Cloud services like Google Apps provide your school with new ways to teach and cost savings, but these same services raise issues with data protection, e-Safety, and may have unexpected costs. We take a look at what you should be considering when using cloud services in your school.
I first started looking seriously at cloud services two years ago when my ICT Curriculum Coordinator wanted to create blogs with his students. We needed a way for students to have their account which would allow us to monitor the content they were putting online. I looked at Wordpress and a few of the other usual candidates, but it was difficult to justify the man-power required for the relatively limited use. Eventually we settled on using Google Apps accounts to create Blogger accounts for our students.
Our initial experiment with Blogger was limited to a small group of 30 students, but shortly after we started exploring other Google apps. At the time there was no school-wide plan to roll out Google Apps, but as we started to see the positive effect on the test group we took the decision to expand the trial, eventually resulting in a whole school roll out.
Two years on and all of our students and teachers now have Google Apps accounts. Use of Google Drive, Sites, Blogger, and Calendar has steadily grown across all subjects and year groups with just a little support and encouragement from the IT team. The project has been so successful that we’re even using Google Drive and Google Sites to improve communication between school Governors.
Our move to using Google Apps hasn’t been simple. Google Apps is really easy to set up but there are a lot of areas that need careful consideration before using any cloud service in your school:
- Data protection and security.
- Updating school ICT policies and making sure you are meeting those set up by your local government.
- Staff and student training.
- Making sure your IT team have the skills to manage your cloud.
- Making sure staff and students understand where data is being stored.
Over the next few months I’m going to document the process we went through from initial planning and implementing Chromebooks, to migrating our users to Gmail. But first here are some of the basic questions we had to answer.
Why move to the cloud?
Why use a cloud service? We’ve got a perfectly good on-site email server, all our data is safely tucked away in our server room, and we never have to worry about loosing access if the Internet goes offline, so why use the cloud?
First we need to decide what we mean when we talk about cloud services. You may have different considerations, but for most schools these are the three areas that they are most concerned with:
- File storage
- Document sharing and collaboration
For many Network Administrators moving mission critical services outside of the school where you have less control, limited access to data, and arguably fewer end-user features is madness. At least, that was my thinking, before I began to learn more about teachers, students, and most importantly but less obviously, the consumer market.
From users to consumers
Students and teachers are no longer users, they are educated consumers. They are comfortable with technology, they know how they want devices to work for them and, most dangerous of all, they have…expectations. They expect their email to be as simple as the email client they use on their smartphone or tablet, their word processor needs to be as comfortable for them as writing a text message, and any new service has to provide them the advantages they’re used to at home.
There’s an argument that is often put forward against Google Apps: when students go out into the world of work the companies they work for aren’t going to be using Google Apps’s cut down spreadsheets, and a primary coloured email system. They’re going to be using “real” applications like Microsoft Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint, and employers want students to have these skills in place.
To start with I’m not sure this is accurate. Many businesses, both large and small, are switching to exactly the same cloud services that we’re pushing in education. The version of Google Apps and Office 365 you get as a school is the same version that the one-man start-up down the street is using, and the same version that large multi-national companies are using.
Google Apps does 80% of everything a student and teacher will ever need to ask of their office software. It does it simply, easily, supports all popular operating systems and, most importantly, is free for students. Implementing cloud services for your students is giving them an entire office suite for free without the need to worry about whether their PC will run it, whether it will support their documents, and does it in a way they “get”. The remaining 20% of tasks can still be carried out on Microsoft Office, but this now becomes a niche piece of software, the intricacies of which are carried out in specific classes. Students need a tool which just works and one which teachers don’t have to teach.
But for me the most urgent reason to put in place a school supported cloud service is that your teachers and students are already using them. They’re already storing school documents online in Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive, and more. We found that despite school policy mandating otherwise, many teachers were using services like Google Drive and Dropbox to transfer documents to and from school. We had two options. We could either block all file storage services, and discipline staff for breaking school policy, or we could provide a managed alternative. We chose the latter and had to make our option the path of least resistance.
I can’t compete with Google’s Engineers
As great as my team of technicians are we simply cannot compete with Google’s entire engineering department. No matter how rigorous I am I can’t provide up time to match Google, I can’t roll out innovative new services at the speed of Google, and I can’t work 24/7 like Google.
As a Network Manager, I don’t relish looking after an Exchange box. The question really is, “Can I and my team manage, backup, and provide greater up time than one of the worlds largest technology companies?” The answer has to be no.
I see migrating my Exchange server to GMail as liberating. It gives me additional precious time that I would previously be managing mailboxes and checking backups, to be doing far more creative things that can really improve the learning experience for students. In all of this that is what really matters.
Are cloud services secure enough for my data?
The question we have to ask is not whether cloud storage is safe, it’s how safe is it compared to local storage? Your teachers and students probably have remote access to their user areas in some form. Is this really any more secure than Google Drive, SkyDrive, or Dropbox?
The old adage goes, the only completely secure computer is one without a network cable, buried in a concrete block, and turned off. Any storage is only as secure of the user’s password. Again, I have to ask myself. Can I secure my file server better than Google can secure theirs? I’d like to think I could, but it’s probably not true.
Who owns my data?
For me this is the important part of the cloud services story. Who really owns my work when I save it to Google Drive or send out an email attachment containing private information. How easily can I access the work of my users, and is it possible that work could be lost.
To incorporate Google Apps we’ve had to update our ICT Acceptable Use Policy to cover cloud services. Provide training for staff to ensure they are not breaking data protection laws. We’ve also struggled with the idea that we can’t carryout backups or maintain an onsite copy of our data. These are areas which I will look at in more detail later.
The Cloud is inevitable
Ultimately the benefits of cloud services greatly outweigh any perceived negatives. That’s not to say there aren’t services that we might want to keep on site, or data we choose to store locally for data protection reasons, but in general the cloud is here to stay.
In the near future we can be pretty sure of a few things:
- Most software will run in a browser independent of the underlying operating system.
- Most services will be hosted outside of the school network. This includes desktop software such as office as well as management for network devices like switches and wireless access points.
- We’ll change our cloud services much more frequently than we currently change locally installed software applications.
- Schools will have much more flexibility in how we use technology in the classroom.
Over the next few months I’ll be documenting our transition to using Google Apps and how to migrate your on-premise Exchange server to GMail.
Are you using Google Apps, Office 365, or another cloud provider? How are you getting on?