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Libraries in the cloud
As we look to the future, every K–12 technology leader reading this article should consider taking up the following challenges:
• forget about IT as you know it today;
• get ready to outsource IT;
• let go of the desire to control;
• embrace diversity in the IT environment;
• blow the lid off storage limits;
• stop saying things like, ‘A wired network infrastructure will always be necessary because wireless will never be fast enough for everything.’
These bold predictions of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) are in large part a response to K–12 schools rapidly moving to 'cloud-based' networking environments. This is a radical shift with regard to how schools provide access to resources, computer applications and file storage for staff and students. Librarians need to understand the implications of this change.
What is cloud computing and what are its advantages?
Anyone who has used GoogleDocs, a set of online productivity tools that allows the creation of documents, spreadsheets, presentations and surveys, has experienced cloud computing (see Head of the Edge, Library Media Connection, May/June 2011, at www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/googleapps-and-librarians.html).
Cloud computing relies on applications and file storage that reside on a remote server, with minimal resources stored on local computers’ hard drives (a cloud graphic is often used to represent the internet on network diagrams, hence the name). If you have ever stored a file online, edited a photo with an online tool, or used a web-based email program, you have already experienced cloud computing.
There are many advantages to cloud computing. Since both applications and files reside on a network rather than on a specific computer, users can work on any project, anywhere. Given a computer with internet access – on a desk at school, a lap at home, in any computer lab or coffee shop in the world, or even at Grandma’s house – users can work without worrying about transporting files on physical media like flash drives, keeping track of the latest version of a document, or having the right software to open a file. Just as importantly, files can easily be shared and collaboratively edited in a cloud-based application without having to resort to email attachments and the confusion that multiple versions of attachments can create.
Unlike much software that resides on computer hard drives, web-based applications that perform a wide-array of productivity tasks are usually provided at no cost to the user. While not as comprehensive as Microsoft Office, iLife or Adobe Photoshop, these applications often have a surprisingly full feature set and are often compatible with popular commercial programs.
Cloud computing also requires less powerful – and therefore less expensive – computers. Using these inexpensive computers, free file storage and free applications can lower a school’s computing costs. Money that would have been spent on student workstations in labs, big file servers, support staff, and expensive software can instead be used to pay for increased bandwidth, greater wireless coverage or maybe – just maybe – lower class sizes.
Ratios of one computer to each student are more feasible when schools make use of cloud computing. With a low cost netbook and the use of cloud software, student computers are virtually interchangeable. Therefore, if a device needs repair or is left at home, another machine can be easily substituted. At some point, schools will ask parents to provide basic computing devices for their children as a part of the school supply list. A few years ago, I was asked to purchase a $100 graphing calculator for my son. How big a stretch is it to ask parents to provide a $250 netbook computer that can be used in all classes today?
How can librarians take advantage of cloud-based computing today?
Before advocating for cloud computing for my staff and students, I decided to see if I could 'live in the cloud' as a computer user - both personal and professional - myself. Below is a list of how I have moved my main computing tasks to the cloud:
1. Netbook: Rather than using a full-scale laptop computer, I use a 10" ASUS laptop that cost about $300. The smaller keyboard and screen size took some getting accustomed too, but I have found that I can work on the computer for long periods of time. The speed is acceptable, the battery life is good and the wireless connectivity is fast.
2. Email: Our district has successfully transitioned to Gmail accounts for all staff and students. I have long been a Gmail user for my personal email.
3. Web searching and bookmarking: I have long used a delicious.com account.
4. Word processing, presentation creation and spreadsheet use: After years of using Office, the move to GoogleDocs for my day-to-day productivity has been surprisingly easy. In fact, getting away from Office's 'feature creep' has been refreshing. The presentation program lacks animation, transitions, and in-program image editing. But for 95% of my work and for storing my files, GoogleDocs works just fine, thank you. Furthermore, the work I create is compatible with Office. Google adds features to its Docs suite on a regular basis. There are no skills in our information literacy/information technology curriculum that cannot be taught and practised using GoogleApps for Education.
5. Photo storage and editing: I’ve been storing my best photographs on a commercial storage site for years and editing them with Photoshop Elements. But Flickr and Picasa are online applications that work perfectly adequately for this amateur's editing and storage needs. Picasa gives iPhoto a run for its money as a photo organiser.
6. Web page editing and webmastering: My personal blog, wiki, and website are already completely managed via application service providers who use online tools for management and editing. Our school website and the professional association websites I help manage - Kiwanis, our lakes association, and our state library/tech association – are also managed using these tools.
7. School specific tasks: Without exception, all gradebooks, reporting systems, and communications in our district are web-based, as are our accounting and other management systems. Nearly every school document I create, share and collaborate on is stored on GoogleDocs rather than on my computer's hard drive.
8. Library catalogue and circulation system: Library staff and library users access our Destiny circulation/catalogue system via a web browser. For a nominal fee, a regional telecommunications agency hosts, maintains, and upgrades the system for us. No local storage costs or maintenance!
The future of cloud-based computing
It's a good time to consider the impact of cloud computing on our libraries.
• Does your school have a policy about student-owned devices that can be used to access the resources you provide in the cloud? Parents will not allow a simple ban on them, anymore than they allowed schools to ban mobile phones.
• Does your school have the reliable, adequate and secure wireless infrastructure to support dozens, if not hundreds, of student-owned computing devices taking advantage of cloud-based applications?
• Is your school library helping teachers and students receive the training, resources and strategies to use the cloud?
• Is your school exploring cloud-based enterprise solutions like Google Apps Education Edition or Microsoft’s Office365?
• Is your library using cloud-based applications to lower its operating costs?
• Might libraries re-purpose those general use computer labs, providing instead a combination of wireless netbooks that can be used anywhere in and out of the library and fewer, but more powerful, media production computers in common labs?
For some educators, especially technology specialists who have lovingly built in-house networks and may fear some of the changes in the quote that opened this article, a move to the clouds will be a significant change in mindset. They may see storm clouds!
But remember – every cloud has a silver lining, especially for our library users!
Director of Media and Technology in the Mankato Schools
First published in LMC, May/June 2011
Copyright 2011. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC