Thinking out cloud

Developing cloud technology brings significant benefits for both students and their educational institution

The development of cloud computing technology holds great potential for schools, colleges and universities to save costs on their IT infrastructure. Many schools historically have built their own platforms to deliver IT infrastructure, but now cloud technology offers an alternative model. “Cloud technology is delivered by service providers to institutions that wish to buy IT infrastructure, or IT applications. The aim is to drive down total costs of ownership and allow them to move quicker in the market and accelerate transformation, while at the same time maintaining security,” explained Martin Butler, manager of education research at Cisco UK.

Cloud computing is still in its relative infancy, yet Butler says an increasing number of schools and colleges are moving towards the technology. “It is already being used over the web for certain mandated school functions, such as reporting for the Department for Education. The cloud is also in widespread use for some other functions, such as pupil school records and virtual learning environments (VLEs). We are also starting to see things like technologies to enable collaboration technology being adopted from the cloud, as well as management in the cloud.” 

Online lessons

This openness to technological innovation and new methods is also being mirrored in the classroom. Lead learning technologist at Weston College, Amy Palmer, has played a leading role in the introduction of online lessons in some departments. “We’re using Adobe Captivate to create online lessons. The lessons are created slide-by-slide, and then when the content is published it creates a flash file. That flash file is then uploaded as school content onto Moodle, which is our VLE – that’s how the students complete the lessons,” she outlined.

With the education sector moving increasingly towards online learning, Palmer believes it’s vital for the college to keep pace. “What we’ve produced is easy to use and doesn’t take long to get through, so it keeps the user’s attention,” she said.

“We’re one of the first colleges to bring this innovation into FE. We piloted it with functional skills, as so many students take that exam we thought it would be a good one to start with. We’ve also offered it to all the other faculties in the college – and hairdressing are very keen to start using it in lessons.” 

This is far from the common perception of schools and colleges as very traditional institutions unwilling to embrace change. There may once have been some truth in this image, but Butler says schools’ and colleges’ attitude to IT has shifted, driven in part by political change. “I think IT used to be seen as a cost to schools. However, the advent of academies and free schools has seen them at the forefront of new technology adoption to improve the student experience and differentiate themselves,” he said. For its part, Weston College sees virtual learning primarily as a tool to help students and enhance their learning. “There was seen to be a gap between home learning and in-college learning, and this kind of bridges that gap. The VLE can be accessed anywhere and the lessons can be completed anywhere,” explained Palmer. 

“If students feel like doing some English revision at home then they’ll just log onto the VLE and complete the lesson. They can complete the lesson as many times as they want, and their grades are also recorded onto the online grade book, so they can track their progress over time.”  

These are important differentiating factors in today’s increasingly competitive educational landscape, where many schools and colleges have greater freedom from local authority control. Today’s generation of students have grown up with technology, and increasingly expect the same level of sophistication at school as they get at home; the challenge for many schools now is to meet this demand. “I think the academies and the free schools, which are non-established schools and are looking to differentiate themselves, will drive the adoption of new technologies. Other schools will then follow,” said Butler.

With the growth of specialist academies, it’s also important that new technologies are suited to the specific requirements of the school. “We created an education blueprint for schools and academies, which provides a flexible and scalable approach to building and delivering IT in those schools, regardless of its size,” outlined Butler. “For example, within the blueprint we use a Cisco product – the ISR router – which can provide network capability, security capability, voice and wireless. The configuration depends on the size of the school.” 

Buy and build

The generic IT within a school can be achieved within this technology blueprint, says Butler, which can then act as the basis for the more specialised infrastructure. Many schools still deploy a mix of cloud-based and traditional technology, combining buy and build options to provide effective IT infrastructure. “Schools can buy an IT solution as a cloud solution, or buy an application as a cloud solution. They can use them alongside localised applications which they build on their own IT platform within the school,” said Butler.

Using these applications can be daunting for some teachers who may be unfamiliar with new technology, so Weston College has established a training programme for teachers. “Some teachers may not have done their PGCE using these sorts of technologies, so they may lack the confidence to use them,” said Palmer. “This training initiative, the evolution programme, gives them that confidence. A learning technologist goes into the classroom with them and makes sure that everything is set up OK and is on hand if anything goes wrong. People usually only need that kind of support once or twice.”

With many schools looking to move forward and transform their business in a quick and secure way, cloud technology is set to play an even more central role in education over the coming years. Butler says cloud technologies are already being widely adopted by schools alongside more conventional IT, and he expects the trend to accelerate in future. “I have no doubt whatsoever that the adoption of cloud-based services will increase in education as time moves on,” he said. 

Technology is also becoming evermore essential to teaching, and as one of the top-performing colleges in the South-West, Weston College recognises the importance of effective IT infrastructure to the student experience; Palmer expects that online lessons will be a core part of courses in future. “The VLE will be used extensively for media content – whether that’s flash content with the lessons, or video content – and things like that,” she said. “I see it as becoming a central tool in courses, rather than an additional tool, which is where we are now.”