Head in the clouds?

The education sector remains tied to a physical use of computing and hardware while we embrace cloud technology… but why?

Nicola Yeeles reports

Cloud computing is an umbrella term for various uses of technology that don’t sit on individual computers but are accessed virtually via an internet connection. It is generally considered as three separate strands: software as a service, infrastructure as a service and platform as a service.

If your organisation offers you a Gmail or Hotmail account, you’re using email in the cloud – this is software as a service or SaaS. Instead of having desktop-based software manage your email, you’re doing it virtually, which gives you anytime anywhere access. Office 365 is a popular use of this.

Cloud technology also allows us to build virtual hardware: the nuts and bolts of a computer, virtually. Amazon Web Services, for instance, offers storage, server capacity and databases among other services. This is known as infrastructure as a service or IaaS. You could use a cloud storage account like DropBox temporarily to store some students’ videos, for example, provide them all with access from their own smartphones, and then once they’ve left the institution, end the contract with the storage supplier. Another benefit of using IaaS is that access need not be location-dependent, vital for lecturers in further education who may teach in multiple locations including in the workplace.

For the average person that’s probably where their conscious use of cloud computing ends. But behind the scenes, IT developers are renting whole virtual laboratories allowing them to innovate, design and even host new services and systems through a browser with an internet connection. Products like Microsoft Azure or Google App Engine are called platform as a service or PaaS. The IT team onsite doesn’t need to install and maintain the software or hardware, they simply procure the whole toolkit and use its components as and when they need them, giving them more flexibility without needing to be an expert on each individual part.

The superior functionality that many cloud companies offer has led to an explosion of cloud computing for everyday consumers and commercial customers. Users have access to a vast array of services, and typically don’t have to invest large amounts upfront because their provision can scale according to changing needs.

Backups of data from both students and staff sent to the cloud via Office 365 or similar has prevented the loss of information such as coursework

But in stark contrast to other sectors, cloud is by no means the norm in either schools or in the further or higher education sectors, as technology charity Jisc identified in their 2015 report The future of cloud computing. So why the hesitancy from UK education? 

Firstly, Jisc identifies that the pay-as-you-go model for cloud technology requires significant culture shifts in institutions where computing counts as core facilities expenditure. To exploit the technology, colleges, schools and universities would need new policies and financial models for IT procurement. They would need to be responsive to individual teams, which is one reason why, in big organisations, individuals often procure their own cloud technology to meet local needs, bypassing the centralised IT team altogether.

Secondly, cloud technologies may not actually be a cheaper option for education organisations over the long term. It’s a matter of developing a portfolio of solutions: the University of Derby is typical in using a combination of web-based systems on the premises plus hybrid, private and public cloud services. Neil Williams, director of IT services there, said: “Cloud vendors will need to become more creative in their approach to offering coherent business solutions to universities at a sensible cost before I see this model changing significantly.” 

Thirdly, using cloud services is a type of outsourcing which carries a degree of risk for education. Service level agreements can be agreed with providers about data security, but these may not reassure institutions sufficiently that their sensitive learner or research data is safe in event of disaster. However, considering the fragility of the hardware itself, Shaun Eason, head of ICT at All Saints Secondary School in Dagenham, sees a counter-argument. He said: “Backups of data from both students and staff sent to the cloud via Office 365 or similar has prevented the loss of information such as coursework.”

Fourthly, educational institutions may be reluctant to procure solutions that students and staff won’t be able to use in the same way as their installed solutions. But Andy Hinxman, owner and founder of London-based company Keybridge IT Solutions, said: “This is set to change in the future. For example, Office 365 now provides full Office applications for web-based access to Word, PowerPoint and Excel, whereas before the full functionality was only available in the installed [so-called ‘fat’] client.” 

Finally, the scale of change may be overwhelming. Paul Norton is principal of Kings Monkton School in Cardiff, which embraces cloud technology. He said: “Like any new process and way of working, there is, of course, a job to be done in ensuring it gets implemented smoothly across each department, sometimes a tricky ask during term time, and that the entire faculty gets on board quickly so that it can work effectively at all levels.” At the University of Derby, Williams agrees that cloud usage can actually create further demands on the ICT department as users need improved support.

Nevertheless there are advantages for those who are prepared to take the plunge. Norton said: “Not only are our pupils becoming more tech-literate, but departmental costs are down and our reputation as an eco-friendly school grows even further.” If you can harness the competition between cloud providers, you could make savings: the University of Westminster estimates it saved £1m by moving to Google Apps for Education. Hinxman said: “The subscription-based pricing allows costs to be spread, which some would argue is better when balancing the books and monitoring revenue.” 

There are benefits in terms of efficiency, too. Shaun Eason said: “The cloud circumvents the need for installation and updating of software, which can be time consuming.” Moreover, giving staff and learners multi-site access to the same services can aid effective working and reduce duplication where people need to interact with the same information in parallel, such as student records, research data or a customer relationship management system.

Cloud vendors will need to become more creative in their approach to offering coherent business solutions to universities at a sensible cost before I see this model changing significantly

What advice is there for those thinking about exploiting such technology? Norton said: “Crucially, as with any new process that’s being rolled out at a school-level, it’s important to quickly eradicate any fears of it being over-complicated and hard to use.” Jisc’s report recommends sharing expertise about what works across providers. Pooling resources can work well for schools and small providers with minimal IT provision – a school district in Campbell, California, procured cloud data storage for use in 12 schools. 

Professor Richard Hill, head of computing and mathematics at the University of Derby said that the cloud has potential to transform the way we collaborate “by securely sharing services and enabling trust between connected systems.” But, he says, one thing is for sure: “future business models that impact on our lives will be using a cloud somewhere.” 

Educational IT teams need to embrace this technology now in order to stay ahead in the future. 

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