Why education is a clear case for cloud
The education sector is unlike most other UK industries. Its main focus isn't profits or shareholder value, but rather turning our young people into well-informed, well-rounded adults, ready to take up their place in society, wherever it may lie.
Nonetheless, the sector operates under constraints common to most others, and in some ways more difficult. Funding is very tight, and school and university leaders have many other priorities to contend with before IT provision reaches the top of the queue. For many, the combination of building maintenance, staff wages and utility bills will account for almost every penny.
At the same time, IT departments now support both curriculum and administrative functions across institutions, along with vast libraries of different software packages to suit every subject, at every level. And it faces very stringent targets. Reliability is key: if an educator’s laptop fails, then the lesson plan can quickly descend into whatever the unlucky instructor is able to improvise. Problems with electronic register systems and student records could have disastrous consequences for the whole institution. Similarly, security and business continuity are crucial considerations.
Spreading the costs
Cloud computing can be an immediate, practical help to address the difficulties that educational institutions at every level face with IT provision.
First, cloud can help to keep digital provision alive even when funding is scarce. Historically, IT provision for organisations has required significant capital outlay. Cloud, on the other hand, gives you the option to pay only resources used, so there is no up-front outlay and costs become akin to utility bills, predictable, recurring and relatively low. This OpEx model of payment opens up access to heavyweight infrastructure and hosting without the capital expense. And not just infrastructure: increasingly, software tools and digital content are licensed on a SaaS basis, and thus IT costs overall can spread over the year, and scaled as more or less resources are required. Microsoft Office 365 productivity suite is a case in point for almost every student, and the company waives the normal license fees for schools and universities. Implementing the suite as a managed service means that all your data is safe and secure, email threats are effectively neutralised and the administration overhead is almost entirely eliminated.
With Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) provisions, latest generation computing capabilities can be channelled to any device with a screen and an internet connection. This simultaneously keeps old machines in use for longer, and means new machines can be from the less costly end of the spectrum and, in addition, the model is also ideal for BYOD and home use.
We've recently worked with Clifton College in Bristol to supply the institution with our Desktop-as-a-Service solution, with the college aiming to make its entire application suite available remotely through a web browser. This in turn improves teachers’ and support staff's ability to prepare lessons remotely and provide a better educational experience. This solution replaced an onsite, remote access server farm, and making the switch has had the additional benefit of allowing IT staff to focus on providing better end-user support rather than spending time on maintaining its infrastructure.
The second reason is reliability. Put bluntly, we can guarantee that a dedicated data-centre with thousands of machines offering 100 per cent redundancy in an air-filtered, nitrogen-cooled environment and a team of highly qualified engineers tending to its every need, will be considerably more reliable than a school or even a university’s current on-premise arrangements.
Remake your space
If an individual client machine fails, another can log into exactly the same working environment and data stores within seconds. New users can thus be set-up in minutes with access to the tools, applications and data that are suited to their role and privileges. As well as being ideal for short notice substitute teachers, this is a capability will be particularly welcome at the beginning of the academic year when, potentially, hundreds (thousands at some institutions) of new users need to be created, and a similar number of leavers archived for safekeeping.
The cloud also provides answers when it comes to security and disaster recovery. Under more traditional IT arrangements, the loss or theft of an educator's laptop could have meant serious compromises to student records, financial details and more. With a cloud-centric solution, the end-point device does not store data locally and cannot be connected to the institution's system without the correct credentials. Similarly, disaster recovery and backup can become automated parts of the service, another thing that the on-site IT department doesn't need to worry about.
Finding the funding for the best IT solutions for learning and administration in schools and universities will always be tricky, as the capabilities of technology continue to outrace the available budget. It doesn't help when there's uncertainty about how that funding will be calculated, and the steep rises in pupil numbers over recent years is already adding to the squeeze.
We think that cloud solutions, with their inherent capability to change, grow or shrink at a moment's notice, are a great way to beat this uncertainty at the same time as improving provision for both educators and students. And as digital skills become increasingly important to young people’s education, they should be able to work and learn with modern, cloud-based facilities.