Ask any K-12 administrator about their district’s challenges and you are likely to hear about school budgets. Like most industries, education had to find a way to do more with less. For that, education is embracing the cloud.
“As schools evaluate and plan new IT services, the average district is considering adding more than a third of its new services through partial or total delivery via the cloud,” says Tim Murphy, Cloud Client executive, Education, CDW.
That trend is not surprising. The cloud offers a number of benefits for K-12 schools. Deploying a cloud-based service is less expensive than installing physical hardware. Cloud-based software is not stored on in-house servers meaning it is not directly managed by the district’s IT staff. That burden falls on the service provider, freeing up school staff to focus on other matters. Purchasing a cloud solution may free up money in other ways as well.
“Cloud helps districts take a very expensive and cumbersome project, an infrastructure upgrade for example, and change it from a capital expenditure to an operating expenditure,” Murphy explains. This can result in a little wiggle room for other budgetary expenses.
Not to mention, cloud services offer scalability, which is key.
“One of the beauties of cloud solutions is that you can start very small with one service and it’s easy to scale up as you get more comfortable or your needs grow,” says Carolyn April, senior director, Industry Analysis, CompTIA. “It’s a lot less cumbersome than adding on-premise equipment and installing software.”
Think of it this way. If your teachers want to pilot a new learning software you can invest in a limited number of licenses, providing access to a small group of teachers. If the pilot is a great success, you need only to call your provider and give the go ahead to expand access. If the software doesn’t work out, that’s OK too. You can end the service and you aren’t stuck with a clunky piece of equipment you will never use again. This is true of any cloud service whether deployed in the classroom or district administrative offices.
“Once you purchase things on premise and decide you don’t need it, it’s kind of hard to get rid of at that point. You made this capital investment. With cloud you can invest in a service and if it’s not something that works out for you then you can turn it off,” April says.
On the classroom side, there are a lot of good cloud-based services that happen to be free. Things like the Google Apps for Education and Evernote are useful tools for collaboration, classroom management and note taking, but they don’t cost a thing.
How to Handle Security
While cloud adoption is certainly growing in K-12, some districts and parents have raised concerns.
“The number one thing we see is worries about security and the ownership of data,” April says.
Schools worry about what information cloud solution providers might be collecting and what the company plans to do with that information. The fact that most K-12 students are minors further complicates the issue. While this is certainly a reason for concern, there has been a lot of awareness recently around protecting student data. In fall 2014, major education technology providers like Microsoft, Edmodo, Amplify, DreamBox Learning, etc. pledged to safeguard the privacy of student information. That’s huge. It shows companies are taking the issue of student data very seriously and are willing to work with schools to alleviate concerns.
Murphy says districts can work with their providers to perform a risk assessment and identify what measures will be taken if data is breached.
“Ultimately, a lot of cloud implementations force stronger policies and procedures,” he says.
Other concerns that arise with cloud implementations include the cost associated with integration or migration, how to deal with outdated legacy systems and staff expertise in handling cloud solutions. Many of these issues can be resolved through a conversation with service providers. If security is still a top concern, the district can work with independent software vendors to implement additional security to supplement what major cloud service providers are already doing to ensure protection.
Although schools are sometimes hesitant to store important data off-site, April reminds districts that data stored on-premise isn’t 100 percent safe either.
“There’s so much human error that can go on within the four walls of an organization that can potentially put data at risk,” she says.
In other words, data is never completely safe whether stored in-house or in the cloud. A breach could happen anywhere, even within the walls of your own school. What you can do, is work with your cloud service provider to come up with a security plan you are comfortable with and that suits the particular needs of your district. Don’t be afraid to ask for customization.
What to Expect
Implementing cloud services doesn’t have to mean major transition for schools. They can start small with just a few services.
“It starts with appropriate planning, which is instrumental in a successful move to the cloud,” Murphy says.
That means making sure you have a solid understanding of all the costs associated with planning, integrating and migrating to cloud. According to Murphy, the average cloud implementation takes about nine weeks. For schools that are completely new to cloud services it can take up to 11 weeks. These timeframes run from the first day of planning to the final day of deployment. That relatively short time period means schools can get cloud solutions up and running without any major disruptions to the school year, which is always a plus. Cloud also brings a convenience factor to education.
“The ability to untether students from whatever equipment happens to be in the school itself brings amazing efficiency and productivity,” April says. “That’s a win-win not only for the students, but for the teachers.”