Head in the Clouds – does Cloud Computing live up to the equity challenges of the C.21st?

In a literature review I wrote in 2011, I argued that Cloud Computing – then a fairly nascent concept in Education – could have the potential to address some of the biggest equity barriers that mark the digital divide in the twenty-first century. With the price of increasingly sophisticated computing devices getting lower and lower each year, it’s little wonder that I can now do pretty much anything on my Chromebook that, up until just a few years ago, I needed a much more expensive device to accomplish.

I’m very privileged to be working at Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre running what has become a very popular course, our Beginner’s Guide to Google Apps for Education. In the opening session, the participants and I discuss some of the recent developments in BYOD and Cloud Computing, both regarded as “near term horizon” technologies for 2014 that have now arguably become mainstream. Citing examples such as video editing, multitrack recording and advanced Photoshop-style image editing, I point out that cloud tools now provide access to what was formerly the domain of “pro users” and $2500 high-end machines. For example, tools such as WeVideo run in a web browser, make use of Cloud storage and provide a very similar experience to much more expensive and device-based applications like Final Cut Pro.

In the last few years that followed my 2011 literature review, BYOD has become a huge focus in many schools and, as most educators are aware, this can take many forms. With what I like to call “open slather” BYOD, kids bring any device and use it to support learning; but this presents at least as many challenges as it does opportunities. For example, how does a teacher set a task where technology can make a difference, especially when most educators (myself included) don't have a comprehensive understanding of each platform and the affordances of each app? What about the equity problems of kids having very different devices able to achieve different things? Does the teacher's task favour a particular platform and what are the implications of this? If we say it's the student's job to know the device and use it well, are teachers liable to just mentally “buy out” of the need to really know how the tool works?

All of this makes the concept of device agnosticism and the idea that the device doesn't matter problematic. So even though I recognise the potential of Cloud Computing to redress some of the biggest equity issues in contemporary classrooms, we need to remain very skeptical.

Are you “CloudReady?”  

In spite of the issues around achieving effective BYOD, Cloud Computing makes technology platforms accessible across most devices so that the tool and its data can be accessed regardless of the device. Since the actual “computing” (that is the strain on the system processors) is also done “in the cloud” by advanced and powerful network servers, I don't always need that $3000 spaceship to get the things that I want done.

I’m often doing things video editing, audio recording and Photoshopping. I’m amazed that I’m now able to do these things just as easily on my $250 Chromebook as I can on my $2500 Macbook.

Given that a number of educational jurisdictions and institutions around the world have come to similar realisations, I think it’s time that many educators started exploring Cloud-based platforms such as ChromeOS, the operating system that underpins all Chromebooks and relies principally on the Chrome browser, its extensions and associated applications and an Internet connection. For most of us (again, myself included!) this is a fairly foreign concept when you’ve been working with device-based platforms such as Mac OS, Windows and Linux.

I know a large number of educators who are keen to explore Cloud-based platforms such as ChromeOS but are perhaps less willing to buy a Chromebook, given the expense and possibility that it mightn’t be quite what they’re looking for. Thankfully, the folks at Neverware have done an excellent job of making ChromeOS easily downloadable and installable on any laptop or netbook up to eight years old. This means that you can try ChromeOS – possibly on an old machine that is just lying around – and see what it’s like to do everything in the Cloud. I know of several schools where school leaders have been able to turn fleets of relatively useless netbooks into very powerful Cloud devices.

Another option is to use Neverware to download and install ChromeOS on a bootable USB. You can then plug it into any PC and boot Google’s operating system with all of your settings, web history and applications ready to go.

In an age where we’re often liable to think that we need the latest and greatest device in order to be on top of educational technology, it’s refreshing to see that Cloud Computing really is, at least for now, living up to some of the equity challenges that have marked the last twenty years of the digital landscape. I would encourage all educators to shift their thinking away from the view that students need the best device available. By exploring Cloud platforms and tools on low-cost, Cloud-based devices, we can work with the kinds of technology that can be accessible to most – if not all – learners in the future.

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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