Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Diving into the Cloud

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Diving into the Cloud

Article excerpt


One of the most misunderstood concepts in educational technology at the moment is cloud computing. In a two-part series, T.H.E. Journal offers an in-depth guide to help you decide if cloud-based services are right for your school district. The second part of the series, which focuses on the business case for the cloud, is available at


The easiest way to understand the cloud is to think of it as a utility, like electricity. When you plug a device into a wall outlet, electricity flows. You didn't generate the electricity yourself. In fact, you probably have no idea where the electricity was generated. It's just there when you want it. And all you care about is that your device works.

Cloud computing works on the same principle. Through a network connection (the equivalent of an electrical outlet), you can access whatever applications, files, or data you have opted to store in the cloud--anytime, anywhere, from any device. How it gets to you and where it's stored are not your concern (well, for most people it's not).

The potential benefits of such a system are enormous. To stick with the electricity analogy, if your IT department is still pre-cloud, it's running the equivalent of its own generator. And with that comes a load of responsibility: Generators break, run out of fuel, need to be serviced, and--if demand for power increases--new ones need to be bought.

The cloud frees IT from the tech equivalent of all that. Because, just like power companies, cloud providers are the ones who are responsible for all maintenance, infrastructure, and repair. They are responsible for meeting demand, and ensuring that service is reliable.

The analogy to electricity is a little simplistic, because cloud computing actually represents more than one type of service. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to compare cloud computing to all the utilities hooked up to your house: electricity, water, and gas. In the case of cloud computing, there are three basic types of service: software as a service (SaaS); infrastructure as a service (IaaS); and platform as a service (PaaS). PaaS is not used much in K-12 districts, so we will not describe it in detail.

Software as a Service

Ever used Gmail? How about Yahoo Mail? If so, you've used software as a service. In fact, many school districts have been using the cloud for a long time without ever quite realizing it. For some reason, web-based applications like these haven't registered with most people as being "cloud." Only when applications like Google Docs replace software that has traditionally been locked inside the PC do people seem to realize it has something to do with the cloud angle.

Quite simply, SaaS is a software application that is hosted in a central location and delivered via a web browser, app, or other thin client (see box). Rather than having to purchase and install the application on individual computers, a school simply pays a monthly subscription fee to a service provider. Users--whether students or employees--just log on to access the application.

To the end user, the experience is exactly the same as if the application were installed on the user's hard drive or the district's internal network. By having the application delivered as a service, however, students can work on assignments from any location; HR managers can do payroll from the comfort of their living rooms; teachers can work on lesson plans after hours. What's more, users can use different devices without having to tote around thumb drives to transfer information, since the project is all stored in the cloud.

And, from an IT perspective, there's a beautiful upside: No longer do you have to update software on machines scattered throughout your schools. No more patches, no databases tracking installs and software updates. And the nightmare of keeping track of software licenses? …

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