By Jan Vandenbos
The cloud computing revolution is upon us. Never before has it been as cost-effective and easy to deliver data and applications on a large scale to audiences beyond traditional boundaries around time and place. Cloud services are particularly beneficial to K-12 educational systems, and we are seeing the rapid uptake of some for the following reasons.
Today, there is an amazing proliferation of user-generated content in the educational forum. No longer is the textbook the sole repository of information and knowledge to share with students. Instead, the uptake of project-based learning environments and virtual learning is driving new forms of pedagogy in the classroom — and beyond. Students and educators are regularly creating their own materials that they share willingly and regularly with their colleagues and fellows, including video/films, music and written documents.
With this proliferation of content comes increased demands on educational information and communication technology environments and administrators to promote large-scale storage and distribution of content, as well as the desire to provide better content creation/generation, discovery and collaboration tools for the educational forum.
The Nature of the Users
The very nature of participants in the educational forum is changing, as well. A large percentage of the student base are digital natives for whom their data, and a good portion of their lives, are already lived in the cloud — not to mention, a good percentage of their social interactions are online.
These same digital natives are actively seeking new forms of education that cater to their individual needs. The rise of projects and free online curricula, such as the Khan Academy, Udacity.com and Coursera.com, are clear indicators that external sources are becoming core components and drivers of education in the school system today.
With that said, another factor comes into play as more and more parents and students are becoming dissatisfied with the current learning environments available. These same parents/students (and even educators) are making moves towards alternative and non-traditional forms of learning including the apparent rise of home schooling and again the rapid uptake of virtual/online curricula to educate their children.
The educators, as well, are looking for alternative ways to deliver educational content more effectively and to a wider audience. Although some of the educators may be considered digital immigrants, having not completely grown up with the tools that technology offers, most are apt to look for ways to expand their educational tool base to help them teach better.
The tools in the educational forum are themselves rapidly evolving. School management and learning management systems are driving a new educational foundation forward. Unfortunately, in the traditional educational IT environment, deployment of these systems in bulk across a large volume of IT assets is a difficult and frustrating problem for educators, administrators and IT personnel. Where educators (and students) are often seeking to try newer learning tools (and school management systems), they are often handicapped in their ability to adopt change, let alone try these new systems by their current IT environments and the costs associated therein.
A tremendous advantage of the cloud to the educational forum is rapid deployment and access to tools and content not typically available to schools. Better tools (for example, online learning management systems), more up-to-date content, better educational delivery and better assessment systems all work in concert to create more productive learning environments and more efficient educators and students.
These same virtualized (cloud) learning management systems (for example, http://www.angellearning.com) enable robust educational environments in both face-to-face and distance learning scenarios while allowing rapid uptake due to web-based, often vendor- (or private cloud-) managed deployment based on widely available and robust Internet technologies.
Another huge advantage of using cloud-based learning and management systems is the ability to deliver pedagogy using new hardware platforms. The massive uptake of tablets and smartphones is driving the student, parent and educator base away from traditional desktop environments and enabling learning opportunities that are not reliant on school hours and classroom location restrictions.
Removing Time and Place Limitations
The cloud inherently breaks down major barriers to education. Educational tools and content can be accessed from more places and any time. Data and content becomes available anywhere and at any time. This allows students, parents and educators ubiquitous access to the learning environment at home, when sick/injured/disabled and even when traveling or virtually telecommuting from all over the world.
The cloud also allows the just-in-time delivery of content at the time it is both useful and valuable and allows the delivery of content that is relevant to the particular students at the time they need it (effectively enabling a one-on-one learning environment and deprecating the ‘teach to the lowest common denominator’ problem).
Delivery and Support of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies)
Let’s face it — IT systems in educational environments have always struggled to keep up with the demands of their user bases and the rapid growth and advancement of technologies related to education. Both large and small school systems, especially in these fiscally constrained times, are faced with an IT support capability that in many environments is scarce and overburdened.
Delivery of cloud-based solutions allow vendors and private cloud administrators to deliver said tools more rapidly, effectively and with better support systems much more cost-effectively than has ever been possible in the past. The Northern Ireland school system estimates a savings of more than 30-40 precent in deploying their cloud-based learning solution over traditional IT infrastructure and management costs.
The cloud brings with it the opportunity to deliver highly cost-effective, scalable and efficient education.
A Few of the Core Benefits of Cloud-based Solutions
- Cloud-based solutions are often centrally managed, reducing the workload and number of staff required to administer IT systems.
- Cloud-based systems are more secure than traditional IT systems, and security and administration is often centralized — reducing complexity and operating costs.
- Cloud-based solutions centralize patch management (often managed by the vendor), upgrade burdens and reduce the need to bulk upgrade hardware and software across multiple sites.
- Cloud-based solutions can dramatically simplify license management for school systems. Most traditional licensing systems are a mess and almost unmanageable for school systems, and in being so suck money and time from these systems. Cloud-based systems offer simpler, more easily managed licensing models that can dramatically reduce burdens for school systems.
- A lot of cloud-based systems are delivered under pay-as-you-go models, allowing school systems to accurately predict costs as well as both scale up and scale down as needed on demand.
- A few other benefits: more energy-efficient, less out-of-date infrastructure and services that are much easier to rapidly deploy across the system.
The cloud is here, and it has tremendous advantages within the educational forum. It is time for schools to start raising their level of awareness as to what these technologies and services bring to the table.