If not, you should be! As cloud computing solutions continue to evolve the benefits for schools are becoming more compelling, writes Catherine Murray.
It wasn’t that long ago when the phrase ‘living with your head in the clouds’ came with negative connotations. Today, conducting our personal and professional lives in the cloud is something most of us are now doing to some extent. In the education sector, the cloud is providing a viable option for schools, enhanced by the steady introduction of ultra-fast broadband across New Zealand. So why is cloud computing seen by many as such an attractive option for schools? What solutions are available and what are some of the aspects that ICT decision maker need to be aware of? Is the cloud for every school?
More schools are moving to the cloud simply because it offers many benefits to schools, says Peter Nelson, Director of Education at Telco Technology Services (TTS).
“All schools, even those on slow broadband, are able to gain value from the use of cloud computing, for example cloud email and learning management systems,” he said. “The key question schools need to address is which cloud services make sense for us in our unique situation, taking in to account our vision and digital strategy, our position on the e-maturity spectrum, and the ICT tools and infrastructure we have at our disposal?”
He states that some of the advantages of moving to the cloud include:
· effective teaching and administration support;
· predictable costs – you pay as you go for what you use;
· scalability and agility, with more power, space and functionality as you need it;
· high availability and security with reduced risk; and
· easy and lower cost maintenance, with versions always up to date.
TTS offers Nimbus, a cloud solution that aligns rather than replaces general solutions. It’s delivered from a New Zealand-based IBM data centre, which is supported from here. It offers a portal for easy
access from any device, and also support for non-cloud apps. Public cloud services such as Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 are supported, and to make sure there is a smooth transition, TTS offers a number of integration services from the initial deployment and migration of data, through to synchronisation of directories, and ongoing technical support.
Making moving to the cloud painless
Nelson believes moving to the cloud involves several steps, starting with some in-depth planning.
“It’s early days for taking entire server and storage infrastructure in to the cloud, but the same principles apply here as to any other large scale ICT project.”
In order to get the desired results, he says schools need to:
• ask the right questions to understand the needs and drivers of the school;
• accurately audit what is there now to ensure there are no surprises during the implementation phase;
• prepare a proposal that addresses the needs and drivers of the school and develop a clear scope of works;
• set the expectation as to what the solution will and will not do with stakeholder groups (principal, SLT, and teachers); plan and execute the implementation according to scope, on time, on budget;
• provide training for technical staff, lead teachers and individual teachers if need be, and provide self-help resources such as a Nimbus knowledgebase; and
• ensure that ongoing support from either school staff, TTS or both is taken care of.
Shifting our mindset
Moving to the cloud involves an immense shift, not just in practical and physical considerations but also in thinking processes. The Northern Education Access Loop (NEAL) Education Trust is one initiative providing schools within the Auckland area information and guidance on ICT development.
“NEAL has really evolved in the last year to be a meeting place for sharing best practice,” explained Programme and Learning Facilitator Andrew Cowie. “ We’re trying to highlight and elevate the opportunities that exist around a network community. We’re going through a massive change right now; some schools are following it and evolving, and some are struggling because there is so much to consider. Cloud computing is obviously technically a big deal, but it’s also a big shift in mindset for a lot of people.”
Cowie says that cloud computing is creating ‘entry points’ for students that have never existed before, and is allowing teachers to look beyond the walls of the classroom.
“Some teachers are at the point of thinking ‘I wonder if there’s someone down the road who is doing something I can learn from?’ and some are at a place where they just need to understand where they’re at technically.”
Cowie also cautions that it’s necessary to keep in mind what cloud computing actually means for education.
“It’s easy to lose sight of what it all means for learning, just because we are wowed by the instant access. Most importantly it is all having an impact on our young people getting access to resources and expertise.”
Getting the timing right
Conrad Horne, National Marketing and Partner Relationship Manager for New Era IT agrees that all changes must be related back to learning. “You need to have a measure back to the learning objectives and outcomes, and the improvements in engagement.”
New Era IT offers a selection of centrally-hosted services, partnering with operators such as Microsoft, Symantec and Apple. Their EDUCLOUD services include EDUSERVE, central infrastructure as a service hosting for schools ready to migrate into the cloud, EDUNET+ that provides high-speed internet connectivity over fibre nationally and EDUVAULT that provides online backup to offsite ICT infrastructure. All data stays in a totally secure, single logon environment in New Zealand, which
Horne says is a high priority in the minds of the schools. Being in the cloud means that you can make a school’s infrastructure spend go further, he adds.
“Being in a managed environment with an experienced integrator also means you can keep up with change more rapidly and reduce the ‘headache’ of updating hardware and software.”
Many schools are presently at the point of questioning ‘when’ they should make the leap into the cloud, rather than ‘if’.
“For some schools, yes, it’s time – depending on their size, their roll, their connectivity and their current infrastructure, which all has to be looked at,” explained Horne. “If they’re not ready, then we have partial options that they may like to try first.”
A gallery of options
For more than 10 years Gen-i has been delivering IT hosted services in a number of different forms to many different organisations, including the Ministry of Education. In March 2012, the company won a five-year contract to build and deploy the Ministry’s cloud-based Identity and Access Management service.
“We’re building a Single Sign-On solution for around 32,000 users across the Ministry, the Tertiary Education Commission and NZQA,” explained Neil Osmond, Gen-i’s Strategy Manager. “It’s basically a platform, a New Zealand-based service housed in our data centres and delivered as software-as-a-service.”
Gen-i is working with partners Infosys and Hyro, who will put their software on its infrastructure to provide a secure service aggregation facility.
“Think of it as a gallery,” said Osmond. “It gives all those end-users secure access to what will potentially be a gallery of different applications to use that are specific to their role. We’re helping to enable the vision that the Ministry of Education has of providing a suite of different applications and services from the cloud.”
Osmond says there is an appreciation that there are many different applications and services available, with schools wanting to have a selection to fit their needs.
“Gen-i’s role is not only to provide our own services, but we aggregate others as well. What we provide is a means to broker other offerings from Microsoft, other partners and local New Zealand education specialists. The value is very much in the content that we deliver over the networks, and that content comes from our partners.”
Osmond adds their mission is to deliver the content in a secure way, with the right availability, the right level of assurances, and the least amount of support costs.
Matching performance and needs
For some schools ultra-fast broadband is not quite a reality yet, although it’s definitely on the horizon. Conrad Stewart, Managing Director of Isometric Solutions, a full service provider of hardware, software and solutions, says the majority of schools that they’re dealing with are investing in the cloud in some way. However, many are waiting on UFB to fully appreciate the benefits.
“Henderson Valley School is one school we work with. Its service is not finalised yet, so it’s using the ultra-fast broadband for what we expect most schools to use it for, which is faster internet. At the other end of the spectrum we have Orewa College that has close to 1,000 student devices plus all the school’s devices and hardware using the internet.”
Stewart says it is vital that schools carefully think about the performance of their internet connection when considering ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD).
“If a school is looking at BYOD, the first thing we say to them is don’t go there unless you’ve got a decent internet connection. Most of the schools have listened, and those that didn’t are often frustrated because the access is slow.”
For now, says Stewart, not all schools are in the same place.
“At the moment, and certainly in the next year, it’s just going to be about schools getting their ultra-fast broadband connection. There’s no uniform direction that everyone’s taking. Typically schools are looking at how they can use cloud computing, but all in all it’s about getting faster internet.”
Synchronous communications for rural schools
Rural schools are one part of the education community who are eager for UFB and the benefits it will bring.
“Ultra-fast broadband is going to impact very significantly because the current generation of broadband technology is really beginning to creak at the seams,” said Ken Pullar, Project Leader of OtagoNet.
“The available bandwidth is at its limit – and we were probably at the limit three or four years ago.”
Pullar says Google Apps is their primary cloud-based service.
“However, issues arose when there’s a couple of videoconferences going and then a class sits down to use Google Apps – and the result is everything grinds to a halt!”
Pullar says that ultra-fast broadband can’t arrive soon enough to the schools in the Otago region, and when it does the advantages are going to be immense for teaching and learning.
“We use videoconferencing a lot and, at the moment, we’re using standard definition at quite low speeds. It will be nice to improve the quality of the videoconferencing connection and also be able to
do multiple conferences from a school site easily. SKYPE is being used as a more ad hoc tutorial system where the online teachers are able to link up. The increased capacity of ultra-fast broadband is going to enable us to do a lot more synchronous contact between teachers and students.”
A future with cloud computing
As more schools adopt the cloud computing environment what can they look forward to in the years to come? Peter Nelson of TTS says the benefits include:
• ease of collaboration within the school and between schools and other communities;
• access to a wealth of cloud services and digital resources from around the world;
• smoothing of expenditure around ICT;
• enabling 1:1 computing (whatever form that may take);
• flexibility to expand ICT resources as needs change; and
• easier and more timely access to tech support.
“Ultimately cloud computing will be an important enabler in transforming teaching and learning in order to realise our national vision for education,” said Nelson. “Exactly what that will look like is emerging as we speak thanks to innovative and bold change being driven by teachers, learners, and education service providers around the country.”
Catherine Murray writes for INTERFACE Magazine.
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