Cloud Computing in the K-12 Environment: Perks and Potential

Cloud computing has changed the personal and professional lives of adults, and it has the potential to considerably alter the school experience of young people. While the cloud poses its own, unprecedented challenges — as we will further discuss — it also presents new opportunities to expand practices in education for students in even the earliest grades. Cloud computing may most immediately connote convenience, an ability to move, share, and transfer information unencumbered by storage devices. However, it also offers a solution — imperfect and not fully developed, granted — to problems of limited budgets,  provides an accessible platform for building technological skills, and can promote and enable collaboration between and among students and educators.

For institutions struggling with budget challenges, the cloud presents a chance to cut costs in a manner that, theoretically, has no negative bearing on students. Without having to buy and maintain on-site servers, schools save not only on hardware, but also on the personnel required for server maintenance. Funds spent on data storage and software — including the breadth of programs needed and the attached licensing fees — also decrease. As Stein et al note in Improving K-12 Pedagogy Via a Cloud Designed for Education:

Clouds build on economies of scale, offering remote access to software applications without local installation on users’ workstations. In addition, vast arrays of remote hardware and infrastructure are made available to users and operated by Cloud providers. These provisions greatly reduce the costs per service below what can be achieved by individual institutional IT resources, especially for small and medium sized institutions (236).

Public clouds, such as those offered by Google or Vimeo, come at no or low-cost and thus enable affordable access to a variety of software options. They are not necessarily inherently suited for schools; however, enterprising educators can still make use of these public options when funds are extremely tight. Real-time exchange of information in public cloud servers still enables bridging of physical distance, and available tools, such as video sharing, can help educators and students use technology for skills-building even through an imperfect platform (Harris 16).

Private or community cloud software created specifically for the K-12 environment can come with a higher price tag, particularly when tailored to the needs of an individual school or district. Although these may come at greater financial cost, providers such as GlobalScholar offer tools that condense the number of total software applications needed by a school or school district, in some cases noting that this has halved some districts’ technology spending (Kollie). Open source software for designed for education, such as the Virtual Computing Lab discussed in Stein et al (236), offers an affordable option, and the increasing availability of such applications provides schools with suitable, economic  choices as they contemplate the most effective ways to grow 21st-century learners with 21st-century budgets.

Indeed, the upcoming implementation of Common Core State Standards formally calls for students’ ability to use technology for both information- gathering and information-sharing. Young adults will be expected to leave school knowing how to not only find and interpret information on the internet, but also use software tools that demonstrate their knowledge, communication skills, and ability to use technology in ways similar to what might be asked of them as they enter the job market. The breadth of software available via cloud computing can significantly broaden students’ knowledge and skill bases at costs generally more affordable than hosting and maintaining such software — and the infrastructure required for its effective functioning — at the local level.

With such a variety of cloud computing software tools available, educators have multiple avenues to enhance student learning and achievement. In On Cloud Nine, McCrea and Weil document the use of varied programs in different school districts. In their chosen examples, educators have effectively used: Wixie, wherein 4th-grade students designed virtual activities for kindergarteners learning shapes; Adobe Professional Connect, which has given increased meaning to field trips through pre-trip knowledge acquisition and post-trip synthesizing of information; GoogleDocs, used for creation and storage of writing projects as well as real-time peer and instructor feedback; StudySync, whose extensive offerings include a much-used peer review tool; a Wiki that has “(r)oughly 500 students worldwide are working together online to create and edit a wiki that examines current trends in college education” (50); and School Loop for literature-focused study groups and podcasts. McCrea and Weil also note the use of cloud computing software by and for educators, including not only Google documents, spreadsheets, and calendars, but also products like MasteryConnect– a free software application that helps teachers track their students progress in mastering skills required by Common Core (48-51).

A common theme runs throughout these varied applications of cloud computing: collaboration. Not only are students and educators able to work together in virtual environments, thus enabling group learning despite physical location, but use of these tools can also promote in-person cooperation. For instance, in the Wixie project described by McCrea and Weil and noted above, the 4th-graders not only designed virtual activities for their kindergarten “buddies,” they also worked one-on-one with the kindergarteners to teach them the concepts called for within the activities. Furthermore, educators can — and ideally, do — use the tools available through cloud computing as components of larger projects; students may upload work created locally to the cloud in order to obtain feedback or share information and creation.

References:

Kollie, E. (2011, May). Cloud computing’s limitless options. School Planning & Management. Retrieved from http://www.peterli.com/spm/resources/articles/archive.php?article_id=3026

McCrea, B., & Weil, M. (2011). On cloud nine. T.H.E. Journal38(6), 46–51.

Stein, S., Ware, J., Laboy, J., & Schaffer, H. E. (2013). Improving K-12 pedagogy via a cloud designed for education. International Journal of Information Management33(1), 235–241.

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