It is amazing to think that 20 years ago, the computers in schools were confined to a special room, lessons using them limited to once a week. Looking back my school must have been quite forward thinking, as we all had passwords, and were allowed to use the ‘IT Suite’ at lunchtime. They weren’t even PC’s – they were Acorns!
Looking at how far computers have come in that short space of time is a reminder of just how young the technology is, and the rate that technology is developing shows no signs of slowing down.
Big business has been busy over the last few years solving big problems, like big data, and seamless provisioning. Like any new technology it starts out very specialist and experimental, and slowly becomes more mainstream until it can deployed like a commodity, becomes woven into the very fabric of our usage, and we wonder what we did before it existed.
This is very much how the story is unfolding for the latest big buzzword in technology – The Cloud. The potential of big data to store and analyse vast amounts of data is already revolutionising many industries, enabling anywhere anytime access, along with deep insight into data patterns and the ability to predict what will happen next, anyone can now requisition a server farm with a few clicks of a button, and pay for it by the hour.
So the race is now on to develop applications to take advantage of the power the cloud offers, every type of software application that is being developed for every industry, there will be someone developing it to utilise the cloud.
Education is no different, as I saw at the Bett show in London last month, there are already many applications old and new that have been developed or upgraded to use cloud technologies, and as it revolutionises school IT, the apps that aren’t will soon follow.
The architecture of IT in a school that is fully invested in cloud technologies is very different to the traditional model. The current model requires most services delivered by the school such as email, user management, storage, and applications to be hosted and run from inside the school. Servers are required to run those services, and a certain level of performance is expected from the client machines to run the software applications.
All those services and equipment require knowledgeable people to install, run and maintain, and as any industry will tell you, good IT people are hard to come by, there currently aren’t enough skills to go round. We need to invest in the next generation to meet this demand, and having a robust and flexible school IT infrastructure is critical to that goal, but hey, that is what we are doing here right?
The current generation already live and breathe the internet; they have never really been without it. We have a big job on our hands just keeping up with them!
So if we are going to spark their imaginations of just what is possible, turn consumers into producers, and enable the UK to be at the forefront of the future of technology, school IT needs to do what technology does – Move from expensive, specialist technology that requires highly skilled technicians, to become a readily accessible commodity, deployable by anyone at the click of a button, accessible from anywhere.
This is the cloud revolution.
What can the cloud for my school?
The potential to improve teaching outcomes from cloud based services is huge; doing a module on video production for a term? Rent the software required just for that term, and assign access to the students in your class, who can now access that application from anywhere, on any device, they just need to login to their school dashboard and select it.
The videos they produce are stored in the cloud in the schools storage bucket, so teachers can monitor progress and see their final output, again from anywhere.
Results and notes from all of a students’ output on their school journey will be accessible to teachers at the click of a button to enable real-time monitoring of progress, so you can provide support when needed.
This is the cloud dream, and the cloud technologies that are available can already provide much of this functionality. We aren’t quite there with fully seamless integration of cross application data and analysis, but as schools move into the cloud this will happen, and you will not need to buy an upgrade to get it when new services become available, you will always be running the latest version.
How will the school cloud actually work?
Whereas the traditional IT model requires infrastructure, the school cloud requires exostructure – all your services are hosted offsite and deployed on demand through thin clients, any internet capable machine that can provide an interface to a virtual machine or collection of services running in the cloud.
Your exostructure provider will deliver an internet connection, firewall and filtering services, as well as a cloud of computers to host your data and services. Your provider will need to be working with many other companies to provide a rich eco-system of applications and services for your school to consume; they will manage running, deployment, and updates of these services for you, enabling you to focus on educating.
There will be a basic set of services that you will require to be available 24/7/365, the first of which is management information system (MIS), this is the system that will tie everything together and enable single-sign-on access for all the services you provide. You will provision new accounts through this service, which will automatically setup a login with email, a dashboard and a basic set of applications such as Google Apps or Office 365.
A control panel will be available that will manage provisioning of all your services and assignment of permissions for those services to specific groups of users. You will need to develop policies to govern who and how services are provisioned, but they will be actionable at the click of a button.
Students and staff should be allowed to use their own devices to access school services, the school will also have to provide devices, but the performance requirements will be much lower, extending the life of the current devices you have.
Advantages of the Cloud
As a school you just want your staff and students to be able to ride on the bus, but you don’t want to have to run your own bus company to do it. This is what cloud services is trying to solve, as an organisation you just want to focus on educating, not get bogged down in running expensive and unwieldy IT infrastructure, so let’s let the IT experts handle that, and we will just tell them what services we want and who has access to them.
By renting all your services this will also somewhat flat line your budgetary requirements, no more saving up to replace your ageing SAN array, upgrade all machines to the latest operating system, or invest more resources propping up that blasted service that keeps failing. Continued investment will be required, but it will be much more predictable and manageable.
High availability of reliable services will instil trust in your IT system, making staff and students more confident in using it, promoting higher usage, and better outcomes.
Navigating the path to the cloud
Wow, that is a lot to take in! The cloud enabled school is very different to the current IT structure, how are you going to move from where you currently are to a place where cloud services are enabling your school to affect better learning outcomes on a daily basis?
There are a number of areas that need addressing to move into cloud based services:
Hearts and Minds
Buy in from all parties will push your cloud strategy it forward, winning the hearts and minds of management, facilitators, and staff is critical to its success.
A certain level and quality of infrastructure is required to enable cloud services. Good quality enterprise grade Wi-Fi is essential to support anywhere access from any device within the school. You will also need a sufficient number of internet enabled devices owned by the school, and/or have a Bring-Your-Own Device (BYOD) policy in place.
Policy and Training
You will need to develop the right policies and develop staff skills to enable transition into the cloud and for those services to be managed and utilised effectively.
Rethink your Cloud
As a charitable trust setup to support schools in their use of technology, we have been working in partnership with BT for the last few years to try and make the school cloud a reality. Together we have created Education Cloud Services, the next generation of school IT, taking the power of the cloud, and putting it to work in education.
Also to support your transition into the cloud, we have developed a free tool called RethinkCloud to help you on your cloud journey.
What is RethinkCloud?
RethinkCloud is a self-review tool to help your school to develop an action plan for moving to cloud services.
How do I get started?
Simply go to http://rethinkcloud.org.uk/ and register your organisation, get other staff and school leaders involved, you can all register for a login under your organisation’s account.
Once in, you will be presented with a selection of simple questions about the current state of your school IT, after which you will be given access to your schools Cloud Readiness Report, giving you an overview of your IT and an insight into how cloud ready you are and what areas need to be addressed.
Developing Your Strategy
The next two sections analyse your vision for the school, and produces a report with a full action plan of what you need to do. You can also go back and re-review your progress at any time by creating a new review.
Actually moving to the cloud
Whilst we have been working closely with BT on the development of Education Cloud Services, the RethinkCloud tool is designed to be free and service provider agnostic. If you do wish to explore Education Cloud Services further, the data in the tool can help them provision the right services for you.