Viewpoint: The future of education lies in the cloud

Cloud computing offers game-changing options for education.
Cloud computing offers game-changing options for education.

Calls to improve K-12 education are routine. Business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders demand that our children acquire the knowledge and skills needed to grow our rapidly evolving economy. Yet, although digital resources have expanded learning opportunities, classroom pedagogy has not changed much in the last 50 years. Throwing more money at existing approaches will at best produce only incremental improvements.

Since the 19th century, schools have used textbooks to deliver instructional content. Textbooks, however, are expensive, their content starts to age upon publication, and they must be replaced periodically. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for California schools to shift to digital textbooks to save much of the $350 million that the state annually budgets for textbooks and instructional materials. Moreover, textbooks are hardly interactive and are isolated from the computing resources with which we have provisioned our schools at great expense. Textbooks met the needs of the 19th and 20th centuries, but they fall far short of 21st century needs. They are old-school delivery that supports old-school pedagogy.

Cloud computing is a new strategy for delivering knowledge and tools that companies worldwide are increasingly adopting. The cloud refers to wide-area networks, generally the internet, from which remote computing resources are shared. Enterprises rely on applications and data storage services that are hosted in the cloud rather than on local servers. Google and others already offer various productivity applications and Microsoft announced that it will offer Microsoft Office 2010 online next year. The cloud reduces costs and complexity and provides scalability. It also permits the flexible deployment of new applications and functionalities to meet prevailing needs.

Might cloud computing be appropriate for schools? If they adopted cloud pedagogy, schools would replace textbooks with browser-based content delivery. Yet a cloud offers schools much more than content-as-a-service. It can deliver such resources as word processors, spreadsheets, databases, data visualization and analysis applications, teacher and administrator tools, and voice/video communications. Of course, students would still have access to the plethora of research and educational information available on the web.

Cloud pedagogy offers tangible benefits. In addition to eliminating the financial burden of textbooks, school districts also would avoid the costs of robust computers and buying, installing, and maintaining software for each. The bulk of the computer processing would be done by the cloud provider, allowing learners to use any networked device that can run a web browser, even iPhones. Schools could further trim IT and energy budgets by saving their files and data on the cloud, doing away with the need for onsite storage. And the cloud provides scalability, permitting schools to increase capacity and capabilities without investing in new infrastructure or staff training.

Cloud pedagogy can deliver curricula and on-demand learning services. It can easily update digital content, ensuring students always work with current information. The cloud can present molecular modeling applications and other resources that introduce emerging fields like nanoscience, biotechnology, and sustainable development. To do so today, instructional materials and applications have to be procured for every science class, incurring costs and effort that make teaching important new domains impractical.

Cloud pedagogy can enhance teaching by integrating multimedia webinars, master classes, and other teacher professional development resources that instructors can conveniently access. The cloud can offer innovative and promising strategies like just-in-time teacher training, in which teachers can view videos of how master teachers deliver the next day’s lesson. Interactive assessments can be embedded within digital content and curricula to help teachers determine not only whether students have learned facts, but also if they understand and can apply concepts and processes.

Cloud pedagogy can also bridge the gap between schools and students’ homes to enhance parental awareness of, and engagement in, their children’s education. Using student-specific passwords, parents will be able to access at any time a child’s academic activity, such as grades, papers, test results, scheduling, attendance, upcoming assignments, and school events.

Most importantly, cloud pedagogy can improve learning. The cloud becomes an entire educational ecosystem that offers content, curricula, productivity and research tools, professional development resources, and the universe as we know it. It leverages that children are digital natives and keenly interested in social networking and new media. The cloud enables online, distributed learning communities, similar to scientific and professional communities of practice, that allow students anywhere to collaborate on thematic investigations, making learning dynamic and engaging. Teachers can introduce instruction that not only builds content literacy but also develops students’ critical-thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication skills–precisely the skills needed to prosper in today’s economy.

Cloud pedagogy is not futuristic. It uses existing technologies and economies of scale. It offers a solution that can transform education and reduce its costs. America must better educate its students to improve its economic competitiveness, and cloud pedagogy is an affordable, long-term strategy for doing so.

Dr. Boris Berenfeld is president of the International Laboratory for Advanced Educational Technologies (ILAET).

Harvey Yazijian is the senior developmental editor with TERC, an education research and development organization.

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Laura Ascione
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