Schools Need To Tread Carefully When Hooking iPads And MacBooks Up To Cloud Services

Schools Need To Tread Carefully When Hooking iPads And MacBooks Up To Cloud Services

Cloud computing has great potential for schools, but isn’t without some pitfalls.

The summer break is winding up and many teachers are getting ready to head back to work for another school year (and many IT staffers in those schools are trying to make sure everything’s ready when those teachers return). Over the past several months, many schools and their IT departments have been struggling to keep spending down while also delivering a 21st century learning environment. That discussion has largely focused on how to most cost effectively deploy iPads, new MacBooks, and other technology systems.

One approach to that dilemma is moving away from traditional software purchasing and towards enterprise cloud solutions. That approach may give schools more control over expenditures and offer other advantages, but it also has downsides including the potential to raise costs and degrade the education experience.

EdTech’s Anne Rawland Gabriel offers a look at three enterprise could packages that could fit very well into the classroom: Microsoft Office 365, IBM SmartCloud Engage Advanced, and Adobe Creative Cloud. She highlights many of the common advantages that cloud solutions can bring to the table.

  • The apps are generally familiar to users but are now browser-based
  • Subscription pricing models can be less expensive than outright purchases, particularly in the short-term
  • The ability to access documents and files on a wide range of devices both on campus and off campus
  • New collaboration options within a single school/district and with students around the country and around the world

Those all sound like great advantages and advancements for technology in education – and they are, but before schools jump on board with cloud services, there are a handful of things that school administrators and IT leaders need to consider.

Widespread use of cloud services will put a much greater load on a school’s network and Internet connection. The load may not be much of a concern on a wired network, which generally has decent capacity, but it could strain wireless networks (particularly if a number of new devices like iPads are being deployed simultaneously). More importantly, that load will go beyond the local network, meaning that it’s possible for a school’s Internet connectivity to become congested. Ramping up network capacity will be an added expense, but likely a one-time expense. Ramping up Internet connectivity will also be an expense but it will be an ongoing one.

There’s also the single point of failure issue. If a school’s Internet connection goes down, students are likely to not be able to access assignments stored in a cloud service. The same is true if a portion of the local network goes down, but that can be more readily mitigated by using other classrooms or school locations until the issue is resolved. This is a big concern that needs to be well thought out before advocating a complete move to the cloud. How can the school build backup connectivity into its IT systems, if it hasn’t done so already, and how much will that cost on an ongoing basis?

Costs may not go down. While many organizations do see costs decrease when opting for cloud solutions, that trend isn’t universal. As with ramping up Internet connectivity, cloud subscriptions are a recurring expense. They also will typically be charged per user. There are a couple of easy ways that can potentially cost more than traditional software purchases and licensing.

First, it is a recurring cost rather than a single one-time purchase that occurs once every few years. One argument against e-textbooks is that a school can go five or more years without buying new printed textbooks, which can be cheaper than buying each student a new digital copy every year. The same thing applies to volume or site licensed applications – a single investment that likely only needs to be made once every few years may be cheaper per license over the long-term than recurring student subscriptions.

Second, a school can conserve licenses for software by only installing on specific computers. The majority of students likely won’t need Adobe Creative Cloud, for example. That means only a handful of computers in specific programs will need it. If it’s possible to have students share access those systems as needed (such as in a media arts classroom or digital art studio), a school may be able deliver the Adobe Creative Suite to as many as a few dozens while only purchasing a handful of licenses. That can be cheaper than buying subscriptions for all those students.

Beyond costs, there may be legal or regulatory concerns that schools need to consider. Content filtering laws, student privacy regulations, and even legal ownership of a cloud account and data stored in it are all examples of areas where schools may be under restrictions that don’t apply to businesses.

Does this mean cloud solutions are a non-starter for schools? Of course not. It does however mean that schools need to seriously investigate whether cloud choices are the best option and calculate the real costs that involved over a multi-year period.

  • mr_bee

    Just a note to any Canadian educational readers … This practice is actually illegal in Canada as are all of these solutions.

    Don’t do it at all! :-)

    I think it’s illegal in Europe too, but not sure about it.

  • Th3_1d

    Great article, its refreshing to see someone talk about the downside of cloud computing. I really don’t like the idea of having everything managed by outside servers, especially if those servers are owned by companies like adobe. In the long run, subscription pricing seems like it will be more expensive than just a purchase, it’s harder to manage from an IT perspective, and it rises privacy concerns. In short, cloud computing is a great convince from a personal perspective but from enterprise or educational perspective its really is not the end-all be-all revolution that most people are praising it as. That being said, I have talked to a couple of departments that manage to survive with a terribly small budget by virtualizing everything and have cheap workstations in classrooms/labs. So i guess its not all bad.

    Just a note to any Canadian educational readers … This practice is actually illegal in Canada as are all of these solutions.

    Don’t do it at all! :-)

    I think it’s illegal in Europe too, but not sure about it.

    Why is that, just privacy concerns?

About the author

Ryan FaasRyan Faas is a technology journalist and consultant living in upstate New York who has written extensively about Apple, business and enterprise IT, and the mobile industry. In addition to writing for Cult of Mac, he is a contributor to Computerworld, InformIT, and Peachpit Press. In a previous existence he was a healthcare IT director as well as a systems and network administrator. Follow Ryan on Twitter and Google +

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