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Cloud for everyday education

Cloud computing is no longer a strategy, it's an everyday tool, says Nicola Yeeles

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | April 30, 2015 | Business

When cloud security company CensorNet surveyed 138 schools in January 2015, they found that 30% of them require pupils to work online for more than 10 classes per week. With such a proportion of the working day dedicated to ICT, how can schools harness the power of ICT to improve their learning, teaching and admin? Answer: 40% of schools surveyed were already using cloud services.

Cloud computing is no longer a strategy, it’s an everyday tool. Teachers across the world use it to plan and download curriculum, keep track of academic records and securely transfer student data and make it available throughout the system. Respondents agreed the biggest benefit is lower administration and management costs, a key driver in the Ethiopian project which saw the government harness Microsoft Windows Azure back in 2009. At the back end, cloud storage prevents the accidental deletion or damage of data by child users because the data is backed up to the cloud in real time so accidental spillages or button pressing need not mean lost projects, making it an appealing prospect for everyone from government ministers to grassroots educators. 

Feedback and assessment

Redland Green School in Bristol was an early adopter into the world of cloud computing with all students and staff having access to a Google Apps account since 2011. Tim Cox, assistant head teacher and curriculum team leader for ICT at the new secondary academy, argues that anytime anywhere access is vital.

“The key area for us is students being able to collaborate on projects in real time but in differing locations. This could be a shared presentation, a script for a play or a revision mind map. Teachers are able to comment directly, review and give quick and targeted feedback direct to the students involved.”

Cox concludes, “Allied to an Edmodo account cloud computing becomes part of the social learning sphere with students discussing projects between themselves and their teacher, as well as handing in assignments in a paperless environment.”

That paperless environment is another driver for schools to use the cloud, and enables greater efficiency of the school’s administration processes. At Redland Green, Google Drive is used to store, transfer and share files between students and of course as documents are held on the drive any amendments are immediately saved. The document transfers seamlessly between school and wherever else the student is working. All that is required is an internet connection, albeit a fast one.

Feedback

Teachers at the academy are generally positive about the move because of the seamlessness of access that they enjoy. Cox says, “Teachers recognise that the ability to have a cloud-based element to their teaching armoury enables them to focus on key areas of assessment and feedback as the technology enables them to not only deliver a programme more effectively but in a time-efficient manner.”

Preparing pupils for the world of work is a major driver. Cox says, “Education is able to mirror the increasing cloud-based working and social environment.” Encouraging pupils to use cloud-based software and storage is likely to be a skill they will be able to use in the future, long after today’s software has moved on. And apart from that, of course, Cox highlights that both Google Apps and Edmodo are available free to schools. 

Cost

For school managers it’s obvious that cloud is offering users more flexibility – renting storage space in the cloud is akin to the benefits of renting a scalable space in a storage locker, where you can buy more or scale down as your needs change. It means that schools can control costs as they’ll have a fixed monthly charge and the option to increase or decrease usage and spend according to what they need. So, for example, if the school is trialling a new way of doing assessment using video and needs to store those films, they might hire more storage space during the pilot phase.

Nevertheless, investment is needed to ensure that pupils and staff can really reap the benefits of cloud. Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director at cloud supplier 4D-DC, says, “In order to take full advantage of all the benefits of cloud, schools will need to ensure they have a superfast and resilient internet connection. Connectivity is going to be key to the success of cloud in education.”

A pupil-led approach

Ed Macnair, CEO and founder of cloud security CensorNet, sees another driver. He says, “With the exponential growth of mobile devices in the classroom, IT departments are facing increasing pressure to provide seamless and secure web access for pupils and staff. In search of an alternative security solution to ably manage the growing bring your own device (BYOD) culture, education establishments are starting to adopt cloud-based services.”

It means that students are not linked to school systems through a cable in the computer suite, but by their own devices. Pupils can learn outside the bricks and mortar of the classroom more than ever before, because the learning environment goes with them; they can also collaborate as a team on group projects even if they can’t physically meet up outside school hours. Or they can collaborate with pupils across the world, for example, collecting comparative weather data, running experiments or composing music with unusual instruments. The possibilities are endless: pupils can access marks, comments and work remotely from a variety of devices such as PC, smartphone, or iPad, all while they are out on field trips or at sports grounds. The data is backed up on the go. 

Security

That mention of security leads to an important question for educators: can you rely on cloud services? Because servers, local files and even some software is moved off-site, the burden for maintaining them is off the schools’ hands and rests with the supplier. In fact, most cloud services are the robust choice as server downtime is usually minimised. Where cloud enables schools to use open source software then they don’t perhaps have a central helpline that is as easily accessed as with managed onsite software, but they do benefit from technical support via worldwide community of users. With so many international cloud providers, one thing to look for is UK-based 24/7 tech support.

Data security is absolutely essential when dealing with sensitive information about young people, and of course the threat of a lost piece of coursework is ever-present. It’s vital to find out what data migration and disaster recovery plans are in place before signing up to a cloud provider. Bedell-Pearce goes even further, saying, “UK schools will have to be very careful to ensure that their cloud provider is UK-based to ensure it complies with all data regulation legislation. 4D-DC is well placed to provide cloud to schools because we’re based in the UK in our independent, ISO accredited data centre which meets all UK data protection laws.”

While it is true some cloud applications can pose a greater security risk, if schools take the time to install a cloud-enabled, robust web security and content filtering solution, restricting and controlling access to apps, the chance of any breach is eliminated. In turn, any fears and concerns surrounding the cloud can be put to bed.

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