By Wayne D’Orio, a freelance journalist who writes frequently about education, equity, and rural issues. His education stories have taken him from backstage at Broadway’s Hamilton to crisscrossing the country on a bus trip with then Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Follow Wayne on Twitter @waynedorio.
In the best of times, cloud computing is like a utility few people think about. When it’s effective, it’s invisible. When it’s not, like when a breach spills personal information where it shouldn’t be, it can be impossible to try to undo the damage.
For school leaders, these worries are multiplied. Deciding whether to use the cloud isn’t a simple yes or no question for most administrators. They need to factor in the safety of student information, cost, ease of use, and understanding of what apps and content management systems their districts are using. On top of those concerns, these days it’s imperative that whatever system schools use allow an easy transfer from remote learning to in-person instruction, potentially with a helping of hybrid mixed in.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” says Monte McCubbin, a systems engineer for Simi Valley Unified School District in California. Small districts are probably better off using a cloud solution, but larger districts, like his 17,000-student unified school district, have the option to build a private cloud, he adds.
The benefits of not being cloud-based is local control and security, says Al Kingsley, the CEO of NetSupport and a longtime education technology expert. Districts can also control data flow and capacity by relying on its own local area network. But there are just as many, if not more, benefits to using cloud computing, he says. Cloud benefits include flexibility, scalability, and redundancy. Because maintenance is the responsibility of the provider, schools can have a leaner IT staff, saving on personnel costs.
Even considering the pluses and minuses isn’t a zero-sum game, McCubbin says. Simi Valley has what’s best described as a hybrid cloud solution. His district uses the cloud for some services and keeps other information in-house.
“We feel like there are inefficiencies in having 17,000 devices go into the public cloud and then back,” he says. Also, because California law says districts have to keep personal student information from leaving the state, it’s easier to accomplish this with a local system.
While security is a major concern for all school IT administrators, McCubbin says he thinks his local network is less of a target for hackers than if he were part of a huge system with a 100 or more companies.
School officials have to remember that their choice of building their own network or choosing a cloud solution needs to work best for all their teachers, students, and in these remote learning days, parents, too.
It’s this last reason that the cloud has worked so well for her district, says Erica Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at Ready Springs School in Penn Valley, California. With students learning remotely and schools using a variety of tools, officials quickly realized that the district was overwhelming parents by expecting them to keep up with multiple apps and learning management systems depending on which schools their children attend.
So Penn Valley added Schoology to tie all students into the same database. Even though teachers have emphasized to students how to organize themselves into the entire Google suite, having a secure cloud solution and a classroom management system guarantees that teachers can see, and help if needed, students log on, Smith adds.
“For example, I had a student who is at home by herself attempting to access class. She’s not in my class, but I was able to go on classroom.cloud, look at her screen, and realize that she was trying to get in. I could message her directly to give her steps to log in,” the teacher adds.
This example is a perfect encapsulation of how cloud computing joined with a class management system can improve school, Kingsley says. At their best, classroom management systems can save time by getting all kids working.
In the early days of classroom management, teachers were often blocking websites and locking keyboards, he says, but today’s teachers are more likely to support and guide students through this software. Take the typical example of a teacher asking her class to visit a specific website. Before, it could take minutes to make sure everyone was there. With a classroom management system, not only can a teacher push the correct url to all students, but then she could quickly tell if all students are on task (or on Snapchat).
“It doesn’t have to be flashy to be effective,” Kingsley says. “If we can save teachers and students 90 seconds, that’s a win and those types of wins add up over the year.”
“It’s hard to keep kids on task when everyone’s on a computer,” McCubbin says. Giving teachers the ability to see each students’ screen on a thumbnail, as offered in NetSupport’s classroom management tool, can short circuit distractions. “In Zoom, it’s even more important,” he adds.
In fact, as schools transition back to in-person learning, Kingsley says he hopes they don’t just return to the “old way” of schooling, ignoring potential benefits that were discovered during remote learning.
“You do hope the things that have worked well over the last year or so are things that we will embed and take forward because it would be an awful shame having learned and acquired so many new skills and tools, to then let those drift through lack of use,” he says. In fact, Kingsley says schools and teachers should view this transition as the best time to “take risks to find out what’s possible. Instead of pulling back, you should experiment.”