The Library of Alexandria was one of the most important libraries of the ancient world. Its vast number of scrolls, collections of works, lecture halls, and meeting rooms were a boon to education. In many ways, the cloud has the potential to have just as revolutionary an effect as the Library of Alexandria—it can liberate education, enabling teachers to be innovative and spontaneous.
Teachers are incorporating cloud tools and content into instruction in ways that change how they interact with students both in and outside the classroom. They are no longer limited to face-to-face instruction or constricted by class schedules. Instead, teachers are using both tools that are imposed by administrators and more ad-hoc resources. For example, algebra teachers can spend more time troubleshooting individual students’ problems by using content like Khan Academy to cover the core material. In other cases, Khan Academy can be used as additional support material.
Mark Miazga, an English and language arts teacher at Baltimore City College High School, is an example of a teacher who’s taking the more ad-hoc approach. Miazga, who also mentors new teachers and writes curriculum for Baltimore City Public Schools, was featured with his English I class in the documentary Experiencing Shakespeare, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Miazga regularly uses Folger’s resources, including Hamnet, Folger’s online catalog plays by Shakespeare and other eminent playwrights, and an image repository called Luna.
However, Miazga said the largest role that the cloud has played in his teaching has been in shaping his students’ writing process. “Most essays in our classes are turned in electronically via Google Docs,” he explained. “Students share their essays with a peer or their teacher, and we offer live comments. The student can then resolve the comment and make the changes.”
That collaboration between student and teacher can happen from anywhere, Miazga said, “on their tablet, laptop, or phone. This is a continuous conversation done in the cloud that vastly improves the student’s writing ability.” He has worked with this process for just the past two years, and he noted, “It’s amazing the difference it makes.”
Jennifer Schmitt is a secondary world language educator at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kansas. She says her school’s route to the cloud began with a “blended learning” process seven years ago and has continued to evolve as technology has changed. “We’re changing the way we teach not for change’s sake, but to bring 21st century technology into the mix because it’s not to be avoided.”
Schmitt uses GoogleDocs for students and Office 365 OneNote for professional use, like generating reports to administrators and curriculum development. Like Miazga, she also uses content from the cloud to enhance instruction, including KU Acceso, a free cloud application provided by the University of Kansas, which works well for her students taking Spanish Level 4.
At home, Schmitt said, she also uses Khan Academy with her own kids—primarily for math during the summer to serve as a refresher. She noted that if she were to use it in the classroom, Khan Academy would function as a tutorial for students who needed extra help and not as a primary source. Regardless of what cloud tools are used, Schmitt emphasizes that teachers at her school use them to accentuate the core material. Teachers, she insists, will always remain the primary source of material.
Cloud tools enable Schmitt to do her job more efficiently, effectively, and creatively. They give her inspiration for teaching activities, and she can access units of study and notes for the classroom from her phone while she’s taking a walk. Schmitt grades papers and gives students feedback in real time from her house if necessary. She points out that the cloud has changed the way she educates in many of the same ways it has changed how businesses do business: by expanding the workspace.
Schmitt admits that she went through a learning curve when jumping into the new environment. At first, she spent more time planning things, familiarizing herself with the technologies, investigating which ones best suited her needs, and making contributions to the core shells. She carefully researched which tools were worth her time because she wasn’t interested in using something just because it was fun and cool. A tool had to be functional and educational, too. “It took some time on the front end, but it’s paid off in the long haul.”
Miazga illustrates how the use of cloud technology helps him be more fluid in his curriculum design on the fly. “I might see a great example from first period, snap a picture of it with my phone, then upload it into my presentation so the second period can benefit from it and I can share it with my colleagues.” Another useful cloud environment, according to Miazga, is Google Classroom. He explains the power of its video upload and reveals that his students’ next unit will be about social media. “They’ll be creating their own TED Talk and uploading it to the app for other teachers to score after studying various aspects of the subject.”
Benefiting from the cloud
Students benefit from the cloud because the technology helps them make more efficient use of their time in the classroom. Miazga says that using GoogleSlides in the classroom has taken hold. “Students will create slides, share them around, make changes, and, at the end of class, they review the class period’s work.” Kids get more done in their 45-50 minute class each day and have richer homework and research capabilities delivered anywhere they choose to study, be it at home, the library, or Starbucks. This practice also benefits students who were sick or unable to attend class because they have immediate access to what was done that day. The cloud keeps them up to speed with their classmates.
Ken Roberts, head of marketing at Pathmatics, is father to two children who use different cloud applications in school. The youngest uses the School Loop program. Roberts definitely sees an improvement in communication between teachers and parents, noting a higher degree of responsiveness from the teachers, that helps them work more as a cohesive team. Parents can see grades, check to ensure that all assigned homework has been completed, and nudge their child along if a piece is missing. “I like that everything is recorded within the app [and] nothing goes outside of the system, so there is a consistent thread.” His oldest is a sophomore in high school and uses Windows-based tablets and OneNote to input and route all assignments.
As with all experiments, some cloud tools work better than others. Roberts points out that, in the case of his youngest, cloud technology is producing a better indirect, secondary role with the improved communications. But Roberts also feels that the cloud is not as successful in the way it’s being used with his oldest child. “With the older one, the way they’ve integrated a PC into it, the results are mixed. Just like in our corporate life, the kids spend a lot of time recuperating from system and app crashes.”
From a scholastic standpoint, the cloud offers educators outside of urban and private school environments equal access to world-class, global educational sites and teaching environments. As a result, their methodologies and their students’ learning opportunities have a chance to flourish along with the best schools in the world, equalizing the playing field.