Only a handful of years ago the concept of cloud-based technology would have seemed like a dream. We were familiar with cloud storage (which will be discussed in this article) but the offer of shared documents, multiple authors and untethered access seemed something for the distant future. Yet, here we are.
These technologies are, typically, driven by need and, certainly, I find that it is very convenient to be able to move from location to location and still be able to access my documents (much like you can with emails from your phone).
But, equally there is sometimes a bit of hype with technology which needs to be addressed. So, what is cloud technology, how can we get the best from it and does it meet the hype?
What’s the difference?
First, there is a difference between cloud storage and cloud technology. If you are unfamiliar with the term, cloud storage is used to describe virtual storage of documents. In much the same way you would save a document on your PC, you can save online via your storage.
There are any number of offers out there with big players being DropBox, Amazon (which comes part of any Prime account), Apple and Google. In many cases, these companies are vying for personal accounts.
Amazon is a good example of this as it is linked directly to Alexa AI, which is paired to your account. As a result, this is not a good tool for your school.
If storage is all that you are looking for then there are certain features that you should consider. Firstly, how much storage are you likely to use and does your agreement cover that?
If your school is used to taking lots of photographs or creating films, which you need to store online, you would be surprised by how quickly you can use up your allocated storage space.
Also, if you have limited broadband you may find that it takes longer than you would be comfortable with to up/down load documents.
Secondly, what levels of permissions are you able to apply? It may be that some documents you would choose to be ‘view only’ (such as policies) in order to avoid unplanned change, unintentionally or otherwise.
Bottom line, you do not have the time to be checking documents or following up accusations of change.
Finally, you should check to see how the programme is backed up. We have all made the mistake of deleting a document by mistake and you should know if there is access to some-sort of ‘history’ tab in order to retrieve a lost document.
As with any virtual office (and your ‘staff shared’ folder is not immune to this) there is a risk of intentional vandalism.
While rare, it is within the capability of any employee to delete any documentation. The worst case scenario is a disgruntled employee deleting the entire contents (which can be done surprisingly quickly and with little effort).
It’s unlikely, but this can happen and is a risk. As a result, you should consider how this is addressed in your policy.
Cloud technology takes cloud storage to the next, logical, level. It allows the user to interact directly with a document without ever having to power up a Word or PowerPoint programme on a PC.
Both the programme and document are housed in a virtual world that can be accessed anywhere that has access to WiFi, much as you would with email on a smart phone or tablet.
While Microsoft have the capacity for this (within Office365) it is, arguably, Google and Apple that have the upper hand on this type of technology as it is present in all of their mobile devices which now outnumber static computers which Microsoft is traditionally reliant upon.
The advantage of these programmes is that multiple authors can interact on one document at any time. For example, you may design a CPD timetable that you wish colleagues to complete in order to discuss any clashes or gaps at your next meeting, rather than spending time populating it.
It is, in truth, quite exciting to see colleagues adding text/comments at the same time as you.
So, while exciting, there is a clear need for policy. Any policy should consider the following:
- Data protection (and by default, GDPR)
- Acceptable use
- Roles, responsibilities and permissions
- Disciplinary action
It is important to note that intentional change or deleting of documents could compromise the day-to-day running of the school and, as such, is subject to disciplinary action. Ultimately it is part of professional conduct.
Finally, there is a reality checker required when beginning to use these virtual tools. I remember distinctly the first time I enthusiastically sent out a shared document only to find, a week later, that nobody had completed it.
This led to the key question: why? In one case it was that they were nervous of using it, another couldn’t access the document and a third preferred to work on a paper document.
I underestimated both the training required and psychological change needed to move to this new approach. Colleagues were, in truth, reluctant to move to a cloud-based technology when the school was also still operating a traditional, Microsoft hard-drive.
Equally, any change is reliant upon a champion and if that champion leaves mid-change then there is a risk of collapse or stagnation.
And this is the challenge. If education was wholly reliant on cloud-based technology, like many larger organisations, then making the move would be easier as it would be the common currency that we would all be using. But it is not.
Documents shared between schools are rarely anything other than Word documents and this is perpetuated by teacher resource centres such as TES or Twinkl, who produce word-based resources, not Google or Apple versions.
It seems, that while the infrastructure exists for a ‘third way’, Microsoft will dominate for the immediate future and that converting to cloud based technology is currently still likely to remain the exception rather than the rule for schools.
Anthony David is an Executive Headteacher in North London.