As software giants like Microsoft and Google compete to offer schools 'free' services, Gerald Haigh raises his head into the cloud
When a retired friend asks me what on earth I mean by “cloud computing” I no longer embark on a pretentious-sounding explanation. Instead I have the following conversation.
“OK then, where are your emails?”
“How do you mean?”
“You can find any of your emails when you need them can’t you? So where are they?”
“Well, in my computer aren’t they?”
“Don’t be daft. You can get your emails from my computer if you want. Are they all in my computer too?”
At this point, a little light bulb appears over my friend’s head.
“Right. I see. So where are they really?”
“They’re in a huge anonymous building in Dublin, or Chicago. Or even Basingstoke for all know.”
From that point on, it’s plain sailing really. Cloud computing loses its mystique, and we can talk about real possibilities and real implications for how we live, and what it all means – particularly for education.
One of the reasons why I fix on email as a way in to the explanation is that when I was engaged by Microsoft to write a White Paper on cloud computing (see below) I went through something of the same process as my retired friends. I thought I’d have to get my head around something abstruse and highly technical. “Crikey, Gerald. You’re out of your depth this time,” I told myself.
And then Microsoft developer Ben Nunney, described Microsoft’s “Live@edu” to me as “A baby step into the cloud” and suddenly all became clear. Hence the title of the paper, and its central theme which is, says the Introduction, “ …that for many, perhaps most, educational institutions it’s not so much a matter of “moving to the cloud” in general terms. It’s more likely to be a straightforward quest for a better and more cost-effective email system that will meet the expectations of today’s students.”
For a university or a school – or a group of schools – the move to a hosted or “cloud-based” email system is a decision that more or less makes itself. The White Paper quotes Chuck Austin of Kentucky University who says, in a Microsoft video, “There are very few times when you can simultaneously streamline output and lower costs, while also dramatically increasing capacity and adding new features.”
UK universities, too, are treading the same route. Existing mail systems can’t meet the needs and expectations of today’s students, and a hosted system is not only affordable but offers a much better service. James Mason, head of IT operations: at Chichester University, an early adopter of Live@edu for staff and students, says in the White Paper, “We quickly realised that for what our students were demanding we couldn’t afford to buy and had to go for a hosted solution.”
And, of course, once the email’s up and running, users look around and find that once they’ve taken that step into the cloud with Live@edu, there’s a whole lot of other features they can use for storage, collaboration, communication and creativity, supplementing and enhancing the software with which they’re already familiar.
Who needs all their programs and data stored on their own servers?
Of course it's a trend that goes far wider than Microsoft. Visitors to BETT 2011 will see a whole raft of products and services that operate from the cloud. Everything from useful little Web 2.0 programs like Anithings to the bigger virtual learning environments and even MIS products (Management Information Systems). Who needs all their programs and data stored on their own servers?
There are, I’m sure, some important messages for schools here – about the role of ICT teams for example, who will become less involved in technical firefighting and more engaged with decisions about how services can be tailored to the needs of users. Whether that’s a threat or an opportunity depends a great deal on the flexibility and agility of the teams themselves and on the collective vision of senior leadership.
Then there are significant implications for future planning. Guy Shearer, principal of Lodge Park Technology College says in the Paper: “A roomful of PCs can already look old fashioned – and soon that could be true of a roomful of fixed laptops.”
My paper, at the end, says something about the implications of Guy’s words. Maybe I could have expanded on the theme a bit more, because there are some far-reaching ideas here. Already there are schools that have taken out computer suites, or server rooms, and turned the spaces to other uses. How easily could you do that? Or are you even now taking decisions that would make a change of use more difficult?
And what about replacement of hardware? It seems to me you can’t just keep on signing off orders for more of the same, without at least considering the effects of the cloud.
Then there’s the little matter of people and their roles. What qualities and skills should schools now look for when they recruit network staff and ICT specialists?
“Some leaders might find that sort of uncertainty to be daunting,” the paper says in the last paragraph. “Most, though, will see it is a time for boldness, creativity and the chance to improve the life chances of the young people in their care.“
Gerald Haigh is a freelance journalist and the author of Inspirational – and Cautionary – Tales for Would be School Leaders (Routledge) and Jobs and Interviews Pocketbook (Teachers' Pocketbooks) His regular Five Things To Think About columns can be seen on the National College's Future website.
You can follow Gerald Haigh on Twitter.