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Today's Forecast: Cloud Computing In Education

It’s hard to tell whether cloud computing is "the next big thing" or just another buzz word, but, according to a recent survey of 5,300 organizations in 38 countries, change is already taking place: "the promises of reduced cost, improved performance and greater scalability" are driving interest in "moving to cloud."

But what does cloud computing mean to those of us who care about education, teaching and learning?

When an organization "goes cloud" it means that the organization no longer deals directly with many of its computing/IT needs – e.g., software, updates, storage etc. The key to understanding this model and its broader implications is to appreciate the transition it represents: from viewing computing as a product to viewing it as a service. Much like public utilities, IT resources are delivered to users through the internet, just like electricity is distributed to our homes through the power grid. Users pay according to their consumption level, and the service provider takes care of the rest – see here.

Evidently, by moving to the cloud, organizations (including schools and universities) can save on IT infrastructure and maintenance. Some have noted that the model could also bring about changes in the IT sector, perhaps require a different type of (and/or fewer) IT professionals. Second, cloud computing should also help increase accessibility to educational content and convenience. For example, if lessons and assignments are be posted and stored in the cloud (i.e., on the shared server), students can work from anywhere, collaborate/interact with their peers etc.

But what else is cloud computing?

Thinking about the cloud in a broader sense, this migration could represent an opportunity for a fresh start; a chance put our fascination with gadgets aside for a moment and reflect on the proper role of technology in different types of organizations.

As education writer Robert Pondiscio notes, we have made a "fetish out of technology," elevating tools to the status of magical objects, overlooking the fact that "technology is a delivery mechanism," and that what matters first and foremost is what is delivered, not how.

Cloud computing may contribute to a new thinking about technology: It’s not so much that we won’t need computing, the key is that we won’t think about it. In other words, the technical aspects of technology will become irrelevant to the average user. Thus, our fascination with those aspects and the people who know about them will go away. Who will be the focus instead? It depends.

In schools, it will be teachers and teaching. Leaving the technicalities of technology out of the classroom - quite literally in this case - should help eliminate technology as a "distraction" which should in turn help organizations regain direction and focus on what/who matters most to them.

What else will the cloud help bring about? New technologies are neither ends (except in the field of technological innovation perhaps) nor just means. Some technologies are – often accidentally – "data collection devices." When we make a call, check our e-mail, swipe our credit card, or surf the web we leave digital traces. These "trails" can be compiled and used to gain a more comprehensive and in-depth understandings of human behavior - see here and here for short overviews "computational social science." Making sense of these scattered "digital footprints" is possible when data are linked, stored and accessible in one place: the cloud.

In education, "technology-captured data" is of great interest in the emerging field of "learning analytics," which refers to "the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance, and spot potential issues" (see here).

"Data are collected from explicit student actions, such as completing assignments and taking exams, and from tacit actions, including online social interactions, extracurricular activities, posts on discussion forums, and other activities […]." For early implementations in higher education see here, here and here. Although "learning analytics" and cloud computing are not the same thing, cloud and/or cloud-like solutions will be necessary for its full development.

The cloud model faces critical challenges regarding security, privacy and ethics - especially when it comes to regulating access to user generated data stored in the cloud. These issues have not been solved and are the subject of much debate and controversy. As for the pros, cloud computing can help schools save money, and may also represent an opportunity to focus on what matters: content not tools, and the learning process not just the outcome. By promoting the transformation of traditional IT staff, cloud computing may translate into increased support for teachers: IT staff could help teachers on the how (i.e., tools) so that teachers could focus on the what (i.e., content). Second, to the extent that the cloud facilitates the integration and sharing of student-generated data, the cloud model should be instrumental in the development of fields such as "learning analytics" which appear promising to understand the process of learning.

- Esther Quintero

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