Cloud computing in education: How moving to the cloud can help schools

There are huge benefits of using virtualisation and cloud computing in education. What’s holding schools and other public sector departments back?

The UK public sector, including education departments, can enjoy the same benefits of virtualisation and cloud services that commercial organisations enjoy. But worryingly, school IT departments are overlooking a strategic view of how to use cloud computing in education.

Eric Schmidt’s recent speech criticising the level of computing education within primary and secondary schools has some justification. My own direct experience as a service provider -- and as a supportive partner to a full-time teacher -- leads me to believe that the public sector is overlooking a more strategic view. And that should be how cloud technologies and working practises associated with a virtualised data centre can improve all areas of a school’s IT departments.

In this tip, I’ll highlight some practical ways that education departments can take advantage of virtualisation and emerging cloud technologies.

The challenges of using cloud computing in education sectors

Before highlighting areas of improvement, it is worth identifying cultural challenges an academic environment faces. Often a school will have competent IT technicians and a vision of IT requirements, but the gap is the strategic vision and understanding of available technologies versus budgets available to deliver on that vision. The head teacher sits much like a chief executive at the top of the tree. But unlike a PLC company chief, the head teacher has little or no real interest in systems. For many, this is where the disconnect lies. Reviewing my direct contact with schools, along with some personal insight from my partner’s experiences, some significant opportunities for improvement stuck out.

IT vision must reach to the top

Schools see IT as a necessary evil. Head teachers have little strategic IT vision which could help guide their IT deliverables. At a recent head teachers’ conference, I was amazed at how uninterested the attendees were in what my company had on display or in what other IT companies were exhibiting. However the school photography stands were busier than Sainsbury’s on a Friday night. IT does not command the same importance as other more traditional areas of school life; it is largely ignored.

Before technology has a chance to really benefit schools, there has to be a fundamental shift in thinking. Technology vendors and service providers must work to reposition IT within the mind-set of the professionals working in the education sector. IT departments or county IT advisers must educate the head teachers by demonstrating the tangible benefits of IT to the school system, from a budgetary standpoint and from the ways it improves the educational experience for students, teachers and parents.

Build IT and services into the curriculum. The traditional deliverables of both a curriculum and administration network remain fixtures within a school system. Other challenges, such as delivering data outside of the physical network in a secure way to allow pupils access to files for homework, are now fairly standard too. This may give the impression of a private cloud, but these “clouds” often provide just the required data, not the required application.

Microsoft (with its Office 365 service) and other vendors are starting to position their cloud offerings to schools, but there are difficulties. For example, Office 365 does not currently give the teaching staff easy access to completed work uploaded by pupils. Microsoft points to the collaboration features of Lync 2010 to help create online classrooms, but this will require a fundamental shift in how lessons are delivered. I am not convinced UK educators will jump at this opportunity, but services like Office365 have a role to play and should be considered.

Partner with expert solution providers. The likelihood of additional funding becoming available to bolster staff IT skills and experience, especially during a period of austerity, is unlikely. A school needs to look beyond its own IT staff for assistance. Select a knowledgeable and experienced service provider that can provide both initial and ongoing assistance. In time, this may lead to a new breed of education supplier or IT offerings which acutely fit the specific needs of a school and communicate with school systems in a language that is not alien to them.

Today, service providers that can help school IT pros successfully use virtualisation and cloud computing in education are few and far between. The support of outside providers will become even more important as schools consider wider impacts such as data protection.

Use technology to make the most of existing infrastructure. For schools with sizable investments in on-premises infrastructures, a migration to cloud-based services may be a ways off. So their challenge will be to maximise the computing, networking and storage resources that they already have. The trick is for schools to recognize the technology products and services available to them.

Consider storage as an example. I visited a private school to discuss a problem it was facing with storage capacity. Ever since a member of the teaching staff had championed the introduction of digital video cameras for pupil use, the IT manager discovered that video files were now eating storage as never before and were being replicated whilst students shared and saved their work.

When I asked what deduplication approach had been taken, I was shocked to learn there was nothing in place, and there was little awareness of what could be done. Deduplication at file level, never mind block level, has a huge role to play within schools because it can maximise available storage and forestall the capital investment in more storage. Solution providers can undoubtedly cite countless other examples.

Convince in-house IT staff to work together. My impression from years of dealing with schools as customers leads me to believe that there is not enough collaboration between various school IT staff members. There is little appetite for working with and alongside IT counterparts in other schools to find ways to improve.

More than ten years ago, when wireless networking was in its infancy, I worked with a group of schools in Worcestershire that wanted to collaborate to deliver an integrated network. With the pooled resources and skills of IT staff from multiple schools, this new technology was successfully introduced – much to the envy of many schools around them. If schools’ IT collaborated today, swapped best practises and experiences, and sought collaboration through combined cloud services, this would lead to more creative and efficient use of IT funds and expertise.

Benefits of using virtualisation and cloud computing in education

Examples of schools embracing virtualisation and benefitting from using cloud computing in education are plentiful. Many are exploring ways in which a centralised virtual data centre can further enhance the pupils’ experience.

My company has worked with a local school over recent years and provided IT knowledge and services to support the onsite IT team. The relationship has seen the successful introduction of virtualised servers and desktops bringing resiliency and clear operational benefits for staff and pupils alike. The IT systems rarely fail as they did before, and introducing new curriculum software applications into the classroom is a simple and speedy process.

When the head teacher sees IT as an integral element of teaching – not a necessary evil – then the journey towards using cloud computing in education can be led knowledgeably from the top. 

Andrew Cross is the sales director at reseller Sol-Tec and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK. 

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