Publishers Turn to Cloud Computing to Offer Digital Content

By Katie Ash — October 17, 2011 8 min read
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While many schools are struggling to strike a balance between print and digital curricula for students, textbook publishers are taking to the cloud to house new digital resources and curricula.

But cloud computing is something K-12 schools are just beginning to dip their toes into, experts say, largely due to the lack of resources to shore up the technological infrastructure needed to tap into the cloud, described as the information and power available from servers hosted by a separate, off-site entity. For example, Google’s tools, such as email and spreadsheets, are considered in the cloud because users tap into information and platforms that are hosted on Google’s servers versus their own.

“Obviously, schools are all over the board in terms of bandwidth and hardware support,” says Randall Reina, the senior vice president for the Center for Digital Innovation at the New York City-based textbook publisher McGraw-Hill.

Unlike digital textbooks, which can be online but are also stored on hard drives or CDs, a cloud-based textbook is stored on the Internet by servers not operated by school districts themselves.

McGraw-Hill’s cloud-based textbook platform, called Cinch, incorporates the company’s curriculum into a Web 2.0 format, in which students can start discussions with each other about the content, complete interactive assessments and activities, and search Google or Wikipedia for further information.

Cinch is available in grades 5-12 for science and K-12 in math.

“[Cinch] allows students to interact with each other around the content and allows the teacher to post questions and start a discussion thread around a certain part of the book,” says Reina. “The goal is to make the teacher more effective.”

That goal is shared by Heather Borowski, the director of instructional media and communications for the 2,900-student Decatur, Ga., schools.

Her district outfitted all K-9 classrooms with interactive whiteboards, and two years ago, it upgraded its online bandwidth to support technology tools and solutions such as cloud computing.

Half the K-5 math classrooms in Borowski’s district piloted Cinch during the 2010-11 school year; at the end of the year, the district compared learning gains between the classrooms that used Cinch and those that did not. They found that the teachers who most often used Cinch had the largest learning gains in math.

“It’s been a great success,” says Borowski. “It’s easy to differentiate learning using Cinch. When a teacher is setting up the portal for when that child logs in, she can individualize what he is going to see and what kind of lesson he will get, so not everybody is playing the same game or doing the same activity.”

The Decatur district will be rolling out Cinch to all its elementary schools this school year, says Borowski.

Personalizing Lessons

Being able to individualize instruction easily is a major advantage of cloud-based curricula, says Mike Evans, the senior vice president for mathematics at the London-based textbook publisher Pearson.

Pearson’s middle-grades math program Digits, built from the ground up around common-core standards, runs on cloud-based architecture and provides many of the same Web 2.0 features that Cinch does.

“This is an opportunity to make sure that it’s not a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” says Evans. “At certain intervals, each student will take a benchmarks-type test where we’ll be able to assess how they’re doing. By understanding [a student’s] strengths and weaknesses, the program creates a personalized study plan for each student so they can be working on the foundational skills that they may have trouble with.”

In addition, the homework students complete is online, says Evans, and when teachers log in to the program in the morning, they can see what homework areas their students may have struggled with and adjust instruction for the day.

Having homework automatically scored and sent to the teacher saves time and allows the teacher to spend more time on individualizing instruction, says Evans.

However, most schools are not ready to move to a completely digital curriculum, he says.

“School districts in general recognize that they won’t be able to snap their fingers and turn off print and switch on digital,” Evans says. “But schools now see what’s possible using digital curriculum. They have an appetite for it, and interest in it is very high.”

Schools that currently use Digits work with individual students who may not have access to the Internet at home to set up times for them to work either at school or in public libraries, he says.

Peter Cohen, the chief executive officer of Pearson’s school division, also concedes there is progress to be made.

“I think we’ll stay on this trend of more and more schools moving in [this] direction, but I’ve talked to some very large districts [that] don’t have the capacity or resources to move to an all-digital curriculum,” Cohen says. “There are very few people who buy just the online program.”

Most schools want an arrangement that provides digital elements along with a print textbook, he says.

Pearson has also launched the Online Learning Repository, in Texas, that allows teachers to pull content from Pearson, the Web, and their own materials, and store it in the repository so it can easily be shared with other teachers. So far, the repository is available for science-related materials.

“This is probably the first phase of what cloud-based teaching and cloud-based instruction is going to be all about,” Cohen says.

‘Richer, Real-Time Resources’

Allowing an even distribution of resources across states and districts is one of the major advantages of cloud computing in education, says Eric N. Wiebe, an associate professor of STEM education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and a senior research fellow at the Friday Institute, an initiative within NCSU’s college of education to promote technology in education.

“The cloud is a tool for education equity,” he says. “The resources that urban and suburban and rural school districts have are not necessarily the same, and in fact, cloud computing is helping to flatten some of that bumpiness.”

Wiebe is part of an initiative at North Carolina State called Scaling Up STEM Learning with the Virtual Computing Lab, which uses cloud computing to allow about a dozen high schools in the state to access STEM software they otherwise could not afford or support in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math.

“The cloud lowers those logistical barriers to distributing resources and allows access to richer, real-time resources,” Wiebe says.

The software, Geometer’s Sketchpad 5 and Fathom, is used in geometry and algebra classes and can help students better visualize mathematical concepts, he says.

In addition to saving money by more efficiently distributing resources, cloud computing provides data storage and services at a scale that makes it much cheaper for schools than if they were to rely on their own servers.

For example, in 2010, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Microsoft Corp. launched a suite of tools—email, scheduling, and collaboration services—that is expected to save the state $6.3 million over four years.

Although cloud computing can potentially save schools and districts money, it does require an initial investment in technology. Instead of spending those funds on servers to house data and powerful desktops to run the applications, cloud computing requires schools to spend money on upgrading bandwidth andproviding students with lightweight devices such as tablets and netbooks to access the resources, Wiebe says.

Cloud computing makes it much easier to modify and correct educational resources instantaneously, he says. For example, cloud computing makes it possible to embed links to news articles about current events in resources for students.

Power of Collaboration

The real power—and cost savings—of cloud computing will come from statewide and districtwide collaborations, says Mike King, the vice president of the global education industry for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM.

“I would really encourage [school districts] to think collaboratively with other institutions within their states,” he says, “and begin to look at how do they really leverage the cost savings and build a much more student-centered environment across educational systems.”

Such collaborations would allow student data to carry over from one district to another, says King, as well as the sharing of resources between schools. However, he too has not seen cloud computing enter the mainstream in K-12.

“We will continue to see the requirement to have a solid network infrastructure [to access the cloud], and that’s going to remain a challenge for districts,” King says.

Nicole Wahab, the executive director of the 120-student Coleman Tech Charter High School in San Diego, says students and teachers at her school regularly use cloud computing to collaborate and communicate with one another.

Each 80-minute class is broken up into two segments—40 minutes of group instruction with an interactive whiteboard and 40 minutes of project-based learning. During the group-instruction portion, students collaborate on a shared Google document that allows them to take notes and discuss topics with their peers in real time.

“You’re able to put that into a shared document, and when you go home, it’s a real-time written record of exactly what happened in class,” Wahab says. “[Students] are gaining a skill set of remote collaboration.”

The school, which was launched last year with 9th and 10th graders and will expand to 11th grade this year, has invested in Acer computers for each student, making it a 1-to-1 laptop environment. The school uses open-source software, such as Open Office, to cut costs, and Google Apps to tap into cloud-based services, such as Google documents, Gmail, and Google spreadsheets.

“We’ve relinquished the idea that everything has to come from a textbook,” says Wahab. “The expert is the one who understands how to facilitate the kids in their own quest.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Reading in the Cloud


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