Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Educators Need to Get Their Heads INTO The Clouds with Cloud Computing

As an innovative educator I've been an early adopter of cloud computing.  I remember when I first discovered "Writely" at a conference several years ago.  I was so excited that there was a tool that not only let you write online, but it also allowed you to collaborate.  This was huge!  No more issues of version control, and because it was free, no more needing to buy word processing software.  Google caught on quick and swooped up Writely which is now known as Google Docs.  As Google does, they took it even further and developed spreadsheets, presentations, drawing, forms and more. If that wasn't enough, they made a special free version of all this for education.  Fantastic! This was when I first developed a deep appreciation of "The Cloud." 


In short, when we speak of “the cloud” what we are saying is we are using the internet – the Cloud – to access programs that are not stored on your computer. It is a fundamental shift away from the traditional way of using your PC because you no longer need software installed on your computer. In fact, you no longer need a dedicated computer.  Instead, software, and everything you create with it, lives in the cloud with hosted services like email, photo sharing (Flickr), video sharing (YouTube), file sharing (DropBox and Google Docs), or social media (Facebook and Twitter).   


In education, many schools and districts stuck in bureaucratic red tape (real or imagined) are dreadfully behind the times.  Unfortunately, they have not caught on and they're needlessly wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on software apps when there are alternatives available for free, for all. The other benefit is when you work in the cloud, students and staff no longer need to have a dedicated computer. This is yet another thing that many schools needlessly struggle with. Some are relying on outdated models or using outdated research about the importance of 1:1 laptop ownership that was based on conditions that existed in the days before cloud computing was an option.  


Working in the cloud is something iSchool principal Alisa Berger began doing when she opened her school.  A white paper by Greg Nadeau about Virtual Education Spaces confirms what Alisa had learned as a result of her own experience.  One-to-one isn’t quite the panacea it is touted to be. Instead, she argues that the key is as she calls it virtual education space, or “the cloud.” She believes student ownership of laptops, doesn’t provide all the assumed benefits. Instead, what’s important is that students can access “their” work, just like 21st century employees who can log in from any computer including using vpn at home. She shares that providing ubiquitous access, but not one-to-one alleviates a plethora of issues. For instance, there are a lot of problems with reimaging because students with their own laptops love to customize them. Her laptops automatically reimage and it doesn’t matter. This results in the devices being indestructible. She doesn’t have to worry about inventory issues that have become a nightmare and burden for some one-to-one schools. Finally, she says she has peace of mind that she doesn’t have to worry about safety or breakage issues that can occur when devices move from school-to-home across a school. As Alisa shares, most kids today have some sort of computer at home. With this option it doesn’t have to be top of the line as the virtual education spaces (or “the cloud”) provides access to all school software and resources as long as the student can find some way to obtain Internet access. For the students with device or Internet issues, Alisa and/or her staff figure out a way to either secure devices or figure out alternate Internet access options (i.e. libraries, community centers, mentors, family members).

Like Alisa Berger’s iSchool, there are some schools and districts that have caught on.  Saline Area Schools is one such district.  You can read the school’s case study to find out how they had a total savings of about $400,000 in the first year alone.  Not only did they save a lot of money, but as Superintendent Scot Graden explains,
“K-12 Google Apps has worked out better than I could have ever imagined. We expected a more reliable, stable, and virus-free email. But we got more – a suite of integrated collaborative applications that are being used by teachers and in our classrooms."
You can see what this looks like in this video.  


Schools can join the future and save a tremendous amount of money if they updated outdated thinking with the marriage of cloud computing, lifting filters on all but porn, and allowing (rather than banning) students to use personally owned devices at school.  The savings of the paperless environment, the elimination of software licenses and servers would be felt immediately.  The need to purchase devices only for those students who did not have them would not only result in an enormous hardware savings, but also a reduction in tech support as the student, not the school, would take responsibility for their equipment.  This could also result in the complete elimination of another money-waster, the textbook. Once we’re working in the cloud there is endless access to interesting, up-to-date information, rather than what is found in the boring outdated sludge of those outdated relics.   


If you’re an innovative educator and you’re still thinking schools must provide dedicated tech to all students, buy software, maintain servers, waste paper, weigh students down with textbooks, etc, then it’s time for you to go...
TO THE CLOUD!
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