To help build out an infrastructure for learning, districts and schools should begin a transition to the next generation of computing system architectures. As a first step, districts should consider options for reducing the number of servers they run through consolidation using virtualization. Virtualization allows a single server to run multiple applications safely and reliably, so that districts can reduce the number of servers on their networks dramatically. Reducing the number of servers cuts costs and makes school networks less complex and easier to manage, which leads to greater reliability as measured by uptime and availability.
Beyond server consolidation, some school districts are moving to cloud computing, which involves shifting from the procurement and maintenance of servers in local datacenters to purchasing software as a service (SaaS) and web applications from datacenters running in the cloud.
Cloud computing is a catchy new name, but its principal outcome – utility computing – has been sought after for a long time. Utility computing is the packaging of computing resources as a metered service similar to how public utilities package and sell electricity through our nation’s power grid. What makes cloud computing more desirable and possible is that we are nearing an inflection point driven by technology advances and the need for more powerful and collaborative platforms at lower cost and with a lower environmental impact than our current datacenter computing model.
At the same time that datacenter computing is moving into the cloud, client computing and content have become more multimedia, more intuitive, and more human centered. Applications now span an enormous range of activities in commerce, entertainment, defense, research, and learning.
Cloud computing can serve education in the face of these trends as well. It can support both the academic and administrative services required for learning and education. It can enable students and educators to access the same learning resources using different Internet devices, so that they can learn anytime and anywhere. Thus, it supports our assertion that it is now time for our education system to become part of a learning environment that includes in-school and out-of-school resources. This will not happen automatically; school systems and other youth-serving organizations – public libraries, public broadcasting, afterschool clubs, and so on – will need to engage each other and seek common platforms or at least technical interoperability. Still, cloud computing makes the seamless involvement of multiple organizations in a student’s learning more feasible technically and from a cost perspective.
Cloud computing is still in a nascent stage with obstacles to overcome to fully realize its potential. For education, its shortfall in auditability is probably its most serious but by no means irresolvable deficiency. Still, now is the time to move forward with investments in crucial elements of an infrastructure for learning, including platforms for learning, teaching, and assessment that focus on taking advantage of and contribute to the emerging shift to cloud computing.