When Loxford School, Redbridge, had to shut its doors for two weeks while it moved to a brand new school building, there were no screaming headlines in the local or national press. Why not? Because teaching and learning carried on, almost unaffected.
It was the same story when the Notre Dame High School in Sheffield was buried under two feet of snow. Did schooling stop for that period of time? Of course not.
What Loxford and Notre Dame have in common is that they are not completely reliant on physical systems to keep the school running. Both establishments have systems in place to ensure that teachers and students still have access to lesson materials and various other facilities. This meant that teachers and students could log into the system and access their files just as if they were actually in school. It’s not just about accessing files, of course, but taking part in discussions in real time.
Similarly, students at Notre Dame were able to take part in live chats and collaborate in real time, as well as access resources despite being unable attend school because of the weather conditions.
The experience of both of these schools (and many others) demonstrates that there are huge benefits of becoming - at least in part - a virtual school. There are benefits from both a teaching and learning perspective, and from a management and financial point of view.
At a very basic level, having access to the school’s MIS data means that a teacher can still process assessment data, while a manager can look at absenteeism rates from the comfort of their own home or internet café.
On the financial side, the more use a school makes of the Cloud such as software as a service, remote backups and teaching resources, the fewer physical servers and other infrastructure it will need. In one school, for example, the amount of technical support needed was around one hour per week. It’s almost possible to imagine the reality of a fully automated system as envisaged by Warren G. Bennis years ago when talking about the future of industry:
The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.
Schools are not quite there yet, and perhaps we wouldn’t really want them to be. But there can be no doubt that virtualisation is a good thing as far as education is concerned. The potential technical benefits are staggering. The ability to manage your school network remotely would be a huge advantage. Imagine being the network manager and finding yourself held up in an airport overseas because of weather conditions. You won’t be able to return to school in time to run some essential maintenance before everyone returns from the summer break. Being a Cloud-based school means that your biggest problem at that point would be finding a decent wireless connection or a nearby internet café. From here, simply log in and do what you need to do remotely.
However, all of this takes planning. And as well as the technical complexities, there are also potential legal risks as far as data protection is concerned. For example, moving pupil data to the Cloud means that there is the potential for the Cloud services provider to access that data. In this context it would be useful to read two publications from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO):
One thing you might decide to do, for instance, is to keep all your pupil data on physical servers, but move software, resources and backups to a Cloud-based solution.
The ICO has a publication that enables a school to consider the issues around data privacy, with some very useful checklists. Although not all of the issues will apply to schools, the booklet is a good starting point. Have a look at this web page for further information:
A few things to think about when making the move to a Cloud-based school:
- Think about the data issues. Going with a “solid” organisation is a start, but you’d still be wise to go through the ICO’s recommended Privacy Impact Assessment (see above).
- Plan for a transition period. Perhaps a small-scale pilot involving one class would be useful – being sure to keep your existing system going at the same time.
- Does the solution rely on the knowledge of one or two people? If so, that really is not a good idea. What if they leave?
- What staff training might be needed?
- Is there a compelling reason to do it? It is a good idea to be clear about the benefits you hope to enjoy from going virtual, so that you know what to insist your company partners provide.
- As always, the support of the Headteacher and Governing Body is essential.
But the future is clear; growth of mobile and Cloud computing means that in the not too distant future all schools will be expected to provide an education for their pupils – whatever the weather.