Sep 27 2016

Cloud in the Classroom Is a Secure, Efficient Solution

K-12 IT leaders find ease of use paired with peace of mind in cloud application services.

We see it on the horizon, if not already overhead, not only in business and healthcare but also in government and education: the cloud. Hyped and feared in seemingly equal measure, “the cloud” is an umbrella term covering a range of services and capabilities that are stored on a remote network.

For developers, the cloud has been a boon as Platform as a Service offerings give them a flexible framework or building applications, while Infrastructure as a Service offerings allow IT departments to virtualize computing resources and data centers. However, for the average consumer, Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings such as hosted email and productivity apps will be best known. SaaS also makes up the majority of cloud deployments in the K-12 market.

“In K–12, like in a lot of organizations, the same benefits apply,” explains Kelly Calhoun Williams, Ed.D., education research director at Gartner. She points to the ability to deliver applications to a range of devices, to scale services up or down and pay only for what is needed at a given time and to update easily as improvements are made as some of the major benefits to SaaS for K-12 users.

“It’s very clear that the trend is toward cloud-based technologies on virtually every front in K–12 education; pretty much as it is in every other industry and for many of the same reasons,” she adds.

Getting the Most from Solutions on the Market

One of the major players in the realm of SaaS is Google, and many educators have embraced Google Apps for Education (GAfE) as a key tool of instruction.

“The simplicity is probably our favorite feature,” says Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management for Google Apps. Teachers like that they can use GAfE without a lot of professional development or training; many, in fact, may be familiar with Google’s suite of applications as they are available to the general public for free, so bringing it into the classroom is basically seamless.

What’s more, it changes the way they teach. Educators love the ability to collaborate in a document, the core feature of Google’s SaaS offerings.

“For educators, that didn’t just become something that made them productive. They felt it made them better teachers because of the immediate feedback to students,” Rochelle says. Students can get real-time guidance and encouragement within the document they are working on, an experience that has proved powerful for many students.

At the same time, the hours teachers save through an improved workflow is time they can dedicate to engaging directly with students or enhancing their lesson planning, rather than managing stacks of papers, says Rochelle.

And Google always is rolling out new elements of GAfE. Google Expeditions, for example, lets students experience places as part of a lesson through cloud-based virtual reality. More than a million students have used Expeditions in early deployment.

Another attractive SaaS offering in K–12 is Microsoft’s Office 365 Education, and with the rollout of Microsoft Classroom this September, 365 likely will only grow in popularity. OneNote, Microsoft’s note-taking and note-sharing tool, has been particularly well received, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. Teachers can create class notebooks that make it easy for students to access course materials. OneNote also works offline, so students who have access to school-issued devices at home but lack internet access can continue their work off campus and sync when they return in the morning - a feature one teacher refers to as “liquid gold.”

Educators also appreciate OneNote because it cuts down on paperwork and eases communication and collaboration.

Choosing between Google and Microsoft to be a school’s cloud application services provider can be difficult, as the offerings appear superficially similar and provide much of the same functionality: word processing, slideshows, spreadsheets, classroom management, video conferencing and collaboration-friendly storage.

According to Gartner analyst Jeffrey Mann, when choosing between the two, the key component to consider is the school’s personality.

“Organizations going to Google are looking for a different way of providing these services that is designed for the web. They aren’t necessarily afraid of disruption,” he says. “Those going for Microsoft, want the change that cloud brings, but not too much. They also value continuity for end users and administrators.”

A third SaaS offering comes from Adobe: Adobe Creative Cloud. With more than 20 apps in total, including premier software products such as Photoshop and Illustrator, Creative Cloud offers a different range of functionality than either Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365 Education.

While perhaps most compatible with the work done in higher education settings, some high schools have taken the initiative to bring Adobe Creative Cloud onto their campuses so students can get a jump on skills that are in-demand in the workplace. In some cases, students have even earned Adobe certifications before setting foot in a college classroom.

And, like Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office 365 Education, Adobe Creative Cloud is accessible from a variety of platforms.

“We recognize that students and teachers — and the workforce — increasingly use mobile tools for tasks they previously have done on the desktop,” says Johann Zimmern, head of Adobe’s worldwide education division.

These are just some of the comprehensive suites of cloud-based software solutions offered, and the options available for K–12 students, educators, staffs and IT departments will continue to grow.

“All of the really major systems that K–12 relies upon are moving to the cloud: student information systems, the learning management systems, in many cases the ERP [enterprise resource planning] solutions are all becoming cloud-based,” says Calhoun Williams.

“Competitively speaking, they have to.”

She sees the growth of cloud-based services in K-12 as going hand in hand with the increasing number and variety of mobile devices in those schools.

“Having access to cloud-based applications is a critically important part of being able to manage and maintain all that technology,” she says.

Insuring Security in the Cloud

One of the lingering concerns often raised when debating a transition to cloud-based services is data security. Student privacy, in particular, requires careful and secure data handling to meet the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law passed in 1974.

Fortunately, when paired with the right policies, moving to the cloud generally results in an increased level of security for the most sensitive data.

“Student information systems are an example of a category where people were the most nervous about having student data in the cloud,” says Calhoun Williams.

“Over time,” she says, “there’s come to be a recognition that in most cases these cloud-based service providers actually can provide a higher degree of security than a typical school district can do itself.” She suggests including standards for the handling of student data in the contract with the SaaS vendor.

Ultimately, she says, most breaches are user-based rather than service-based. Fortunately, there are many steps that can be taken to avoid exposing sensitive data that is stored in the cloud.

CDW’s own research on secure cloud computing suggests that active measures on the user end help to maintain the security inherent in the system. Student data privacy policies, like any other data privacy policy, should at minimum require that the school district define security policies for various levels of organizational data, apply controls for tracking data, manage access and credentials, and protect remote and mobile endpoints.

Additional measures recommended by CDW include encrypting transmitted and sensitive data; managing access, authentification and identity for cloud-based applications; requiring password changes every 90 days; certifying the security measures taken by the cloud vendor; and holding annual security training for individuals.

Keep in mind, too, that FERPA applies even when a staff member or instructor is taking advantage of a free trial of a cloud-based service, something Jeff Alderson, principal analyst for enterprise software at Eduventures, refers to as “rogue IT.” Monitoring downloads and conducting regular faculty and student surveys can help alert IT departments to potential headaches in the realm of privacy.

Districts that remain concerned about security in the cloud can look for products that carry FedRAMP or Internet 2 NET+ certifications, according to Alderson.

It would be difficult, if not impossible for a hacker to obtain access to private data saved in a cloud-based data center with these types of certifications.

Cloud is the Future of Education

The schoolchildren of today are the digital citizens of tomorrow, and the cloud will be a big part of their future. One of the biggest benefits of bringing technology into classrooms earlier is that students will begin to use it in a new and more integrated way.

“Every year, typing gets pushed down a grade. Digital citizenship gets pushed down a grade,” explains Rochelle. Today’s sixth graders, for example, are coming into the classroom with a degree of digital literacy that surpasses students of previous years.

“There’s been, I would say, two decades of tech being a topic, rather than a tool,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

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