28 June 2016

Doing more with less in education: how cloud can be an enabler for budget constrained schools

By Chris Butler

Head of IT Delivery, the ATLP

Many schools are recognising that cloud can help them to achieve their targets and ‘do more with less’

Edutech

Education Technology (Edutech) is one of those buzzwords flying around both the technology and education sectors and many options have been looked at in terms of blue-sky thinking about how edutech will allow students to have more interactive experiences, personally customized learning, access to artificial intelligence teaching support – and the list goes on. However, when you get right down to it, the main concerns facing schools thinking about upgrading their technology are time and money. When applied in an effective manner, cloud technology has the potential to help educators access leading edge technology whilst saving costs compared to traditional purchase routes.

Providing flexible tools for teachers and students

Teachers and schools have a long history of dealing with cutting the cost of education. Efficiency is often the focus of every decision, which can lead to more creative problem solving when thinking about how to deliver effective teaching and meet targets. Advances in technology over recent years provide teachers with an incredibly flexible toolset in order to make sure their students receive the best education, in a way that fits the modern, digital-enabled world. Tech can allow teachers to monitor their students’ progress more actively and mark assignments more efficiently, providing more time to develop engaging lesson plans. Shared networks across multiple schools allow institutions to share resources, which can be a huge benefit to smaller schools that might not have access to the resources of their larger cohorts. The flexibility of education technology allows educators to choose the services that are right for them, with a range of cloud based and hosted services being offered depending the school’s size, scale or student needs.

Beyond the opportunity to enhance the technology available to teachers, there is the bottom line: the money saved. Seaton Burn College, Newcastle upon Thyne, recently switched to cloud services and report a 30% saving in IT costs, and 20 times more performance from their IT infrastructure (BDAILY, https://goo.gl/c7xYpK). In a world where IT costs are becoming an increasing part of a school’s budget, savings like these are pretty astronomical, and have the potential to be invested back into where the school needs it most.

Big names looking to the future

This pressure for efficiency hasn’t gone unnoticed by tech vendors. Some of the biggest names in technology are engaging with educational services in a big way. Both Dropbox (Cloud Pro, http://goo.gl/zKwiIQ) and Microsoft, with their Azure cloud service (Channel Biz, http://goo.gl/SNSyPj), offer discounts to education institutions for their services. For the most part, these services are identical to the services provided to professional institutions, just at a much reduced price, meaning that students can benefit from the resources that they will be expected to utilize later in life – getting them tech savvy early on and developing key digital skills that many employers are now saying is lacking in applicants.

Google and Microsoft have even set aside their rivalry to launch a programme to improve the integration of technology and computer learning in British schools (Business Insider, http://goo.gl/Ktv62a). Partnering with the UK government, the aim is to provide a range of services to education organisations.

Changing roles
There is a fear in some school IT departments that utilizing cloud services could make their roles obsolete, as their services will be outsourced. However, engaging with cloud services doesn’t mean relinquishing the school’s control. What it really means is that the role of IT technicians in schools will shift, from one of managing servers and hardware, to managing services and suppliers. The potential efficiency of the cloud infrastructure will allow IT technicians to spend less time on day to day maintenance, and more on making refinements and enhancements, and developing innovative new tech approaches to support the school’s objectives.

With the advent of cloud services, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) challenges arise as students want to bring their own devices into the classroom to access their learning resources. Currently only 29% of UK schools have some form of BYOD policy in place,  allowing students to provide their own digital devices in a bid to make cost savings (Financial Times, http://goo.gl/9dySSr). IT departments will play an essential role in integrating BYOD policies into schools, ensuring that the devices are not only able to utilize their chosen education applications, but also that they are secure and cannot negatively impact upon the school’s central network.

Finding the right place for tech
However – not all schools are ‘pro-tech’.  In fact, the London Acorn School has developed as a deliberate reaction to the advent of technology in schools, being “screen free” not only in the classroom, but also implementing a screen free policy for students at home. As you might have guessed, this is a very small, fee-paying school (Guardian, http://goo.gl/a7CX8u). For larger institutions which are constrained by government budgets, technology allows for a cost effective means of delivering quality education to a broad number of students.

Furthermore, a recent OECD study found that, thus far, tech hasn’t had the desired effect in classrooms (BBC, http://goo.gl/eys77p). In light of this, it might be easy just to write off technology in the classrooms. However, I believe this failing is due to a lack of effective integration. Teachers aren’t being properly trained in how to best use the tech, and not enough money is being invested into ensuring that it is uniformly and effectively placed in schools. The partnership between Microsoft, Google and the UK Government will hopefully yield effective results, and see a more successful implementation of tech across UK Education.

Effective learning

Technology in classrooms can be the solution to many a school’s woes, allowing for efficiency and meeting constrained budgets whilst achieving teachers’ and students’ needs. However the technology must be implemented and integrated appropriately, with the corresponding training for teachers provided, in order to see effective results. Although the initial investment might seem high, the long term benefits will allow schools to do much more with their available resources.

Image attribution

Image provided courtesy of Lucélia Ribeiro