“Cloud computing” is the vernacular term for computing services that are provided via a World Wide Web interface. As mobile devices have become more popular, cloud computing has become popular as well. Despite the impressive computing capacity that is available in mobile devices, they have less capacity than a laptop or desktop computer with a full operating system. By transferring storage and some processing to servers on the Internet, cloud computing reduces the demand for local resources.
In his 2008 book The Big Switch, science writer Nicholas Carr detailed similarities between the adoption of cloud computing and the centralization of electricity generation in the early 1900’s. When electricity first was used to run machines, Carr observed, each factory installed and managed its own generator. This model of on-site electricity generation was replaced with large electricity generation stations and the distribution grid that has been common for decades. (Interestingly, that model is increasingly being challenged as small-scale efforts to use renewable alternatives to fossil fuels are being developed. Those small-scale producers usually are connected to the distribution grid, however.) Cloud computing does follow the model of large scale and centralized stations that provide large capacity, and users access that capacity as needed; this is similar to how people access other utilities.
Google Drive an example of cloud computing that is widely used in education. It provides several advantages for educational communities. A user connects to Google Drive via a web browser and logs on with a user name and password, and then has access to several tools including word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. Files created and stored in Drive can be accessed from any computer on the Internet, so the files are compatible with any computer (or mobile device) and it is not necessary to physically transport files to different locations. In addition to storing the documents created with Drive, users can upload and store files from local computers to Drive. Because the files are stored on Internet servers, they can be accessed from anywhere and they can be shared in many ways. Users can make files public so anyone can see them, or they can give others permission to comment on or even edit documents.
In schools where cloud computing has been adopted, there are several changes in technology management. More resources tend to be used to install and maintain robust and secure connections to the Internet and to ensure there is adequate bandwidth. Fewer resources tend to be spent on user devices. Because cloud computing requires only an updated web browser, devices with more limited capacity can be deployed. Chromebooks are becoming more popular as are versions of Linux with system requirements that are compatible with older computers. These decisions are contributing the dampening of the cyclic purchase and obsolescence pattern described previously. Devices that provide sufficient capacity are less expensive than other computer and devices can be used longer in schools where cloud computing is used.
For all users of cloud computing, the systems are updated and protected by the companies that provide the service. Those providers operate on a scale that far exceeds the scale of even the largest enterprise systems in schools, and thus have the resources and expertise to maintain systems with greater security and reliability than local network administrators.
Some school and technology leaders have interpreted Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requirements for privacy to mean data about students that must be protected cannot be stored on cloud systems. This has resulted in two systems being maintained, one system of servers to store and manage potentially sensitive data and cloud-based systems to be used for teaching and learning.
Carr, Nicholas G. 2013. The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.