Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
The “cloud” refers to surplus computing resources available from specialized data centers, each often hosting thousands of servers, that power the world’s largest websites and web services. Growing out of research in grid computing, cloud computing transforms once-expensive resources like disk storage and processing cycles into a readily available, cheap commodity. Development platforms layered onto the cloud infrastructure enable thin-client, web-based applications for image editing, word processing, social networking, and media creation. Many of us use the cloud, or cloud-based applications, without even being aware of it. In schools, use of cloud computing is progressing along a path that began with the adoption of collaborative tools for administrative tasks and that leads, eventually, to classroom adoption of cloud-based tools for learning.
The cloud is the term for the myriad of servers and other computers that power the Internet. Cloud applications harness the unused resources of these computers to distribute applications, storage, and even processing power to users in ways that are increasingly useful, low cost, and ubiquitous. Cloud-based applications use storage space and computing resources from many available machines as needed. “The cloud” denotes any group of computers used in this way. Cloud computing currently includes three broad areas of development: cloud-based applications, which are designed for many different tasks and hosted in the cloud; development platforms for creating cloud-based applications; and massive computing resources for storage and processing.
Most people are familiar with the first type: applications that serve a single function, such as Gmail or Quicken Online, that are generally accessed through a web browser and that use the cloud for processing power and data storage. The second group of services offer the infrastructure on which such applications are built and run, along with the computing power to deliver them. Examples include Google App Engine, which allows developers to create and host tailored programs using Google’s infrastructure; Heroku, which does the same for applications developed in Ruby on Rails; and Joyent, which hosts and scales applications in a variety of languages. The final set of cloud services are those that offer sheer computing resources without a development platform layer, like Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud or the GoGrid. These resources are often used for intensive computing and research tasks.
Many of the technologies we use every day — and many featured in this edition of the Horizon Report — are supported by the cloud. Collaborative environments and tools are cloud applications; mobile applications are often hosted in the cloud; augmented reality applications, especially those that run on mobile devices, are often cloud-based as well. One of the advantages of cloud computing is that it makes it possible to deploy tools that can scale on demand to serve as many users as desired, and then scale back to conserve resources when usage levels drop. Applications that offer online storage, like Dropbox, Flickr, and others, use cloud solutions to provide inexpensive space. As a result, the cloud has become well established as an infrastructure for computing and communication.
Regular readers will have observed that cloud computing appeared in the 2009 Horizon Report: K-12 Edition, where it was placed on the mid-term horizon. While it was difficult to find examples of the use of cloud computing in schools a year ago, there are now many, many schools that have adopted cloud-based tools for productivity, scheduling, curriculum development, and collaboration, at least at the administrative level. This shift has moved cloud computing firmly into the near horizon for 2010, although we have yet to see significant adoption of some of the most promising advantages of cloud computing, such as using collaborative cloud-based media authoring tools for student work, or participating in large-scale research efforts that use the power of inexpensive parallel processing made available by the cloud.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression
Cloud computing can offer significant cost savings in terms of IT support, software, and hardware expenses. It has become common for schools to use cloud-based applications to manage calendars, rosters, grade books, and communication between school and home. Examples of student use of cloud resources, however, are more rare. Adoption of cloud-based tools at the administrative level is a promising sign that schools are approaching the point where they can take advantage of the opportunities these tools offer for teaching and learning. Some schools, like Columbia Secondary School in New York, have adopted cloud solutions to facilitate student work in engineering, English, debate, and other subjects. At CSS, students use Google Spreadsheets to learn budgeting, and work on peer review and editing of their writing projects using Google Docs.
Minnesota Online High School, which serves over 300 remote students, recently made the shift to cloud computing, using a suite of applications including a learning management system and applications for coursework, homework, school services, and personal files. The change freed the school from having to press, ship, and inventory software CDs and made it easier for their IT support staff to assist students, who use a wide range of computer platforms. Similarly, iLab Central is a project funded by the NSF through MIT and Northwestern University that provides remote access to sophisticated labs and scientific testing equipment for high school students.
Teachers of some STEM courses have partnered with universities and other centers to access higher-end computing resources to enable students to work on complex projects involving scientific research data that desktop computers are unable to process. North Carolina State University, for example, is working with IBM to provide cloud applications, computing power, and storage space to every public school in the state. In the fall of 2009, IBM announced the IBM Cloud Academy, a group of schools, universities, and other learning organizations dedicated to discovering and promoting ways to use the cloud in education. The group includes school districts as well as universities from around the world. Their goals include finding ways for school students to participate in research projects using cloud resources.
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. Additionally, the fact that cloud applications can be accessed from a variety of devices, including not only desktop and laptop computers but many mobile devices as well, positions cloud computing as a solution that can help to fill existing gaps in school technology while making the most use of already available resources.
A sampling of applications of cloud computing across the curriculum includes the following:
- English. At West Springfield High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, English classes use Adobe Buzzword to create, edit, and review writing assignments. The students find it easier and more fun to comment on one another’s papers using the tool.
- History. ArcGIS Online, developed by ESRI, includes a suite of web-based mapping tools that are used across the curriculum. As one example, history teachers use the tools to quickly create custom maps of battles, journeys, and other significant events.
- School Services. Coleman Tech Charter High School, scheduled to open in September 2010 in San Diego, has integrated cloud computing into the school’s design from the ground up. Student work and activities will be facilitated by a range of cloud tools, a robust wireless internet network will ensure that access is available anywhere on campus, and coursework will be accessible from any location for homebound or traveling students.
Cloud Computing in Practice
The following links provide examples of how cloud computing is being used in schools.
Clarkstown Central School District, New York
The Clarkstown Central School District uses Google Apps to coordinate curricula and resources within schools and across the district. Innovative uses of the calendar, shared documents, and shared sites makes it easy for teachers to follow district curriculum plans, keep up with school-related events, and create and share curriculum resources.
Cloud-Computing Infrastructure and Technology for Education (CITE)
This project, from MIT’s Climate Modeling Initiative, looks at ways to use cloud computing resources to perform scientific research, both in university labs and in K-12 classrooms.
Columbia Secondary School
A partnership between the New York City Department of Education, Columbia University, and the Columbia Secondary School has led to the deployment of cloud-based systems including a custom content management system and Google Apps. The students are using these cloud applications to do research and to collaborate in new ways.
Infrastructure The Highway to 21st Century Learning
(John Kuglin, CIO, ECSD. Ed Tech Magazine.) The Eagle County School District in Colorado is implementing a cloud computing system that will make tools for email, word processing, presentations, and calendaring accessible to everyone in the district.
Laboratory for Continuous Mathematical Education, St. Petersburg, Russia
This project, supported by an HP Innovations in Education grant, connects students with scientific researchers, giving them an opportunity to experience professional research practices while also building their own technical skills. The students work with researchers from both scientific and industrial professions.
This cloud-based video service is modeled after YouTube but is designed specifically for teachers, schools and homeschoolers. It offers a wide range of educational videos on a range of topics.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about cloud computing.
Above the Clouds: A Berkeley View of Cloud Computing
(Michael Armbrust et al., Technical Report No. UCB/EECS-2009-28, 10 February 2009.) The authors posit that cloud computing has the potential to transform the IT industry by creating computing services with less risk of over- or under-provisioning based on fluctuating demand and by creating an elasticity of storage and processing resources.
Briefing: Cloud Computing
(MIT Technology Review, July/August 2009.) This article describes how cloud computing works and discusses its impact on various industries and professions.
Computing in the Clouds
(Doug Johnson, Learning and Leading with Technology, December/January 2009-10, pp. 16-20.) This article provides an overview of cloud computing and discusses how the technology can benefit schools.
The Start of a Tech Revolution
(Kurt O. Dyril, District Administration, May 2009.) This article summarizes how the use of cloud computing can have a positive financial impact for school districts.
What is Cloud Computing?
(Cloudbook, accessed March 5, 2010.) A number of short videos prepared by various professionals and researchers give an overview of, and some perspectives on, cloud computing.
Delicious: Cloud Computing
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2010.) Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk10” and “cloudcomputing” when you save them to Delicious.