Costs, Security & Possibilities

When evaluating cloud computing as an option, the top priorities for K-12 schools are applications that provide a  loud-based e-mail function and those that enhance online collaboration.  Beyond those basic applications, many educators are also interested in software that helps to facilitate creativity and collaboration among a range of users (K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 35/Cloud Computing).  There are many options available that satisfy those needs, many of which offer products at little or no cost to an accredited K-12 educational institution.  The most popular cloud computing suites are Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Live@Edu, due to their ubiquity in the world outside of the school.  The schools that have adopted Google Apps state that their students are already familiar with many Google products, allowing for a smoother transition (Barack).  This is also true for those who choose the use Microsoft for cloud computing.  But, there are also many other options including other large companies like Amazon, smaller companies or projects like Illini Cloud (an initiative to provide online applications for school districts in Illinois with a minimal yearly membership fee), and Open Source options such as Zimbra.  Each of the options has its own merits and issues, and it will be important for schools looking to adopt the cloud to research which model works best for their own district.

There are many aspects to consider when deciding if a school should adopt cloud computing.  As previously mentioned, the potential reduction in costs of cloud computing as compared to more traditional software suites on school computers is one of the top reasons cited by K-12 administrators and IT staff for switching to an online platform.  In a study looking at schools that chose to use the Google Apps for Education cloud computing option, analysts projected a conservative estimate of $200 per computer or $50 per user savings per year, which could translate to thousands of dollars that could be spent on other school resources. In addition to a lower cost, there are several other reasons that have convinced some schools to adopt cloud computing.  First, cloud computing is very flexible.  It can accommodate multiple formats so that documents or projects created in one location (e.g. at home or at the library) can be opened from another location (e.g. the school) without compatibility issues.  It is also customizable so that the user only accesses those applications that are most relevant or useful.   This allows the school to adopt a “pay as you go” model with companies that do not offer free cloud computing packages.  Secondly, cloud computing requires much less maintenance and support by in-school staff since the majority of the infrastructure is off-site.  This not only frees up staff time, but also creates a seamless transition to the new platform because software does not have to be installed on each individual computer and there is less fear about the time required to make the switch happen.  Lastly, and probably the most important reason for adopting cloud computing besides the issue of cost, is the vast increase in access through mobile technology, allowing for more equitable access to information and student work using mobile-ready applications.

However, there are also risks and concerns with cloud computing which have prevented some districts from being comfortable with adopting an online environment for their schools.  One of the primary concerns is security.  Although the larger companies like Microsoft and Google can provide more assurances about the integrity of their servers and protection from hackers or other unauthorized users, this may not be a certainty with other companies who have fewer resources.  Also, even if security is guaranteed, it may come at a higher cost than the original package, which is potentially problematic for cloud computing adopters.  Related to the problem of security is compliance with local and federal privacy policies like HIPAA, FERPA, and the Freedom of Information Act (K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 35/Cloud Computing).  It is imperative that this information is stored on a limited-access network, and, if possible, the school should arrange an agreement with the vendor that guarantees the school ownership of all data, to ensure full compliance.

Another issue that may prevent schools from adopting cloud computing is a concern about advertising and data mining (K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 35/Cloud Computing).  Exposure to advertising is often seen as an unfortunate obligation that comes with “free” service.  However, there are other privacy and security issues at stake, especially using services like Google, which regularly engages in passive data mining by using stored personal information to tailor relevant advertisements and websites.

The last set of concerns that may discourage schools from turning to cloud computing is portability and recovery.  Many librarians think about data security, but data portability is a serious concern as well.  Being able to store data in the cloud is very useful, but it is necessary to have option to move that data to a different secure environment, and not all vendors provide that option (Ovadia, 235).  An issue related to portability is recovery.  Although large services like Google or Microsoft are unlikely to suffer from a catastrophic loss of data, it is still a concern for many schools and is thus vital to have a data recovery plan in place in advance with the vendors providing cloud computing services.

References:

Barack, L. (2010). Schools Opt for Google Apps. School Library Journal, 56(6), 12.

K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 35/Cloud Computing (2011). Wikibooks. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from http://en.wikibooks.org/w/index.php?oldid=2138378

Ovadia, S. (2010). Navigating the Challenges of the Cloud. Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 29(3), 233-236.

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