What is cloud computing? Imagine a scenario in which computing applications and documents are not only maintained on a personal computer, but also stored on the internet; accessible anytime and anywhere via a connection to the internet. That is the basis of cloud computing.
How can cloud computing benefit educators? Cloud computing allows teachers and students to efficiently share and manage curriculum projects anywhere and anytime.
Cloud computing can be tapped into by classroom teachers, and also by entire education institutions. This article shall focus on two practical solutions for the classroom teacher: cloud storage and intelligent notebooks, and document collaborations. The user will be able to access these applications or documents directly via a web browser such as Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari. That web browser may be on a computer or a mobile device such as an iPad.
Each of the two examples described below are also very practical solutions for teachers and students wishing to collaborate productively and efficiently in a 1:1 teaching and learning environment.
Cloud Based Storage, Syncing And Sharing
The cloud allows anyone to store electronic documents, presentations and media files on the internet. These files are stored on a computer server hosted by a cloud service provider. This allows the user to access their files via a web browser as long as they are connected to the internet. In effect the files will follow the user no matter where that user is located on the globe. Companies that provide these cloud services include DropBox, Box.Net and SugarSync.
This cloud storage service may not sound remarkable, however when syncing and file sharing are added to the equation, storing files on the internet can be a very useful proposition indeed.
The online cloud storage solution DropBox, for example, allows users to store their files on the servers of the cloud service provider. When the user installs the DropBox application on their computer a specific folder will be created that syncs to their online storage account. If the user modifies or adds a file within that folder then the changes will also be reflected on their online account. Syncing can take place as the user works with the file or each time the computer is networked to the internet.
This cloud service also acts to provide a backup of the user’s files and, in fact, earlier versions of the synced files are also maintained on the server in the event the user wishes to access a previous version of a particular document.
Furthermore, if the user installs DropBox on a second computer they can automatically sync their files between the two computers. A teacher could efficiently sync files between their computer at home and a computer based at their school. This can eliminate the need to carry a laptop or external hard drive to and from school each day.
Members of the same faculty, or a group of teachers collaborating on a project, can share a cloud storage account allowing each teacher to easily share curriculum and project files. This reduces the need for email correspondence and file transfers. Confusion arising from differing versions of important documents can also be eliminated. The files are backed up, synced to different computers and are accessible from any device, anywhere, with a connection to the internet.
The teacher can also share specified folders or files with their students. This removes the need for the use of email and thumb-drives for the transferring and sharing of files. The teacher simply needs to share the relevant link to the file or enable sharing for a specific folder.
Such cloud services are not confined to computers and laptops. Users can also access their cloud-based files via mobile devices such as smart phones, the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab. For example a teacher receives an email, via her mobile device, from a student or colleague requesting a copy of a particular document or presentation. The teacher simply locates the sought after file on their cloud storage facility using a specific app on the device, and forwards a link to the relevant file that is stored in the cloud to the sender via email. Many mobile applications have built-in integration to cloud services such as DropBox, Box.net and SugarSync.
Evernote is a rather unique cloud service that teachers and students will find useful. Evernote is a versatile digital notebook that allows users to create notes in text, audio and video format. Users can also save clippings from web pages, maintain bookmarks, and save a variety of different files. In essence Evernote is an intelligent scrapbook. Ideas, files, web sites, thoughts and files can be added to Evernote for later reference and sharing.
Teachers find Evernote particularly useful as they can save notes, clippings, images and web pages related to an area of the curriculum. As the teacher researches a curriculum topic they can save their notes, web research, images, spoken ideas and photographs to the service. All of their ideas can be stored in one place. Evernote acts as a digital memory for their ongoing curriculum projects.
The user’s Evernote account can be synced to both desktop and mobile Evernote applications. The user’s notes and ideas follow the teacher no matter where they are accessed from.
Each note can be tagged or catalogued enabling easier searches for the user. GPS coordinates and location details can be applied to each note. In addition to these features Evernote recognises text that appears in photographs and images making the words and terms that are visible in photographs searchable. This is a very powerful feature.
Notebooks can be shared with other colleagues and students. A group of students collaborating on a project can share an Evernote account and save notes, ideas, drawings, concept maps, whiteboards, photographs and websites to the project account. Notes can be created during visits to museums, field trips and team meetings.
All of the project components can be saved in one location rather than being scattered between files, folders and emails on a variety of different computers, mobile devices, email accounts and thumb drives. All of the students’ ideas are stored in one place yet accessible via any web browser or dedicated Evernote application anywhere and at any time. Their great ideas never need be lost and the project account can act as a legacy resource for future student cohorts.
Students can create a notebook for their final project presentation, incorporating audio, video, imagery and text in a single place. The project can be composed as a sequence of notes that can be searched, reorganised and exported as well. A teacher using any device with a connection to the internet can access, sync with, and assess the completed student project.
Evernote integrates with a variety of applications including web browsers and mobile applications allowing the user to easily save articles, images, websites and text clippings as they surf the web and undertake their research.
Prior to using cloud computing services teachers should verify with the information technology support team at their school whether or not specific network and proxy settings are required for unfettered access to the cloud computing tools. Information technology acceptable use policies may also need to be considered and updated to reflect the use of such tools in the school.
Teachers should commence their exploration of these tools with small manageable projects tied in with an area of the curriculum for which they hold a passion, and a cloud-based tool with which they feel comfortable. They should not work alone but in collaboration with other teachers. In addition teachers should pick a time of the year that affords extra time to devote to the project implementation. Finally, students that are skilled in the tools should also be employed as guiding lights for other students in the cohort so that all members of the class can work effectively on the cloud computing project.
Cloud computing is not infallible, and as a result contingency plans need to be readied by any teacher making use of tools such as DropBox and Evernote. Technology itself can be a fickle medium and teachers need to be prepared with alternative lessons and strategies in the event that networks are not functional, and the internet is not available to the students or teachers.
Educators should tap into the cloud and explore the available tools to see which one has the qualities they desire to meet their teaching and learning goals in the classroom.
Cloud computing is receiving considerable attention throughout education media. The New Media Consortium’s 2011 Horizon Report and the non-profit organisation Educause have each highlighted the valuable place that cloud computing can play in facilitating online collaborations that involve teachers and students on a local, regional and international level.
Cloud computing can support the work of an educator in the 21st century. Teachers can be in touch with their projects, resources, colleagues and students wherever and whenever they are connected to the web.
John Larkin is an educator with considerable experience in the development and application of educational technologies in primary, secondary, tertiary and corporate educational fields. He is presently teaching history at St Joseph’s Catholic High School, Albion Park, NSW. John also provides professional development for educators both in Australia and overseas.
Visit his website at http://www.larkin.net.au
The New Media Consortium Horizon Report: K-12 Edition
Educause Review Magazine, Volume 45, Number 3 Cloud Computing Special Issue
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