In the past year, organisations from education to business have come to appreciate that there is no single IT infrastructure solution. This is the world of hybrid IT, whereby some solutions are provided in-house and others by cloud providers, working as a kind of virtual team. All the major cloud providers including Microsoft, Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) spent 2016 setting out their stalls on hybrid strategies.
It would be unusual to find a school, college or university which wasn’t making some use of this myriad of different options, but Mark House, education consultant at RM education, which provides remote, on-site and managed IT services for education, sees untapped potential in the schools sector. He says: “Every school in the UK will ultimately have to move to the cloud, but only around 3% have done so. What we need to instil is a cultural change within schools that moves away from throwing money at devices which aren’t going to support positive change because there isn’t a plan in place to manage that change.”
Steve Forbes, head of network solutions at the company, agrees. “Moving their communication tools and software to the cloud is still probably the main area schools should be focusing on,” he says, pointing out that cloud computing prompts organisations to look at Bring Your Own Device schemes, as device access is cloud-based. “The two go hand in hand,” Forbes says.
So why cloud? Instead of having to maintain and run software and hardware in-house, cloud computing offers schools, colleges and universities the opportunity to open themselves up to a world of virtual computing. This enables them to rapidly scale up and down depending on their current needs. Many services save time – with 24/7 facilities like software updates managed off-site, staff resource can be spent elsewhere, like digital skills training or being hands-on with learning technology in the classroom. While cloud is far from being synonymous with cost-saving, for many there are cost benefits because you don’t have to buy cloud services in the same way as you bought a PC – you might purchase a short-term subscription to a piece of cloud-managed software or make use of free storage in the cloud that you would otherwise have to pay for. Perhaps most significantly, there’s no need for the organisation to house its own server to host such services, with all the associated cooling and maintenance costs.
What to do first? When South Lee, an independent school in Bury St Edmunds, moved towards becoming a ‘serverless school’ they started by revamping their broadband connection: a crucial step. But school principal Paul Begbie explains that the major benefit is not having to run servers onsite: “An organisation of our size cannot maintain the expertise to run an in-house system. We want the management of our IT to be situated in the best place for it, which is in Microsoft’s data centre.”
As a result of using Microsoft Azure, staff and pupils are now enjoying anytime anywhere access to the things they need online. This is ideal in an environment where much of the work is done outside school hours.
The benefits are also in the finances. Not only has the school not had to purchase any network servers, but there are associated reductions in the time required to manage the technology. Begbie says: “Based on evidence from other schools, we considered that we would probably have had to take on a full-time technician to support the network infrastructure had we not gone for the cloud-based solution.” Occasional glitches in the system are set to be solved with a dedicated broadband line for the Azure platform.
UTC Oxfordshire is a contrasting organisation: a mixed university technical college, which has also embraced a combination of cloud technology and Microsoft software with RM education’s help. Owain Johns, Principal at UTC Oxfordshire, explains the benefits: “We’ve created a culture where the cloud enables students to fire up their Chromebook and get instant access to any projects they’re working on. Why would a teacher have to hand out 35 sheets of paper and ask students to fill them out, when they can simply say ‘It’s on your OneNote’?” The learning provider also has its management information system (MIS) in the cloud, so if a teacher is on an educational visit, or people are working remotely, they can log in and find whatever information they need – such as taking the register while out on a trip.
This hints at the real power of cloud to connect distributed people and campuses. “The future of cloud in education is something which extends far beyond individual schools,” says John Jackson, CEO of London Grid for learning, a not-for-profit educational trust that delivers extensive and cost-effective broadband services to over 2,500 London schools. He says: “In practice this means aggregating digital services so councils and public bodies do things once rather than many times – which is expensive and inefficient. It means making it possible to share data efficiently so we can help vulnerable people and enable new insights that help solve complex challenges.” His organisation is now rolling out TrustNet, a similarly managed internet service, to schools across the UK.
For schools, there’s certainly an opportunity when it comes to multi-academy trusts (MATs) which came about to pool resources and information, collaborate and share best practice. This is brought into focus when you consider some of the challenges of geographically dispersed academies that join an MAT. Simon Harbridge, CEO at Stone Group, says: “It is not economically or efficiently sound to physically travel between academy sites and so cloud computing, with its tools for collaboration and joint working for both teaching staff and pupils, makes a lot of sense.” The same could be said for newly merged further education providers functioning across multiple sites, and, of course, the sprawling campuses and dispersed workplaces of the higher education sector, increasingly including international links.
One example launched in the last year is the massive bioinformatics collaboration between academic and computing staff at the Universities of Bath, Birmingham, Cardiff, Swansea and Warwick. Professor Mark Pallen at the University of Warwick is the principal investigator on the project. He said: “CLIMB represents a user-friendly, one-stop shop for sharing software and data between medical microbiologists in the academic and clinical arenas. Using the cloud means that rather than dozens, or even hundreds, of research groups across the country having to set up and maintain their own servers, users can access shared pre-configured computational resources on demand.”
Despite their cohesion as, effectively, a business unit, we know that typically each part of an organisation – whether it is a university or a multi-academy trust – is at different points in their ICT investment cycle, with a different legacy infrastructure to build on. The benefit of cloud computing is that with one centrally managed service each part of an organisation such as a school, in this case can cherry pick which services they need without spending large amounts of capital on new ICT equipment. It allows for the kind of independent, innovative ‘in the now’ thinking that great education is made of. Now that sounds like a plan.