What is cloud computing and why should I be interested?

Airhead is at the vanguard of companies exploring the value to the education community of the so-called ‘cloud’ technology paradigm. For clarity, we mean services hosted off-premises and delivered to premises via wide area network connectivity, e.g. web apps. We’re interested in this technology paradigm because it offers the possibility of increased access to technology for schools at a reduced cost. More for less. But how?

Hosting applications and data away from school premises means fewer or no technical staff employed by the school. Every pound spent on employing technical staff to manage, deploy and/or support your technology is a pound less spent on the technology or staff directly supporting learning.A 2006 research report by Becta in the UK found that for both primary and secondary schools, around one third of the technology budget was spent on formal technical support. Pushing services out to the cloud reduces or eliminates the requirement for in-house technical support because technology management, deployment and support take place off-premises.

For companies who deliver these services, aggregating demand means a lower cost-base, higher resilience and faster innovation. Cloud services also increase access. For example, web applications (apps) are available on any web-enabled device, including mobile devices, and fulfil the promise of anytime, anywhere, device-independent learning.

The pivotal question is: what proportion or parts of the user experience can be delivered with cloud services while maintaining or improving learning outcomes?

In order to evaluate the user experience, one must start with a baseline. Rather than use anecdotal evidence, we used audit data from three UK schools, two secondary and one primary. These schools are part of a large managed service and the application usage data is recorded automatically by an audit tool. The usage was tracked over between 64 (primary) and 138 (secondary) school days in early 2011. It is worth noting that the sample schools had a high application diversity with over 3,500 application installed across all schools subscribed to the managed service. The technology paradigm was traditional client-server and windows-based.

We don’t intend to reproduce all the detail from our analysis here, but we’d like to focus on some of the more interesting trends we identified. We excluded all browser events and non-user triggered events from the analysis. Firstly, we looked at what proportion of the remaining events were ‘Office’ or equivalent, i.e. word processor, spreadsheet, database or presentation software.

Noting the high usage of ‘Office’ software titles, we reapplied the analysis, extending the range of applications to cover office and multimedia tools such as graphics, video and audio creators/editors. The objective of this analysis was simply to understand what proportion of usage a core productivity suite of software for education was receiving. The results were startling. This core productivity suite of applications was receiving very high usage relative to other applications in both primary and secondary schools.

Finally, we analysed the data with a view to understanding what proportion of the application usage might be delivered by an existing web app (as opposed to a local software application). We were trying to establish what proportion of a user’s current technology experience might be delivered via the web.

Again the results were very clear. It’s quite possible to cover the majority of requirements that are currently delivered by local software applications with web apps. The key question that remains unanswered in this analysis is the relative merits of local versus web apps in supporting learning outcomes. In making this comparison, it would be understandable to think that the local version of the software is better than the web app but we want to challenge that assumption.

Most users, most of the time, use a small fraction of the total feature set of an application, especially core productivity applications such as Microsoft Office or indeed Open Office. So the first issue is one of utilisation. Local applications are generally too feature rich for most users, most of the time, and thus under-utilised. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of access to the same applications from any potential learning location and – as is still the case in the majority of schools – fixed provision of access devices rather than a personal ownership model. Not only is utilisation of the resource low, but the utilisation of the capabilities of the resource is low. A double hit of inefficiency.

Most web apps are less feature-rich than their local cousins but they make up for it in other ways. They are upgraded regularly without any impact on the user and therefore evolve quickly with user demand. They usually have native support for collaboration and social engagement. Most importantly, web apps are available anywhere, anytime, and are broadly device independent. This means consistent delivery of user experience at home, in school or in any learning location.

So as a school leader, just imagine: you move to 80% cloud delivered services, saving money by reducing your support bill and paying less for applications. Into the bargain you greatly increase the consistency of the user experience and widen the choice. You use the saving to subsidise a personal device ownership scheme thereby further enhancing access, reducing your support bill further and focusing the attention of educators on what to do with technology rather than how to use it. Your learners are immersed in a web experience that they know and love already and that will arm them with the skills they need for the workplace. Just imagine.

It’s our assertion that a cloud desktop for education is not a pipe-dream – it’s here now. As is often the case in the education community, we’re lagging a little behind. It costs less and delivers more.

We’re not suggesting that this is the end of local software; just that it is possible to have a lot less of it and use it as necessary rather than as first choice. We have the opportunity to put our learners at the heart of the web experience, absorbing the social and collaborative skills that today’s workplace demands, let alone tomorrow’s.

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