Moving to the cloud

We’ve considered the implementation and change management of your strategy. Let’s now take a look at one core aspect of your strategy you may want to consider - moving to the cloud. In this article, Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning explains why, in his view, a move to the cloud may have both effective and efficient advantages.

The standard model of schools’ IT is to have a room in the school full of servers that run all of the systems and hold all of the data that the school needs. Every programme and document, sat on a box owned and maintained by the school. In the industry, this is called ‘on-premise’. Over recent years, this model has been largely replaced outside of education with the concept of ‘the cloud’ – putting your systems and files on someone else’s computer and accessing them via the Internet. This isn’t just modishness, it’s because this approach is both cheaper and better. However, the education sector has largely failed to make this shift, mostly due to organisational inertia, perceived risk, misunderstanding of benefits and low capacity for change projects on this scale.

Why is there an imperative for schools move to the cloud? The benefits translate into more learning time, less workload for staff and more money to focus in the classroom.

Effectiveness benefits:

Collaboration: cloud-based productivity suites (G-Suite, Office365) have genuinely helpful document sharing and collaboration features that on-premises suites lack. Once documents live online, everyone is looking at the same version, lots of time is saved and collaboration starts to be meaningful.

Information Security: the perception that information is safer when it’s on a server owned by the school is dangerously fallacious - it’s only as safe as the school’s capacity to keep it so. Factor in the unintended consequences of making it hard to access data outside the school (“I’ll just pop this data on a memory stick so that I can work on it over the weekend…”) and the sensibleness of keeping it in-house starts to fray.

Resilience: Any good school IT system will have removed single points of failure/ put contingency plans in place, but resources are ultimately the restriction on resilience. If your file server goes down hard, it’s going to take several hours/ days to get back to where you were and data may have been lost. If those files are instead entrusted to a cloud service provider, striped across several data centres around Europe, it’s unlikely that any user will even notice that a server died. These cloud services are designed for businesses that require and demand high availability. Education customers benefit for free or at a massively reduced cost.

Risk reduction: The extent to which schools now rely on IT to operate smoothly and safely is seldom more clearly seen than when they experience a total outage, most often because of a malware infection brought in by email or a memory stick. Schools with functioning back-ups can recover (often over several days). Those who don’t have this (or who get their backups encrypted too) face months of rebuilding as well as reputational and legal risk. Cloud based systems are not immune to this kind of attack, but they are far better protected from and monitored for this and much more likely to be isolated from each other. Ransomware loses its sting for schools in the cloud, for whom the business of learning continues without interruption.

Mobility of access: Once granted, teachers soon see this as indispensable. When staff can get to all their data (files, MIS, other software) through the browser of their home PC, phone or tablet, they can decide how to distribute their workload. Within school, the ability to access everything on the move and on non-traditional devices is equally valuable and time-saving: a tablet wirelessly linked to the screen with access to cloud storage and services is instantly on and ready for teaching.

Teacher confidence in technology & quality of use: Teachers who trust technology make use of it. The overall reliability and simplicity of services that ‘just work’ through a browser or an app encourage the use of technology in lessons. Layering ‘thin’ pupil devices (e.g. just a screen with a browser) onto this online ecosystem would be inexpensive and very controllable. Perhaps, on a platform powered from the cloud, we might finally see education technology fulfil some of its potential for learning?

Efficiency benefits:

Desktop app licences: The licensing cost of productivity software (word processing, spreadsheets) is high. You can reduce this by using the browser-based versions of the same software. This saving extends to all software that a school is paying for – there is probably a free equivalent in the browser that is good enough for most users, such as Pixlr (free) for image editing instead of Photoshop (generally not free).

New server costs: Servers are complex, advanced and expensive pieces of technology which schools cyclically replace. Hosting a service (like your MIS) in the cloud means that the cost is flatter (annual rental, not 5 year replacement spike) and the server will remain high performing (you’re paying for the service, not the hardware). This is also cheaper because unused capacity is sold to other customers (e.g. overnight, during holidays, when on-premises servers would be idly depreciating).

New storage costs: The cost of on-premises data storage (SANs) make servers seem cheap. Assuming a suitable broadband circuit and fail-over, all of that expensive storage (and associated backup) can be offloaded onto Microsoft or Google. However, it’s this part of going cloud that worries schools the most – the perception of ‘owning’ file storage and thus being able to control it and the change management needed to transition teachers and support staff to a new paradigm of document access being the main concerns. The first is a mirage, the second is worth the effort.

Server room costs: It takes quite a lot of energy to keep a server room functioning well. The electricity required for the servers (always on, whirring away serving files) and air conditioners is significant. AC needs servicing and replacing too.

Technical staff: Schools that have moved to a Software as a Service/ Cloud model require fewer IT professionals than those with their own hardware on-site. Most of the time gained back by ‘cloudified’ schools is in the efficiency and skillset of the IT team – there are many fewer things that can go wrong, and virtually nothing at the hardware level. This generally translates to one highly technical manager configuring software and systems, with other IT staff assisting users and carrying out the traditional break-fix role.

Challenges to address

Whilst there are clearly many benefits to gain from moving your school to the cloud including that it’s device and operating system agnostic, it’s worthwhile considering a number of the challenges before you begin to plan the move with all of its accompanying planning, communication and professional development.

  • Do we have the technical team in place to support this move (shared vision, capacity, and expertise?)
  • Do we know what the bandwidth implications will be if all of our staff and pupils are online at the same time and what we might need to invest (time, money, new services) to make this work?
  • Have we considered the GDPR implications of such a move?
  • Have we researched the different service providers to support this change?
  • Have we considered what we’ll put into place as part of our strategy for instances when our access might go down?
  • Do we have the budget to see all of this change through? Now? In 1 year? In 3 years? Longer?
  • How can we maximise the computing, networking and storage resources we already have to manage some move towards our overall strategy for now?
  • What opportunities might there be for us to collaborate with schools locally to address these challenges?

Practical guidance

The Department for Education have published a guidance document about moving to the cloud. This includes information about procurement of services. You can view this guidance here

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This article is from the free online course:

Leadership of Education Technology in Schools

Chartered College of Teaching