Office in the Cloud – what it means for schools

Cloud based computing is generating a lot of questions in Schooling Technology circles, but what does it really mean? How can it be exploited? What are the potential benefits?

The first thing we need is a definition of Cloud. Cloud based computing is generally thought centrally hosted services that can scale according to demand, with the advantage of significantly reducing costs. This differs from hosted services in as much as its elastic.. ie service levels can grow or shrink in response to varying demand levels.

But what of significantly reducing costs? In any one country there are usually data centres at Ministry, State and Local Education Authority levels. Each data centre will handle workloads that are common to other data centres – eg Student information (SIS) and management information (MIS). In some cases these data centres are used to distribute content, and manage learning. All this is underpinned by core infrastructure, security, identity, system management etc…

In other words, Ministry, state and local authority education departments solve very similar information management and technology problems in isolation, which is expensive and wasteful. It’s quite possible to aggregate the kinds of functions needed at various organisational levels and sell these on as hosted services, enabling individual organisational units to make savings on energy, hardware and platform maintenance costs.

So, the main opportunity behind cloud based services is to centralise datacentre functions, then let individual organisational units choose the services they want from a menu.

There are some early examples of this principal at work. For example, The Kentucky Department of Education just announced they are moving all their students, teachers and staff…more than 700,000 people…to Live@edu that will help them save more than $6.3 million over the next four years.

Live@Edu is known primarily as an e-mail service, but probably one of the most popular features of Live@edu is SkyDrive, which provides 25 gigabytes of cloud based storage for homework, documents, and projects.

Microsoft have also just made publicly available the final versions of the Office Web Apps on SkyDrive in the US, UK, Canada and Ireland. This opens up the exciting prospect of consuming productivity tools as a web-based service.

So what do you do if you want to start to exploit the Cloud in your schooling system?

First, start by exploring Live@Edu. E-mail is often one of the most expensive workloads to run, and the savings that Live@Edu can bring are enormous.

Secondly, look at what workloads are common between different datacentres and see where there could be significant savingsa and improvements in services.

Thirdly, through Private Public Partnerships, move relevant services into hosting envirnonments.

As Cloud offerings evolve, these steps will put you in a good position to exploit them.

We are in the early days of Cloud computing in schooling but the prospect of making huge savings, improving services and increasing effectiveness justifies the excitement we are seeing.