Using the cloud in an education context seems like a no-brainer. Teachers could send homework and permission slips “home” via Google Docs or Dropbox, no longer relying on a crumpled slip of paper in a 7-year-old’s backpack to communicate with parents.
However, integrating the cloud into our current education system is far more difficult than setting up a few accounts. Indeed, a couple of major roadblocks, peculiar to America’s public education system, stand in the way.
First, there’s the issue of safety and privacy.
At school, computers have all sorts of firewalls that keep students from accessing “inappropriate” content. Not so at home, which could make some school districts concerned about any system that allows students to swap files between multiple computers with different levels of filtering and security.
Then there’s the issue of the “Digital Divide.”
For those who live in urban areas, it may seem difficult to believe broadband access is not yet universal in the United States. Not even close. Despite the fact that about 10 years ago, broadband providers were required by Congress to subsidize equipment and provide Internet access at the cheapest rates possible, penetration rates lag in key areas.
ProPublica recently published the results of an investigation of the results of that law. Not only have schools not been charged less, but AT&T “has charged some schools up to 325 percent more than it charged others in the same region for essentially the same services.” Verizon also “charged a New York school district more than twice as much as it charged government and other school customers in that state.”
Contrast that with South Korea and Singapore, where the government has paid to have every school in the nation hardwired with broadband access. Kim Jones, CEO of Curriki, an open-source community for educational resources, compared those initiatives with President Eisenhower’s highways program of the 1950s. “A great thing we can do is to build those electronic highways to schools across the country,” she said.
But financial roadblocks aren’t the only ones preventing our educational system from becoming more cloud-based. Open access to educational materials is another problem confronting many schools.
Textbook manufacturers have long controlled curriculum in the classroom, suggest experts. In higher education, students began rebelling against high textbook prices years ago, forcing those manufacturers to develop digital strategies. But K-12 textbook prices are hidden, in a sense, in that they’re one line item in a huge budget.
When textbooks are updated, new information isn’t added until the following year—at which point entirely new books need to be purchased. At full price.
“I think a great investment that would benefit all the schools would be making sure everybody was wired and everybody had access to devices,” Jones said. Then the textbooks and other learning materials “would be a lot less expensive to put … together and a lot less expensive to update.”
With cloud-based resources such as those on Curriki and the Khan Academy model on YouTube, people have become more excited about using open educational resources. Khan Academy began as a series of YouTube videos Salman Khan created to help tutor his cousins. It’s now a not-for-profit organization that helps parents and students track their progress through a series of free videos in a wide variety of topics.
“It’s very exciting,” said Cynthia Liu, founder and editor of the K-12 News Network. “There’s genuine upheaval in K-12 education, when it comes to theories about how to teach.”
Beth Gladstone, an editor for Reuters and mother of two young girls in New York City, sees some hope for better cloud integration in city schools.
Weekly emails from the teacher, a Google group for her daughter’s kindergarten class and another for the school as a whole, and online permission slips help ensure tighter communication for everyone.
“But,” she said, “primary communication is through a folder in the backpack, of a 5-year-old, which means it’s crumpled and filled with crumbs and spilled on quite a bit old-fashioned.”
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