How cloud computing is transforming education, mostly for the better
Smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops are increasingly commonplace classroom tools, and they're all linked to an array of educational resources thanks to cloud computing.
Education-oriented cloud computing, which had an estimated market value of $8 billion in 2016, is projected to hit $25 billion by 2021. Flexible and cost-effective, it's been a boon to teachers and students alike, allowing them to assign and complete classwork over the internet.
When Andy Wolfenbarger taught in Virginia's Prince William County public school district, he had limited time to log grades in his school's computer system before they were due. It didn't help matters, then, when one day that system suddenly went dark.
The mishap, though, was a wake-up call that convinced Wolfenbarger (now supervisor of student information systems) to adopt Amazon's Web Services cloud for all of the county's public schools.
"One of the biggest pain points for teachers is going home and doing grades," he said in an Amazon Web Services blog post. "They never know what is going to happen. Teachers might log in with a magic combination of things....It might work and it might not. Our goal is to create an environment where students, parents and teachers can log in from anywhere, anytime."
Because cloud computing allows students to instantly access and store homework- and test-related materials on remote servers, their backpacks are lighter and they can work from wherever there's an internet connection. They can also collaborate with classmates on group assignments without having to be in the same room.
Consequently, more and more students are trading notebooks and binders for iPads and laptops, and more teachers are using online platforms to assign and track homework.
Another big draw of cloud computing in education is cost savings.
The Wild Rose school division in rural Canada, which comprises 19 schools and 4,800 students, for years maintained its own data center. But as demand rose, that became economically untenable, so storage was shifted to Microsoft's Azure cloud. The reported savings: $12,000 per year — plus an IT crew that was freed up to do other work.
"Now our annual cost is a third of what it would have been to replace," Travis Paakki, Sr. Director of Technology for Portland Public Schools, told Amazon of his district's decision to forego a data center revamp in favor of cloud migration. "And we now have increased capacity and disaster recovery – things we didn’t have access to with an on-premises data center."
As education continues its technological transformation, lots of businesses are vying to facilitate the transition.
These companies, among many others, are helping schools migrate to the cloud.
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
How it's using cloud computing: Google is well known for it G Suite productivity apps, which include Gmail, Hangouts, Calendar, Google Drive and Google Docs. The G Suite apps all live on the cloud. A special classroom version is called G Suite for Education, which includes extra features for apps like Google Docs, Sheets, Drive, Gmail and others. With the Explore tab, for instance, students can use natural language to input formulas in Sheets or get layout suggestions in Slides. Another product, Google Classroom, links Google’s online cloud applications (like Calendar or Docs) so it's easier to complete or schedule assignments using a central hub.
Location: Redmond, Wash.
How it's using cloud computing: Like Google, Microsoft also has a special version of its productivity apps geared towards students and educators: Office 365 Education. Office 365 is the cloud-based subscription version of Microsoft Office, which includes apps like Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Instead of downloading software to your hard drive, you set up an Office 365 account and save all of your Office documents to the cloud for easy access. Office 365 Education has apps from the standard version, plus additional classroom tools. Another bonus—Office 365 Education is free for students and educators (it starts at $70 per year for everyone else).
Location: Hadley, Mass.
How it's using cloud computing: Knowledge Matters creates cloud-based business simulations (such as the one seen in the picture above). These computer simulations are meant to mimic situations students would encounter in a business environment, thereby give students the chance to practice real-world problem-solving. Knowledge Matters' Virtual Business lessons span a wide variety of industries, including accounting, fashion, retail, sports, management, hospitality and personal finance. The company’s Case Simulations include more specific industry scenarios and are geared toward college students.
Location: Mountain View, Calif.
How it's using cloud computing: Coursera offers a variety of online courses from established universities and instructors through its cloud platform. It also offers lessons on specific career skills and grants university-recognized degrees. For example, Coursera students can take online computer science classes offered by the University of Pennsylvania to get a master's degree in computer and information technology.
Location: Washington, D.C.
How it's using cloud computing: Blackboard provides cloud-based learning software for grades K-12, as well as higher education and government. Its products include services such as Blackboard Classroom, which provides virtual classroom video conferencing, assignment management, classroom analytics and more. Using the company’s cloud-based software, students and educators can access Blackboard’s tools from any computer, smartphone or tablet.
How it's using cloud computing: Designed for connected whiteboards and displays, ClassFlow helps teachers create interactive lessons, quizzes and activities, and then display them or hand them out to students. Since ClassFlow lessons are cloud-based, they can be accessed by the teachers' connected displays or by the students' own devices, making it easy for both parties to access course material.
Location: Kitchener, Canada
How it's using cloud computing: D2L makes a learning management system called Brightspace. The Brightspace platform lets K-12 and higher-ed teachers create and distribute lessons, while students can complete assignments from their portfolio app. There’s also a dashboard display that lets teachers track student progress.
A Cloud Guru
How it's using cloud computing: A Cloud Guru is an online database of courses designed to teach and train people in cloud computing. For example, people interested in learning how to use Amazon Web Services for their career can take A Cloud Guru's course on the topic. The company's classes also help students study for official certification exams. The database is reportedly used by over 800,000 people in 181 countries.
How it's using cloud computing: Viridis created a cloud-based software that connects community college students to job databases so they're matched to the right career post-graduation. College students use the Viridis platform while they're still in school to track their progress and what they're studying. Then Viridis uses that information to highlight specific skills and list the jobs they are most qualified for.
Location: Amesbury, Mass.
How it's using cloud computing: Muzzy Lane aims to make learning more like playing a game in order to retain students' attention and increase their engagement. The company's Muzzy Lane Author platform uses cloud-based simulations (like the one pictured above) to put students in specific scenarios. Although these simulations may look a bit like a late-90s video game, they're intended to help students practice decision making that's applicable in the real world.
How it's using cloud computing: Top Hat's educational app lets college students and lecturers interact with the course material and each other. Teachers can quiz students, start discussions or send out reading material. Students can participate via smartphone or computer instead of vying to be called on among hundreds of other students. That's especially helpful in large lecture classes, where it's harder to ensure student participation.
Location: Los Angeles
How it's using cloud computing: Edlio specializes in building websites and communication platforms for schools. The company’s content management system for schools powers more than 10,000 school websites across North America. Edlio also built the parent engagement app Sangha, which keeps parents in the loop about their child’s academic and extracurricular activities.
Location: Redwood City, Calif.
How it's using cloud computing: Evernote lets users take notes on their phones, tablets or computers, then saves everything to the cloud. And because it syncs notes across all devices, there's no need to lug around multiple notebooks. Evernote also lets users save audio files, photos and hyperlinks.
Will cloud computing widen the digital divide?
The widening sociological gap between those who have internet and computer access and those who don't is often referred to as the digital divide. Perhaps not surprisingly, members of the former group typically fare better in other areas because they also have improved access to things like health services, job opportunities and, of course, education.
The same holds true when it comes to cloud computing in education, which relies on the availability of technology. Teachers who employ more online resources, therefore, risk exacerbating an already significant educational disparity and inadvertently discriminating against students based on geographic location and economic class.
In August 2018, the company behind the ACT standardized test (ACT, Inc.) surveyed students across the U.S. and found that access to devices and the internet was uneven. Among 15 percent of students surveyed, many reported they had home access to only one internet-connected device. Some were forced to compete with family members for time on that device and online. Others in the group had no home access at all.
Part of ACT's survey revealed that a dearth of devices was most common in families with annual incomes equal to or less than $36,000 (which accounts for over 20 percent of families in the U.S.), as well as those with parents who lacked college degrees. From an ethnic standpoint, minorities — including African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans — were also negatively affected.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 18 percent of students living in remote rural areas had no home internet access. Of that 18 percent, 41 percent were African-Americans, 26 percent Latinos and 13 percent white.
And though the number of on-site educational computers has risen greatly over the past few years (they're now in 95 percent of schools), the student-to-computer ratio varies greatly depending on a school's budget. At institutions where money is tight, educators are responsible for granting equal access.
A recent essay on the Digital Divide Council's website lauds "commendable" efforts made to address the digital divide that go beyond merely providing students with devices and also include teaching digital literacy as well as partnerships with large tech companies to build resource networks.
“Bridging the digital gap in education is a gradual and costly process that is a prerequisite for development,” the essay concludes.
Despite recent strides, however, there’s still a long way to go.
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