Northern Ireland education turns to the cloud

School children using technology in class

It’s just ten years since Apple launched the iPod (and unveiled iTunes), creating a DNA code for the foundation for the iPhone and iPad, devices that are having a significant effect on all manner of established IT infrastructure.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the areas where this revolution in devices is being most keenly felt is education. Ten years ago, few students would have owned a personal computing device of any type but now a significant proportion own a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

The bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon is often discussed as a means of accommodating users at a corporate level, sometimes in terms of matching the expectations of graduates joining the workforce accustomed to using their own devices. But this tends to overlook the point that those graduates were once students and increasingly students are bringing their own devices into school expecting to be able to use them for their studies.

This creates similar types of pressures for schools as those faced by the workplaces. In addition to enabling access from personal devices, they are faced with the requirement to provide networks and infrastructure with strong connectivity and security that support media-rich content, document creation, video editing, collaboration, communication, email and messaging. These are all activities that students are accustomed to in their life outside school and are beginning to expect from their school environment as well.

One way to make this happen is by using the cloud. That’s the approach being adopted by C2k, the organisation established to help schools in Northern Ireland get the best for teaching and learning from education technology.

One of the largest and most comprehensive educational ICT initiatives in the UK, C2k provides schools in Northern Ireland with a comprehensive managed ICT service. The service includes a LAN in each school with access to a Northern Ireland WAN, administration and management systems for schools, access to the Learning NI managed learning environment (including filtered access to the internet and e-mail), the Virtual Classroom secure videoconferencing system and full service support.

The contracts for the managed service were previously split across a number of lots provided by different suppliers and when those contracts expired in 2009, C2k extended them for a further period while it set about the procurement process for a single education network managed by a sole provider.

The five-year £170m contract, awarded to Northgate Managed Services (NMS), is designed to give students and teachers increased access to learning resources via a cloud-based network that allows them to use mobile devices, such as tablets, laptops and smartphones, for their work.

The Education Network Northern Ireland cloud-based network, which C2k claims is Europe’s first education cloud, will also centralise education materials for 1,200 secondary and primary schools and 350,000 teachers and students in Northern Ireland, making it the largest project of its kind in Europe.

NMS has taken responsibility for all aspects of the service, including the WAN and LANs, while connectivity to the cloud will be delivered by Eircom. NMS is using VCE’s Vblock Systems that converge Cisco’s networking, EMC’s storage and security and VMware’s vSphere virtualisation software for the private cloud infrastructure.

Commenting on the network, Andy Ross, chief executive at NMS, says it has "built a very modern, very flexible hybrid solution that takes advantage of private cloud and public cloud to create a big hybrid cloud. We’re providing something that’s platform independent, operating system independent, browser independent and device independent." Having a single education network means NMS can provide schools across Northern Ireland with “a standard service using a standard interface and at a standard price."

Cloud-based content, including a personal learning environment for students, a learning management system, collaboration and communication tools and a learning content management system, is provided via the Pearson Fronter virtual learning environment on a SaaS basis.

Other public cloud services available to students include Office 365 and Google Apps. Pupils and teachers have a single sign on to access applications, educational resources and toolsets, via Northgate’s My-School portal, backed up by Novell Identity Manager.

Stuart Gunning, regional director at NMS, says the portal enables personalisation for pupils using school IT equipment, giving them access to a chosen text editor, for example, whether it’s installed on the machine they’re using or not. They will also be able to use their own personal device because once they have signed on to My-School the machine is part of the network with the same level of security and access to schools-based content.

The system can be personalised or customised for whether the user is a pupil in primary or secondary school, a teacher or parent or someone with special needs. Personalisation can follow the individual wherever they log on with whatever device they happen to be using.

One significant area of concern was around the use of Web 2 and collaboration tools. Gunning says having “any time anywhere” access can create its own teaching issues. For example, instances of cyber-bullying via instant messaging or SMS. With My-School, these messages can be trapped and something can be done to address the problem.

The nature of Northern Ireland’s society and the unique demographic there places a very strong emphasis on ensuring there is no inequality of provision to schools, down to the smallest rural primary school. Gunning estimates there are around 35-70 "hard to reach" schools where it has been especially difficult to install broadband connections and alternatives, such as microwave or satellite, have been deployed instead.

The service provides C2k and the schools with more predictable budgeting because they pay a monthly charge that can never be above an agreed maximum. “They know exactly what the maximum monthly charge is for the next five years,” Gunning says. And if a school doesn’t receive the service for a certain period of time, NMS will not receive payment from the affected school for that month.

According to Gunning, the New Education Network should enable pupils to complete every task they are required to achieve to meet the Northern Ireland national curriculum using video editing, document creation, communication, research and collaboration. "There shouldn’t be a limitation to it," he claims. "If there is, it’s because we haven’t thought about it yet."

With the official launch of My-School for post-primary schools taking place in September, one thing pupils returning from their summer break to Northern Ireland’s secondary schools shouldn’t be stuck for is somewhere to compose their "what I did in my summer holiday” essays.