Taking Education to the Cloud

By: Chuck McGill

“Why would anyone want to compute in a cloud?”

That was my first reaction to hearing the phrase, cloud computing. Clouds are ethereal, temporary, ever-changing. Hardly sounds like a good environment for doing computer work or storing precious digital data.

Despite the misleading name, cloud computing has proven reliable, efficient, and full of potential for education.

Cloud computing refers to software applications, storage, or other resources that exist online on remote servers and are available to multiple users via the Internet rather than being installed on local computers. The online, remote nature of the cloud allows users to perform three main functions:

  • Store data online to be accessed from anywhere.
  • Create products online with online software applications.
  • Collaborate with partners, even at a distance, to create or modify products.

Let’s look at each of these functions and how they can be used in the middle school.

Store Data

Have you ever noticed that middle level students tend to lose things? Assignments, books, USB drives, laptops? In fairness, middle level teachers have been known to do the same thing. Consistent use of the cloud for storage can mean that you and your students will never lose a file again.

Instead of saving files to a local computer or server, you simply save it to an online server. Dropbox (https://www.dropbox.com) is one popular storage service. I keep all my work and personal files on Dropbox and can access them from any Internet-connected computer.

At Dropbox you can set up a free account and download free software that looks like a folder on your local computer but is actually synched with your online Dropbox account. Many content management systems (CMS) that schools use, if they are hosted on offsite computers, also include online data storage that can be used in the same way.

Using cloud storage, students can easily access and download digital files from computers at school or at home. Teachers grant access so students can submit assignments by putting them in a teacher’s Dropbox or other online account, such as on a CMS. This eliminates the physical transfer of files and facilitates the often-problematic transfer of very large files like videos.

Create Products

The most exciting trend in educational technology, in my opinion, is the proliferation of sites and online applications that allow students to create and display their own content and products. This trend is transforming the Internet from a place where students consume content to a place where students create and share content. This role-shift puts our students closer to the center of the educational process, which is where they should be.

Some online platforms offer entire suites of productivity software like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and website creation. Google Drive is the most common of these platforms. With a Google account and a browser, a student can use any of the software applications without having any other software installed on the local computer. Students can access and work on their projects from any computer connected to the Internet.

Along with these suites, many individual sites allow students to create and share in the cloud such as Prezi (https://prezi.com), Piktochart (http://piktochart.com), and Popplet (http://popplet.com). This introduces the third function of cloud computing: collaborate.

Collaborate with Others

Many of the cloud applications that allow you to create online also allow you to work on the same project with other users simultaneously. This allows for genuine and meaningful collaboration, whether they are in the same classroom with you or on the other side of the world.

In some applications, the collaboration is simple. In Popplet, for example, permission is granted to other users to add and modify content; their contributions are labeled with their username. In other applications, like Google Drive, the collaboration can have many layers. Permission to edit is granted to particular users or to any user who has a link to the document. While collaborating, the contributions and revisions of different users are tracked and recorded. Users also can leave comments in the margins of the document linked to certain words or passages. Other users can respond to these comments in a threaded, asynchronous (not in real time) discussion.

While editing the document, users can use a chat function that allows for synchronous (live) chat within the document while they are collaborating. A colleague refers to this as the “trifecta” of online collaboration.

This type of online collaboration has practical advantages, such as eliminating the need to keep track of versions or e-mail documents back and forth. It also allows deeper and more meaningful collaboration in real time and over time. It aligns teachers and students with progressive educational approaches.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages of cloud computing stem from the anywhere, anytime online access through the Internet.

  • Files can be accessed from anywhere.
  • Students can use the same computer environment at home and at school.
  • Applications are online and software does not need to be installed on local machines—a huge potential savings.
  • Real and meaningful collaboration is possible.

Ironically, the disadvantages of cloud computing also stem from the anywhere, anytime online access through the Internet.

  • Cloud computing depends on the availability of reliable, high-speed Internet access. Without it, students cannot access their files or applications.
  • If you can access your files from anywhere, anytime, then so could someone else. This is the security concern. I believe that cloud computing is worth the potential security risks when weighed against the advantages, but this is a calculation that you and your school will have to make.

Strategies for Implementation

If you are new to cloud computing, I suggest taking an incremental approach organized around the three functions of cloud computing we discussed.

Store: Try putting some of your and your students’ files on the cloud. Start with the files around one project or assignment and have students save to and submit to a Dropbox account or use an existing CSM at your school. Later, you can move existing files to the cloud if you choose.

Create: Take an existing project that uses software like word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation. Instead of the usual software, have students create on Google Drive using the Google software.

Next, try to think of a new project or activity for which students need to create a presentation to display their learning. Then use a new application like Prezi, Popplet, or Piktochart to support the project.

Collaborate: Use the same approach for online collaboration. If you have an existing collaborative project, have the students create it on Google Drive with permissions to collaborate. You will soon think of new collaborative projects.

When you realize the advantages of cloud computing, I predict you will not be able to stay off the cloud.

Chuck McGill is coordinator of the endorsement program for K–12 teachers of computers, keyboarding, and related technology applications at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.  crmcgill@umn.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2014.

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