Should schools abandon cloud-based services?

Schools need IT that just works without distracting teachers from their core role of educating children, says Nick East

Managing ICT in schools is challenging. Responsibilities often fall to members of staff who have neither the background nor the time to ensure that the school’s ICT is as it should be. This leads to outdated and uncontrolled IT systems that can leave schools vulnerable.

If it wasn’t challenging enough, schools across the country have been left scratching their heads following a public debate about whether they should be abandoning cloud-based services because data may be in danger.

Schools need IT that just works without distracting teachers from their core role of educating children. They must provide an environment that introduces their students to what IT can really do for them, and one that encourages them to get involved. What schools don’t need are IT headaches every day from users forgetting their multiple passwords, computers that can’t connect to the Internet, or hardware and software that is incompatible with new versions of operating systems. They could also definitely do without conflicting guidance, or concerns about compliance with regulations. 

Guidance was sent to educators in a London borough by their IT chief, who advised them to consider moving away from Dropbox and other cloud products not hosted in the EU, following changes to Safe Harbour regulations. The IT chief emailed colleagues indicating that data stored outside the EU is now officially at risk and that “quick-win” cloud storage solutions such as Dropbox should be avoided, as well requesting that information is migrated as soon as possible. 

In response, the UK’s data watchdog has told schools they do not need to abandon cloud services despite fears about ongoing legalities. The message from them advises people not to rush to other platforms too quickly as they may not turn out to be the right solution, which is sensible. But they also suggest waiting for Safe Harbour 2.0.

Cloud technology brings huge improvements in many areas and is here to stay, but is also still early in its long term evolution’

So what is this all about? Safe Harbour came into effect in 2000 between the EU and US, so that US firms could have access to European data without breaking Europe’s rules, with procedures in place for them to confirm that they were carrying out the required privacy protections. However, these practices have now changed following the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) ruling a few weeks ago that means firms could no longer be automatically measured to provide ‘adequate protection’ to personal data they had received from the EU. Thus resulting in a new agreement needing to be negotiated, dubbed “Safer Harbour 2.0”. 

Many schools want answers and solutions now. Cloud technology brings huge improvements in many areas and is here to stay, but is also still early in its long term evolution. There remain many challenges to resolve that will have regulatory, commercial and technology answers over time. Most businesses faced with the same challenges today are deploying a ‘hybrid’ environment, enabling them to choose on a case by case basis what data and applications to store locally and what to store remotely on another provider’s servers (i.e. in the cloud). It provides them with control.  

This has many other advantages, enabling encryption of data before it ever leaves the office, and faster performance when internet connectivity speeds are either too low or too expensive. Safe and cost effective broadband connectivity is critical for businesses and schools of course, regardless of who provides it. Hybrid IT can also be delivered as a service, meaning no CAPEX purchases upfront for any hardware deployed to the site and all services, including software updates, are managed and performed from the cloud by the provider, with data staying where it’s wanted, and securely backed up.

Schools need IT that just works, which doesn’t distract school managers from the smooth running of their operations and teachers from their core role of educating children. With education becoming increasingly more IT-dependent, hybrid-IT as-a-Service is emerging as a solution that enables schools to maximize what IT can do for them, and minimise the distraction of running it on a day-to-day basis. And, in a time of continuous budget pressure, capital scarcity and debate about regulations, hybrid IT-as-a-Service is a cost-effective and flexible choice. It’s the future of IT for schools, and the way forward for teachers and students alike.

Nick is co-founder and CEO of Zynstra, a worldwide Hybrid IT software company based in the UK

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