West London Free School and Harris Federation buy into Microsoft's 'School in a Box' concept
Microsoft's UK education team has signalled the move to cloud computing for its school customers with the publication of a discussion document called "School in a Box".
It coincides with news that the West London Free School will buy into a form of the concept, as will academies in the Harris Federation, and that Microsoft's free live@edu service now has more than 4 million UK users in more than 6,500 education institutions.
The "School in a Box" concept is an attempt to move schools to standardised ICT infrastructure and software services that are affordable and flexible and can be scaled from primary school up to enterprise level. The documents says that the concept "chimes with some of the recommendations of the James review of capital funding, and will allow for the provisioning of new schools quickly and efficiently, in a new building, a repurposed building or through refurbishment of an existing school".
Schools can use a mix of public and private clouds
It talks of public and private cloud services. Public would be for services like email and calendars while private would be for sensitive services like Management Information Systems (MIS). It is understood that the Harris Federation is likely to have its own private cloud: "By mixing public and private Cloud services, schools have the opportunity to acquire the rich tools and experiences they need for their teachers and students with a significantly lower cost of acquisition, implementation and management than current models of provision."
Microsoft also talks about Software as a Service (SaaS) which operates across the internet, much like Hotmail, which doesn't require software to be installed in a school. Then there is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) which means moving some of the physical ICT infrastructure out of a school to a data centre, reducing the need for a school to run its own servers.
Finally there is Platform as a Service (PaaS) which is an online platform where companies serving schools can develop and build their software and applications which will sit on Microsoft's Azure service rather than on their own servers. This helps them make savings which can, theoretically, be passed on to schools.
The report adds: "An analogy would be the provision of power. No school would consider running its own power station but nearly all are doing exactly that in respect of ICT; most schools own, manage, run and develop their own ICT services."
Microsoft UK's director of education Steve Beswick said that the paper, which has been submitted to the Department for Education and is now publicly available, was not a response to anything in particular but a pointer for discussion and debate about the best routes to cloud ICT for schools. "We think there's a better way of doing things," he said. It would probably take a few years for schools to make the move, and they could do it at their own pace.
"There will be things that go into the cloud pretty much straight away, for example there are a lot of people taking advantage of our live@edu email system. There are already people moving to the cloud now because that's a provision service from our data centre and people will migrate over the years. I think the key thing for us is that the technology that's on premises at the moment and that customers are using is exactly the same off-premise in the cloud. It's not an either or, it's up to you and you can move at your own pace.
'I truly believe that schools can save money by doing it'
"There will be more complicated systems that will take more time than others to move to the cloud but the important ones are the easy ones which, to me, are email, calendars, collaborative software, things like that. Maybe things like MIS systems will take a bit longer, for many different reasons.
"I think the first thing to point out is that by moving into the cloud schools can actually get themselves a better infrastructure and free up time. Second, I truly believe that schools can save money by doing it. And the third thing is it really takes away a lot of the heavy lifting that schools take on board today with their IT.
"If you look at email, calendaring, collaborative software, a lot of work goes on in a school to keep that running, and I suppose the change here is to let the professionals do it and free up time for ICT people and teachers to really concentrate on the curriculum and software and additional points which need to be added to the service.
"A final key point is that this is not outsourcing - outsourcing is a lock-down 'here's a desktop and if you change it we'll charge you for it' service. This is a service where we do the heavy lifting but the flexibility remains for the school, the teachers and the ICT people to take that service wherever they want that's appropriate for their school, whether that's a primary school, or a special needs school or a secondary.
'Starting a free school means that you have to do things differently'
Explaining why the West London Free School would be using the concept (delivered by Microsoft supplier European Electronique), journalist Toby Young said: "Starting a free school means that you have to do things differently. We will start small and grow one year group at a time so our IT systems have to be planned and purchased differently to those of a traditional school. We believe that using more Cloud-based technology will make it easier for us to scale up as numbers grow, and because we're in a temporary building to begin with, the less kit we have to ship in and install, the better. The IT as a Service model should save us money and hopefully make IT just like any other utility - when we need more, we'll just turn the tap, and pay a bit more."
The Harris Federation is considering the concept for the 6,000-odd desktops in its London schools. Its group IT director James Penny said: "The Harris Federation provides high quality centralised IT services to all of our academies, meaning they can get on with the important job of raising standards and delivering a world class educational experience to some of the most challenging areas in London."