Exploring the value of the Cloud in education
Over the past few years, the popularity of Cloud in the Middle East has risen dramatically and in no area of the market has this been felt more than within the region's education sector.
Though late to the draw when compared to other organisations in other sectors, educators have pushed for wider Cloud adoption, realising the many benefits that range from improved integration, data storage and management, as well as a significant reduction in day-to-day costs.
One such educator is GEMS Education, a global private education company that provides education to over 190,000 students from over 176 countries, through GEMS owned and managed schools. It has also been reported that over 270,000 students access resources through the brand's services division.
"GEMS Education is at the forefront of the drive to transform the education industry and provide our students with the values, attributes, skills, fluencies and knowledge they will need to succeed and become the leaders of tomorrow," explains Michael Gernon, global Head of Innovation, GEMS Education.
"At the centre of this, sits the company's digital Strategy which provides for a cohesive and truly global digital ecosystem, generating and sharing world-class learning, effective data utilisation, and providing forums for teacher and student collaboration, and empowering all stakeholders to lever the true strengths of a global network of schools."
Linking the entirety of GEMS Education's global network is the GEMS Digital Ecosystem, which comprises of six core systems deployed at each of the brand's institutions.
This includes a Management Information System (MIS), Office 365, a Customer Relationship Management system, Microsoft Dynamics - ERP, along with an artificial intelligence-driven assessment and portfolio-building tool used for personalised learning and parent engagement.
Also part of the platform is GEMS Fusion, a Learning Management System and portal that accesses all teaching, learning and assessment tools, as well as content and services offered under the brand.
Through this ecosystem, GEMS Education is able to provide a range of benefits for teachers, students and parents, alike. For example, GEMS teachers can bring in external experts through a digital channel to work with students, while parents can utilise a mobile app to access their child's student information. Being connected to a global network of schools enables both teachers and students to share resources and even participate on global learning initiatives.
As one might expect however, the journey to the Cloud was not without its fair share of challenges.
"As a uniquely complex global organisation, with offerings in multiple curricula and at various market entry points across four continents, establishing a single and cohesive ecosystem has been a significant challenge," comments Gernon.
"However, the ecosystem differs from most school set-ups and is a pin-cushion model rather than a bubble, designed to ensure that on-the-ground innovation in teaching and learning continues to drive our success.
"The benefits of this approach have allowed us to re-examine our infrastructure and overall IT costs. The most significant benefit (and operational challenge) has been to move to wide-scale BYOD adoption in all our schools. All of schools now operate a BYOD strategy (mainly for 8-year-olds and above) and we have now begun to see the demise of the old-style ‘IT lab' and everything that was wrong with teaching IT."
For GEMS Education, the advent of Cloud has become a critical enabler for education in the digital era.
"At GEMS Education, the intelligent use of Cloud technology is vital for empowering decision-makers at all levels. Data is the new oil and we can only serve our students and their families effectively if we are smart in the way we collect and use data,"
"Cloud technology allows us to utilise this in the most effective way in informing and continually ensuring that our teaching and learning remains outstanding, innovative and highly relevant. This is the key advantage that we see over other school systems.
In Dubai, so much technology is being deployed through Smart City initiatives, tech hubs and accelerators, and the way that most businesses are now operating. If education does not follow suit, then we all become the poorer relation," he adds.
Another education brand that has embraced the Cloud is Taaleem, formerly known as Beacon Education. Incepted back in 2004, Taaleem was originally founded with four schools, which includes the Uptown Primary School in Mirdif and Dubai British School in The Springs. Today, the brand's portfolio comprises of 11 schools with an enrolment of roughly 9,000 students.
While the rollout of Cloud is still ongoing across all of the academic institutions associated with Taaleem, certain schools, such as the Dubai British School Jumeriah Park, is already enjoying the benefits of cloud.
"Our management information system is Cloud-based. So all of our schools can access it, and even parents can access it as well, which is helpful," explains David Talbert, head of Technology Integration, Dubai British School Jumeirah Park.
"Moving away and having your system stored in the Cloud, means that you rely more on the vendor than your own infrastructure and in terms of providing that extra security. That reduces your overall cost, making you more cost-efficient."
The head of technology adds that being Cloud connected has enabled the brand to centralise its academic data, while also cutting down on the need for physical servers. At the same time, students are also being taught how to use the system, in particularly accessing the Cloud-based structure of Office 365. Furthermore, the platform is mobile enabled, so both students and teachers can access resources through their preferred mobile device.
The brand itself is also in the middle of implementing iSAMS, a browser-based management information system that oversees the generation and storage of reports.
"All our schools has iSAMS as part of the MIS. This is where we do most of our reporting ... We use iSAMS a lot to collect our data on our students, reporting, and parents use it to access their child supports," explains Talbert.
"Parents are able to access their child support options on their phone, laptop, or any device. And that is the advantage of the cloud, which is no matter what device you have, you're able to access your information and complete it yourself."
This accessibility is particularly useful in the case where parents are travelling abroad, but still want to remain informed on their child's academic progress.
From the vendor's side of the fence, ESKADENIA is a recognised name within the IT education market. Since 2008, the company has offered its ESKA Academia solution, an Education Management System ideally suited for either secondary or tertiary academic institutions. To date, ESKADENIA has fostered a portfolio of 22 education institutions that are running ESKA Academia's web-based software products.
"Although educations institutions were a little late in adapting technology in the Middle East, we have rapid growth and technology adoption in the past 10 years. We are witnessing a breakthrough in education technology allowing higher involvement of parents and interactive capabilities with students," comments Shadi Saadeh, general manager, ESKADENIA.
"In past three years, we see educational institutions are favouring a low CAPEX IT infrastructure, investing in hardware for onsite implementation. Therefore, private cloud implementations are becoming more and more appreciated."
When pressed on what he sees as being the challenges of Cloud adoption in education, the GM noted that the main challenge lies with moving towards, "the shared cloud infrastructure providing the SaaS subscription."
As internet connectivity is a key requirement in accessing Cloud-based storage and services, having a fast internet connection is a critical business need, but one that is often expensive. While the protection of data is undoubtedly paramount, the question of data ownership is a lingering issue.
This also implies that both cyber security and backup recovery are two important challenges that need to be addressed, both in protecting sensitive student information and minimising disruption of service.
Despite these obstacles however, the GM maintains a positive viewpoint for Cloud in education over the next couple of years.
"We are witnessing a huge technology transformation in educational institutions, an understanding and appreciation of technology tools, as well as a trend towards minimising the CAPEX and day-to-day management of IT routines," explains Saadeh.
"The Cloud is there already, the tools are all set for this move to take place. All we need is to drive the awareness of the advantages of cloud, while tackling all foreseen challenges to increase trust.
"Students will no longer be required to physically be located inside the school when all distance learning tools and capabilities are offered. Students in rural areas in the Middle East can still get the proper education offered to students around the world while being with family and friends," he concludes.