A cloud on the horizon?

Rebecca Paddick asks some of the sector’s experts, is constantly developing cloud technology really suitable for everyone?

Contributors:

Naimish Gohil, chief executive and founder of Show My Homework

Tom Davy, CEO, Panopto EMEA

Liz Sproat, head of education, EMEA at Google

Rob Deacon, professional services director, PSU Technology 

Although it is constantly evolving, cloud computing has been available for some time. Is now the time for the education sector to make the leap? 

Naimish Gohil: Absolutely. We are moving faster and faster into a connected world where everything we need is accessible via the cloud from almost any device. The benefits this brings inside and outside of the classroom is immense for teachers, students and parents.

Tom Davy: Each year we see more and more institutions opting for a cloud-hosted implementation of our lecture capture solution. Some of the key reasons institutions cite for moving to the cloud include increased scalability, cost reductions and their need to reduce strain on existing infrastructure. Is the cloud right for all institutions or in all scenarios? Not necessarily, which is why we want to make sure we have an alternative for institutions for whom the cloud just isn’t an option.Thinking more broadly about cloud-hosted services, even if core IT offerings, such as virtual learning environments (VLE), email system or lecture capture platform might be hosted on their own servers, there are myriad ways in which teachers and their students will be interacting with cloud-based tools like Skype or Dropbox on a daily basis – many of them without even realising it. The question is more; how much do institutions want to shift to the cloud? 

Liz Sproat: In our opinion yes, but to really understand why, we first have to consider what the cloud really provides to the education sector. Most of us are used to using cloud services at home – whether thats email, instant messaging or social networks for example. These services let us easily communicate and collaborate with our friends and family.

At school, were ultimately after the same thing – to be able to share and collaborate with people around us and learn in new, engaging ways. We see it providing collaboration tools such as docs, spreadsheets, calendar and groups, communication tools such as mail and hangout, storage and lots of it – in the case of Google as much as 30GB per user, and enterprise level management tools that allow you to manage your learners and teacher to meet your educational needs. 

Rob Deacon: While the term ‘cloud’ has been around for many years and solutions have become more affordable, it’s only in the last 18 months or so that cloud technology has been really opened up to the masses. Hosted infrastructure was only previously used by larger corporate organisations, but its adoption by the education sector has already started with cloud deployment in universities and larger schools. I would expect this trend to filter down to smaller educational organisations over the next 12 to 18 months, as industry confidence in the technology’s reliability, scalability and security continues to grow, and total cost of ownership continues to reduce. 

Can the cloud really work for all educational institutions, from primary schools all the way up to higher education?

NG: The days of IT rooms in school with black boxes are becoming extinct. Like electricity, ICT in schools should be invisible. The power of the cloud provides the opportunities for schools to focus on the teaching and learning side of it instead of wasting their energy on managing ICT.

TD: All institutions – from small primary schools right up to large higher education institutions face a number of challenges in their delivery of technology-based learning. Common issues include how to scale on demand, providing access to lecture or classroom content for all students, how to support the needs of students who want to be able to view content anywhere, any time and on any device, and how to facilitate more collaborative learning approaches. These can all be addressed by a move to the cloud. 

LS: That’s been our experience. When Google first engaged with the education space, initial interest came from the higher education sector. Now 30% of all UK HE and FE colleges use Google Apps for Education. When Chromebooks launched, there was an increase in interest from the schools sector who were keen to benefit from their simplicity, shareability and cost-effectiveness. Schools using Google Apps are highly motivated by the potential both for content creation and collaboration. From the UK’s largest academy trust to some of the most prestigious universities, we see a wide variety of use cases.

RD: Yes. The growing adoption of hybrid cloud services by educational institutions is evidence of this. Many organisations are using cloud services such as online teaching resources, VLEs and distance learning platforms for remote tutoring, while retaining their traditional on-premises infrastructure to run back office and administrative applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Sage Accounting.

Security threats and technical issues have been reasons to avoid the cloud in the past, but do the benefits now outweigh these?

NG: In the world of technology, there will always be risks but the security software available today is sophisticated. I would argue the cloud provides much more security and precautions than having an IT server inside a school environment where the chances of overheating, vandalism and a lack of 24/7 monitoring can be disastrous. 

TD: Institutions will naturally have concerns about hosting data outside of their infrastructure, but in some cases where internal resource or infrastructure is limited, it could actually be more secure to cloud host. Where there is a central, cloud-based resource for teachers and academics to store materials, issues around data loss can also be mitigated against. Schools, colleges and universities have to take into consideration their own set-up – the benefits are definitely there, but there is no one-size-fits-all model.

LS: Yes absolutely. Firstly and crucially the cloud simplifies technology for schools. It’s no longer necessary to have the technical ability and resource needed to manage a significant server infrastructure. Ironically for schools, cloud-based solutions also provide a much more secure environment than the historic server in a back room.

What about the costs? Can moving to the cloud really save you money? 

NG: It is a myth that moving to the cloud can save you money. The reality is its probably the same cost over time through the subscriptions. However the benefits are significant because you always have on-demand, up-to-date security and access to information systems and documents you need. You also remove the worry about having hardware failure and backing up data.  

TD: Cloud-based services can reduce the cost of licences, support and infrastructure, but cost shouldn’t be the only consideration. A holistic view is called for, taking account of present and future needs as well as in-house resources – sometimes hybrid models are best for an institution overall, with some elements moved to the cloud and others kept within the four walls of the institution. 

LS: All of the above leads to significant cost savings. Just look at the ways you can save money; no need for extensive servers on site or software licenses for communication and collaboration tools. And, if you couple this with devices like Chromebooks, you can also reduce the costs you spend on hardware. 

RD: Yes, absolutely, particularly if you consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) and compare a traditional on-premises IT environment with a virtual hosted one. While traditionally IT was based on ‘one server, one job’, the virtual-hosted model uses a ‘one server, multiple jobs’ approach. And with no capital costs or ongoing maintenance to worry about and the economy of using someone else’s infrastructure rather than your own, the virtual hosted model is much more economical.  

Aside from potential cost and space savings, are there any particular creative benefits to using the cloud? 

NG: Collaboration. Modern teams today work in small groups and need tools to collaborate. The days of sending Word documents back and forth should rest in peace. The cloud makes this possible and its incredible for productivity.  

TD: Firstly, the very premise of cloud computing is the idea of sharing the load of standard tasks (storage, hosting etc) which are not the core activity of the vast majority of organisations. This allows institutions to focus on what they’re good at, rather than trying to reinvent wheels and support a specific homegrown set up. Secondly, a move to the cloud has been accompanied by a much more collaborative approach in many sectors and this is surely something to be encouraged. Thirdly, there is the convenience of not having to upgrade to the latest version of the software. Lastly, as institutions are challenged to become more sustainable, the cloud offers many environmental benefits too! 

LS: Personally, it’s when we get to talk about the creative benefits of moving to the cloud that I become most excited. Watching teachers and students improve the way they teach and learn is ultimately our goal. In the UK we find that through the use of Google Apps for Education there is an increasingly collaborative approach to learning. Students and teachers can work together in real time to create documents and provide timely, relevant feedback to improve outcomes.