Free, exciting, leading edge, creative and inclusive are all words thrown around by those teachers and thinkers who are excited by cloud computing. If you have used Gmail or Google docs then you have worked in a small way with this concept: the software is not on your machine, the documents you create are stored elsewhere and you can access them anywhere that has internet access.
For schools, cloud computing represents a major change. Tim O'Reilly, one of the foremost thinkers about ICT, believes the cloud is the foundation of the next generation of computing.
Universities using cloud computing are seeing the advantages of reduced maintenance, higher-level security and 247 access. In the business world there is already a move to use software as a service. Companies who choose that route frequently report substantial savings in finance and time. Cloud computing services often provide common business applications online that are accessed from a web browser, while the software and data are stored on the servers.
How can all this apply to schools? There are savings on time and infrastructure, worries about storage are offloaded to the provider of the service, maintenance is not a problem, fewer hardware upgrades are needed, software is always up to date, materials can be accessed anywhere and there can be increased links between parents and schools. Disadvantages are that the school can lose some autonomy, downtime can be a nuisance, security might be a problem and encryption needed.
Two Google Apps users are Cottenham Village College in Cambridgeshire, with over 1,000 users, and Olchfa school in Wales, with 2,200 users. Deputy head Peter Marshall at Cottenham explains: "We are in our second year with Google. We use the mail service throughout the school and that is 1,400 users. The simpler front end means we can easily bring people up to speed. We have individual and shared calendars that link with our Moodle VLE. Parents can use iGoogle so that the calendar goes through to the home calendar or to their BlackBerries."
The savings for Cottenham are substantial: an exchange server, the software and the administration would be costly. "We estimate #163;20,000-plus if we had the expertise to run it. We use a very lean team, just two full-time technicians. We don't need the hassle and we must have a service that runs as quickly and reliably as it does at home. Google provides storage and each user has 7.5GB online storage: more than we can provide on our own servers."
One of the largest examples of cloud computing is the London Grid for Learning's (LGfL) new email initiative. Brian Durrant, chief executive of the LGfL, describes a free email service for one million schoolchildren from Microsoft's Live@Edu suite of online services.
The LGfL has given 2,500 schools not only extended "London Mail" but also a SkyDrive on which students can store external files such as projects and images and where they can set up weblogs. It is estimated the average secondary school could save around #163;18,000 a year using London Mail.
"The cloud is free," says Jaye Richards, principal teacher for the Cathkin Learning Community in Scotland. "It is a learning platform: Google Apps, wikis, blogs, photo sharing, animation. You can pull it all together into one space. The new Google Wave has enormous potential and we will probably base our e-portfolios on that."
Not everything in the cloud is free, though. "RM has been providing cloud services since we became an internet service provider," asserts Billy McNeil, development director at RM. "It wasn't called the cloud then, but now, going forward, we see a bigger role. The key thing is that we don't see the cloud replacing but complementing existing services. If the internet goes down, the cloud services are lost. We are planning to provide an environment, to be launched at BETT, that will have lots of services - from Adobe, Microsoft, Google and Apple - hosted from elsewhere but start from a single place.
"We will provide the access mechanism with a single user identity so that it is all coherent for the users. Our service will take students past the initial pages and straight to the applications."
Some education software developers have followed a cloud route. Danny Young Of j2e (Just2easy) has been working in the cloud since j2e started. "We are bringing cloud benefits to education."The software is a very advanced word processor which they argue is more appropriate for younger children than something like Google Apps. When we started, people worried about security but now no-one ever mentions it; they have become used to storing materials online."
Later this year, j2e will launch an infant toolkit so that very young children will experience working in the cloud.
Crick Software, like j2e, charge for their software on a subscription model that covers storage and all automatic software updates. John Crick has found that teachers do not worry about working in the cloud. "The main issues that we find are firewalls that schools have built, bandwidth issues and problems with caching. The real advantage is the updates are so easy."
The important question now, though, is not: "What is cloud computing?" but "now that it is here; what are we going to do with it?"
IT'S NOT AS ALIEN AS YOU THINK
Examples of software as a service
- Internet-based email: Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail
- Recruitment services: TES HireWire
- Entertainment technologies: video on demand, BBC iPlayer
- Education collaboration: Blackboard
- Social media: Flickr, Facebook, MySpace
Examples of cloud computing
- Microsoft Azure platform
- Google Apps (www.google.comahelpintlenedu)
- More on Google Apps Education Edition (www.google.comeducatorsp_apps.html)
- Google UK Schools (www.google.co.ukschools)
- Cottenham Village College (www.cvcweb.net)
- j2e (www.j2e.com)
- Crick (www.cricksoft.comukwriteonline)
- RM (www.rm.com)
- Becta (www.becta.org.uk)
- Microsoft (www.microsoft.comliveatedufree-hosted-student-email.aspx)