There are many different definitions of ‘The Cloud’, some of which are quite complex. For what it’s worth, I’ll add my own simpler and, no doubt, incomplete version here – with an educational slant: “Cloud computing is when schools use remote Internet-hosted servers, rather than locally hosted servers, as the backbone of their ICT provision. Cloud services are therefore applications and services that are held outside a school and that can be accessed over the Internet. Any Internet-enabled device, such as an iPad, can access these services through a web browser or an app – files are not stored on the computer where the file was originally created. In using the cloud, teachers, pupils and administrators use services and applications for planning, resourcing, assessment, teaching, learning, communication, record keeping, as well as for secure financial and data management. Internet-based hosting helps to reduce costs, simplify access and improve communication and collaboration for all school users.”
There are two aspects to this definition (i) the means to achieve cloud computing and (ii) the uses to which it is put. In considering the first aspect, there is no shortage of cloud computing solutions. Perhaps the biggest names in education are those of Microsoft and Google, with Apple rapidly improving its cloud services for schools. Listing these companies separately suggests that academies are in an ‘either/or’ situation and would have to choose just one of these behemoths of technology for their cloud provision. That’s perfectly possible, but the truth is that schools, academies and multi-academy trusts can mix these solutions to take advantage of the benefits of each. For example, finance and administration officers in a school or trust may prefer to use MS Office products, in particular MS Word and MS Excel. These still tend to be the dominant productivity technologies. In the same school, or across the trust, staff and students might prefer to use Google Classroom with its amazingly simple tools for classroom management and document assignment. That same school or trust might also choose to use iBooks Author and Apple iTunesU to create effective online learning materials. The point here, is that the means to achieve cloud computing should be driven by intentions for use and not by the provider per se. If a cloud provider has tools, services and resources that give clear value-for-money educational and/or efficiency benefits then the provider should form part of the planning. Technical considerations, such as choice of email domain (Gmail or Exchange) will be vitally important but the nature of the cloud means that accessing these resources is, at its simplest, a login away.
Indeed, simplicity of access is a key technological and educational goal and a key point to raise with your ICT partner. RM Unify, is one example of the way in which schools and academies can simplify access to this variety of services and application. With RM Unify, users only need to log in once to their personal Launch Pad to then have one-click access to any application or service which has been set up for them. As we have seen, because the cloud is Internet-based, users can access their apps and data from wherever there are, whenever they are want to work and using whichever Internet-enabled device they choose.
Achieving this simple ‘anytime/anywhere’ access is a key benefit of cloud computing. It enables students (and teachers) to work together on projects in real time or over a period of time and in any location – the classroom, home, work experience, on exchange – anywhere. This could even be a shared project between students in different academies within a trust, or communities of teachers within a trust.
The benefits of simple location-free access extends to teachers too. Take Google Classroom, for example. Using this, teachers can create an assignment in Google Docs at home, in a staff workroom or in their classroom and share these with the students in their class, online, within seconds. In Google Classroom, Google Docs will automatically append the student’s name to the teacher’s document, immediately freeing teacher time in organisation and classroom management. Again, from any location, students can submit their individual assignment to their teacher with just the click of a mouse button and, in turn, the teacher can give immediate feedback via the comments feature in Google Docs. It’s an incredibly simple and effective work-flow system that, at a stroke, removes much of the complexity of document management required by conventional learning platforms. More importantly, it enables a process of dialogue in learning between teacher and student to become genuinely achievable and transformative.
For ICT managers, cloud-based services ease the management of applications without complex installations to perform or back up. User password management is simplified too as, with just one user name and password, classroom disruption created by forgotten login details is minimised. And, more generally for academy and trust managers, there can be considerable savings. Aside from reduced software maintenance and server costs, less reliance on paper can help enable greater administrative efficiency and save cost.
Against this backdrop of considerable benefit are some important considerations such as data security , e-safety, licence costs, and professional development routes. Again, these are key points to raise with your ICT partner.
The cloud has already transformed our personal lives. How many of us bank, book holidays, insure cars, and use social media as unusual everyday activities? Increasingly, the cloud will transform the way in which students engage in their future educational and working lives. Equipping students with the confidence, capability and skills to manage their online activities securely, safely and effectively is in itself an important step in making the most of cloud technologies.
First published December 2015 at RM Education