I often get accused of being in one of my peskier moods when I reduce one of technology’s most lauded and hyped developments, cloud technology, as nothing more than a big hard disk in the sky (well, in the sky via a server farm in Texas or maybe an icy outpost in Finland). But, for a newbie, it’s probably the easiest way to explain its immediate potential, and to point out its immediate, very personal benefits to individuals, especially educators. The cloud, for education and learning, is your key development platform and one that should be on the lips of every education leader as we discuss how to encourage more collaboration amongst staff and students. But first, my pesky tales.
The cloud has brought a new level of paranoia in backing things up to my own family. We actually used to fill shelves with external drives, and then ship them off with the parents when they visited. Should our house ever go on fire, what were the chances of my parents’ house also going up in smoke on the same night? I even had contingencies for contingencies; i.e., we’d make an immediate trip to my parents’ house, three hours away, to back up the backup, just in case lightning struck close to home. It still didn’t stop several laptops presenting me with a blue screen and never reviving themselves. Whole experiences saved “forever” in digital were lost on those hard disks: that most powerful trip to see French immersion in action in New Brunswick in the early 2000s, a few school trips, some of the material I had researched for my post-graduate studies.
But the notion of the cloud, if not a proprietary version of it, first came to our household in 2005 and changed the nature of my paranoia around data security to a more sustainable, and, I thought, a more secure one. The photo website Flickr was where I started posting all those precious snaps, YouTube where I started posting family videos to keep them safe should the worst happen at home. I backed up my thoughts to a blog on the Typepad platform, and all those precious research points I stopped saving to my hard disk’s “Bookmarks” or “Favorites” folder and started saving to delicious.com.
A pleasant by-product of this paranoia-induced saving to “up there” rather than on my closed down hard disk, was that it could all be shared: pictures, videos, thoughts and reference points. And people shared back so I could further grow on every aspect. My blog was probably the most powerful manifestation: Here I was storing IDEAS on far-flung servers for safekeeping, also making those ideas searchable and shareable. It’s thanks to that blog that I’ve been working on the exciting projects I’ve been permitted to since 2005.
Cloud: Not Infallible
But it’s not infallible. In 2006, after a long day or work and writing, I managed to somehow click two bright red buttons on Typepad and delete my entire blog, edu.blogs.com. It was only because I knew the company CEO, Loic Lemeur (now one of Silicon Valley’s top entrepreneurs), and could plead with him en Français, that I had the entire technical unit of Typepad.com seeking out what was left of my blog on their many servers. I had been saved by a generous man and a company that really understood customer service.
But this experience served me as a difficult lesson: The cloud is not infallible. Saving stuff to a series of servers somewhere else on the planet doesn’t stop the fact that they are real, fallible servers, liable to overheating, liable to bursting. Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco … all these firms are effectively operating at a massive scale the same multiple-site paranoia system that I ran for many years between my home and that of my parents.
Moreover, like the mother who’s fed up of having her attic filled with stuff, costing her “space” and “mental bandwidth,” many of the Web 2.0 startups to which we are handing over our lives’ artifacts also can have motherly tendencies towards our stuff.
What if Your Stored Memory Died?
When Flickr’s mother company, Yahoo, was going through a period of culling parts of the company last year, one such product to go was Flickr’s sister product for Web links, delicious.com. This was the place I’d already saved 6000+ memories of great articles, research pieces, and, yes, pictures of cats saying “lolz.” As it was, I was able to quickly export all those (textual and therefore low-bandwidth) links and put them in another service, Diigo. Within two months, delicious had been taken over by former YouTube execs, altered somewhat, and is now working its way back to a high quality of service.
But YouTube itself caused Google to kill its video service (Do you even remember they had one, Google Video?) when Google purchased the number-one video site a couple of years back. Here ensued another frantic backing up exercise to transfer clips from Google Video to YouTube, and to Vimeo for good measure.
And what if Flickr, home to some 14,000+ memories of children being born, growing up, marriages had, meals shared, Christmases spent together, were to see its mother company have another “cull.” Exporting out of Flickr is notoriously difficult, at scale in any case, and externally produced tools for doing so always find themselves out of date quickly as the goal posts are changed. Making the three clicks to download each picture individually would take me two solid months of downloading.
An Essential Ingredient for Continuous Learning
However, in these Internet behemoths we really must trust, as individuals and, I believe, as companies, organisations, and schools. Like it or not, there might be the inherent Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) arguments that I have just levelled at you: Your data might not be as safe as you think, and with many Web 2.0 services, your data is no longer yours once it’s shared/stored with them.
But such services are far more preferable to me than having hosts of whirring servers of my own, servers I have to maintain and whose electricity and cooling I have to pay for. And increasingly we’re seeing that same preference from the very black-T-shirted IT specialists that barely half a decade ago would be most proud of showing visiting delegates their hot, windowless server rooms “running the whole the school district.” The economies of scale in using cloud services for storage are enormous, and the opportunities for collaboration they open immense.
For example, our organisation recently moved its entire operation to the cloud: Google Apps power our e-mail, document writing, and some storage, with Dropbox taking up the heavyweight files we share and develop, collaboratively and continuously, for our ever-changing keynotes and workshops. An individual trying to keep these talks and workshops up to date would struggle. A team working around a fixed document in traditional meetings would manage a dozen updates a year, if we were lucky. As it is, our materials, resources, and thinking is really in perpetual beta, undergoing multiple updates every day as we tinker and toy with new ideas that affect our thinking and the nature of our learning.
Taken to an industrial scale, we can see school districts, like my alma mater East Lothian, which invest increasing amounts of time and energy in placing more of their services, from e-mail to blogging, attendance, and staff administration, in the cloud. The time costs money, but it’s still costing less than investing in the hardware and specialist staff to look after it. More than that, educators prefer having everything on a browser, accessible as long as they have access to the Internet, rather than always having to “do work” in school. Thanks to the cloud, learning and all the admin that’s sometimes part of that, can be anytime, anywhere.
Economies of scale are also working the other way around, too. Art and design departments would normally not relish the day they felt their Adobe Creative Suite products needed updating, incurring thousands of dollars in new licensing fees. But last month Adobe launched Creative Cloud, meaning that for as little as $20 a month students could access top of the range, totally up-to-date software for their projects. No longer do educators feel that they have no choice in using illegal non-licensed software, and no longer do students use tools in school that they don’t recognise when they hit the workplace.
The Clouds Makes Learning Tools Cheap and Scalable
The cloud makes learning tools–like online content–up-to-date, cheap and scalable, representing a huge opportunity for any school to reduce costs, collaborate more, and keep information the most up-to-date, and yet many IT departments the world over are still peddling the FUD that cloud-based services and content are a) not secure, b) not trustworthy, or c) not going to be around forever. We need to knock this notion on the head, swallow our fears, and maybe make backup plans of our own. (Schools might look for a more robust solution that their mothers’ shelves.) Risk can be best handled by seeking out a great service in the first place, and knowing exactly what you mean by risk. (There’s more on risk evaluation in this recent TED conversation.)
But we also need to create more of a movement to gain cloud services at the right price for our schools, and push back against the resistance that comes from those who stand to lose out. Textbook manufacturers still wed to paper as their prime income source, and telco carriers keen to exploit legacy agreements with education districts before offering new cloud services, need to be shifted if they will not shift themselves. (See this Slashdot post on education’s resistance to the cloud.)
The cloud is new in the big scheme of things, but in terms of the Web’s lifetime it’s been around since the net was a toddler. It’s not that new, and as early as 2008 over two thirds of Web users were harnessing the cloud, maybe without even realising it. Web 2.0 junkies have been outsourcing their storage — and by proxy enabling greater collaboration — by offering their content, ideas and tools to the browser. As British educationalist Stephen Heppell puts it, it won’t be long before we’re asking students to bring a pencil, bring some paper, and bring a browser.