The standard model of schools’ IT (by which I mean the infrastructure enabling technology use on the front-line, not the stuff in people’s hands) is to have a room in the school full of servers that run all of the systems and hold all of the data that the school needs. Every programme and document, sat on a box owned and maintained by the school. In the industry, this is called ‘on-premise’.
Over recent years, this model has been largely replaced outside of education with the concept of ‘the cloud’ – putting your systems and files on someone else’s computer and accessing them via the Internet. This isn’t just modishness, it’s because this approach is both cheaper and better, in lots of ways (see below).
There are many of reasons why the schools sector has largely failed to make this shift, mostly around organisational inertia, perceived risk and the capacity for change projects on this scale. No criticism implied, it’s a big thing to get your head around and then to execute, and the path of least resistance is to keep doing what you’ve always done. It’s taken my organisation four years, piece by dependent piece, to disassemble our Jenga-tower of on-premise systems and move online. We only finally closed down our data centre at the end of April and we’re still not quite there with moving users’ documents into cloud storage.
So why the over-blown title to this blog? To not make this transition would be to ignore some very tangible benefits which for schools would translate into more learning time, less workload for staff and more money to focus in the classroom.
To head off the obvious criticism at the pass, I am sure all readers will be able to point to examples where cloud-based IT has gone wrong (insufficient broadband, a supplier’s data breach, failure to support users adequately through the change, etc). For clarity, I’m not talking about doing this badly – I am suggesting that the benefits of this approach, when well implemented, are there for schools to harvest.
Why is there an imperative for schools move to the Cloud?
- It’s better
- Collaboration: productivity suites based in the cloud have document sharing and collaboration features that are either entirely absent or at best clunky in on-premise versions. Google Docs and Drive are the most mature examples of this, but Office 365 isn’t far behind. Gone are the days when the only way to collectively work on a document was to distribute it (usually by email), and then grapple with multiple versions/ untracked edits. If everything lives online, everyone is looking at the same version of something so lots of time is saved and collaborative planning starts to be meaningful.
- Information Security: the perception that information is safer when it’s on a server owned by the school is just plain wrong. In that scenario, it’s only as safe as the school’s capacity to keep it so – from its backup and patching regime to the training given to staff to spot ransomware payloads in emails. Once you factor in the unintended consequences of making it hard to access data outside the school (“I’ll just pop this data on a memory stick so that I can work on it over the weekend…”) and the sense of keeping it in-house starts to fray. Whatever you think of the ethics of big tech companies, I’d put my money on them every time to beat a school at keeping data secure (obviously mindful of their compliance with data protection law, work the DfE has done a decent job of assuring).
- Resilience: we drill this into pupils all the time – the ability to recover from setbacks and keep going is a key determinant of success. So too with IT. Any good school IT system will have removed single points of failure and have contingencies for trouble (UPS, redundant NICs, hot spares of switches, etc) but resources are ultimately the restriction on this. If your file server goes down hard, it’s going to take several hours to get back to where you were and data may have been lost. If those files are instead entrusted to a cloud service provider, striped across several data centres around Europe, it’s unlikely that any user will even notice if an O365 or G-suite server dies. These are services designed for business (who pay a hefty whack for them) that require and demand high availability, from which education benefits for free, or at a massively reduced cost.
- Risk reduction: linked to Information Security, but sufficiently important that it merits separate discussion. The extent to which schools now rely on IT to operate smoothly and safely is seldom more clearly seen than when they experience a total outage. Most often these days this is because of a malware infection brought in by email or memory stick. Before much can be done about it, the infection spreads from networked system to networked system, encrypting data along the way and demanding a ransom to unlock it. Just like that, the school is back in 1982, but with none of 1982’s well-evolved paper-based systems to fall back on. Schools with functioning back ups can recover, in time (often several days). Those who don’t have this (or who get their backups encrypted too) face weeks of rebuilding – imagine having to start your MIS from scratch… Cloud based systems are not immune to this kind of attack, but they are both far better protected from/ monitored for this, and much more likely to be isolated from each other. Once a school’s systems and data are in the cloud, ransomware pretty much loses its ability to hurt them and the business of learning can continue without interruption.
- Mobility of access: this is something that, once granted to teachers, is soon seen as indispensable. Don’t believe me? Try and take it away and see what happens. Clearly this needs to be achieved in the context of a sensible GDPR-compliant BYOD policy, but once staff can get to all their stuff (files, MIS, other software) through the browser of their home PC or on their phone, they gain the power to decide how to distribute their workload. This kind of mobility has been partially possible with on-premises set ups for years (RDP, VPNs) but has been sufficiently rubbish and restrictive to put off all but the most persistent. Within school, the ability to access everything on the move and on non-traditional devices like iPads is equally valuable and time-saving. Many is the time I’ve felt like weeping watching minutes of a lesson tick by while the teacher’s PC wheezes to life and contemplates allowing them to log in. In contrast, a tablet wirelessly linked to the screen with access to cloud storage and services is instantly on and ready to go. This benefit is better characterised as ‘teacher confidence in technology’ than straight ‘mobility’ – and teachers who trust the IT make use of it.
- It’s cheaper
- Desktop app licences: you may not realise this, but the privilege of having the full version of Word etc installed on your PC/ laptop costs the school money. If rumour is to be believed, now that the Memorandum of Understanding between the DfE and Microsoft is expiring and won’t be renewed, that cost is due to rise quite steeply in the next couple of years. You can avoid this (and spend the money on something more impactful) by using the browser-based versions of the same software. I should point out that G-suite equivalents (Docs, etc) have always been free in the browser. This saving extends to all software that a school is paying for – there is probably a free equivalent in the browser that is good enough for most users, such as Pixlr (free) instead of Photoshop (the extreme opposite of free). Even a paid online version is preferable to an on-prem one, as the next paragraph explains.
- New server costs: Servers are complex, advanced pieces of technology and they therefore cost a lot of money. Thus it is never welcome news to a school Business Manager that the one on which the MIS sits has had its life extended beyond all reasonable expectation and is about to fall over for the last time and refuse to get up again. If that MIS (or whatever service you currently host yourself) is in the cloud, the cost to the school is flatter (annual rental, not a spike of replacement every 5 years) and the server will remain high performing (you’re paying for the service, not the hardware, and the provider will move the service onto new tin without you necessarily noticing). This is generally cheaper as you pay for what you use, with unused capacity sold to other customers. In the on-premise model, you pay for 100% of your server even though at night/ in holidays it is likely to be doing very little (unless some enterprising employee has got a Bitcoin mining operation running under the radar…) Once you start to consider using free browser based tools in replacement for on-premises software (see above), you lose the associated server cost entirely.
- New storage costs: Buying a SAN is one of the most eye-watering experiences of your professional life. SANs are the building blocks of schools’ data storage and make server replacement costs seem reasonable by comparison. Most schools have this set up, and most Network Managers will be conscious that theirs hasn’t got much life left in it, probably because they haven’t dared ask for the £10s of thousands needed since that memo from the Business Manager in 2013. The argument for on-prem storage is now moot as, assuming a stable and adequate broadband connection, all of that expensive storage (and associated backup) can be offloaded onto Microsoft or Google, for free – OneDrive/ SharePoint and Google Drive will provide all the storage a school needs for personal and shared files, with the associated collaboration and mobility benefits already mentioned. However, I think this is the part of moving to the cloud that worries schools the most – the perception of ‘owning’ file storage and thus being able to control it and the change management needed to transition teachers and support staff to a new paradigm of document access being frequent concerns. The first is a mirage, the second is worth the effort for the cost savings.
- Server room costs: this is a little-considered point, as these costs aren’t usually separable from general estates costs, but it takes quite a lot of energy to keep a server room functioning well. Not only is there the electricity required for the servers (always on, whirring away serving files and processing requests) but the air conditioning needed to avoid overheating is significant too. AC needs servicing, and replacing after a few years as well. This saving is harder to quantify than licensing and hardware refresh, but it definitely there for the taking once the shift to the cloud has taken place.
- Technical staff: finally, and most controversially, it’s becoming more and more evident that schools which have moved to a Software as a Service/ Cloud model require fewer IT professionals than those with their own hardware on-site. This won’t be palatable to many reading this, but it makes sense for schools to pursue the leanest staff structures which still deliver high quality support, so that money is released for more direct learning and teaching activities. Most of the time gained back by ‘cloudified’ schools seems to be in the efficiency and skillset of the IT team – there are many fewer things that can go wrong, and virtually nothing at the hardware level. What this means is that one highly technical manager can oversee one or more schools’ set ups, configuring software and systems remotely, with a lower-skilled and inevitably cheaper workforce on site assisting users and carrying out the traditional break-fix role.
The title of this blog (and if you’ve read all this way, hats off to you!) hinted that cloud-based IT in schools leads to learning gains. Most of these are due to released capacity – financial savings, reduced workload, increased ability to collaborate. It is worth making one final point, however, and it is that the ‘augmentation’ of teaching and learning which edtech evangelists have been focused on for the past few decades is much more likely to take place in the environment created by moving to the cloud. The overall reliability and simplicity of services that ‘just work’ through a browser or an app encourage the use of technology in lessons. Layering ‘thin’ pupil devices (e.g. just a screen with a browser) onto this online ecosystem would be inexpensive and very controllable. Perhaps, on a platform powered from the cloud, we could finally see edtech fulfill some of its potential for learning? Stranger things have happened.