Cloud computing pushes into the classroom, but not without challenges

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Cloud computing pushes into the classroom, but not without challenges

When you think about a traditional school workflow, it’s not unlike that of a business: paper is generated and moved in a systematic way between the children and the teacher. Just as cloud computing has transformed workflows in business to make them more collaborative and mobile, that same type of change has been coming to schools. Children and teachers use the power of the cloud to collaborate while accessing, storing, and sharing content.

As with business, this change is ongoing, uneven, and by no means complete. But if schools are at least partly about preparing children for the next generation of work, then the cloud needs to be a part of that preparation. Just as some businesses have struggled to transition to the cloud, schools face similar challenges. But because schools involve a specific demographic—children from a variety of abilities and socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds—their challenges can be even more complicated.

Slowly but surely, in spite of the issues, cloud tools are coming to the classroom. As more companies, large and small, help schools bring about this transition in a way that makes sense for teachers and children in a classroom context, we are seeing a shift to the cloud and all the advantages (and problems) that brings.

Peter Jordan is the CEO and co-founder at Knowledge Matters, a cloud service that delivers business simulations to over one-third of high schools in the US, covering subjects like management, retail, and personal finance. He says the company has been in business long enough to remember when delivering this type of content to classrooms was far more complex.

“We think the cloud has already been transformational in delivering technology to the classroom,” Jordan explained. “When we started Knowledge Matters, we were literally shipping CD-ROMs to schools across the country. From a technology standpoint, as an educational software company, it was a huge challenge, as we had to troubleshoot network configurations for teachers [and other installation issues].”

Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management for Google Education, says that operational efficiency is just part of the cloud’s advantage. “Teachers no longer have to take home a box of papers,” he said. “They can provide feedback much faster, and they are spending more time with the students instead of [grading] papers.”

Clouds make more active students

That shift in the teacher-student relationship goes even deeper, says Jason Klein, assistant superintendent for technology and learning at the Maine Township High School District in Chicago. He says using cloud tools has fundamentally changed the way teachers teach and children learn in his district’s schools. Instead of a teacher being the information provider and the children being responsible for learning that information, the teacher becomes a facilitator or coach in helping children find the resources they need to learn. This arrangement makes children much more active participants in the learning process, he explained.

In fact, each of the 6,500 kids in Klein’s district has a Chromebook computer and access to Google tools like Google Drive and Google Docs. Rochelle says teachers manage the flow of content between them and students using Google Classroom, which gives teachers a central administrative interface to manage cloud activity in the classroom. That includes building a roster, communicating assignments to the whole class or individual students, and facilitating communication across the classroom.

Klein says this capability enables teachers to review the documents children are working on in real time. Through the document-sharing capability, children can get feedback from peers as well as teachers.

Too many choices?

One of the great advantages about working in the cloud is the interoperability between services. If teachers want to use a module from Khan Academy, a language lesson in Duolingo, or a YouTube video from CrashCourse, they can incorporate all of that into their course work. This allows them to customize lessons for each child or group of children, taking into account a range of abilities.

Yet trying to figure out which tools to use when accessing that world of content becomes a problem in itself. Klein’s district provides a set of tools, but teachers are free to supplement those with whatever options they wish. In order to decide which tools are best from the universe of choices on the Internet, teachers communicate with one another, participate with other teachers on social networks to find what’s working for them, and work with the school librarians, who are trained to find good sources and tools—and teach the teachers how to find them on their own.

Sonny Hashmi, who is managing director of global governments at online content management company Box, says his company focuses on forming relationships with as many tool providers as possible. Box builds in integrations whenever it can, whether that’s with Blackboard, Khan Academy, G Suite, or Office 365. “We believe in a world where solutions have to work together seamlessly,” Hashmi said.

While the cloud-computing trend favors the transition to more tools like these, obstacles remain. According to Rochelle of Google, “One of our biggest challenges is providing technology solutions that require bandwidth and some computer.” This is especially true when kids go home after school. The Pew Center for Research has found that, while the Digital Divide is closing, it still persists for lower-income populations in the United States. And not every school can afford to issue digital tools to each student.

Pew Research shows that broadband adoption among lower-income Americans has actually dropped, as more depend on smart phones for Internet. But smart phones may not be a good match for some cloud-based education tools.

Esteban Sosnik is a partner at Reach Capital, who has invested in EdTech startups such as Nearpod, a content management and administrative tool aimed at classroom teachers, and Newsela, a reading platform that delivers leveled daily news content. He says one of the biggest challenges in bringing the cloud to the classroom is finding that central management tool that simplifies taking advantage of all the different options.

“There is a bottleneck in terms of making it easy to deploy,” Sosnik said. “Teachers don’t want to add more complexity into the classroom.” He acknowledges Google Classroom is the closest to a central classroom administrative tool that we have. But he says that there is still no single default platform where teachers and children can start their daily digital journey (and there is a tremendous opportunity for a company to become that).

Klein points out that, just as in business, this type of change requires top-down support and innovative thinking on the part of the entire school system. But it also requires practical systems in place to manage these tools and equipment, set up refresh cycles, and simply maintain the computers the children are using—whether that’s a computer for every student or a cart system where classes share computers throughout the day.

None of these impediments is insurmountable, but it takes a clear vision on the part of school systems to give teachers and students the tools they need to learn in the 21st century. “The implementation is getting better, and the cloud and connectivity are helping. We expect in three to five years’ time, it will be [even] easier for teachers to use this technology in the classroom,” Sosnik said.

Ron Miller is a freelance technology journalist and blogger. He writes regularly on the cloud and the enterprise.

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