Apr 18 2016

Cloud Computing: A Powerhouse in Classrooms and Behind the Scenes

Moving to the cloud gives districts agile options for how they treat devices.

School districts are getting significant help as they move from device-centric to learning-centric initiatives.

“The good news is that more and more content is being delivered via cloud computing, so the individual device becomes less relevant than it has been in the past,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.

One measure of the commitment to cloud-based applications is the 50 million students and teachers who currently use Google Apps for Education, according to estimates by Alphabet’s Google division.

But cloud-delivered educational programs are only part of the story. Predictably priced, on-demand computing resources also help districts provide the IT infrastructures needed for modern classrooms, while balancing the demands of constrained budgets.

For example, cloud services relieve maintenance responsibilities for internal IT staffs.

“The attraction of cloud computing for K-12 schools is clear: Institutions do not want to download a bunch of files and put them on devices,” says Jennifer Bergland, director of government relations at the Texas Computer Education Association. “School districts today are much more likely to subscribe to a service that is sitting on somebody else’s server, so they don’t need to hire the manpower to touch all of those school computers all the time.”

Public-cloud platforms, such as Microsoft Azure, are evolving to give school districts more than just the familiar computing, storage and networking resources. Expanded features include database and analytics services and education-specific capabilities.

For example, in 2015 Microsoft released Microsoft Azure for student developers, with tools for creating websites and web apps in the cloud. The development suite lets students program using ASP .NET, Java, PHP, Node.js or Python.

A growing number of organizations will be boosting their cloud commitments in the months ahead. IT professionals from K-12 organizations and commercial businesses said 35 percent of IT services are now being fully or partially delivered via the cloud, according to CDW’s 2015 Cloud 401 Report. Adoption rates are poised to grow in the months ahead.

IT professionals surveyed for the report said their organizations will consider delivering 35 percent of entirely new IT services via the cloud. Security and Student Privacy: A Growing Concern After a number of alarming headlines about security breaches, K-12 IT officials are on alert about threats to the privacy and security of student data. In fact, 57 percent said the issue had grown in importance since 2014.

“Given the lack of technical support in most school districts, security is a challenge,” Krueger says.

But with greater access by students to Internet-based educational resources and growing numbers of BYOD devices, what additional measures can school districts employ to defend against security breaches?

Changing the Conversation Around Security

A recently released set of guidelines for protecting student information was compiled by the Data Quality Campaign and CoSN with the help of 40 education associations and nonprofits. Among the ten principles is a call for proper data-governance systems, notification policies when breaches occur, and designated places or contacts for students and families to learn about student data collection, use and security measures.

“For me, the principles change a school’s conversation with students and parents from one of privacy to one of trust,” Krueger says.

Even districts without internal expertise and large budgets to constantly keep pace with the latest security threats can take advantage of technologies and best practices for multifaceted security.

One option is Security as a Service (SaaS) solutions from vendors such as Symantec and Trend Micro, which give districts access to the latest technology and expertise in return for predictable subscription fees.

In addition, companies such as Kaspersky Lab provide endpoint security with a central console for monitoring and addressing malware and other threats. As the use of mobile devices grows, schools also are looking for the latest mobile device management platforms for provisioning devices and enforcing usage policies.

Prudent network-management policies are also a must.

“Moving students to a separate virtual LAN is one best practice that keeps schools safer,” says Zimmerman. “Students use the VLAN to access resources that are available in the school or to access a demilitarized zone subnetwork that goes out to the Internet.” Liberal use of the Extensible Authentication Protocol and the WPA2 encryption standard further provides a defense against breaches, he says.

An Agile Approach to Education

As innovative technologies continue to stream into K-12 classrooms in the coming year, how can IT managers determine which ones offer the most potential? Experts say that formal, long-term strategic planning may not be appropriate for this dynamic environment. Instead, district officials should work closely with teachers and students to understand their needs and then apply a variation of the agile programming philosophy to technology strategies.

“Try a lot of new things in small pilots, and let teachers identify what’s working for them and their students,” Flanagan says.

When something new isn’t successful, schools should quickly move on to something else. Or when something new improves student engagement or drives better academic performance, it should be rolled out to larger groups, he adds.

“The big takeaway is don’t try to make that one big decision that’s going to save the world,” Flanagan advises.

MASAO OTA/amanaimagesRF/Thinkstock

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