Cloud computing is the use of computing resources that are delivered as a service over a network such as the internet, removing the need for physical storage and applications.
From my experience working with academies, shared cloud services are the new de facto standard for federations or groups of schools working together, and this is being mirrored more widely across the UK education sector.
For schools wondering what level of cloud computing would work best for them, a good idea is to start with the outcomes and work backwards, as it is very much solution-led.
Our physical teaching spaces, preferred methodology and school vision for learning all go towards creating learning environments, each variant with specific IT needs.
In my experience, people rarely consider the impact of these things and how the IT is affected. For instance, schools with large open-plan learning spaces containing many students and teachers require a different ICT solution to those with classrooms built around the more traditional instructional model with the teacher leading at the front of a room.
What is important to consider is that IT should be an enabler, removing situations where an agile teacher who wants to use tablets is stuck in a classroom with a fixed computer and 30 PCs facing the front.
There are three key factors schools should consider when looking at cloud computing – cost, agility and the third millennium learning network.
With capital funding from the government decreasing, if schools are to make their ICT sustainable, they will need to incorporate it into their revenue budgets.
An advantage of cloud computing is that schools can access applications and IT infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of traditional hardware and software. Cloud computing should offer a flexible approach that does not tie schools to out-of-date infrastructure or application/software investments, and reduces the total cost of ownership.
Reduced set-up and implementation costs, reduced maintenance and update need, lower levels of support required, and a longer life-cycle on equipment offer schools a low-cost option for using high concept computing systems.
This idea of being able to access IT solutions as and when is needed, and to varying extents, is key. A new free school, or a group of schools or academies that wants to expand can flex without having to invest and install new equipment and servers directly.
With cloud computing, schools have the opportunity to be agile in the way that they plan their IT and turn services on and off. Innovative educators may want to try new things, but sometimes getting software and systems into place and scaling them up can prove a challenge. It might take a week or a month to get in place and yet it still does not work properly. Do you keep on because the money has been spent?
If schools find a solution does not work with cloud computing, it can be spun back down again. Conversely, if something works brilliantly and you want everyone in the school to have it, this can be done quickly and easily with very little down time.
Third Millennium learning networks
Today’s third millennium learners, or digital natives, rely on something we can term the “now of the web”. Effectively, this means the immediacy and speed through which we can find things out and build things using the internet. For instance, say that we wanted to set up an email account now? We can sit at the computer and within 10 minutes it is ready for use – this is the “now of the web”.
However, a lot of institutional IT is still not at this point and students may find they cannot use their devices, or that the technology is not as good as that which they have at home. With 50 to 60 per cent of school-aged children owning SmartPhones, young people have come to expect this kind of immediacy, and schools without it can look very out-dated to them.
Many teachers are increasingly finding 20th century pedagogies out-dated for this reason, and a number of education thought leaders, such as the renowned Professor Stephen Heppell, are asking educators to move away from the factory school model of the 20th century towards a more agile learning environment of constant adaption.
We are seeing the beginning of this with the rise of pedagogy such as bring your own device and the growth of tablets. Even then, to be a success this is reliant on strong underlying IT infrastructure to support the use of multiple devices, enable learning content, and facilitate beneficial learning experiences.
Operating systems and information can now be stored in the cloud, meaning a single application could be used by hundreds of students and teachers across devices.
By considering these three aspects in relation to cloud computing and the goals they want to achieve, schools could have an IT solution that will keep up with what people want and need, will fit a revenue budget, and will give students the immediacy they are often used to.
James Penney is a former ICT teacher and former ICT group director of the Harris Federation. He is now education solutions director at European Electronique.