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- Maximum cloud coverage
Cloud computing has the potential to revolutionise IT in education, making it cheaper to run, more responsive to students’ needs and environmentally-friendly into the bargain, argues Clive Bush. More
Cloud computing has the potential to revolutionise IT in education, making it cheaper to run, more responsive to students’ needs and environmentally-friendly into the bargain, argues Clive Bush.
Maximum cloud coverage
If you are thinking about your school’s or college’s vision for learning for the next five years, what role do you anticipate ICT will play in it?
You may be concerned about the ongoing costs of renewing PCs, laptops and computer rooms. Then there are the rapidly increasing energy bills and the overheads of ICT and network management. Data security and cybercrime, meanwhile, are a challenge for schools as well as businesses.
There may be challenges in that ICT usage in the classroom may be very different to the way students interact with technology in their daily lives. Then there are the threats or opportunities of the technologies that students possess – smartphones, MP3 players and even tablet PCs. How do you exploit the capabilities of these devices, rather than imposing a blanket ban on them?
And, in general, you may be worried that your current provision is not really fit for purpose and that there is a need to think differently.
If any of the above chimes with you, then you probably also spend some time wondering if we have somehow missed a trick with ICT; that it has never really fulfilled its promise as the highly effective teaching and learning tool we once thought it could be. Indeed, it may have become more of an encumbrance for many teachers, who would rather not plan it into their work. Perhaps it is time for a fresh look, given that the world of ICT outside of education has moved on considerably.
As ICT guru Professor Stephen Heppell put it earlier this year: “Why would a school (or college) provide a network and all the computers when kids have already got the stuff in their pocket that works very well? The big reason I am saying this is that we need to do it all cheaper. They have got tweeting on their phones, decent browsers, and iPads. We have to get to the point that we reached with calculators when you can just say, ‘Turn up with the stuff’.”
In other words, hearing a teacher give the instruction, “OK, get your phones out and switch them on”, is one that may not make us all recoil in horror in future in the way it does now!
Demystifying the cloud
I believe the next big step in ICT usage in schools and colleges is about to hit us and it all comes down to what are becoming familiar terms – web 2.0, social networking and cloud computing.
‘The cloud’ is the system of remotely managed data and application storage long favoured by the likes of Paypal, Google and Amazon. Social networking sites, so beloved of our digital native youngsters, also use the cloud and associated web 2.0 technology to function.
So what has this to do with schools and colleges? In the US, schools are beginning to get rid of their banks of climate-controlled servers and linking their school systems to a ‘cloud’ area, unique to them, where all their data, applications and programs are stored, much like businesses have been doing here for several years. It is estimated that this alone reduces their IT-related energy consumption by more than 75 per cent.
But the advantages can go much further than energy saving. The cloud potentially offers greater security, continuous management and almost unlimited storage, all automatically backed up hundreds of times a day. Its usage also means that licensing costs can be significantly reduced because the school need only pay for the applications it is using at any given time – a pay-asyou- use service that can stream those specialist applications as and when they are needed, without the need to buy an annual licence.
The potential is greater still when you consider how our young people use IT and what motivates them. Through something called ‘desktop virtualisation’ and again using the cloud, any device – iPad, smartphone, MacBook, laptop, tablet, new or ancient PC – can be used as the link to the cloud and a teacher’s or pupil’s own personal computer space.
This virtual computer – much more than a virtual learning environment (VLE) – can carry all the usual applications like Windows, Office and so on. It looks and functions just like the desktop we are all familiar with, as long as there is a broadband connection.
It can also be made to check and repair itself every time it logs on. This means more savings because schools and colleges can have managed and safe computer access from anywhere where there is an internet link and from any device, without the need for expensive new machines or upgraded servers. Students can access homework on their computer at home, on holiday, in hospital, from any internet-enabled device.
The school or college can remain firmly in control of what staff and students can access, and teachers can continuously monitor usage in real time in their classrooms or beyond.
Free education websites are rapidly being developed by teachers here and abroad that look and work like Facebook so that, in addition to controlled internet access, teachers and pupils can communicate directly wherever they are.
Teachers can monitor, comment and mark work as it is being done; groups can be set up in the class, school or beyond; teacher blogs, podcasts and vodcasts can be stored and used as they are needed, and much more. One excellent example is www.edmodo.com and more are in the pipeline.
Such sites welcome student and teacher contributions to their development – as our students would expect from any self-respecting web 2.0 site. Using such technology, schools may be able to make the long-awaited jump from the locked-down, computer room/laptop trolley structure many now have, to a genuine anytime, anywhere, any device approach to open up learning.
But before we become too enthusiastic, it’s important to acknowledge that the issues this raises are considerable. First of all, the majority of students are far more familiar with this way of working than most of their teachers – implying the need for a considerable amount of professional development and a significant change in teaching practice for some colleagues.
Secondly, effective use of this open approach to ICT requires a broader pedagogy that can ensure the huge resources and opportunities it provides can be properly utilised.
Thirdly, a major shift will be required in many classrooms if tablets and netbooks are to be readily available – and smartphones are to be switched on – with all that that implies for classroom management, rules and protocols.
Finally, there are practical issues to do with data security which will need to be managed.
But as Stephen Heppell says, we did it with calculators and, although there are differences of scope and scale, we should be able to do it with web 2.0. Indeed, given the motivational premium this brings for students, the enormous opportunities teachers will have to open up learning and the very significant cost savings compared to what most schools and colleges now pay, we may soon find that it is sensible to embrace rather than resist the revolution.
- Clive Bush is principal of ICT specialists LearningPoint.net. He was previously the national director of the Secondary National Strategies and a secondary head.