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Online and in the Clouds


You may not realize it, but you are probably already involved in cloud computing. Do you access web-based resources or use online tools? Yahoo Mail, Flickr, Dropbox, and Google Calendar are just a few examples of cloud computing. These applications allow you to:

  • quickly access your files and information
  • from a central location shared by other users,
  • with multiple devices,
  • via an Internet connection.

The concept itself is not new, but the attention it is receiving as a way to access information and services is growing. The impact of cloud computing is also evident in online higher education as students and instructors use web-based tools to access course materials and share information.

What is "the Cloud"?

A clear definition of cloud computing is not agreed upon and the term cloud has been interpreted in different ways as a buzzword in information technology. According to a Dell report, the term cloud computing was first used in 1997 by an information systems professor. ExplainingComputers.com presents a nice video comparison of cloud computing to the emergence of public access to electricity. Before there was a national grid of power plants, companies each had to generate their own electricity to operate their businesses. Now we all connect to a centrally located power source that provides electricity to many users. Cloud computing is similar in that it allows many users to connect to data and software applications at central locations (servers) that we access via the Internet.

Cloud Computing and You

The Dell report also states that cloud computing was an 80 billion dollar business in 2010 and estimates growth to 150 billion dollars by 2014. Cloud computing is obviously big business and becoming more important in business operations, but what does it mean for you as an online student or instructor?

You can think of the cloud in terms of personal and public. Your personal cloud might include things like your music files, address book, and documents you are working on. Information or data from your personal cloud may overlap with a public cloud (or even other personal clouds) that includes shared information. The public cloud includes things like social networks and your school's websites and portals. Through account and privacy settings we decide what data is shared and what is not shared. "In theory, this cloud of data follows you wherever you go" making it possible for you to quickly connect with it from any of your devices (laptop, smartphone, iPad, etc.).

Higher Education in the Cloud

Online education is in the cloud! As a student or instructor you may have personal accounts you access online, but your institution may also be using a number of cloud-based tools that deliver your courses. This might include your school email account and access to a learning management system.

Cloud computing allows users (students and instructors) or user groups (such as universities) to access resources on an as-needed basis from a company that provides and maintains the resources. This can be a cost saving measure and is growing in popularity as higher education faces budget cuts. The cloud also allows for flexibility and a certain degree of customization that might not be available or affordable if the institution had to purchase full versions of all applications and maintain them on institution owned servers. The cloud creates the possibility of combining open and commercial types of resources in a modular way to best meet student and faculty needs. 

The New Jersey Institute of Technology is one higher education institution that is leveraging the capabilities of cloud computing. They documented their experiences in a 2010 paper, Embracing the Cloud: Six Ways to Look at the Shift to Cloud Computing. Their advice for others includes being ready for change and always on the look out for new services and tools. The cloud allows for quicker pilot testing and trials before deciding to adopt institution-wide solutions. They also advise open communication between academic computing managers and users – students and faculty – to understand and alleviate concerns that might emerge with this new way to deliver the tools and resources required for a successful educational experience.

Challenges of the Cloud

We've mentioned some of the benefits of cloud computing in terms of access, portability, and flexibility, however, there are several challenges to overcome.

  • Privacy and Security – How safe is your information in terms of who might have access? Dropbox is one example of a cloud-based file storage system. This particular product faced recent scrutiny when it clarified its Terms of Service agreement to include additional details about providing user files to law enforcement in specific situations. Other privacy and security concerns involve encryption and preventive measures to avoid hackers gaining access to your data.
  • Loss of Data – What happens if the service is no longer available or experiences downtime? How will you access your files? Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud service recently experienced a temporary outage drawing fire from the small and large businesses that used the storage services. What can you do to back-up any data you are currently storing in the cloud?
  • Legal Issues – Who owns the information stored in the cloud and who can profit from it? There is a business side to sharing cloud resources that creates new questions about property and licensing that haven't been answered.
  • Internet Access – Perhaps one of the most basic concerns of cloud computing is the fact that it requires a working Internet connection. While Internet access is available in more locations and at faster speeds everyday, what if you needed your information but couldn't get online?

These challenges all involve risks that can be controlled and managed. It is critical to understand the terms of use and ask questions before committing to using a cloud-based tool or sharing information that is stored and managed by a cloud-based service.

The Future of Cloud Computing

The functions and features of the cloud are available in large part as a result of market demand. We all want more convenient access to the resources and tools we need to successfully engage in our work. This includes our work as online students and instructors. The use of cloud computing continues to enhance the online education experience, providing convenient and reliable access to course materials and web-based collaboration tools. Like many new technologies and methodologies cloud computing is dynamic and constantly evolving. What capabilities would you like to add to the cloud as an online instructor or student?

May 4th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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