Wednesday 24 May 2017

Heads in the cloud: moving school systems online

The Ministry of Education has been running a cloud computing trial with a number of schools, kura and Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako across the country. Education Gazette talks to two principals involved about the improved opportunities for collaboration and cost-saving.

While many New Zealand schools are using the cloud daily by way of Google, Microsoft Office 365 and the like, others have completely moved their data and applications to a ‘full-cloud’ model.
The Ministry of Education’s Schools’ Cloud Transformation Project has been working with schools to help them understand the benefits of moving to the cloud, and working with local IT providers who can help them transition with minimal fuss.
If your school would like to be part of the Ministry-supported trial, visit
http://services.education.govt.nz/cloud for more information.
Last year, Wanaka Primary and Buller High School took part in the Ministry’s cloud computing trial.
Principals of both schools worked with a South Island-based IT provider who carried out the work and ongoing support.
COST-SAVING AT BULLER HIGH SCHOOL
Buller High School principal Andrew Basher reports that being part of the trial has brought many benefits, including reducing infrastructure costs and improving data accessibility.
“The most obvious benefit is that any of our staff members can get access to our school data anywhere, anytime, which is a big improvement on our previous system,” he says. “And the same applies to our students, of course, which is another huge plus.”
Buller High School was offered the opportunity to get involved in the Ministry trial in September 2016, and the work began during the term 3 holidays.
Blenheim-based IT firm pcMedia offered extensive support which included a team of three experts based at the school to give training and help with any problems that arose.
“In terms of the on-site training, it was awesome – they really helped with all our questions and concerns,” says Andrew.
Cost-saving is another big benefit of going cloud-based.
“Installing and maintaining servers are one of the biggest hardware costs in a school.
“We realised that if we don’t have to have physical servers and maintain them anymore, we can spend the money on our kids, so that was another one of the huge drawcards for us,” he says.
Buller High School belongs to a Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako, which also includes four local primary schools.
“We were the last school in the Community of Learning to go server-less,” he says, “and so our participation in this trial allows another pilot, which is to look at how a Community of Learning could collaborate using cloud-based systems.”
Making the shift wasn’t completely smooth sailing – some problems were encountered – but Andrew says some idiosyncrasies were inevitable in such a trial.
“In the process, the team found things they didn’t know about schools, and we’ve found some things that needed improving – the important thing is that both parties were honest and open with each other during the shift,” he explains. “So it hasn’t been seamless, but in terms of our long-term direction it’s been great because we’re now fully online and small issues that arose have been solved.”
He also notes that the increased opportunities for collaboration within the Community of Learning have not yet been taken advantage of.
“Our Community of Learning is in its infancy as well, but it will be interesting to see how the collaboration will play out once that gets underway properly.”
Andrew says the idea of all schools moving to cloud-based systems is an exciting prospect, in that anything that improves collaboration between schools and teachers will benefit learners.
“It’s pretty exciting that the Ministry has identified the physical cost of hardware in schools can be an impediment to supporting curriculum and doing other things we want to do for our students.
“Hopefully this trial will lead to other schools making the shift, so they can move from spending money on hardware and servers and spend it instead on enhancing learning.”
WEB-BASED IN WANAKA
The stars aligned last year for Wanaka Primary School principal Wendy Bamford when it became clear the school’s servers needed upgrading.
“We were offered a place on the trial to move to the cloud, just as our servers started to die, so the timing was ideal,” she says.
“We had been having a few IT hassles at the school, and even though we have a relatively new site, we had problems such as intermittent internet connectivity.”
Once the decision to go server-less was made, the school’s first contact was also with Blenheim’s pcMedia.
“I have to say they have been amazing from start to finish – they did a full review of our IT systems and provided us with lots of information before they started work.
“They thought they were coming into a new school with good infrastructure, but they did find some problems,” she says. “Not only did they move us to the cloud but they also fixed up our internet connectivity issues so that instead of hundreds of children accessing the internet, we now have the capability for thousands to.”
Wanaka Primary staff and students were already basing much of their work in the cloud anyway, so it made sense to streamline all the school systems.
“We’ve been using Google and Microsoft suites in the classroom for a while now, so we are used to working in the cloud,” Wendy explains.
The shift to the cloud involved moving online a number of school programmes and services, including literacy resource Steps to Learning, and the school’s library to the management system Edge.
“We love the ability to share via Google and other platforms – whatever we’re doing it’s all cloud-based.
“Basically, it’s enabled us to streamline all our processes, so that we don’t have to do things manually anymore,” she explains.
Like Andrew Basher, Wendy believes the cost savings to the school is a huge benefit.
“It’s obviously saved us a lot of money because we didn’t have to replace our servers after all,” she says.
The team from pcMedia provided extensive training and support, including working closely with the school’s existing IT support technician.
“We especially appreciated how closely they were able to work with our own staff, so that once they left the school, we were still being well supported with the change.”
“It’s allowed our children lots of access too, so it’s not only benefiting our teachers and administration staff.
“It takes away a number of worries – for example, if someone was away and we couldn’t get into certain systems, or if a server died because the power shuts down, which does happen sometimes in Wanaka – we don’t have to worry.”
HOW CAN OUR SCHOOL MAKE THE SHIFT?
If your school or kura is due to purchase new servers, now is the time to consider moving to the cloud.
Most New Zealand schools are using elements of the cloud every day, but very few have made the full transition – we want to get our schools, kura and Communities of Learning | Kāhui Ako to make that change, and move to a faster and smarter way of working.
Moving to the cloud will provide a more flexible, productive environment for our children, young people, and the teachers who are supporting them.
The Ministry, and its independent technology advisory service the Connected Learning Advisory, are producing a range of resources to help schools and kura understand the options available to them.
Visit http://services.education.govt.nz/cloud for more information.