As broadband connectivity becomes increasingly available at home, at school, and in many places in between, a paradigm shift in how users access key software applications is slowly taking place.
For years, educators and students largely used software that was installed on desktop computers or ran off floppy disks or CDs from local drives. Then came high-speed school networks and the ability to run software from a central school or district server. Now, many students and teachers are using web-based software programs that are accessible over the internet and hosted by the application provider.
To be sure, this isn’t a new model of distribution. For years, schools have been using web-based software for their data systems, administrative systems, and even their curriculum software–and students and teachers have used web-based eMail accounts. But now, even applications that traditionally have been tethered to a desktop computer, such as productivity tools–spreadsheets, word processors, and the like–can be accessed entirely online.
Google, for instance, offers free word processing and spreadsheet software from its web site. The package combines a spreadsheet application that Google introduced in June with a word processing program called Writely that the company bought for an undisclosed amount in March.
Google had been limiting usage of both programs, but the company now expects to be able to accommodate anyone who signs up. As part of the expansion, the Writely name will disappear. The new package will be called Google Docs & Spreadsheets.
Aiming to boost the use of these and other web-based tools among schools, Google earlier this month unveiled a new web site called "Google for Educators," which provides classroom activities and teacher guides for using these programs in the classroom (see related story).
Google’s moves are part of the company’s strategy to assemble a suite of applications that are tied to an internet connection instead of a single computer’s hard drive. But it’s not only Google that has jumped aboard this trend. Even makers of traditional desktop applications are taking notice. Microsoft, for instance, is responding to this trend by embedding web functionalities into its upcoming products to an unprecedented degree.
Advocates of the move toward web-based software say these programs make it easier for people to work on the same document from different locations, a convenience that enables more sharing of files and projects among users with common interests or goals.
Web-based programs also resolve many software compatibility issues, because users don’t have to have the same version of an application installed on their machines–and they eliminate the need for school IT departments to install and maintain the software.
In addition, these programs are accessible to students and teachers from any internet-connected device with a standard web browser, either from home or at school. Perhaps best of all, many of these online tools–such as Google’s productivity suite–are available free of charge to users.
Of course, there are downsides. To use the software, you need a reliable internet connection, which might be a challenge while traveling. Web-based software also isn’t as fast or as powerful as most desktop programs. Security, too, might be an issue: As web-based applications explode in popularity, some security experts fear the development of new features is occurring at the expense of protections.
Still, supporters of the trend say the benefits are real.
"Most kids now have internet access, whether it’s at home, in a public library, at school, or at the home of a friend or relative," said Susan Brooks-Young, an education consultant with more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and school administrator, and a frequent contributor to eSchool News Online’s Ed-Tech Insider blogs. "Now it’s possible for students who don’t own a computer to access their files from any internet-connected computer."
Brooks-Young says the ability to work collaboratively with others is one of the key benefits to using web-based software. "I often work on grant proposals or evaluation reports," she explained. "Using tools such as wikis, blogs, and online word processors, I can get genuine feedback from committee members–and we can work together on edits."
Craig Nansen, district technology coordinator for Minot Public Schools in North Dakota, said web-based software "breaks down the limitations of the past."
"Originally, stand-alone computers with floppy drives, and later networks that connected computers in local areas, like labs and offices, still required moving documents from machine to machine to work on them and collaborate," Nansen said. "Now you can access the documents from any computer that has an internet connection and current browser, and you can work on the documents collaboratively with people in other parts of the world."
When using web-based software, everyone has access to the same version–which is always the latest version, Nansen said. He added that collaborative word processors such as Writely or Zoho Writer are "easier to use than [Microsoft] Word or AppleWorks, and the collaboration can be in real time from anywhere in the world. The teacher can check to see what content was added by any student, as well as who made changes to the document."
Web 2.0 functionality
Greater access to broadband is one key driver of the trend toward web-based software; the development of Web 2.0 technologies is another.
Web 2.0 is the term used to describe a second generation of the World Wide Web that allows people to collaborate and share information online more easily. Web 2.0 refers to the transition from static HTML web pages to a more dynamic web that is more organized and is based on serving web applications to users.
One example of these types of applications: Dan Bricklin, the pioneering inventor of the digital spreadsheet in 1979, has designed an online version that is free, open source, and features chat and collaboration functionalities. Bricklin’s new project is a collaborative spreadsheet program known as wikiCalc. He released a rough "alpha" version last fall and is now wrapping up a "beta" test version.
Its features will be familiar, letting users place data in rows and columns and creating formulas to make sense of the information. But its wiki nature, which allows for collaboration among users, brings new twists. Rather than adding data to a spreadsheet, saving it, and then eMailing it to a colleague so he or she can input additional figures, users can work on the same document in real time. Running on a server like any other online service, the wiki spreadsheet can be told to go out the web to retrieve and update certain information dynamically, such as changing stock prices or census data.
"I think it’s very powerful," says Rod Smith, who oversees emerging technology in IBM’s software group and is pushing a service to help customers combine business information in wiki-like modules. He says he admires how Bricklin is prodding his signature creation to make it better.
"If anybody can, Dan can," Smith said.
The project’s underlying code is open to other tinkerers, and the software itself will be available at no cost. Organizations would pay for help in integrating or customizing the program. "If this is successful, I’ll show that a small-business person can go into open source and make a living on it," Bricklin says. "Somehow money seems to show up for open source."
As far as big businesses go, Google generally has not made its source code open to the public, but its Docs & Spreadsheets applications are entirely web-based and feature similar collaborative functionalities. Like wikiCalc, the programs share a price point–free of charge–that is likely to make them appealing to educators.
"A drop-dead simple difference [between these applications and the desktop applications offered by many vendors] is that these applications are free," said Google’s Jen Mazzon, senior product marketing manager for Google Docs & Spreadsheets. "That’s a big difference. It makes them a great solution for low-income families, school districts … and others."
In the future, Google is expected to support such applications with advertising. A spreadsheet might be "brought to you by" the graphing calculator division of Texas Instruments, for example, or Coca-Cola.
Details of such plans were not immediately available, and Google was not emphasizing that possibility, but Google CEO Eric Schmidt alluded to it in a talk he gave at a recent computer industry trade show: "There is a new business model that’s funding all of the software innovation to allow people to have platform choice, client choice, data architectures that are interesting, solutions that are new–and that’s being driven by advertising."
For now, however, Google’s web-based software is primarily ad-free.
Google’s word processor provides users with all of the standard functionalities you’d expect, but it allows for greater collaboration and permits users to save to the web and access materials as needed. You can permit other users to edit the materials, or give them read-only access to documents. To publish a document publicly, the program creates a special URL for that document. Teachers can link it to their class web page, but the document isn’t searchable on the wider web.
The software "makes it easier to do group assignments and for teachers, parents, and students to monitor progress," Mazzon said. "Students can have more flexibility, because they can have more group assignments than they used to. They are also freed from the pain of writing a file, consolidating feedback from multiple people, then updating the file, which becomes really time-consuming and isn’t too much fun."
Cristin Frodella, product marketing manager for education at Google, noted another potential advantage of web-based applications over desktop-based solutions: Schools can save in IT costs.
"I visited a school here in New York, and they had a lot of tech-support problems," Frodella said. Using Google’s web-based software "gets rid of the server problems you see at other schools and works around spotty IT support. It requires no installation whatsoever and runs through the standard browser."
Google’s spreadsheet permits multiple users to enter information at the same time and includes a built-in chat functionality. The company also offers a web-based calendar, called Google Calendar, that allows users to place entries in the calendar and set reminders. These reminders can be set to ring to a mobile phone or pop up on the display. Users can make their calendars available to others online and can easily compare events.
"Teachers can set up a shared calendar with students who need to know about classroom assignments and field trips," said Jeremy Milo, product director for Google Calendar. "It also can be embedded into a class or school web site. Every day’s class syllabus can be made available, and students can keep track of what’s going on."
While a web-based Google operating system also has been rumored for many months, company officials declined to comment on the existence of such a project.
Despite the rise in web-based productivity applications, Mazzon cautioned against sounding a premature death knell for desktop-based software.
"It’s important to state … that there’s going to be a place for desktop applications for a long time. They have been around for dozens and dozens of years, and they offer lots of sophisticated functionalities," she said. But, she added, "students and teachers increasingly want … web-based, from-anywhere access."