Yet while educational institutions shut their doors to comply with lockdown rules and ensure social distancing, many lessons have been able to continue online with the help of cloud-based technologies.
Using a range of cloud-based applications and tools, educators have delivered online lessons, set assignments, shared educational resources, marked assessments and communicated with both students and parents.
“The pandemic has raised awareness of the vast range of digital options and materials available to support education, leading to an increase in innovation and specific tools,” says Jonathan Seaton, chief executive and co-founder of Twinkl Educational Publishing, an online academic publisher.
However, a survey by the UK’s National Union of Students found shortcomings in this e-learning, with 38 per cent of student respondents saying they were unhappy with the quality of their online learning provisions and 27 per cent experiencing inadequate access to academic resources online.
Amy Catterall, a first-year psychology student at the University of Liverpool, has found that online university learning raises both academic and social challenges.
“I haven’t had the chance to meet most of the people on my course as I would in normal times,” she says. “This hinders the process of making friends. Academically, concentrating can be difficult when the class is being taken via Zoom — it’s easy to zone out of the lesson when you are sat in your bedroom.”
The Aldenham Foundation, a 950-pupil Hertfordshire independent secondary and preparatory school, is one of many institutions that turned to a cloud computing strategy to teach students at home.
“Key to this for us was addressing cloud security . . . enabling our teachers and students to teach and learn safely using cloud tools and resources,” says Charlie Cochrane, Aldenham Foundation head of technology.
“You need clear strategies on cloud computing in education to avoid confusing teachers, parents and students. That means choosing single platform technologies,” he says, explaining that the school conducts its online classes over the widely-used video conferencing platform Microsoft Teams.
“We’ve learnt how important it is for all children to have their cameras on for their wellbeing and being able to see all of their classmates,” adds Cochrane.
Technologies such as VMware Horizon — which provides virtual desktops giving students and staff remote access to academic materials and software — have offered a lifeline to educators during the pandemic.
“If there’s a sudden explosion of students requiring access to our server remotely, our IT team has been able to leverage the cloud so we don’t have to increase capacity on campus,” says Iain Russell, head of infrastructure at Edinburgh Napier University.
However, the switch to lessons outside of the classroom has been a culture shock for both educators and students.
“When the pandemic hit higher education, we were only partly prepared,” says Anne Swanberg, associate dean for short learning modules and digital courses at Oslo-based BI Norwegian Business School, which has about 19,500 students. “Most teachers and students were already users of cloud applications for their daily tasks. However, the full online experience was a shock for most teachers and students all over the globe.”
She admits it was not a scenario that staff had planned for. “Many teachers did not have the right skills to transform classroom teaching to Zoom teaching, and educational institutions have been forced to rethink their [IT] support capacity and capability in order to deliver teaching, learning and assessments online,” she says.
In spite of these challenges, though, Swanberg says remote learning will continue to transform education.
“The last year, and current use of cloud technology, has taught us that there is great potential in utilising cloud computing in knowledge sharing, collaboration and examination in the education sector,” she points out. “We will experience quite radical changes in higher education in the next few years when it comes to delivery formats and learning design, combining online and campus-based learning experiences.”
Niamh Muldoon, global data protection officer at cyber security company OneLogin, believes that cloud technology will make quality education available to more people.
“By moving resources to the cloud, educational institutions are able to create virtual classrooms. This makes education more affordable and enables academic institutions to reach a greater number of students,” she says.
Muldoon warns, however, that the growing uptake of cloud technologies by such institutions makes them prime targets for cybercriminals. “Already, many are being targeted with phishing emails. Young students, or those just starting out in online learning, are most at risk. But in general, most are ill-prepared,” she says.
Still, educational institutions must embrace cloud technology to remain competitive in the long term, argues Matt Davis, chief technology officer and co-founder of online textbook library Perlego.
“The pandemic has pushed educational institutions online earlier than planned, but many of the new cloud technologies will remain in place when the pandemic subsides,” he says.
“As students become accustomed to the newly adopted way of learning, educational institutions will want to keep them in place, especially if they are found to be useful and contribute to a better student experience.”