Ah, the cloud: a wonderful metaphor dreamed up by the marketing departments of Big Tech companies to describe how your data doesn’t have to live on your own physical computer or server but can live inside their data centres instead. We, the user (whether that’s a big organisation or just an individual consumer), no longer has to worry about how that all that computery stuff actually works: instead it can be abstracted away into a nice little diagram of a cloud.
And it’s not a bad idea! Steve Jobs introduced iCloud back in 2011, which was mainly just a marketing concept to bring together an IMAP email service, online backups for your iPhone, some photo storage, file storage and a few other bits and bobs. As internet connections have increased in speed an ubiquity, it has made more and more sense to have certain online services hosted somewhere ‘out there’, rather than inside a school’s network. Many schools might still run a Windows file server, but I doubt there are many that still run their own mail server – this job has been farmed out to ‘the cloud’.
So what are the benefits of moving to the cloud, particularly in the current situation we find ourselves in?
- Someone else runs the server for you. Particularly in a small school, this is no joke! Running servers efficiently and effectively isn’t easy and requires a certain level of technical expertise.
- It’s cheaper. Because of economies of scale, it usually works out cheaper to buy a slice of someone else’s cloud computing power rather than do things for yourself, particularly if you factor in the true cost of running your own server.
- It allows for access outside of your network. It’s possible to set up VPN connections to on-premises servers, but it’s much easier if you’re using a ‘cloud’ service that is designed to be accessed anywhere.
- It tends to work better with modern computing devices. If you’re running everything on Windows PCs, then your legacy server setup is fine. But if everyone’s using iPads, then you need services that play nicely with modern apps, file systems and workflows.
So, what might networked services in a school might need to end up in the cloud?
- Email. This is a quick win, as more than likely you’re already getting someone else to do this for you! We make use of London Grid for Learning‘s Staff Mail, which has a web interface as well as offering Exchange access on a Windows PC, a Mac and iPad/iPhone. But Office 365 or G-Suite for Education are good options too!
- Calendar. Our Exchange email can do calendars for each individual, but we use Google’s calendar for the whole school calendar. Only certain individuals can add new events, but it means that everyone can see what’s going on across the school.
- User Authentication. This needs some careful thought – how are your staff (and students) going to log into the cloud services? As the number of online services increases, so can the number of different usernames and passwords. This is both annoying for staff as it’s one more password to remember and can also become a real security risk as staff may reuse passwords etc. We use LGfL’s Unified Sign On (USO) as the core identify and then are able to sync this up with G-Suite, our on-premises Active Directory as well as Office 365.
- File Storage. We use Google Drive, as schools get unlimited storage. It also has quite a few ‘hooks’ that allow us to weave it into existing workflows: there is an app for iPad, there is the Drive interface on the web (that Google would much rather you used), and you can also use Google Drive File Stream on the Mac (which adds Shared Drives in a comparable way to a normal network drive). Because the files are all stored in the ‘cloud’, they can easily be accessed when working from home.
- Photo Storage. iPads make for handy cameras, generating gigabytes of photos and videos over time. Thankfully, Apple offers 200GB of free storage for schools with Managed Apple IDs. This means that photos can be backed up to the cloud from iPad, along with device backups and iCloud document storage.
- Management Information Systems. In the UK, Capita SIMS is the market leader for managing student data, whether that is home contact details or attendance registers. Capita do offer a ‘hosted’ version, which allows you to run the software on their cloud servers instead of on an on-premises server, but it still is very much a Windows PC-only piece of software. Nearly 5 years ago, we moved to a web-based MIS called Pupil Asset that provides much of the same functionally but inside of a web browser that can be viewed on any device. It’s not all been plain sailing, but we’re now in a much more agile position when it comes to accessing student data remotely.
Moving to the cloud does mean a change in workflows and you have to make sure staff are on board. It does need to be carefully planned and communicated, with potential issues identified and addressed quickly. If you are able to articulate the ‘why’ for a switch to ‘cloud’ computing, plus do all you can to make it as easy as possible for people, it can be a real success and make a big difference.