Can cloud improve our children’s education?

This post was originally published on ThoughtsOnCloud on August 28, 2012

As a school governor responsible for the education of four to seven year olds in information technology I’ve been thinking recently about how cloud affects both what we need our children to learn and also how they learn it.

In the last couple of decades a lot of technical work has been off-shored to countries where the less skilled, easily specified and repeatable IT tasks have been cheaper, and in the more developed countries we’ve focused on the higher value roles such as product innovation and design. This has meant that there’s been no real demand for a workforce who can program computers. School IT education has focused more on being consumers of IT rather than creators of it, for example, how to use a spreadsheet or a word processor rather than how to write one. There’s also been no real demand from children themselves to learn programming. When I was young we bought a ZX81 or an Atari ST, for example, to play games on, and then some of us were curious enough to wonder how it worked. We had everything we needed in our game’s computers to learn and try out programming. Soon after that we moved to games consoles and the opportunity to program them disappeared. So the people coming out of schools at the moment don’t know programming, and maybe we don’t need them to as this work is off-shored. Unfortunately they don’t know IT design, governance, and how to manage relationships with offshore companies either.

Until recently I’d been advocating that these were the skills that we should be teaching our youth. However with the advent of cloud things have changed a little. Now that we have private cloud with automation, a lot of the menial work like build and test can be done by software so the off-shored work can now be moved back onshore. The need for managing the relationship with the external company is disappearing to be replaced by a need to be able to work with the cloud.

With the advent of platform as a service children now have immediate access once again to sandbox environments where they can learn to program and test out ideas, so there can be a new wave of innovation and creativity driven by curiosity and excitement and the desire to learn.

Also, with the advent of tablets there will be increased access to technology in the classroom. At the moment there are schools with cupboards full of unused laptops because over time each one has gradually had a minor problem that the teachers have been unable to fix. With tablets, appliances with very little running on them, where very little can go wrong because they are thin clients accessing the cloud where most of the processing happens, we have much more robust computers requiring far less technical skill to maintain them. This is going to mean that finally the dream can be achieved that we thought was going to happen when we bought all those laptops.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the role of the teacher. In primary school teachers have a dual role. They educate children in academic subjects but they also act as a surrogate mother giving the children emotional support and attention.  When I was at school we had fairly small class sizes with one teacher per class. Now this has been optimised to have larger classes where there is one fully qualified teacher responsible for the class’s education but there is also a teaching assistant who ensures that the children have enough support, both with the task that they’re working on as well as emotionally.

At the moment IBM is helping various schools and colleges to offer education virtually. Using IBM Smart Business Desktop Cloud and IBM SmartCloud for Social Business we can significantly enhance traditional online learning by adding collaboration and a virtual desktop environment. IBM is doing this with the Classroom in the Cloud at Birmingham Metropolitan College in the UK and the virtual desktops at Pike County Schools in the USA. This is allowing education bodies to broaden their audience to students off campus and even outside the country.  Thinking about how this applies to primary school children, it occurs to me that we can have a teacher in the cloud delivering education to many children remotely, with the cheaper, lesser qualified teaching assistant sitting with the child to deliver the assistance and support.  Video conferencing is almost at the stage where you can have a full size image of the teacher right next to the student.

This last idea may be going a bit far for now so I’m not going to be recommending it to my school any time in the near future but I can imagine the possibilities of giving all children access to the very best teachers in the world, and I’m excited by the opportunities that cloud is bringing to education.

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