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Cloud on the horizon

Nicola Yeeles asks, is comprehensive movement of all IT services to the cloud inevitable in education?

Posted by Julian Owen | July 24, 2018 | Business

For most of us, cloud computing is totally pervasive in the way we use email, chat on social media, or store our photos. The Department for Education is busy promoting cloud for use in schools to help with costs – currently the Department estimates that up to 25% of a school’s energy budget is spent on powering and cooling IT equipment alone. Microsoft estimates that schools can make savings of up to 60% on licensing, hardware, support, maintenance and power simply by moving from on-premises solutions to cloud-based ones. And yet many education organisations are taking a hybrid approach, or even remain sceptical. With the future of education looking increasingly social, we look at how likely it is that schools and universities will eventually be fully functioning in a cloud environment.

There are other good reasons besides cost that should tempt schools to look at cloud. Business development manager at Lynx Networks, Martin Scudder, explained that the technology allows people to work more flexibly. He said: “The benefits to the school are many but it does free staff and students to be able to work anytime from anywhere. Handling homework online, accessing files at home – it’s all part of the modern way we work.” As we move into an era of GDPR compliance, Neil Watkins, director of Think IT which helps schools procure IT solutions, explained that cloud can help: “Access to information in the cloud usually requires authentication (ID and password) which is more secure than a school server. In addition, if the school server fails, all the learning content and school information will still be available to staff and your students.” Cloud can also allow you to securely back up your systems with the help of a third party.

So what can be achieved?  One example is the Peterborough Pupil Referral Service (PRS). This works with up to 300 pupils who are either permanently excluded from school, at risk of exclusion, or are unable to manage a mainstream education setting. The school has three sites, with teachers working at each location, but executive headteacher Claire George realised that what the sites lacked was a way for teachers to share resources. 

She recognised the importance of being able to provide a more effective ‘whole school’ ethos, enabling teachers to teach across all sites and key stages, as well as allowing the children to work in each of the different locations. However, the existing IT system wasn’t able to accommodate this so Claire worked with Think IT to identify a more modern, robust system to help them achieve the school’s vision; they chose Microsoft O365 and a virtual desktop. 

Using this software, they now have a more consistent look and feel across the multiple sites thanks to the cloud and a hosted desktop solution. This meant that all of the school’s data is made available to everyone, regardless of location. 

So with all of this in its favour, why are some schools in particular still reluctant?  Watkins thinks he knows why. He said: “There is one big reason why schools won’t move to the cloud, and that’s fear. Time and time again, we hear the same excuses: ‘It’s not safe’; ‘My broadband’s not good enough’; ‘It’s too expensive’; ‘We don’t have the skills’; ‘We’re scared of getting ripped off’. Yet all of those defences are either not true or easily overcome.”

Watkins said schools need to get braver. He commented: “Just because there isn’t a deep understanding, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the transition. After all, I’m pretty certain that the vast majority of people don’t know how the internal combustion engine works, but that doesn’t stop them driving!”

So for schools and organisations not yet utilising the cloud, when is a good time to start? The answer is, as soon as possible – and the reason, Watkins said, is to be more prepared for future change. He explained: “Moving to the cloud is new and different, meaning that those managing the process may be concerned that they don’t have adequate skills to support it. Technology is certainly evolving and forcing changes on jobs, however, whether you like it or not, you can’t stop it. Therefore, schools should move to the cloud now in order to become more agile and willing to accept continual change as software is constantly updated and new products and services appear.”

But is there an option to stay put, and continue to do things in a localised way? Scudder doesn’t think so. He said: “I honestly think it is inevitable that education organisations will move to the cloud. The larger companies have all cottoned on to the idea of subscription services, Microsoft for example, would rather sell Office 365 and get a monthly fee than sell you a product that you use for 5–10 years and they only get one payment. Over that time period it’s much more profitable for them and you don’t really get a choice now; you have to go that route. At the same time, the fight over business for schools is intense and costs are dramatically low. Google is pretty much free of charge and Microsoft is so cheap compared to standard commercial pricing.”

For schools and colleges looking to move to the cloud, Watkins said: “The most important thing is to have an IT strategy; before you do anything, think about the outcomes you want for your school, rather than just looking at the latest tech or fad.” He recommended thinking about what technology you have and what you want it to do for you. “Consider what the future looks like 12, 24 or even 36 months from now: How many devices will you have? How much connectivity will you need to support those devices, all being connected to the internet at the same time? Can your infrastructure handle the capacity? What policies and procedures will you have to change or create to keep up, and what training will you have to give staff and learners?”

In the UK, conferences like Bett are full of edtech support organisations that can help schools to make evidenced decisions; there is also help for universities and colleges from Jisc and inspiration from the government’s EdTechUK. Independence is key when getting advice, and organisations should be wary of heading straight to a proprietary tech company for advice before considering their options.

Watkins explained: “This fear of schools being ripped off because they don’t understand what they’re buying is a challenge. But this is why the DfE recommends the use of procurement frameworks, so that you have somewhere to go for impartial advice. In a nutshell, a framework allows a school to purchase resources without having to run the full tender process, and ensure they’re getting a cost-effective and reliable service. They exist to make schools’ lives easier, and with the DfE’s recognition and support of these frameworks and a shift to cloud technology, it is only set to become more common among schools.”

And where to go from here? Schools can take inspiration from the university sector, which is embracing cloud at a much faster rate and enjoying a much more online staff and student experience, albeit without the same safeguarding concerns that schools must mitigate for. Once embraced, cloud computing can drive other benefits, as Stuart Allan, Programme Development Project Manager at Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, explained. 

Edinburgh Business School started delivering off-campus education 25 years ago, which means that “we come at things from a slightly different angle compared to institutions who look at online learning as an adjunct rather than a core activity,” Allan said. They now have a new cloud-based learning management system (Canvas) to help improve their offer for students. Allan explained that the benefits of this go wider, though: “I think that creating an excellent student experience online can be a rising tide that lifts all boats. The act of designing or developing content or activities for online courses can make faculty think differently about the concepts they’re discussing and give them new ideas about how best to teach them, either online or in-class.”

With the future of learning going in directions like these, at least at university level, the question of inevitability seems to be answered. The message is to be brave and take action now, so that the benefits can be felt by staff and students as soon as possible. 

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