How students learn in the cloud

Project links N.C. high-schoolers to high-powered computer software and more on the Web

CorrespondentMay 23, 2011 

  • Donna Grant

    Title: Assistant professor at N.C. Central University School of Business.

    What she teaches: Computer information systems.

    Education: Bachelor's from Northwestern University; MBA, M.S. and Ph.D. from DePaul University.

    Recent honor: The Award for Teaching Excellence at N.C. Central.

    Quotable: "Working with our students is not just my job, and it is not just my responsibility. It is my destiny. We must work together to prepare this next generation of professionals to run our world."

  • "Cloud computing" lets computer users access resources such as document storage, software programs and sophisticated computing services over the Internet. Shifting to cloud computing would allow:

    Small retail stores to use business software at low cost.

    Larger retailers to link data from website traffic and credit card purchases to learn which advertising leads to in-store purchases.

    Indie filmmakers to create short films with Pixar-level animation.

    Law enforcement to "connect the dots" faster by giving them access to more processing power.

    Advertisers to develop better customer profiles and reach consumers more effectively.

    Doctors to mine huge databases of electronic medical records to find out which emerging cancer therapies are more effective.

    Public health professionals to identify future clusters of infectious disease and prevent epidemics.

Students throughout North Carolina may soon be adding two C's to their classic three R's.

The new letters stand for "cloud computing," a method of accessing everyday computing resources such as document storage, software programs and sophisticated computing services over the Internet. Experts and educators say the adoption of cloud computing in the classroom, under way in several North Carolina high schools, represents a crucial step toward keeping students competitive with their peers overseas, who are scoring higher on math, physics and engineering tests.

Through one such program, high school students now can use N.C. State and N.C. Central universities' Virtual Computing Lab in Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. The VCL program is turning several North Carolina high schools into laboratories for how students nationwide could use computers in the classroom and at home to accelerate learning. Someday soon, the excuse of "the dog ate my homework" may be obsolete because homework will be done completely online.

Educators say the VCL has motivated students to embrace hard sciences and associate computers with discovery and innovation rather than simply a way to update their Facebook status. And that appeals to parents, too.

Joseph Celestin, 16, a 10th-grader at Hillside New Tech High School in Durham, says the VCL has given him a new perspective on what he can do with computers: "The best thing about VCL is just the fact that it has many programs you can use that aren't usually available to students that make your life easier," he said.

"The VCL really helps the students," agreed classmate Tierra Fields, 16. "They have Microsoft Office on VCL, and I know that some of the parents don't have the newest version so it helps their children create documents in Word or in PowerPoint to get their school work done."

Going beyond homework

But the program goes beyond homework and also inspires students to broaden their horizons. "The VCL gave me a chance to use programs that helped me look at human genetics and create my own virtual world," Tierra said. "It also showed me that there are more possibilities in terms of what I could do. Before, I used to want to be a lawyer, but now I think I should do something in graphic design because I really like designing things."

Indeed, the program is helping many students at Hillside New Tech who may have access to netbooks but who may not be able to afford $500 to $600 software suites such as InDesign and Illustrator.

"This is putting real computing resources in the hands of students who are at one of the most creative times in their lives," said Donna Grant, an assistant professor at N.C. Central University. She and colleague Alisha Malloy have launched several programs, including the one used by students at Hillside New Tech. "Working on the VCL sparks their artistic sensibility and inspires their thinking, and the students are very excited when they see what they can do with it."

One goal of the program is to get students interested in information technology sooner, Malloy said. That could lead to more IT college majors. Educators also say they hope cloud computing will help students learn more by letting them log on to the program from home. Instead of playing FarmVille or Xbox 360 during their free time, students can use high-end VCL-based software to continue their studies or spark their interest in photography, architectural design and engineering.

William Logan, principal of Hillside New Tech, says his school was chosen because of its emphasis on computer-assisted education.

"We have a one-to-one student-to-computer ratio in each of our classes, and we require our students to use technology on a daily basis to complete their assignments," he said. "We also have a learning platform called 'Echo,' which allows our students to go online to check their assignments and submit their finished work....

"Cloud technology is already helping the students in a number of ways. Students who can't afford software applications such as Adobe Dreamweaver are able to access that software at home by logging on to the university system and here at school."

Educators using VCL report an increase in students' excitement about classes and a spike in general willingness to do homework.

"We are able to measure students' satisfaction with the program in the completion of their assignments," Logan said. "I think their level of engagement increased when we were able to offer them access to cutting-edge technology. The VCL allows students to have access to the latest innovative software programs such as Alice and updated versions of InDesign and Illustrator."

Everyday technology

Parents confused by exactly what cloud computing is can take comfort in seeing the technology in daily life. Fantasy football leagues, traditional email and social networks such as Facebook are a few examples of cloud-based "software-as-a-service" that takes data and sophisticated functions from the Internet. Similarly, archiving photos on sites such as Flickr is an example of cloud-based storage.

However, cloud computing has moved far beyond storage to include the ability to access computing power and location-based services such as Foursquare and Google Maps from Web browsers running on inexpensive smart devices. Soon, students as young as elementary school are expected to run cloud-based applications from affordable iPad-like tablet computers and from "thin client" laptops without hard drives. They could be coding, creating short films and designing mobile apps before they learn to drive.

A cloud-computing future

"We really need to take sophisticated computing down to the high school level... because introducing this technology to students in college is already too late," Grant said. "Most students by then have already decided that they want to be a doctor or a lawyer."

Andy Rindos, who leads the RTP Center for Advanced Studies for IBM, offers a cloud-computing future for students of all ages.

"Ultimately, the vision is to have a North Carolina K-12 teacher simply roll out a cart of inexpensive computers, connect them to the Internet and allow students to access the most advanced educational software and resources, regardless of the school district's economic status, location or technical staff," he said. "This approach has the ability to significantly improve the educational opportunities for every North Carolina student."

Reed Martin:

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