Now that Microsoft is on board with cloud-computing, what’s holding us back?
About five years ago, I lamented to my then-IT coordinator that I wished there was another alternative to having students use Microsoft Word (or Appleworks, for that matter) in the school buildings. The problem, and it was frequent, was that once a student’s class period was over, they had no idea what to do with unfinished work. Sure, there was a school server bank that all students had access to, but then what? Some students had flash drives to save to, but then what? If the student were to save to the school server, it would remain locked at school, keeping that student from ever really owning it, and certainly from ever working on it from home. If the student saved it to a flash drive, it was frequently the case that the student did not have the same version of the program on their home computer, creating a new set of problems. My colleague, now a district coordinator, remarked that there were some online versions of word processors students could use. We tried a few with little success. These online applications were buggy and difficult to navigate. Several students sacrificed a bunch of work in the name of experimentation, losing it to the internet graveyard. My colleague and I both felt frustrated the new sites were not helpful.
About three years later, the same colleague showed me Google Docs. He’d been using it for a few months, and had already determined many of its best features. We discussed the possibilities for use in schools, and within a few weeks, I had integrated Google Docs into my daily routine, and began using it in my classes. Soon, I had students in some of my classes using it exclusively for class assignments. I have found using Google Docs so powerful I have kept a blog about how it has gone, and have offered formal or informal training to anyone who dared ask me about it. A few colleagues have tried it. Some have experimented with it. Most have shrugged it off as a fad.
Google currently provides convenient web-based applications as part of its “Google Apps” suite, which include a word processing program, a spreadsheet program, a presentation slide show, as well as a calendar application and email, the search engine giant is slowly building a following for its all-in-one cluster of web-based applications. So much so, it seems, Microsoft has announced plans to build online access into coming versions of its industry-standard suite of applications known as Microsoft Office. In a February 17th article titled “Microsoft Risks Margins as Office Business fights off Google” on Bloomberg’s Businessweek, Dina Bass explains that Microsoft is “preparing for the biggest shakeup to the $19 billion Office business in a decade as the company races Google Inc. to sell Internet-based programs.” Microsoft’s plan to unveil an internet-based office option with coming versions of Office 2010 makes clear what many have speculated before: Google is NOT going away. If anything, this may serve as a reason for users who were reluctant to pry themselves away from their beloved Microsoft apps to finally give it up. “If this is the way it’s going,” people may say, “then why not go with the one that is already established?” Regardless of how Microsoft does in the “cloud-computing” arena, the compelling message is that even Microsoft is acknowledging that web applications are soon to be the rule and not the exception. They understand that there is a shift happening in computing, and strong, smart companies are apt to evolve with those changes.
The impact on education is easy to see. Both Google and Microsoft must understand that as schools begin to slowly transition to these online-based applications, they will be training the next generation to use them at work, just as schools have prepared recent graduates to use Microsoft Office applications at work and at home. Students today already operate natively in the Web 2.0 / cloud-computing world. No, they may not understand those terms any more than most of us do, but they know exactly what it means to have a majority of their intellectual property living online rather than on a machine at home or in school. Students learn to use Google Docs much more efficiently because it operates similarly to Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube in that it relies on uploading, downloading, and online creation of material. As students learn to create content on Google Docs, they find they intuitively understand how it works, and can readily develop new approaches to using it on their own.
Despite the obvious advantages of mobility and collaboration, not to mention the ease of use, education is not jumping on the cloud-based bandwagon as quickly as one might expect. Is the recent news from Microsoft enough to validate the cloud-computing concept in the minds of educators? Maybe. Maybe not. What, if anything would hold things up? We all like to imagine the clueless administrators or the aloof tech coordinators slowing down or holding back innovation like this, but the real truth may be that the people who have the most to gain from the change may be the least interested in changing over. While many teachers across the country are using Google Apps, whole staff conversions may be difficult.
In showing Google Docs to colleagues, I have frequently had a conversation that ends in the following manner:
Me: So, you like it, huh?
They: Yeah. Pretty slick. Very cool stuff. Lots of possibilities!
Me: So, will you use it?
They: Nah. I doubt it.
There are many reasons for this sort of passive resistance. In many aspects, education, regardless whether it is public or private, exists, as readers of Stephen King’s latest novel Under the Dome might recognize, in a state effectively closed off from the outside world. Within the confines of the school walls, progress on anything tends to be slower than outside them. Educators are often chided for dragging heels on innovation, but that alone may not explain their reluctance to Google Apps. Faculty members are often leery of chasing fads. It may be that veteran teachers are willing but waiting, as the first wave of heavy use and experimentation evolves, allowing them to passively evaluate the new tools before jumping on board. Others may be shrewdly monitoring mainstream usage by colleagues and friends to determine whether the training is worth the time investment. Still others will just decide it is “extra” responsibility they do not need right now. As teachers who have come of age alongside Netscape, Google, and AOL begin their practice, many have looked for online resources as a core component to their teaching repertoire. In this case, the use of web-based applications such as Google Docs, should steadily increase as more and more teachers from the internet generation join the ranks of those innovators who have migrated to Google as a platform for education. Perhaps now that Microsoft has admitted that the cloud-computing is the way office products are moving, educators (and education in general), will be able to move forward with these effective online tools.