When Bridey Fennell's parents pulled her out of high school for five months so the family could sail their new catamaran from Brazil back to the United States, the challenge was more than a nautical one. How could they keep Bridey, then a sophomore in Illinois, from falling behind in her schoolwork?
Bridey's parents got creative, enrolling her in several classes at the largest online learning high school in a neighboring state, the Indiana University High School (IUHS). Over the next few months, as the family sailed through the Atlantic and the Caribbean, Bridey downloaded homework when in port, completing her assignments while at sea, then uploading them to a Web-based drop box or emailing them to instructors. For exams, the family turned to dock masters, ship captains, and retired teachers as proctors, who then signed the tests and mailed them back to IUHS. At the end of it all, in addition to an unforgettable adventure, Bridey got straight A's in all her courses.
Welcome to the brave new world of educational opportunities made possible by cloud computing, defined as a set of technologies that provide services that can be delivered over the Internet in real time.
"This is a revolution," says Curtis Bonk, a professor of education at Indiana University and blogger on GETideas.org. "Education doesn't have to take place with the teacher front and center and students sitting in rows. It can take place outside, under a tree branch, on a boat or plane, in a grocery store or while hiking, if you have an Internet connection."
Tapping the Mother Lode of Online Resources
The Bridey Fennell story is one of many Bonk relates in his book, "The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education." It's packed full of examples of bleeding-edge instructional technologies that are delivering the promise of cloud computing, even though most teachers and students don't use the term.
Cloud computing is changing the ways people do personal learning, interactive learning and many-to-many learning, in the primary, secondary and higher education spheres. And un-tethering students and teachers from desktops is only part of it. It also gives greater longevity to information by storing it in the cloud (imagine if Sir Isaac Newton had posted YouTube videos about his breakthroughs); and it allows students to interact and collaborate with an ever-expanding circle of their peers, regardless of geographical location, Bonk says.
"The huge strength of the cloud is content online and open-ed resources, a lot of which are free," Bonk says, citing as an example the Khan Academy, a library of over 2,400 free videos covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance and history. "This shared online video is one of the immense opportunities sitting in front of every educator's eyes."
Since 1997, Cisco Networking Academy has been delivering, free of charge, learning content, assessments, and instructional support through cloud technology to educational institutions around the world.Today, the Networking Academy works with institutions in over 165 countries to deploy large-scale education programs that have helped 1 million students develop technical, business, and critical 21st Century career skills. Cloud technology delivers resources in a way that is cost effective, consistent, and is easy to distribute and update.
The cloud also opens doors for people with nontraditional learning needs. Older students who never finished high school can now get their diploma via the cloud, Bonk says. The cloud also serves the needs of workers transferred overseas who want to continue their education, people with disabilities, people seeking new job skills, middle- and high-school students seeking refuge from bullies, pregnant teens who don't want the word to get out and so on, he says.
"There are all sorts of reasons," Bonk says. "Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone are accessing the cloud and it's changing their lives."
Challenges to the Cloud
Lynn McNally, who sits on the board of directors of the K-12 technology leadership body Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), says cloud computing offers great potential in education but not without growing pains for everyone.
Challenges range from securing data in the cloud to managing the large amounts of instructional software used in schools (not all of which can go into the cloud), to getting adequate IT support in a world where many school districts have as many as 900 devices per IT person, and overcoming a shortage of dedicated IT and instructional departments to help districts take a strategic approach to the cloud. Although the cloud has the potential to save school districts money in IT support, the jury is still out on that, McNally says.
"A lot of smaller school districts have been supporting IT on the fly," says McNally, who is also the technology and library resource supervisor for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia. "With the advent of enterprise-level software-as-a-service, that will have to stop."
There's also the challenge of equipping each student with a device to access digital resources, not to mention the need to train teachers using public Web 2.0 tools in the cloud – such as blogs and wikis – in how to make the most of such resources.
"School districts need to be putting out guidelines for their staff on how to use these tools in a way that promotes 21st Century learning but in a safe way," McNally says. "I think there's a void there."
As more school districts avail themselves of the cloud, the biggest challenge of all, McNally says, is and will continue to be securing reasonably priced bandwidth. K-12 districts can get very affordable broadband in areas where government entities have partnered with private service providers to build the infrastructure, she says. But she says broadband can be very costly in areas where districts must rely solely on the private sector.
A World Without Textbooks
That said, McNally predicts these and other issues will get resolved in the coming years, many of them as a result of the evolution of learning management systems in the cloud where teachers and students will work in face-to-face and distance learning scenarios. She says cloud computing will greatly benefit school districts, where there's a trend toward a digital curriculum using all digital resources.
"Nobody wants to buy textbooks anymore," she says.
Particularly helpful, McNally says, will be two subsets of cloud computing: software-as-a-service (SaaS), which is the real-time delivery of cloud-based software; and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), which provides free resources such as storage, email and collaboration tools. A third category – the delivery of a computing solution-stack-as-a-service, or platform-as-a-service (PaaS) – is less relevant to school districts, she says.
Add to that the explosion of devices like tablet computers and a confluence of trends from the consumerization of education to gaming and gesture-based computing, and the cloud is poised to open up undreamed of possibilities for teachers and students alike.
Says McNally: "The cloud is only going to grow."
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