Cloud Computing in Education


In recent years, there has been a massive move towards cloud computing for the organisation and operation of the world’s everyday computing needs.  Cloud computing can be thought of as a cluster of distributed computers that provide on-demand resources and services over a networked medium (usually the internet).  This means that data, software and other resources are stored remotely, rather than in-house, meaning that they can be accessed whenever and wherever they are needed.

Its growth is attributable to its clear benefits; it has proved to be efficient, scalable, cheap, up-to-date, and environmentally advantageous.  However, many day-to-day consumers of information technology (IT) do not understand how these benefits can be utilised.  This, accompanied by a security concern over data control and a cautious approach to change, has hindered the transition to cloud for many education institutions.

The IT market is always finding ways to increase capacity and add capabilities without investing in new infrastructure. Though cloud computing is still in its infancy, it has begun to open up a whole array of solutions to take computing to another level.  For example, schools can now purchase IT infrastructure, platforms, and software services as fully outsourced resources, which are then provided remotely, reducing the need for schools to build expensive new infrastructure and maintain their own IT support function.

Pre-Cloud School Environment

Stereotypically, a school has teaching staff, students, finance staff, management, office staff, catering staff and IT services.  Demand for IT services in this environment is directed to the IT services department whose job is to:

  • Provide and maintain software e.g. email accounts, software applications, security solutions, and hardware e.g. personal computers, for all staff and students
  • Provide and maintain specialised software for finance and office staff to deal with their daily tasks e.g. accountancy services.

This is visualised in Figure 1, which shows how the organisation of IT services in a pre-cloud school environment is very much internal and dependent on the school’s in-house IT team.

Figure 1: Pre Cloud School Environment

Cloud School Environment

Figure 2 shows how the many aspects of a school’s IT services can be migrated to the cloud, reducing the need for system management, database, and network experts.

  • Students, teaching staff, and management can use the infrastructure and software clouds which are accessible online.
  • Any additional requirements for disk space or hardware can be delivered immediately online by the infrastructure cloud provider to meet demand.
  • Office, finance, and catering staff will be able to access on-demand specialised software over the internet which is supplied and maintained by the software cloud provider.

Figure 2: School Cloud Environment

Cloud Benefits

Efficient, cheap, and convenient

Institutions in the education sector are beginning to see the potential of cloud computing, realising the benefits of efficiency, cost, and convenience.  Schools now have to face the reality of budget cuts and the pressure to deliver more with shrinking budgets, but cloud computing reduces the costs associated with installing, maintaining and repairing IT locally, which is a real saving for schools.  In turn, any additional need for infrastructure or software service can easily be provided remotely by the service provider, which takes care of the natural evolution of a school’s needs.

Schools with outdated computers are able to transform them into fully functional virtual machines using cloud computing as a platform.  This is because the computing processing takes place at the server, rather than on the hard drive of the local computer.  The outdated computer receives processing power and software directly from the server.  The service provider is then able to update and improve the software continuously, reducing the high rate of obsolescence in the IT industry, and thus long-term costs, significantly.

Technological Leapfrog

Economically underdeveloped nations have also embraced cloud computing to become more competitive in the international marketplace.  Google, for example, has experienced great success by introducing its cloud services such as Gmail, Google Docs and GoogleCalendar, to students in higher education institutions in East Africa.  Schools are also embracing services such as Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform because they enable teachers to share academic resources and data electronically without schools having to endure the cost of building IT infrastructure, purchasing software, and maintaining them.  This phenomenon of the technological leapfrog is testament to the convenience and low cost offered by cloud computing.

Environmentally Friendly

Cloud computing has a small carbon footprint when compared to traditional IT services as a consequence of its improved efficiency and the reduction in the need for onsite IT support.  According to research by Accenture, if all US companies with 100 to 10,000 employees made the change from on-premise email servers to the corresponding cloud solution, the carbon emission reduction would be equivalent to removing approximately 100,000 cars from the road.

Cloud Concerns

One problem with cloud computing services is that the technology is often far more advanced than the law that governs it.  As a result, there are uncertainties about whether or not the user owns the data, if a host can deny a user access to their own data, and how the host should protect the user’s data.  It is the service provider that is responsible for the protection of data; customers should always carefully read privacy policies and terms of service offered by the provider.

Conclusion

Though cloud computing is still in its early stages, it has proved to be extremely effective and unquestionably beneficial within the education sector. Using cloud as a service, schools can keep IT support and maintenance costs low, remain up to date with technological advances, and benefit from the flexibility of easy expansion of services to meet their changing needs.  With more and more opportunities emerging within the market, there is no better time for the education sector to consider moving to cloud computing solutions to manage its finances, the administration of student data, and day-to-day curriculum activities.

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