Steve Smith asks whether Bring Your Own Device and the Cloud can help schools through 'austerity'? 

iPod Touch in classThere has been much discussion about the potential benefits of cloud computing and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) in education. Together, can they offer a powerful and affordable way to continue to innovate at a time when schools are facing a technology revolution driven by the consumer market?

The cloud is a significant break with the traditional computing model – where most of the assets are owned, managed and updated by the school. But while the cloud is certainly attractive, it isn’t universally accepted. Or perhaps, more accurately, not all schools are ready for it yet.  

In the education sector, the biggest concerns are often around security, integration and the legal and compliance implications of storing as well as processing data off-site. There are some other issues worth considering too. Here we look at the key questions schools have about the cloud.

Will there be savings?

The corporate world has high expectations here. According to the results of a survey published by Computer Weekly in the USA, decision makers expect to save around 18 per cent of their ICT budget and UK firms 12 per cent by using cloud-based services. In reality, the savings depend on the degree of cloud usage.

In an education setting, before any decisions are made to enter the cloud, it is wise to calculate the current cost of equipment, maintenance, refresh, licensing, management and training as well as staffing costs. Schools can then compare this with the annual charge for a cloud service.  

In the current economic climate, many schools need predictability in their costs so ‘utility’ type pay-as-you-use pricing may not work for education customers. It is also important for schools to pay only for the capacity they need and avoid spending out on over-specified solutions, so ask for a pay-as-you-grow rather than pay-as-you-go option.

Is it secure?

Ensuring the security of pupil records, exam data, special educational needs (SEN) information and other data schools regularly record is paramount. Schools should look for cloud-based services hosted in the EU (due to data protection legislation compliance), the USA or Canada, where there is better protection through what are known as ‘safe-harbour’ agreements.

As a rule though, cloud service providers generally take security very seriously. Their solutions are likely to be more secure than making data stored on school servers available to users through badly implemented remote access solutions.

What is the difference between the private and public cloud?

Private and public clouds can be thought of as different communities. The public cloud is like a housing estate where everyone uses the same road to get to their house. Anyone can travel down it and security is provided at each front door.  

A private cloud is more like a gated community. Public roads only go to the gate (firewall), and only people with the appropriate permission can gain entry. The private cloud may include a county, regional, national or international datacentre from which a school receives services such as a hosted learning platform.  

Private cloud service providers will usually offer a number of ‘tiers’ of Service Level Agreements (SLAs) in respect of security, backup and data recovery. They will also commit to Quality of Service levels and provide guarantees in respect of availability and reliability.

The public cloud is different. It is difficult to imagine a public cloud provider committing to an SLA for a free of charge service. That said, many of these are high profile and have proved incredibly reliable and secure in the past.

A school needs to satisfy itself that both its own and the external service provider are sharing the responsibility for security, so check if the cloud service providers are using data and network encryption and try to understand what access controls are in place. As with most things though, the higher the requirements the higher the cost.

Is my broadband up to it?

Placing key data in the cloud means you have to be able to rely on your connection – and understand it, as this will help you make sound decisions regarding what services would be suitable in the cloud. For example, is the connection asynchronous or synchronous (is data transferred at different speeds up/down-stream – asynchronous, or at the same speed - synchronous).

Most regional broadband consortia connections are synchronous but commercial offerings are often asynchronous – with up-stream speeds being roughly a quarter of the downstream. In the case of cloud computing, both are important and will have an impact on access, particularly if video is heavily used.  

Based on a realistic assessment of your broadband service, decide what can be placed in the cloud and what should be stored locally. The access control, registration and cashless catering systems may all need a local element, even if they are replicated in the cloud for longer term data storage purposes. Not being able to get through the doors, register or feed the students would be disastrous.  

How flexible is it?

Another concern schools have is loss of control. Will there be sufficient flexibility in the offerings, and how will they evolve to meet the needs of schools whose requirements change rapidly? It’s probably fair to say that the pace at which cloud services evolve and flex is remarkable. Most offer the ability to use the latest applications almost instantly – with no need to upgrade. This can be a double-edged sword though. If new versions of applications are introduced to cloud services you may need to make sure your users are trained so they can adapt without disruption.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

Tougher financial times means there is a demand for new ways to improve computer to student ratios to continue the drive towards one-to-one computing and ensure pupils can get ‘on-demand’ access to engaging educational content.  

BYOD allows schools to use their resources in a more targeted way, providing access to resources via students’ own devices and reserving IT spend for specialist technologies in areas like music, CAD/CAM, data capture, robotics and PE or to close the digital divide.  

One-to-one access in schools may only ever be affordable if students (and staff) bring in their personally-owned devices, such as tablets and smartphones, and use these to access school network resources as if they were devices under school ownership and control. But one barrier to widespread adoption to BYOD has been concerns over network security.

Moreover, with the ever-changing world of computing, schools need a solution capable of unifying access to learning resources and applications irrespective of whether they reside in the public or private cloud, on the school’s or the users’ BYO devices. This new way of looking at computing has been called ‘the unified cloud’. It isn’t just anytime, anywhere – it is anytime, anywhere, any device and any source.

There are many technologies designed to help technical support staff implement BYOD and manage and monitor devices that the organisation doesn’t own, but as a collective, their cost varies from a few pounds per user per year to many hundreds. However, some of the capabilities they provide may be available in products already owned – though not aware of – by schools. When implementing BYOD there are many aspects to consider – here are a few of the most important.

  1. The wireless network – is it up to the job?
  2. Will it be a mixed environment (with PC, Apple and Android working alongside each other) or not? Is it absolutely any device, or do you need to impose some limitations/constraints?
  3. 'On-boarding’ devices – how will you manage bringing new devices on to the network for the first time?
  4. How will you manage devices on/off network?
  5. e-safeguarding – will there be internet and e-mail filtering, how will you manage virus protection?
  6. How will the devices be procured, and what sort of physical security/insurance etc. can be offered?
  7. How will you manage the different audio-visual display from BYO devices for school resources?
  8. How will you manage printing from BYO devices and their interaction with print management software?
  9. How will you manage the interaction of BYO devices with classroom management software?
  10. How will you manage the interaction with any Portal/VLE/MIS etc?

Rest assured, all these issues can be addressed with careful planning and BYOD has become much easier without the need for complex configuration, hundreds of passwords, virtualised machines or thin client computing.  

Solutions now exist which use the internet to provide secure, browser-based access to files, applications and reports from any device. All this is achieved through a single HTML5 user interface so users get a consistent experience on smartphones, tablets, laptops and fixed PCs. And it could be that this new development in the world of BYOD is what finally makes it a reality in schools.

The cloud is here to stay. Its intelligent application in schools will reduce cost and support both the sustainability and green agendas and will solve some of the challenges schools face in providing remote access to critical services. BYOD is still in its infancy in schools, but new developments are making sure that it will become a major factor for providing access to technology in education. Both developments will ensure that a school’s IT budget can be stretched further than we would have thought possible a few years ago.

Steve Smith is director of learning at Capita IT Services which offers services and advice to schools considering cloud and BYOD implementations.

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