Cloudy with a 100% Chance of Education

posted Nov 3, 2011, 7:28 AM by Eric Curts   [ updated Nov 30, 2011, 12:07 PM ]
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Cloud computing is a popular term that gets used a lot, but what does it mean, and more importantly what does it mean for education?

Basically cloud computing is when you use servers that are not stored at your location, not owned by you, and not maintained by you, to provide you with the programs you use and to store and retrieve your data.  This is in contrast to hosting and maintaining your own servers, loading and updating your own software, and storing and backing up your own data.

At first glance it sounds a little scary, since you are relying on someone other than yourself and your own organization for services that are most likely critical to your operation.  So why are schools increasingly turning to cloud computing as an alternative?

My district, North Canton City Schools, has been moving more and more into the cloud over the past several years.  Below are several reasons we have found why this to be the right solution for our staff and students.  And not just as an acceptable second choice, but actually as the best way to provide more and better services for teaching and learning.

Saving Money

With cloud computing there are many areas for potential cost savings.  As a public school district we need to be as responsible as possible with the money we receive from our taxpayers, making sure to get the most impact from the funds we spend.  Cloud computing has allowed us to make the most of our dollars concering software and hardware costs.
  • Software costs - The best example is Google Apps for Education, which is free.  This allows us to save money on other software licenses, such as Office since we get email, calendar, and productivity programs free with Google Apps.  Additionally the spam filtering with Google Apps is fantastic and has allowed us to get rid of our Barracuda spam filter and its associated update costs.
  • Hardware costs - By using the cloud we need far fewer physical servers of our own, which means less hardware to service and replace, and less electricity to run what we do still have in-house.

Saving Time

Cloud computing allows us to do more with the tech staff we have.  Our staff are able to focus on tasks of greater impact such as technology integration, since they are not spending as much time maintaining servers and installing/upgrading software on local user machines.  The Google Apps servers are maintained by Google, and when the frequent updates come our for Google Apps programs they are automatically rolled out online for us.  There is no need for us to visit the 1700+ computers across the district to apply updates or install some new program.  All cloud programs are web-based, so the users just open up their web browsers to access the latest and greatest services we have selected.

Anywhere Anytime Access

Because our programs are web-based, this allows for our staff and students to access our software outside of the traditional school day and location.  As long as a user has Internet access, they can get to our technology offering from anywhere such as school or home or the public library.  And they can use any Internet connected device whether its a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, smart phone or some other device.  Furthermore this reduces the need for flash drives and other home access to school network drives, since the user’s data is available anywhere they go.

Although this certainly is true for Google Apps, it applies to all many of our software offerings.  Over the past several years we have transitioned many of our programs from software that gets installed locally on a user’s computer, to a service that gets delivered through the web browser.  This includes our electronic grading program (Pinnacle), our special education IEP software (IEP Anywhere), and many educational programs and websites (BrainPop, Rainforest Maths, and numerous free educational websites).  Again, this allows us to extend teaching and learning outside of the traditional classroom and school day, allowing students and staff to access these resources anytime and anywhere.

Reduced Compatibility Issues

When you use cloud-based programs, everyone is always on the same version with the same features.  There is no concern about students having a newer version of Office at home and then not being able to open their documents on the older version at school (what used to be a very common problem for us).  This makes it easier for working on files, sharing documents, troubleshooting, and providing training, since everyone is always using the same, and the most recent, version of the services.

Increased Collaboration

On of the most transformative features of cloud computing is the ability to collaborate.  Because the programs, documents, and data are all stored online and available through the web, users can have access to the same files at the same time.  This allows for staff and students to share and work together live on the same documents.  This is fantastic for group projects, group note taking, cooperative grant writing, committees working on a shared task, paperless classrooms with assignments turned in and graded digitally, and more.  Cloud computing makes live, real-time collaboration easy and effective, and opens the door to new ways to teach, learn, and interact.

Increased Services Offered

Because of cloud computing we have not only been able to move our existing services into the cloud, but have also been able to add new services we otherwise would not have been able to do easily.  A great example is Google Forms, which comes with Google Apps for Education.  Google Forms allows you to create online surveys, polls, forms, quizzes, and such.  You can then share these forms with staff, students, and/or parents as needed, and they can be filled out online.  The data is then collected for you in a Google Spreadsheet where you can view summaries of the results or analyze the information in any way you want.  This service has allowed us to poll our community for their opinions on many subjects, provide formative assessments for our students, collect staff change information, allow parents to register their children electronically instead of filling out a stack of papers, and much more.

Foundation for New Projects

Perhaps one the most important benefits of cloud computing is that it opens up possibilities for new projects.  With cloud computing as long as users can get to a web browser, they can get to our services.  We are no longer tied to a specific brand, model, operating system, or form-factor for our computing equipment.  We are no longer limited to teaching and learning during the school day.  So what possibilities does this open?

One example would be Bring Your Own Device (BYOD /BYOT) programs.  This is where the school allows the students to bring in their own personal devices to use in school rather than requiring them to use the computers we provide.  This can be a great way to get more technology into the school, at little or no cost to the school.  Plus since the students own the devices, the students are familiar with them and tend to take much better care of them.  Because of cloud computing, students can use their laptops, tablets, or even smart phones to jump on the web and access our services.  For much more details on the idea of BYOD / BYOT please see this presentation: http://www.thestateoftech.org/2011/10/episode-3-podcast-byot.html

Another example of new projects would be blended learning or online learning.  In these models for instruction, part of all of the teaching and learning occurs online rather than in a traditional classroom.  For some students online learning is a better fit for their learning style or their schedule.  For many students, it would be a great benefit to have regular classroom instruction, but then also have additional learning opportunities and discussions outside of class through discussion forums, interactive websites, prerecorded videos, live video chat, and such.  Cloud computing sets up a school with the ability to provide creative instructional opportunities for students, since learning can take place anywhere and anytime.

Peace of Mind

The final benefit I will share from our experience is peace of mind.  The Google Apps for Education services we use (Gmail, Calendar, Google Docs, etc) are the exact same services that the employees of Google use to run their multi-billion dollar company.  I am quite sure that their resources to provide reliability, security, service, and back-ups are far greater than we can ever provide ourselves.  Instead we can devote our time, energy, and talents to assisting our staff and students to get the most out of their education by using the technology tools we provide.

Challenges and Considerations

Of course cloud computing has its own set of challenges as well, if it going to be successful.  For example connectivity and security are two important considerations.

You have to have a reliable connection to the Internet if you are going to access all your programs and data through the web.  If your connection goes down, you will have little or no functionality.  Schools need to make sure they have good network infrastructure, which may be a cost for some schools if they don't.

Thankfully even if the connection does go down, Google has worked hard to provide off-line options.  Earlier this year they rolled out tools to allow user to access Google Docs, Gmail, and Calendar when not connected to the Internet.  See http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/using-gmail-calendar-and-docs-without.html

The next concern is security and privacy.  In short you need to be able to trust the place where you are storing your programs and files.  Google makes it clear in their privacy policies that you own your data, and they do not look at it or share it with others.  See http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/edu/privacy.html