May 2, 2009

An Academic Cloud of Computing

From my K-12 educational lens, I'll simply call cloud computing the maturation of Internet computing to networked computing. Networked computers come in the form of many different Internet mobile devices that can access web applications. Google Apps, Wikispaces and Yola are just a few examples of web applications that reside in the cloud rather than software on an individual computer hard drive. The cloud also enables computer processing power to be shared throughout the cloud allowing the users to experience normal network traffic speeds as opposed to many people hitting singular servers and causing a traffic jam with a specific application.

Wikipedia defines cloud computing as a "style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet."

Wow! Let's break that down for what cloud computing could look like in a K-12 school district.
  • The personal computer (by way of the Internet and browser ) is evolving into a networked computer.
  • Singular hardware, software and servers are giving way to a collective virtual cloud of resources that are seen as services on the Internet.
  • These services are scalable, in that they are controlled centrally by an IT infrastructure and can grow and progress at a manageable rate across a school district.
  • Visualized resources can be educational services on the Internet that may include, but are not limited to a:
  1. Virtual Web Desktop - An Internet portal that functions like a personal computer desktop;
  2. Content Management System (CMS) in the form of a District web site drilling down to a school website>teacher website;
  3. Learning Management System (LMS) controlled by a teacher for his/her class or course including resources and applications such as class: calendar, assignments, polls, quizzes, blogs and wikis;
  4. Student Digital Locker Storage - usually part of a CMS/LMS providing students a determined size of digital storage for all their school related documents and files; and,
  5. Software as a Service (SaaS) - or simply web apps, delivered and often shared with individual or groups of students and teachers.
By the very nature of this virtualness, the Internet itself has become the full-featured district standard computer we paid for upfront often with extended warranty. Networked computing optimizes communication and collaboration between teachers and students as a district-wide enterprise solution and saves a school district lots of money. As for the student laptop itself, it's evolving past a brand name and OS, it's becoming a personal learning device (PLD).

From Laptops to Student Personal Learning Devices
So, if the Internet itself can be our hard drive with an operating system and software applications, why do we in education continue to purchase expensive stand alone Macintosh or Windows multimedia laptop computers? If you don't mind the car to funding practices metaphor, it appears that many educators will gladly continue to let a student drive a BMW on a bumping road than drive a Toyota Corolla on a smooth highway.

As an educational technologist, I recommend that we stop paying for awesome sexy laptops over $1000 and start buying functional student laptops under $500. In my school district at San Diego Unified, we have around 100,000 3rd-12th graders. A $500 laptop times 100,000 students is a $50 million dollar expenditure . Now in these hard economic times, people think I'm smoking crack when I talk about a one-to-one deployment initiative involving that kind of money. In 2009, any student laptop over $500 is pure lunacy with regards to a one-to-one school district scaled deployment. If educational technology is finally going to be woven into the classroom fabric, all educators must start to think with a district brain and not a consumer heart. Otherwise, we are going to continue to provide students an average of 30-60 minutes a week of computer access, the same access rate we have had since the early 90's and before the Internet.

Fortunately, new 10"-12" Netbook laptops are now available in Linux and Windows platforms that are $500 and below and this is what school districts can afford to buy on a support, scale and sustain enterprise basis.

From Operating Systems to Virtual Desktops
Macintosh OS and Windows OS are becoming increasingly irrelevant not to mention the blotted price we pay in every box. (Education leaders, can we just give Linux a chance?) If the computing applications are transitioning from the personal computer to the cloud, the computer OS could be more efficiently used as a starter to get to the cloud engine.

Look at this way, your starter OS turns on the engine to get to Firefox which takes you to your school district login virtual desktop as your new desktop. Take a look at Stoneware's virtual webOS as an example of where K-12 School Districts should and will be heading.

From Hard Drive Software to Software as a Service
Without even really thinking about it, many people have already made the transition from hard drive software applications to web apps. This probably started for most people with their school email like Outlook Web Access (OWA) or their private email like Gmail. You basically get on any Internet capable computer and using a web browser, go to a web site, enter your login and password and then enter a web portal of applications. Google Apps is a good example of Software as a Service (SaaS). Sometimes this service is free like Google Apps and other times you pay for this service as in Discovery Education's unitedstreaming. So now schools can think about the options of having a free productivity suite using Google Docs compared to Microsoft Office and digital media tools like Picasa Web Albums and Picnik compared to Apple iLife. The difference here is that I'm not grounded with my one computer with hard drive apps. I now can fly in the clouds accessing my apps from any Internet capable computer in the world!

From the Four Walled Classroom to the 24/7 Academic Network
The virtualized services of a content management (CMS), learning management system (LMS) and student digital locker are beginning to converge from separate web apps such as Joomla, Moodle, Wikispaces and Google Docs to services that will integrate all of these applications into an integrated academic network accessed in the cloud. An academic network will actually allow younger children to cut their digital teeth in a protective and interactive sandbox compared to the current generation of secondary students who learned their web 2.0 skills on social networks in the wild wild web. Current examples of this can be seen in the open source application Drupal and the fee-based service of Schoolwires. However, I believe we are still several years away from comprehensive pedagogical K-12 academic networks.

In the meantime, let's continue to bring all of the wonderful clouds together to craft a 2009-2010 academic network we can thrive in. So all you school districts out there, do not purchase a multitude of consumer hardware mobile devices, but rather, invest in an economical student netbook as a scalable personal learning device integrated within an academic cloud of services.


Image Source:
"Stoneware, Inc. Home Page, BannerCloudComputing.gif." Stoneware, Inc.. 3 May 2009 .