One hundred years ago, it was common for enterprises of all kinds to operate their own power generators and produce their own electricity. Today these investments are unnecessary—enterprises simply purchase their power from utility providers and draw it from the grid.
So it goes with cloud computing. We are in the midst of a far-reaching shift that will see software, hardware and service capabilities move to a new grid: the Internet. K-12 education leaders, particularly in IT, are now considering the potential of this coming shift. It seemingly represents an opportunity to redirect talent, money and other resources away from boxes in the backroom and focus it more clearly on educational performance.
In this new era, “cloud providers are the ones who are responsible for all maintenance, infrastructure, and repair,” write Dian Schaffhauser and Charlene O’Hanlon in THE Journal. ”They are responsible for meeting surges in demand, and ensuring that service is reliable.”
Given the growing expectations and tightening budgets facing educational leaders, this shift could not have come at a more important time. Indeed, the proliferation of new mobile devices—providing windows into new applications and access to new capabilities—makes it particularly important for schools and districts to understand and respond to this trend.
The Many Ways of SaaS
One of the most immediate opportunities has been dubbed Software as a Service (SaaS). Under this approach, applications are hosted at a remote location and typically can be purchased for a subscription fee. There’s no need to purchase, install or maintain software. Users simply log on to attain access. As an example, to meet demand for cloud-based productivity applications, Google now provides Google Apps for Education and Microsoft provides Live@edu.
The Kentucky Department of Education adopted Microsoft’s offering to support email across the state. “We are providing Live@edu for 700,000 people, and we have full administrative control just as we do with an on-premise solution,” says Chuck Austin, product manager for knowledge, information and data services.
With the success of such moves, schools and districts are now adopting such solutions to support everything from calendaring to online documentation to tools for creating websites. Some are even beginning to look at SaaS as a solution for other critical applications such as learning management systems and administrative support systems.
Cloud Infrastructure, or IaaS
Yet another aspect of cloud computing that is delivering gains is known as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). In this case, cloud providers enable schools to essentially outsource their data centers.
With this approach, you can rely on third-party providers to own and operate servers, storage and networking hardware, freeing you of the responsibility of housing, managing and maintaining it. Plus you typically only pay for what you use. Lenovo Cloud is one such service changing the way learning institutions are managing their data.
Such trends give schools far more operational flexibility and even opportunities to grow. The Minnesota Online High School (MNOHS), for instance, has embraced the trend in order to provide its students with anywhere, anytime learning capabilities. “We’re completely, 100 percent mobile,” says Sarah Carsello, who runs IT operations for the 300-student school. “You can set up camp in an airport. If you wanted to go on the road and stop off at a rest area—anywhere there’s Internet—you can work.”
Obviously, the coming of cloud computing can represent big change and be perceived as a big risk by many within an educational setting. Concerns about security, migration costs, and vendor lock-in are real and deserve full attention when exploring potential moves. We’ll be addressing these issues in future posts.
The best advice seems to be to move incrementally in this direction. Start with applications that are easier to migrate and less vulnerable to disruption (such as email) or even by adopting new applications (such as video collaboration) that don’t presently exist. Just recognize that cloud computing is a significant trend and eventually may be as common as pulling electricity off the grid.
The growing adoption of mobile technology in K-12 education is producing tangible results, enabling students to move beyond the classroom walls and the regular school day to learn anytime and anywhere. Here are some success stories reflecting improved learning outcomes through the use of laptops, tablets and other mobile technologies.