5 ways cloud computing will impact students, teachers, and IT in 2016

Software-as-a-service deployments are having a moment. What does that mean for schools?

It’s no secret that being able to access enterprise applications and other types of software online—in a 24/7/365 environment—beats having to install, maintain, and upgrade individual applications across multiple desktops and laptops. Especially when maintaining software at school, classroom, teacher, and individual student levels is such an arduous task.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or “cloud computing” has helped districts and schools streamline their applications while at the same time introducing new challenges to the mix—such as online privacy and security concerns. These and other obstacles aside, cloud computing has been growing in popularity lately due to its low entry costs, short installation/implementation times, and the fact that it lessens the burden on schools’ IT teams when it comes to software maintenance and upgrades.

Formally defined as a software licensing and delivery model where applications are licensed on a subscription basis and centrally hosted, SaaS is often used interchangeably with “cloud” or “on-demand” and usually accessed via a web browser and password (if applicable). Here are five ways this software deployment method is changing the K-12 environment right now:

Leveling the playing field for smaller institutions

Calling SaaS a “great equalizer,” David J. Hinson, director of technology services at Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y., said the software delivery method can be a boon to smaller schools and districts, who may have trouble luring top IT talent. “The pressing need to find sustainable, affordable technology solutions has driven much of the trend toward cloud-based services in K-12,” said Hinson, who adds that even in relatively “talent-rich” markets like New York, finding, hiring, compensating, and keeping technically savvy employees is a challenge. “Our forte is supposed to be education, not talent acquisition. Using SaaS allows even the smallest school’s IT department to ‘punch above their weight,’ and provide services that were once available to only larger enterprises.”

Helping schools rethink technology budgeting

At first blush, cloud computing appears to be a budget-conscious way to acquire new software. Generally offered up on a subscription basis, applications delivered online boast fairly low barriers to entry and require less of the IT team’s time when it comes to maintenance and upgrades. However, for the school that’s used to buying software and systems and then running them at “no additional cost” until they break, the transition to the subscription-based model may seem like a costlier option. “The biggest challenge is communicating the savings in opportunity costs that SaaS affords,” said Hinson, “and the advantages of being able to deploy a smaller number of people in a more synchronous alignment with your core mission.” Hinson said Yeshivah of Flatbush has worked through the challenge and currently uses Google Apps for Education for email, documents, spreadsheets, and collaboration software in the cloud. The institution’s infrastructure management software (i.e., controlling its firewall, routers, switches, and access points) is also cloud-based, as is the software it uses to deploy and manage mobile devices. “We have not purchased a major, enterprise­scale software package in the last year that was not cloud­based,” said Hinson. “Cloud­based systems are our ‘new normal.’”

Letting schools work with the computers they have

One of the cloud’s biggest selling points is the fact that it takes the burden of “having enough hard drive space” off the individual computer and puts it out onto the web. With programs like Adobe InDesign requiring at least 2.6GB of hard drive space for installation on a machine that’s running Windows—and with districts like Alief ISD of Houston serving 46,000 students on 46 campuses—the need for more memory was a perpetual struggle before the introduction of cloud computing. Now, Dan Blevins, instructional technology specialist for Killough Middle School/Alief ISD, said the cloud provides an easy and reliable way to both store data and deploy programs, such as Adobe Creative Cloud. As an added bonus, it also frees up the IT team to work on more “mission-critical projects,” he added. “The cloud doesn’t solve all of the problems that IT has to grapple with, but it does play a part in helping the department be more effective and efficient.”

Managing automatic upgrades, migrations, and patches

Blevins remembers the time when software upgrades meant rifling through a stack of CDs to find the one that would bring a specific instance of a program (located on a certain machine) up to code, so to speak. Replacing old equipment and software was equally as onerous, as was orchestrating frequent software patches across multiple computers. Today, much of this activity takes place in the cloud and updates are automatically received from software vendors as those updates are developed and administered. Now, Blevins’ district is in the process of migrating to Microsoft Office 365—a move that will find all teachers, staff, administrators, and students using the vendor’s cloud-based option to access and use its programs. “This takes the pressure off us to worry about what needs updating, what’s obsolete, and what new upgrades are available on the market,” he said.

Stoking new levels of student collaboration

If there’s one aspect of cloud computing that stumped even the most tech-savvy digital native, Blevins said it’s the collaborative aspect of working together in a virtual environment. “Traditionally, when a group of students would work on a project, one would sit at the computer and open up the files while everyone else hovered around, looking over his or her shoulder,” said Blevins. “Then they would switch places to give everyone a chance to work on the computer.” Now, the same group of students can be working from their own devices or computers and collaborating in real-time, online. And they don’t even have to be in the same room. This sounds good in theory, but Blevins said effective collaboration on this level comes with a definite learning curve. “Utilizing the technology is usually the easy part; the cultural shift requires the most work,” said Blevins, whose district enlists technology “champions” (e.g., teachers, administrators, para-professionals, and even students) to help smooth out the transitions and help pupils collaborate in the cloud. “It’s definitely a team effort. The more champions you have, and the more you spread the word about it, the better off you’ll be.”

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