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Why many schools are 'up in the air' about cloud computing

Think IT's Neil Watkins shares his advice for primary schools on the fence about cloud computing

Posted by Hannah Vickers | April 18, 2017 | Technology

By Neil Watkins, managing director of education sector procurement framework, Think IT

All schools are currently feeling the financial pinch; escalating restrictions on IT budgets and the the ongoing evolution of edtech mean that schools need to find ways to save money. Sadly, what we are seeing in many schools is a series of decisions that are actually leading to greater medium to longer term expenditure. 

So, here is my advice based on lessons learned by other schools.

The first and most obvious response to budget cuts is to batten down the hatches and only make reactive, ‘sticky plaster’ decisions; fix the immediate priorities with the cheapest solution. 

The trouble is that many primary schools have always struggled with technology because they don’t have the technical and procurement expertise needed to make the best decisions for their school’s specific and ever-changing needs. Therefore, just ‘muddling through’ can cost more than it saves in the long run.

Thousands of primary schools across the UK are moving to the cloud to save significant amounts on their IT investment, but many still fear this option or see it as a costly conversion. 

The benefits

For primary schools, the biggest benefit of moving to the cloud is very simply ‘cost’. Many primary schools can’t afford to keep a large staff of technicians on the payroll. One of the biggest benefits of cloud computing is the reduction in time needed for IT staff to manage the school’s hardware infrastructure. 

Cloud computing can save schools money on power, licenses, hardware and support. It also brings them into the 21st Century, enabling anytime, anywhere learning and access from any device 

Cloud computing can save schools money on power, licenses, hardware and support. It also brings them into the 21st Century, enabling anytime, anywhere learning and access from any device. Now that the Department for Education (DfE) has approved the Microsoft Azure platform as safe for schools, many primaries are feeling more confident to make the move. While for many, it may seem more risky to have all your data off-site, the opposite is actually true. When you run your data in the cloud, if you are unfortunate enough to have a fire or flood at your school your school data is protected. 

Considerations

The actual technical aspect of moving to the cloud is very quick and easy. The part that schools need to plan for is the change management. It’s not difficult but staff need to be given basic operative guidance. I recommend a recent DfE paper entitled Cloud Guidance, it's an ideal starting point.  

Other considerations are the relevant level of data security. Once it is set up to allow the right people to access the right data, you are as sure as you can be that you’re protected, as long as you maintain the regular system updates. Again, this is no different from what you should have been doing when operating from a server. 

Risks

While the risks of hosting your data in the cloud are a lot less than having everything on a server in the school, I want to be honest with you; there are always risks with cloud computing. Security through poor initial set-up and staff management is the main risk. We hear of teachers writing their password on post-it-notes under their laptops or all staff members sharing the same password. Cloud service provider outages from suppliers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure practically never happen, but a loss of connectivity is possible in extenuating circumstances such as the council digging up your school drive way (yes I’ve seen that happen!). We therefore recommend that schools have a back-up solution such as fiber broadband in the ground with a 4G wireless solution. This should never be needed but it’s good to have it in place, just in case. 

When headteachers explain their concerns about moving to the cloud, they are always about either money (it will actually work out cheaper) or losing in-house control. 

In fact, your school will maintain a greater control at all times by moving to the cloud. You will spend less on internal IT support, less on hardware and endless wiring, and have the satisfaction of knowing your data is safe while enabling 21st Century mobile learning. In these times of squeezed budgets it’s certainly something I would strongly recommend.

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