Monday, January 21, 2013

Unleashing the power of the cloud

Six years ago after being given my first USB drive by my school, I marvelled at a device the size of a key that could store 256Mb of data, fit in my pocket and allow me to transfer my data from computer to computer, that was until I transferred all my data to my washing machine, never to be accessed again. Several pen drives later and I have at least learned to back up my data, but the sense of marvel has now gone, replaced by a constant irritation at having multiple copies, or having to remember to transfer individual files across before I leave work. Thankfully the torrential rain of cloud computing has dampened enthusiasm for such a clunky and lets face it, outdated solution to the problem of working in several locations. So what is the potential within education for cloud computing and given that there are so many free solutions, how can schools use it to improve their provision and at the same time save costs?

Well, lets look at some of the main services available and what each offers. First up is Dropbox. I'm no tech historian but it was the first cloud solution I heard of, however not the first one I adopted. Dropbox  offers 2Gb of free storage (expandable up to 16Gb if you invite enough people and complete a few other simple learning tasks). Dropbox can be installed on most devices allowing you to seamlessly sync files from computer to phone to ipad etc, so you can work on a document in work, get on the train and access it on a mobile device and then resume work on it at home. Dropbox also allows you to easily upload mobile photos to be accessed anywhere. Files can be shared with anyone with an email address, as can folders.
Sugarsync is the first service I adopted and I chose it because at the time it offered 5Gb of free storage (expandable up to 32Gb) if you invite enough people. In many ways it is similar to Dropbox, however my favourite feature is how easy it is to share any folder on your computer and choose which devices you share that specific folder with. It is extremely simple to use for backing up mobile photos (this was great for me when I switched from apple to android.
Google Drive and Microsoft Skydrive are distinctly different to Sugarsync and Dropbox in that they are designed for working in the cloud. They both come with decent free storage (5Gb for Google and 7Gb for Skydrive). Google is great if you are in a school that uses Google Apps for Education. With appropriate mailing lists set up, it is extremely simple for teachers to share documents with relevant classes. Google Drive has come a long way since the early days of Google Docs and the features get better and better, especially the conditional formatting and scripts now available in spreadsheets. One slightly annoying feature with Google is that documents created in the cloud stay in that format when you go to access it from your Google Drive so that it always opens in a web browser. Skydrive has a certain charm, especially for those who need the comfort of working in that familiar Microsoft Office environment. With Office 365 for Education it is certainly shaping up to challenge Google apps, however, some might argue that the 500Mb storage they offer to students isn't really adequate by todays standards.
So which is best and which do I use. The answer is that I use them all. I use Dropbox for work, Sugarsync for play, and SkyDrive and Google Drive for a mixture of both. Why use one and then have to pay a subscription for storage when adding them together you get at least 19Gb for free. The key thing is that I use them all in different ways. I tend to use Google Docs when I want to do something that requires collaboration, for example getting students to work on presentations simultaneously  I like SkyDrive when I want to work on Office documents at home on my Mac and avoid the annoying formatting issues with Open Office or Pages, Dropbox is where I save all essential work that I need to be able to access anywhere and Sugarsync takes care of backing up all my personal data and mobile photos. With the latter, I can always use a 3rd party app to make edits if required.
Schools need to consider the sheer power of of cloud computing. Being able to access documents anywhere can only be an advantage and protects against losing data and the collaborative tools which allow students to work together and review each other's work empower them like never before. In my view the school network, that hideous cluttered ever growing mess, and the server it rests on should be consigned to the dustbin (albeit cautiously after reading the small print in each cloud storage company's data policy). Consider this example. A new school is set up where a rather young and slightly reckless Deputy Head is charged with the task of setting up the school's ICT procurement plan. He decides to go for a a 1:1 Chromebook, Netbook or Nexus 7 policy (Sorry Apple, this is Free Tech for Schools and if we can't go free we go cheap) and puts in a purchase order. The head then asks him about what server they are going to get. Oops, he thinks. I totally forgot to budget for that. Realising his job is on the line he thinks on his feet and blurts out "server? How archaic!" The Head adopts a puzzled look. "Go on" he says. "We don't need one. We are going to use Sugarsync" he replies. "They give each person 5Gb of free storage". "5Gb. That's your plan? That will never be enough." The soon to be unemployed deputy thinks quickly and says "We have 20 teacher right and 100 kids in the our year 7 group. Each teacher invites 5 students earning an extra 2.5Gb of storage, then the next year, each student invites the next year group, again earning more free storage. Not only that, we can share a folder with the students to collect homework and have another folder shared with each student to give feedback. We can also share folders in a way with staff so that they only see the documents they need to, removing the clutter of the network." The Head smiles before the next question. "So what Learning platform have you budgeted for?" Oh s#$t!, the deputy thinks. "Emmmm.....Google apps?" To be continued.....


Mark Smith says:

Enjoyed this piece very much. Being a university student, cloud computing really drives me to do better in my subjects. Being able to access documents & assignments that I have anywhere and at anytime is a great attribute to making sure your work is 'properly read through' and checked. Although, I have always found cloud computing to be very ambiguous. As a user, I am unsure whether or not my data is really private or even safe. We all understand that cloud computing is becoming a paradigm, but is our data really safe in the hands of these sites? A company or school has a large risk of losing valuable data, if they were to experience a loss of power or even disruption to the 'main cloud computing company' (ie. Dropbox etc). Things to consider for a company when deciding to take risks like these..I guess that why you call those people Entrepreneurs though! Cheers. Looking forward to the next piece.


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Jonny says:

Nice article Ivan. I certainly am keen to move away from replicating non-digital pedagogy in the digital domain. Do you not feel that some of these technologies help enable public critique? I have certainly used it that way. Teaching a lesson on ethics, I used Google apps to get students to construct responses to different ethical frameworks and then evaluate each other's work in real time so that by the end of the lesson they had been exposed to each others view points. A very powerful tool.

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