Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The Cloud has a silver lining for schools

It seems there is more and more you can do on the web in a browser and much less need to have any software installed on your local machine. Considering that most people use only a tiny proportion of the features of commonly used office applications, anything you could want and more is now available from a website, from anywhere you happen to be. There are online word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools and even data handling applications. The latest, and probably the most spectacular, is undoubtedly the new online image processing tool from Adobe - Photoshop Express. It does almost anything most of us would want to do to improve the quality of our digital pictures and it seems to be much easier to use than Photoshop Elements. They are currently giving people who are trying out this software a whopping 2GB of free online storage space, but if that isn't enough you can go on using Facebook and Picasa to store your photos online and it will enable you to edit these as well by logging into your accounts for you and pulling out the images. Of course there are many other online tools for image editing but having used Adobe's desktop software programs for some years I was particularly interested in this one.

Up to now I have always been a little sceptical about these applications because of the need for local storage for your files but I have just been trying out Microsoft's SkyDrive free online storage where you have an enormous 5GB available. If I added up all the online storage space I have in all the different online services I belong to then I certainly don't have any need any more for local storage. All I do need is some way of managing these online spaces in one place so that I can, for example, open a document from my SkyDrive in the Zoho word processor - which Google Docs does perfectly but which I have not managed yet with Zoho. Of course all of these sites want you to keep your files on their space so even though I can put a file from SkyDrive directly into Google Docs, I can't then save it back again to my Skydrive. In fact, I can't even do that from my desktop-based Office 2007 apps!

But it's early days. What is striking is the speed at which it is all happening. We spent many years trapped into the traditional rich client model of locally installed applications but it is the relatively recent widespread availability, even on the move, of high bandwidth connections to the Internet that has made the difference.

So what does this mean for schools of the future? Will schools need the large and expensive server rooms delivering either locally installed applications or thin client presentations? If we can get high bandwidth connectivitiy to a data centre that is reliable then we could see these cloud based technologies being made available over, for example, the regional broadband grids. I don't mean we all log on to a web server in the US to do our word processing. We need to be able to host these applications ourselves though on a regional basis in the same way we can with Sharepoint. This should enable us to sort out the unified storage requirements and get the whole shooting match to hang together. This will also address the security and e-safety issues.

The implications for schools are considerable, driving down technical support costs, and shifting away from a dependence on capital for expensive new computers and servers to more of a rental model from revenue budgets. We can still deal with the specialist needs for high-end image and video processing and the like through making increasing use of both server and application virtualisation utilising wide area high bandwidth networks rather than local school-based networks and local servers.

Already, many content producers in the schools market are shifting to web-based delivery and subscriptions models rather than selling you a CD-Rom, so fo most of us all we need is a browser and we should be able to do just about all we need. And of course, the browser could be running on a phone, a low-cost solid state notebook or a games console. And it can be at school or at home.

The challenge for BSF is whether we continue to equip schools for a model of computing that has had it's day.

Zoho http://www.zoho.com/

Windows Live (SkyDrive) http://get.live.com/

Google Docs http://docs.google.com/

Photoshop Express https://www.photoshop.com/user/sheyne