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Should you put your head in the cloud?

Is your understanding of the technology a little hazy? Looking for the silver lining? Lee Suckling forecasts a bright future for cloud computing.

What is cloud computing and where did it begin?

“Cloud computing is the ability to share and collaborate documents and projects with others on the Internet,” said John Treloar, Adobe Education Director. “A ‘cloud’ is an online server which enables a user to create, edit and share documents anywhere at anytime, without the need to store it on a physical device or send files via email.”

Cloud computing in its current state began with webmail, which gave users the ability to store emails and files online. It has since gained popularity with the likes of Google Apps and Microsoft’s Live@edu providing cloud-based software applications, productivity tools, and storage.

A number of common Web 2.0 services can be considered ‘in the cloud’ – bookmarking, social networking, collaboration tools, even YouTube and flickr. However, these are largely personal services – what we’re interested in here are office software services suitable for use in schools.

What are the uses and benefits of cloud computing?

“Student expectations for school technology are rising,” said Nils Beehre, Education Manager of Microsoft NZ. “At the same time, schools have difficulty scaling to meet the capacity and quality requirements and have limited budgets to address accelerating expectations. This is one reason why service-based delivery vehicles for software – such as Web cloud computing solutions – are becoming more compelling.”

All common applications including word processors and spreadsheets can be accessed easily from any Internet connection with a cloud solution.

“No local IT expertise is required, and neither are upgrades necessary,” added Peter Mancer of Watchdog, which offers support to schools implementing Google Apps.

Cloud computing also increases the ability to collaborate and allows universal access to information.

“This is the most important aspect of cloud computing, students and teachers can all work on one document from anywhere at one time,” explained Treloar. “Whether a student is at school, at home, or at their aunt’s house, they can work on projects with instant online access and saving capabilities. It means there’ll be no more ‘I’ve lost my homework’ or ‘I’ve forgotten my books’ responses from students.”

Today’s pupils live in a technology-driven world and expect immediate responses, and cloud computing offers the opportunity for teachers to provide that.

“Students can share and submit their work with teachers on the cloud, and get instant feedback and marks,” he added.

What are cloud computing’s key challenges?

The major problem that can arise is the quality and reliability of the school’s Internet connection. The more that the school relies on cloud solutions, the more critical the connection is.

“A fibre connection or fixed WAN Ethernet is really recommended for high performance cloud computing, especially with off-site server infrastructure, due to the lack of service level agreements in New Zealand on ADSL connections and the variable speed and reliability of these,” said Mancer.

While some wireless networks do offer acceptable performance, reliability is inevitably lower.

The other key challenge is the security of the cloud off-site. Authentication of users via passwords needs to be usable with minimal training for the teacher or administrator, which is “difficult in these early stages where teachers don’t fully understand the technology,” said Treloar. “Students and teachers need to know how to protect what’s in the cloud environment, so it can’t be shared with just anyone.”

What options are available to schools?

Google Apps Education (http://edu.googleapps.com) offers a free set of customisable tools that enable teachers and students to work together and learn more effectively by using hosted Gmail and shared calendars with integrated video chat, and anytime, anywhere document processing and sharing.

As well as Live@edu, Microsoft offers free online file, document and spreadsheet sharing using Microsoft Office programs like Word, Excel and PowerPoint with Office Live Workspace (http://workspace.officelive.com). For more on Live@edu see our Two-minute guide on page 34.

Adobe Buzzword (www.adobe.com/acom/buzzword/) allows users to author and co-author, read, review and comment on word processing files, slideshows and even use Photoshop Elements, a basic version of the popular image manipulation software.

Other services you might like to investigate are Amazon EC2 (http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/) and Zoho (www.zoho.com).

How is the concept of cloud computing developing for the school market?

“The good news for educational institutions is that through increased competition and innovation we are seeing a range of ‘education related’ cloud computing services being offered in the marketplace, many of which are no cost to acquire,” said Beehre, while Treloar noted “it’s still in its early days in education, but teachers are increasingly showing each other how easy cloud computing is. And because online collaboration is an ingrained skill for 21st century students, cloud computing is a simple concept for them.”

If a school has any reluctance to try a cloud solution, all it needs to do is “contact another school that has taken the plunge and learn from them,” added Mancer. “There are a number of lead schools who are pioneering educational applications (in cloud computing) and we expect 2010 to be a year when an increasing number of others take it up.”

LEE SUCKLING WRITES FOR INTERFACE MAGAZINE.

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Categories: Article, Issue 22

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