Features, Technology

Gazing Down From Cloud Number Nine

Gazing Down From Cloud Number Nine

By Lisa Tran

Clouds in the classroom will not create a murky learning environment. Rather, these “clouds” or, cloud applications, are being hailed as the next big thing in technology. Major corporations like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.com have begun the race to become leading cloud computing providers. However, with today’s ever accelerating speed of development, cloud applications are already entering the classroom and will clear a path for students toward a accessible computer programs.

You are probably using cloud applications or, apps, like Facebook, Flickr, or Gmail but may not realize it. In spite of this, many of us active cloud users only have a vague sense of what cloud computing entails. There are at least 22 definitions of cloud computing existing in literature, according to a report cited by John Powell, Lecturer at Leicester Business School. Loosely defined, cloud computing is on-demand, powerful Internet computing that does not rely on one’s own computer.

Cloud computing is actually a very simple concept. One basic example of a cloud app is Flickr, a photo storing and sharing website. Pretend you have uploaded hundreds of photos from your European vacation last summer onto Flickr to publically or privately share with friends and family. Where exactly are those pictures stored? As soon as you click the “upload” button, all of your information is sent up to Flickr’s massive and powerful data centres or, “the cloud.”

There are a variety of benefits for basic cloud apps such as Flickr or Gmail. One of the main benefits is accessibility; all you need is a login and the Internet. You do not even need a computer since many apps have mobile options for all types of smart phones. You can view your content anytime and anywhere. Another benefit is cost—most apps are free. For those who require more capabilities, apps can offer tiered pricing options to meet individual needs.

Simply put, basic cloud apps provide affordable and accessible storage and sharing. In today’s age of technology, this may sound mundane, but if we break it down, it really is marvelous technology. To upload those vacation photos, for example, you did not need additional hard drive space or memory on your computer. You also did not have to purchase or install any software. All the computing is done not on your machine, but done through the Internet. You connected your camera to your computer, logged into your online photo sharing account, and the app’s powerful data centre took care of the rest. Simply put, you “tapped” into Flickr’s cloud the same way you plug into a utility.

Every minute, there are millions of cloud app users simultaneously uploading billions of bytes of data onto their accounts effortlessly (well, most of the time). The smooth functioning of apps relies heavily on immensely powerful data centres.

Data centres are expansive storage areas for refrigerator-sized computer towers. Microsoft’s Chicago Data Centre is a true powerhouse. It is a warehouse filled with shipping containers, each 40 feet in length and holding 2000 servers. The processing power within data centres results in computations 10,000 times faster than a home computer. For educators this means greater access. Previously, many teachers and students had limited access to programs and apps because older, slower school computers could not run new software. Now that many apps run through the Internet, teachers require only a high speed Internet connection instead of computer software.

Cloud apps are advantageous for education because there is no need to upgrade every single computer in a school to run a new program. Schools that elect to use cloud apps will no longer have to make the upfront investment of purchasing hundreds of software licenses or discs. There are even greater savings for schools because, in addition to free versions, apps run on a “pay as you go” model. You pay for the amount of storage, capabilities, or length of subscription you require. This is a more cost-effective approach rather than buying a full software suite only to use one or two of its features.

The 2010 Horizon Report: K-12 Edition explains that “the value of cloud computing as a way to provide access to services and tools without the need to invest in additional infrastructure makes it an attractive option for many schools.” The report also says that student use of the cloud is rare because many of the existing cloud apps are primarily administrative in nature, which is excellent for teachers. They can easily coordinate their documents and schedules from the classroom, their home, or on the go on a mobile device.

Arguably, student use of cloud apps it not as rare as the Horizon Report purports. More and more students are taking advantage of the cloud’s inherent accessibility. Students can easily log in and access the newer and more powerful apps previously denied them due to slow classroom computers. However, clouds apps are not limited to photo storage or e-mail. For example, Google Docs and Adobe Buzzword are online word processors that run on the cloud. Students can compose their work in the library or computer lab and not worry about saving their work on public machines or losing their memory sticks. Another cloud app is Picnik, an online photo editor that allows users to easily edit and add creative brushstrokes to their photos. ArcGIS Online by ESRI is another cloud app that includes a suite of online mapping tools that students can manipulate for history or geography assignments.

Online apps also mean easier collaboration for students, especially for those students residing in remote areas who rely on distance learning. Students need not hover over one screen in order to provide their input. They can collectively comment, whether in real-time or asynchronously, on the same document while logged into their accounts on their own computer.

Cloud computing provides opportunities for even those educators living without the benefits of the Western World. In 2009 for example, an article appearing in The Seattle Times entitled, Microsoft Cloud Computing Gets Down to Earth, reported that the Ethiopian government provided 250,000 laptops to its teachers, all tapped into Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure. The teachers downloaded curriculum, kept track of academic records, and transferred data throughout without building a data centre. The teachers “are going to be able to leapfrog ahead of most companies in the U.S.,” says Danny Kim, chief technology officer of FullArmor, a Boston company working on the software deployment in the Ethiopian project.

The appeal of cloud computing is its scalable possibilities. For teachers in Ethiopia, cloud computing substitutes the Internet for complex infrastructures of hardware and networks. On the other side of the world, Canadian teachers who are teaching summer school for example, can simply purchase a one month subscription—and not longer—to their cloud app of choice.

Not every program runs on the cloud. The majority of programs out there—in every market—is still software in a disc format that installs on one’s computer. This can be problematic if your computer is old and lacking the necessary power to process the software. However, there are now public data centres popping up around the world that sell power and storage to the general public. This means you can buy an immensely large and powerful design software suite, give it to a public data centre, and they will run the software from their machines. You access it online by simply logging in or, tapping into their cloud. You would only pay a usage fee. If you use the program a lot, you will pay more, but if you seldom use the program, you will pay less. This process is called Software as a Service or SaaS and can benefit teachers who want to introduce students to comprehensive software the school computers cannot handle.

Like any technology, there are drawbacks to cloud computing. The main concern is privacy. All websites have a ‘terms of services’ agreement that details each user’s privacy rights. However, technology cannot exist without glitches and there have been incidents where users’ private data has been exposed to the public. Caution is recommended when sharing sensitive information similar to making a credit card purchase in a store. You trust that your information will not be stolen, lost, or manipulated. But it happens.

The other drawback to cloud computing is the Internet itself. You may not need the latest model of a computer, but you do require a reliable broadband connection. A fast Internet connection is also expensive. As reported by the CBC in early 2010 in Canadian Internet Slow, Expensive: Harvard, Canada has the slowest and most expensive Internet access in the developed world. This is a debate that is far from over. Slower Internet connections, however, should not deter educators, especially at the higher levels, from introducing cloud apps to teachers for administrative use or for student use.

In short, cloud computing extends the reach and ability of education outside the walls of the classroom and transforms current e-learning practices. In the near future, cloud computing will become the type of technology that will be sewn seamlessly into the fabric of learning. As more companies develop software for the cloud, it will quickly be adopted for everyday use. The benefits of cloud apps move up the ladder from students, to teachers, to principals, to school board members, and trustees. Just like cloud computing allows us to easily collaborate on a single project, it can bring all those within the education system together and toward a positive future filled with infinite learning opportunities—a cloud nine of education.

For more information:

Adobe Buzzword
Cloud Computing – What is it and what does it mean for Education? By John Powell
Google Docs
Horizon Report
How Cloud Computing Can Help School Education
What is Cloud Computing?

What cloud apps are you using in the classroom? What about for personal use?

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