Jun 02 2020

Expert Q&A: How Cloud Computing Makes Remote Learning Possible

Chad Stevens, leader for K–12 education at Amazon Web Services, breaks down why schools should migrate to the cloud in today’s increasingly virtual environment.

The shift to remote learning has proved to schools just how essential accessibility, connectivity, teacher training, data privacy and wise tech spending are to create a successful learning environment online.

That transition also revealed another key lesson: School districts can’t afford to be slow.

“The idea of the old-world infrastructure taking weeks or months to get up to speed really came to life as we all instantaneously tried to move to remote learning,” said Chad Stevens, leader for K–12 education at Amazon Web Services, during a session he led at CoSN2020, the Consortium for School Networking’s virtual conference.

Stevens, who is also a CoSN board member and former chief education strategist for CDW•G, explained that it’s even more crucial for schools to be resilient and agile today and that having a strong cloud strategy can help them do that.

After his session, EdTech spoke with Stevens about how schools have creatively used the cloud for remote learning, as well as best practices for cloud migration as they adjust to the new normal of virtual classrooms.

EDTECH: What sorts of challenges did you see come up as students and school staff started learning and working from home?

STEVENS: First, I think connectivity is a challenge that many schools are working through. Next, we saw needs around remote computer labs to make sure students had equitable access to some of the tools that were only available physically at schools. Of course, there were communication needs also. One of the interesting solutions we scaled was a pay-as-you-go call center to not only provide technical support for remote learning, but social and emotional support for teachers and students. Last, we wanted to support teachers who were having to make this quick pivot.

EDTECH: At CoSN2020, you talked about how a cloud-first strategy can really benefit schools. Why is it important to have one now, especially in today’s increasingly virtual education environment?

STEVENS: We really believe that in the fullness of time, most K–12 systems will be leveraging the cloud in a more meaningful way. I think there are many systems that are already there. Having a cloud-first strategy can help schools scale more quickly and reduce disruptions while moving to remote learning, but also during normal operations.

That being said, I would encourage leaders to look at what systems had deficiencies while transitioning to remote learning and work. Think about what actions should take place to minimize that risk to learning. Also, while leadership, commitment and training are important, you don’t need to “boil the ocean.” Instead, build short, medium-term strategies and let smaller migrations inform your long-term planning. It’s important to remember that the cloud is a transformational opportunity with a well-worn path. In fact, AWS has been building and managing infrastructure in the cloud since 2006.

Watch Chad Stevens, leader for K–12 education at Amazon Web Services, explain schools can build a cloud-first strategy.

EDTECH: Can you share some examples of how school districts have used cloud solutions for remote learning?

STEVENS: The cloud helps schools minimize risks to learning and teaching continuity. For example, cloud-based software such as Amazon Web Service’s AppStream 2.0 for Education is a cost-effective way to give students virtual access to necessary educational applications, no matter where they are. With this fully managed application streaming service, students can also access those apps on almost any device. Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa is a good example of a school that deployed AppStream 2.0 prior to moving to remote learning. Having this in place allowed them to scale, while providing cost savings to the district. As we move into the school year, maintaining space is going to be important for students. This allows school leaders to recapture that lab space.

Another example was Los Angeles Unified School District in California, the second-largest school district in the country. LAUSD serves almost 700,000 students, and they needed to think big and move fast. They found that their community was in need of support in this time of unprecedented school closings. With AWS, they were able to set up five call centers using Amazon Connect within a matter of days. These call centers are used by the school district to field IT questions, provide remote support and enable staff to answer calls. They also opened an additional mental health hotline that can be reached by those in need of help to manage fear, anxiety and other challenges.

EDTECH: And do you have any advice for schools looking to start their cloud migration journey for next school year?

STEVENS: I outlined four key practices in my session at CoSN2020. The first is to leverage the experience of others. There have been thousands of customers who have gone before you in using the cloud — whether they’re in K–12 education, in higher education, in the government, in the private sector — so you should leverage that experience.

Next, find the right strategy for your current environment. We have the tools to help you decide what the right strategy for your environment is because every IoT device environment is a little different.

It’s also super important to build cloud skills and capabilities. Training is really key. I would encourage leaders to keep in mind that migrating to the cloud is more about people and culture rather than technology.

And finally, build a foundation for success. It’s super important to have superintendent, school board or cabinet-level buy-in for what that foundation is going to be and how you will go about the migration.

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