces of network development, like thread and socket programming and XML file processing,” he recalls. “But our students are business majors, and I wanted to prepare them to take leadership roles through creative thinking and innovation. I had followed developments in cloud computing and saw salesforce.com’s Force.com development platform as a way for students to try their hands creating the next generation of products.”

In a proposal to department chair Michael Goul, Roy said that cloud computing could potentially become a course in its own right, attracting students from other disciplines. But as a first step, the coming semester could serve as a pilot project. Goul gave Roy’s idea the green light, and with the help of salesforce.com, Roy procured documentation and put together a course outline. Two weeks later and just in time for the fall 2009 semester, CIS 430 version 2.0 was up and running.

Nick Tran, salesforce.com’s director of developer programs, said his group had informally talked about Force.com’s potential as a college teaching tool. “But this was the first time we’d heard of an instructor making it the core of a class, and we knew we had to see the results for ourselves. Professor Roy’s experiment has proven that for students as well as professionals, hands-on development in the cloud is an exhilarating experience.”

While Roy’s own research focuses on artificial intelligence, he is no stranger to business application development. Back in the 1980s, his Ph.D. dissertation became the basis for a product, IFPS/OPTIMUM, which was widely used by Fortune 500 companies for financial, corporate and production planning. Roy has also taught new product development in the W. P. Carey MBA program and in 2008, attended Dreamforce, salesforce.com’s annual conference, with the thought of developing new applications on Salesforce.com’s CRM platform. Returning home with The Force.com Cookbook in his briefcase, he began thinking about how the platform might be used in his undergraduate and graduate courses at ASU.

"Whereas most cloud platforms are really remote infrastructures, Force.com is truly about application development," he said. "You get the essential tools for creating applications that can make you very productive, very quickly. Apex code, the Force.com development language, is there if you need it, but our information systems classes don't require a computer scientist’s level of programming expertise. With Force.com, low-level programming is not a make-or-break requirement—you can do a whole lot with point-and-click. Force.com also had an advantage in itself being cloud-based. Each student had access to a suite of development tools, with no software installation or maintenance required.”

The biggest hurdle was that Roy himself was new to the platform. But learning a technology on-the-fly is itself an important career skill, one Roy was happy to model. So he embarked on the learning curve just a few weeks ahead of his students, figuring if it all worked out, he'd be in better shape the following semester.

And so on an August afternoon, Professor Roy introduced his Professor Asim Roy class to a technology he had mostly just read about, but was confident would play a big role in his student’s careers. "I told them that the cloud would transform the industry over the coming 5 to 10 years, much as the PC did in displacing the mainframe. It's where the money would be made and the entrepreneurial opportunities would reside, and that their generation would be the first to grow up with it. This kind of sea change comes along only once in a decade or two.”

Blown away

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Roy divides his CIS 430 class into teams of four. The assignment: imagine yourself as an entrepreneur. Come up with an idea, design it, and create it in the cloud. The exercise ends in a competition with cash prizes for the winners.

From the beginning, Roy was surprised how closely his students guarded their intellectual property. When he asked teams to present to the class, most preferred private meetings, instead. While this secrecy was mostly intramural competitiveness, Roy felt that, in some cases, the confidentiality was justified. "Some of the best ideas really did have commercial potential."

After working with Roy throughout that first semester, Tran and his colleagues made a final visit to judge the contests. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Tran recalled. “But when we walked into the classroom, we were blown away: everything from the business attire to the serious demeanor of the students told us that this was a serious competition.”

There were 15 quality submissions that semester. Tran and his colleagues awarded first place to an application inspired by European restaurants that allow patrons to order from a menu on a touch screen. Second place went to an app to help real estate agents improve buyer satisfaction, with downloadable listings that could be sorted and accessed from the field. Third place was given to a student who, inspired by his work in a pet boarding service, created a system that gave customers the status on their dog, bird or cat. Roy was impressed. “In my graduate-level product development courses, we had only enough time for students to conceptualize an application,” he said. “And yet with Force.com, these undergrads could actually see how the system would work.” His students had thought through the content and structure of the database, as well as workflows. They had created some of pages in Visualforce, Force.com’s user interface framework, and mapped out where they would go from there. While a semester wasn't enough time for these apprentice developers to complete an application, some students came close. <br

CIS 430 v2.1

Since that first semester teaching in the cloud, Roy has refined his classroom methodology. He now first walks students through a standard Force.com application to see how it is put together, and he assumes more of a mentorship role during the incubation phase to help ensure more ideas are development-worthy.

Subsequent semesters proved as fruitful. The top team in Fall 2010—including Geoff Bennett, David Jones, Preston Vaughn and Jim Zbiegien (see photo)—developed an app they call Dr.CRM that will allow the disability resources advisors on the ASU campus to manage services for students and staff more efficiently. Presently, ASU's Disability Resource Center tracks its clients and schedules services by hand, on databases housed on local drives and even on paper records. Dr.CRM will create a record in salesforce.com for approved clients, allowing advisors on any of the university's four campuses to check eligibility and schedule services. Outside consultants who provide some of the services could be allowed access to relevant parts of the scheduling calendar to determine when their services are needed, and where.

Their winning project built out the application for interpretive services. This semester, the team will pilot test it on all four campuses with a limited number of clients, and will build apps for the other three service categories. Since there is currently no product like it, Dr.CRM.com has the potential to go to market and possibly make some money for the students.

Professor Roy says that students are excited by the possibility that they could actually end up with a business at the close of the semester.

“The cloud gives all kinds of people the chance to not only imagine new kinds of applications, but to create and sell them—without an enormous expenditure in programmers, computers and software,” Roy said. “That’s a lesson well worth learning, and we hope to make Force.com available to other department students: both undergrads and graduate students, alike.”

The larger lesson learned in the class—indeed, one of the objectives of the Computer Information Systems degree—is in the business process improvement that can be achieved through IT.

W. P. CAREY SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

The W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University is one of the top-ranked and largest business schools in the United States. The school is internationally regarded for its research productivity and its distinguished faculty members, including a Nobel Prize winner. Students come from 99 countries and include 60 National Merit Scholars. For more information please visit wpcarey.asu.edu and http://knowledge.wpcarey.asu.edu.