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The tech-tonic plates are shifting as schools move to the cloud

The tech-tonic plates of IT in education are shifting. Whether you can feel the tech-tonic plates moving or not, they are inexorably pushing schools into the cloud. Resistance is futile. 

You can either go with the flow, embrace it, and reap the benefits, or – as with real tectonic plates – the pressure will build up until there is a cataclysmic event which forces schools to move, whether they’re prepared or not. This does not mean, however, that schools should rush to join the cloud movement without properly considering how they’re going to implement this new way of working.  

Here are ten areas for schools to consider before making the move to the cloud, ensuring they realise the benefits while mitigating against the risks:  

1. Strategy
When we ask schools what their three-year ICT strategy is, very often they can’t answer – because they don’t have one. This means it’s all too easy for them to make poor ‘kneejerk’ buying decisions. Having a simple, easy to articulate strategy helps get staff, parents and governors on board, and enables school leaders to make the right investments for their school. The strategy doesn’t need to be difficult or time-consuming and it can easily be done yourself – there are a number of templates and tools out there; by doing this, you’ll be putting your school ahead of around 80 per cent of others. 

2. Connectivity  
Quite simply, you can’t take advantage of cloud solutions without internet connection. Over 40 per cent of schools say they don’t have ideal broadband. This is a known problem in rural areas where the big providers say it’s not economically viable to dig up the roads, but surprisingly, it’s an issue in cities too. Fortunately, new 4G solutions can be installed quickly and easily, delivering high speeds and at similar prices to fibre. Be sure to consider the capacity you’ll need in two or three years’ time, as this need is only going to grow. 

3. Infrastructure  
Nearly 50 per cent of schools say their WiFi is not ideal. Many schools make the mistake of upgrading their broadband, then wonder why their WiFi is still slow. It’s because technology is moving as fast as everything else and needs to be upgraded regularly, which can be a big expense for schools. Fortunately, there are new pay-as-you-go solutions that can give you constantly updated equipment and software on an operational expenditure model. This means you can have WiFi in every classroom and it need never be more than 60 days from perfect, without big up-front costs. 

4. Equipment  
Many schools can no longer afford to refresh their IT equipment every three years, as recommended. By moving to the cloud you can extend equipment’s lifespan and save that refresh money. Because the computer processing takes place in the cloud-hosted server, it doesn’t need the latest processors or large memories. Schools will still need the tools to access the internet but there are new Device-as-a-service offerings which provide devices complete with virtual desktop, applications, E-Safety and all appropriate licences for under £9 per month. 

5. Procurement and finance  
There are increasing concerns about financial abuses in schools. Not all schools have the in-house procurement skills to tender for technical solutions worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The DfE provides procurement training and advice to schools; they recommend that schools take advantage of recognised procurement frameworks that can provide advice and guidance, while saving schools time and money. 

6. Cyber security  
This is a huge topic covering identity management, E-Safety, web filtering, app blocking, mobile device management and safeguarding. Despite not thinking they’ll be targeted, many schools find themselves the victims of cybercrime. From professional hackers after money, to bright students trying to hack into school systems for fun, schools are seen by many as ‘soft targets’. To avoid cyber security attacks, schools should consider ‘penetration testing’ by an external company to find out where the real weaknesses in their network are. To minimise the risk of attack, ensure all your data is encrypted and secure. Do not neglect cyber security and think ‘It will be alright’, because it often won’t.  

7. Data management  
Keeping data in the cloud means you can put it in the hands of people who need it, anytime, anywhere and on any device. In real terms, this means information on behaviour, attendance and attainment can be immediately accessed by teachers or shared with parents. But data needs to be managed; if everything is dumped into a shared area it will quickly become unsearchable and irrelevant. You need to think about what software applications you need for each task, and ensure they work together.  

8. Fully managed service  
Many schools realise they don’t have the skills to manage all the components needed to successfully run their ICT, so they outsource to a fully managed service provider. Schools should look for a provider that will work in partnership with them, as undoubtedly the requirements will change over the contract period as the pace of change in technology itself increases. Contracts and costs are important – many schools, understandably, feel frustrated at having to pay for every minor point that is ‘out-of-scope’, but if you get it right, it will save money and provide a better service than doing it yourself. 

9. Content  
It’s all very well having superfast broadband, up-to-date WiFi and the latest equipment, but if your content and applications don’t match your teaching needs – if they’re slow, unengaging or a hindrance to teaching and learning – nobody will use them. Many schools allow teachers to select applications, resulting in proliferation and wasted licence fees. Look for solutions that offer multiple features, such as lesson plans, games, tests and digital media, as well as the ability to appeal to students of all abilities. 

This is often the most overlooked aspect of any IT implementation. Training shouldn’t be a one-time event; technology is changing so fast that there should be a continual programme of learning and development. And this is not just for teaching staff. There are plenty of anecdotes of technicians and IT managers blocking the move to cloud solutions because they fear for their jobs, so rather than overlooking this concern, address it by upskilling them in the new solutions so they become even more important than they are already. 

So there is a lot to consider, many benefits to be gained and challenges every step of the way. But as discussed at the start, resistance is futile. It is better to take control for yourself rather than have solutions that you don’t understand thrust upon you – so start planning and/or implementing your school’s cloud-based solutions today. 

Neil Watkins, managing director of Department for Education (DfE) compliant IT procurement framework, Think IT

Image Credit: James F Clay / Flickr

Neil Watkins is the Managing Director of Think-IT, DfE recognised IT procurement framework for schools and colleges. He has extensive experience in the education sector, having worked with schools, Academy chains, colleges, Local Authorities and the DfE.