Roundtable – Heads in the cloud with ScholarPack

How is cloud technology aiding in the digital transformations of schools and universities? Steve Wright heads up into the cloud with Richard Harley

The first in our series on the cloud, we speak to Richard Harley, CEO of ScholarPack, part of The Key

Q. What impact has cloud technology had in the digital transformations of schools and universities?

Cloud technology is transforming the way schools manage their data. While schools have traditionally used an onsite server to support their management information system (MIS), a growing number of schools are now } switching to a cloud-based MIS instead. One of the key benefits of the latter is that, unlike ] legacy systems, the MIS can be accessed on any device from anywhere, allowing any member of staff to retrieve data exactly when they need it. Similarly, data reporting is also much simpler with these systems, with reports accessible within just a few clicks, giving staff rich insights into what’s really going on in the school. This ‘data democratisation’ helps the school to create a ‘team around the child’ approach, which holds particular significance in terms of safeguarding monitoring. This is especially true as cloud systems can much more easily integrate with other systems, such as [schools’ child protection software] CPOMS.

Q. What cloud-based impacts and innovations are now on the horizon?

Cloud technology supports an agile approach for system management. So, for example, when new updates, features and fixes are available, they can be deployed in a few clicks. This is an exciting prospect for driving innovation, and I think we’ll see increasingly useful and inventive scenarios for data usage trialled by cloud providers as adoption grows. For example, integration with medical data could see school staff able to easily access a pupil’s medical history whilst out on a day or overseas trip via an app, in case of emergency. Similarly, with everything a student does at school being recorded on the MIS, students could collate a cloud-based learningjournal or portfolio of all the work they’ve completed during their school years, which they can take with them to university or into adulthood to demonstrate their skills and experiences.

Q. Is cloud playing a role in the transition from a ‘teacher-centred’ to a ‘learner-centred’ system?

Cloud MIS systems are democratising data, allowing more users insights from school and pupil data than was ever possible before. But they’re also facilitating a more connected view of the student – taking into account multiple data sets from assessment to behaviour and attendance, to create a complete picture of the learner’s needs and development areas. As more tools and features become cloud-based, learners can also access data about their progress, giving them more responsibility for their own knowledge and self-development. Having content hosted in the cloud, either on the web or via a school platform, also allows parents to participate more easily in their child’s extracurricular learning.

Q. Is the use of cloud across education in the UK where it should be, or would you like to see faster progress?

Progress has been made in the areas of teaching and learning, however, ‘back-office’ tools, such as the school’s MIS, is an area greatly lagging behind. Cloud is not a well-trodden path in education, despite the take up in other sectors and, indeed,
often in people’s own homes and personal lives. A number of misconceptions about cloud adoption are hindering progress when, in fact, adopting cloud could solve a number of important school challenges. A cloud-based MIS is reliable, faster, cheaper and more secure. It can cut a school’s administration time by half and democratises data in order to spread the load. In fact, in very few other industries do organisations maintain on-site servers to house their data. Aside from being costly, time-consuming and reliant on local maintenance teams, physical servers are a huge security risk. Recently we heard of a school who lost all of their MIS data when their server room was flooded and backups failed. With a cloud-based MIS, recovering from such a disaster would be as simple as logging in from another device. Importantly, schools need to know that lots of new technologies are available for back-office functions too, and – as they would with any other considered purchase – should interrogate suppliers to find the right solution for their school.

Q. Which are the key products and services for educational institutions to engage with?

The importance here is in identifying the challenges each school faces and the appropriate tech solution for those challenges, rather than picking a system and retrospectively fitting it around your problems. Once you’ve captured your use cases, find out what technology other schools in your area, or schools of a similar profile, are using and would recommend. Whilst there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution, Google Apps offers an incredibly powerful collaborative tool, is free for schools to use and could also be used to engage parents.

Q. Should educational institutions be clear on which type of cloud infrastructure – public, private or hybrid – works best for them?

The vast majority of schools do not have the resources or expertise to build and maintain their own cloud environment, and should not be expected to have a deep understanding of technical solutions. In the same way that schools outsource other aspects of school management, such as lunches or transport, the same approach should be taken with cloud infrastructure. Engaging with a supplier that can help the school navigate the cloud, and understand how it can benefit their school, is a good first step. School leaders have so much else to deal with on a day­ to-day basis, and a sympathetic supplier will ease the burden and allow schools to focus on doing what they do best – teaching and learning.

Q. What risks and challenges should education institutions be aware of when adopting cloud technology?

Data security is the most important consideration. Cloud technology is a more secure alternative solution to legacy systems – access can only be granted over an encrypted browser connection and no physical access is allowed. It’s the cloud supplier’s job to keep data safe and secure, so most suppliers undertake rigorous security audits. Importantly, though, schools do need to understand that data security still needs to be taken seriously. Despite its many advantages, the risks here are the same as those that inevitably come with using the web, such as password cracking and social engineering attacks. Schools need to be particularly mindful of who has access to what, and must ensure that departing staff have their accounts disabled on all the school’s information systems. Similarly, the school’s MIS should clearly define all users’ roles and access privileges, so that restrictions can be set to prevent access to certain data sets, by certain staff, if needed. Finally, thorough periodic security audits are also important to maintain security standards -preferably via an external agency, rather than by internal staff who may not take such a critical view.

Further reading

2016 World Ecomomic Forum Report: The Future of Jobs and Skills

Forbes magazine: Best countries for cloud computing