The benefits of Cloud and which steps to take to get there

by Chris Munday, Head of Proposition Development, RM Education.

When you think about what Cloud computing can offer within education, the possibilities are really exciting.

However, I appreciate that at this point Cloud won't be right for everyone and can even seem daunting or not relevant for some schools. How do schools relate this new world of Cloud to the everyday challenges that they face in ensuring that their ICT provides the things that their teachers and learners need?

Let's start with what Cloud means, as there are many hugely varying perceptions associated with it and, in some cases, they can just be plain misleading and confusing. I like to think about the way things are heading as "ICT as a service" in that it is really about having parts of your ICT hosted, delivered and maintained by someone else. Just like any other service, you could pick and choose the bits that were right for you - "I'd like backup, storage and email delivered as a service but I'll keep my learning environment on site as that will enable me to do what I need to, most effectively for now". That for me is the essence of what Cloud will mean for schools; let someone else do the donkey work and just enjoy the benefits of the services you have chosen.

Now, it might sound clich├ęd or a bit "X Factor" but moving to the Cloud will be a journey. There are a number of steps for schools to take, each with tangible benefits so they can take it at their own pace, on their own terms. Go as far along the journey as you need to, to realise the benefits that you're looking for

So what are the main benefits of Cloud? To my mind, it is mainly about three things:

  • Anytime, anywhere, any device learning. Allow learning to continue using the same resources outside the school gates and after school hours, embrace any devices you choose to use or that your users own, and allow all your apps (including legacy ones) to be run on any device.
  • Making the life of ICT and other staff easier. Don't worry about managing aspects of your ICT that can be looked after by others, e.g. managing tape backups and taking them off-site, and free your time up to spend on the really important stuff. Remove the headache of refresh cycles and owning and maintaining hardware, and no longer worry whether your software is up to date and patched; that's all taken care of for you.
  • More efficient ICT. Make the most effective use of the ICT you've got, access ICT services when you need them and only pay for what you use. Could you share services with other schools or even become a service provider for other schools in your area and generate revenue?

We've identified a number of steps on the journey and we'll be talking more about this at BETT but here's a flavour:

  1. Review and upgrade your connectivity. Good connectivity is essential for Cloud services and could be a real barrier to Cloud adoption. This could be a lack of availability of necessary Broadband speeds, prohibitive costs for the required level of service and factoring in redundancy for your connectivity. Have a look at what your current service is and we can help you to understand the level you'll need for different services.
  2. Sort out your infrastructure and local network. Make your ICT as efficient as possible and working as hard as it can for you. Virtualisation makes an eventual move of those servers to the Cloud easier but gives benefits in the short term (more efficient utilisation of hardware, consolidation of physical boxes, for example). Remember that even when many of your services are in the Cloud, local infrastructure will still be really important to enable access to those services.
  3. Choose the right devices - Choose the right tool for what you want your teachers and learners to achieve. What is the strategy for the school and how would this support or conflict with Cloud? Is Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) high on your agenda? Cloud can open up your options but means there are more to consider.
  4. Open up access to your network. Host your own private Cloud in your school to give access to your network to students and teachers at anytime from anywhere, or start to embrace other parts of your community. Alternatively, just give access to applications that you host so your students can run curriculum software easily from home and continue their work and learning.
  5. Move services to the Cloud. Start moving services to the Cloud that will give you the greatest benefit and the least effort. For example, could you be taking away the hassle of backup tapes by backing up to the Cloud, cater for your future data storage requirements by securing extra storage in the Cloud that is easily accessible from anywhere, or move your MIS to the Cloud to take away deployment, management and accessibility concerns?
  6. Full Cloud. Move your remaining services (that make sense) to the Cloud. In the foreseeable future, we believe that schools will need some level of on-site provision to cover the bandwidth intensive services, as well as being a cost effective solution to connectivity redundancy.

Much of what I've mentioned above is available now; a hosted Learning Platform, hosted MIS system, Cloud backup being used by customers, and we're working on proof of concept systems for other Cloud services. These are helping us to understand where the real value will be for education and our thinking is evolving as we learn more. What remains as a guiding principle throughout this process though, is that the answer must be based on the benefits delivered to schools, rather than being driven purely by the technology.

The benefits are there and my goal is that everyone who speaks to us at BETT about Cloud and their school will leave having clearly mapped the benefits that they want to achieve onto what technology and solutions they need to implement. Cloud demystified, now that would be a silver lining!

If you would like to find out more about Cloud and how it can work for you, you can visit the RM stand (C60 and D60) at BETT 2012.

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