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Taking the 'maybe' out of cloud computing

The benefits of cloud computing for schools outweigh the negatives, says Neil Watkins

Posted by Charley Rogers | May 27, 2017 | Primary

By Neil Watkins, managing director of education sector procurement framework, Think IT.

One very topical technology decision is do I or don’t I switch to cloud computing? For the majority, the decision that is perceived to be the easiest is to do nothing. However, the way things work is slowly shifting and my advice is, it’s better for schools to take control now and make the move, rather than have solutions thrust upon them later down the line.

With this in mind, I thought I’d attempt to help schools weigh up the advantages and disadvantages, and guide them towards the right decision. So, here is my advice based on lessons learned by other schools…

The benefits

For primary schools in particular, the biggest benefit of moving to the cloud is, very simply, cost. Schools that can’t afford to keep a large staff of technicians on the payroll certainly benefit from moving to the cloud. However, this advantage also applies to secondary schools, as the cloud’s biggest benefit is the reduction it makes to the time needed for IT staff to manage the school’s hardware infrastructure. That’s not to say that IT staff are no longer needed, it just means their time can be invested elsewhere.

The savings from moving to cloud computing come from cheaper power, licenses, hardware, and support.

For these reasons alone, thousands of schools across the UK are moving to the cloud to save significant amounts on their IT investment. But many still fear this option or see it as a costly conversion.

Cloud computing brings learning into the 21st Century.

So, what are the other benefits?

In terms of edtech, today’s students’ expectations have been set, and continue to be an ever growing part of their world. If we are to prepare them for their future careers, new and emerging technologies have to be at the core of their learning.

Cloud computing brings learning into the 21st Century.

The technology enables anytime, anywhere learning and access from any device. Now that the Department for Education (DfE) has approved the Microsoft Azure platform as safe for schools, many are feeling more confident to make the move. 

Concerns

Security is the main concern that schools have. While for many it may seem more risky to have all your data off-site, the opposite is actually true. When you run your data in the cloud, if you are unfortunate enough to have a fire or flood at your school, your data remains protected. 

However, schools do need to set up the relevant level of data security to allow the right people to access the right data. Once this initial set up has been done, you can be reassured that you’re protected, as long as you maintain the regular system updates. Again, this is no different from what you should have been doing when operating from a server.

While the risks of hosting your data in the cloud are a lot less than having everything on a server in the school, no one can ever say you will be risk free. There are always hazards when it comes to computing, including cloud computing. Security through poor initial set-up and staff management is the main risk. We hear of teachers writing their password on post-it-notes under their laptops or all staff members sharing the same password. Cloud service provider outages from suppliers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure practically never happen, but a loss of connectivity is possible in extenuating circumstances, such as the council digging up your school driveway (yes, I’ve seen that happen!). We therefore recommend that schools have a back-up solution such as fibre broadband in the ground with a 4G wireless solution. This should never be needed but it’s good to have it in place, just in case.

While the risks of hosting your data in the cloud are a lot less than having everything on a server in the school, no one can ever say you will be risk free.

When headteachers explain their concerns about moving to the cloud, they always involve either money (it will actually work out cheaper) or losing in-house control. 

Considerations

The actual technical aspect of moving to the cloud is quick and easy. The only consideration is the need for change management. While this is only a very minor point, staff will need to be given basic operative guidance. A recent DfE paper entitled ‘Cloud Guidance’ is one that I’d recommend as it gives schools an ideal starting point. 

Schools using cloud computing will also maintain greater control at all times. They will spend less on internal IT support, less on hardware and endless wiring, and have the satisfaction of knowing data is safe while enabling 21st Century mobile learning. In these times of squeezed budgets, it’s certainly something I would strongly recommend. 

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