The term ‘cloud’ has become something of a buzz word in the world of educational technology.  But what does ‘cloud’ actually mean?  And how can it help to improve outcomes?

What is cloud?

In simple terms, it is ICT delivered to a user over the internet, rather than from servers and other ICT systems in the same ‘place’ as the user.  The aims of cloud ICT include reducing costs and removing the complexities of traditional ICT systems that often distract users and organisations from their ‘core business’.

Why do they call it ‘cloud’?

It actually comes from the use of the image of a cloud in technical diagrams to represent complex, or indeed unknown, network or ICT system components. You’ll hear terms like ‘software-as-a-service’ (SaaS), ‘infrastructure-as-a-service’ (IaaS) and ‘platform-as-a-service’ (PaaS) in discussions around cloud. The common feature of these, of course, is ‘as-a-service’, which relates to the manner in which they’re provided: the providers take on the design and construction of the solutions, and deploy them to users ‘on-demand’.

What are the benefits of cloud?

Improved Flexibility

The ‘on-demand’ nature of cloud services allow for changes to services – such as increases (or decreases) in capacity or performance – to be completed quickly and easily, without the complex planning often needed with traditional ICT systems.

Better Value for Money

Only pay for the services that are required, and for the technology required to provide them. What’s more, many cloud ICT services are provided on a ‘subscription’ basis with no (or very little) capital expenditure.

Complete Consistency

Because cloud services are managed by the provider, and located in data-centres , a user will always be accessing the same version of the application or data, regardless of the version on their device.

Higher Availability

Many cloud services are designed to be highly reliable, with just a few hours of planned downtime per year , and with resilient hardware configurations meaning individual component failures in the system don’t lead to any loss of service (or performance) to users.

Use it Anywhere and on Any Device

Most cloud services are delivered to the user through a web browser or other web-accessible platform, so all a user needs in order to use it is an internet connection.

What about the risks?

Culture Shock

It’s a completely different way of planning, consuming, paying for and changing your ICT solution. To get the most from it you might need to be ready to adapt the way you approach it, and users might need support to adapt working practices.

Service Levels

Given it’s delivered ‘as-a-service’, you need to be sure the level of service you’ll get is right. Check the service levels very carefuuly to ensure that they will meet your needs. 

Privacy and Security

Cloud services are based on the principles of ‘shared services’. The benefits include economies of scale and professional management, but the risks might be related to the privacy you require for your data, and the security measures in place to prevent unauthorized access to it.

Exit Arrangements

In many cases it’s fairly easy to adopt cloud ; after all, it’s been designed to make life easier. However, it can be comparatively difficult to change, either to another cloud  service provider, or potentially back to an on-premise ICT system if the cloud services turn out not to be right for you.

Acute Dependencies

Although the service itself is likely to be more reliable, it’s common for particular dependencies – including the internet connection and network infrastructure – to become more important than ever.

What problems can cloud help with?

“ICT to School Alignment”

It’s not uncommon for ICT to play a significant role in planning, which is usually beneficial. It can, however, become more entrenched than that: ICT can end up driving the strategy, which usually isn’t beneficial. A change to cloud services can help to realign the relationship between the school’s objectives and requirements, and the ICT solutions required to meet them.

Complex Financial Planning

Moving away from capital-heavy charges for ICT solutions to ‘as-a-service’ budgeting resolves the variable nature of planning traditional ICT expenditure. Predicable charges over a longer period of time are much easier to plan for, and it becomes possible to target investment where it’s needed to improve school outcomes, rather than just to keep systems operating.

High ICT Costs

There are lots of ways in which cloud services can help to reduce ICT costs: from extending the life of computer hardware (because more of the work is done by the service, devices don’t need to be as powerful), to the scale economies of large providers (making the technology work harder) and the ability to consume complex solutions without having to build them first.

Device Dependency

Not only can existing devices be kept in service for longer, but ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) becomes a reality: users (potentially learners as well as staff) can bring their own devices to school and not only get internet access, but get access to everything they could do on a school computer: applications, data, printers…everything.