Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Is software in the cloud the future for education?

In education, we have become very aware of the benefits of 'the cloud' through the use of VLEs, Learning Platforms, Google Apps for Education and other such services.  Files and content are often saved online in order to be easily accessible and to allow greater collaboration and sharing.  My colleague Lucy (@lj101) attended a course over the summer organised by NAACE where she was introduced to Point2Educate (at the time called Stream2Schools) which seems an interesting extension of 'the cloud', in that instead of hosting files and content, it hosts software, both free (open source) and commerical (rental) that schools can access both at school and at home.  This got me thinking...is this the future for schools in regard to how they manage their networks and software?

Having had a (admittedly quick) look at this product, I can see number of advantages to this approach towards software.  Firstly, with all software hosted by Point2Educate, all updates and upgrades are taken care of for schools without onsite or scheduled technical visits.  Secondly, as the software can (with an additional license) be made accessible by students at home, this allows the use of this software for homework as well as providing all children with equal access to the range of software used at school.  I also like the mix of open source and commercial software found on the player.  We have long advocated the use of open source alternatives in the schools we support and if this sort of solution raises the profile of these titles, that can only be a good thing.  The commercial software also seems to be from many of the common suppliers used by schools, which is important for a product such as this to take off.

A couple of final positives I can see from this approach include the designated Naace section of the point2player which includes access to an area dedicated to the Naace ICT Framework, containing full documentation, CPD, open source software, free online resources, and supportive teaching community tools.  I think, in the absence of an 'ICT Curriculum', the Naace ICT Framework is a good starting point for schools waiting for the Government review of the curriculum.  Finally I like the way the commercial software is costed.  Instead of being a one-off perpetual site license, a school rents the software for 4 months at a much reduced cost.  I believe this is perfect for schools as the cost works out about 1/8 of the normal site license cost, which allows schools to purchase software only when they are going to use it, e.g. in a particular term or topic.  I also wouldn't expect schools to be using the same software in 8 years time as technology develops, so renting could reduce the overall total cost.

My concerns with this approach are three-fold.  One is access; with all things online, there is the concern with regard to having equal access for all pupils, especially as the home access is at additional cost to schools.  Secondly, training; although the player provides links to the documentation and support sites etc., I have concerns that without proper CPD, the impact of using these resources may not be maximised and this is certainly a consideration for schools wishing to follow this approach. Finally, school infrastructure; we have occasionally seen schools purchasing devices (particularly mobile devices) without due consideration to the effects on their infrastructure e.g. wireless access points.  If software is to be accessed online, and multiple users will be accessing this at once, as you would expect, then this is likely to place a huge strain on school's wireless infrastructure and internet bandwidth - is the school's infrastructure able to cope with this or does money need to be spent in this area?

I think this is a really interesting concept that I can see working in many schools.  I think time will tell if this will take off and having only had a limited look at it, I would be interested in the experiences of any schools that have trialled the point2player in their school.  You can download the free player for yourself here.

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