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February 12, 2009

Clouds on the Horizon

I note that the NMC's Horizon Report for 2009 was published back in January, available as both a PDF file and in a rather nice Web version supporting online commentary.

The report discusses 6 topics (mobiles, cloud computing, geo-everything, the personal Web, semantic-aware applications, and smart objects) each of which it suggests will have an impact over the next 5 years.

I was drawn to the cloud computing section first, partly because of other interests here and partly because Larry Johnson (one of the co-PIs on the Horizon project) spoke on this very topic at our symposium last year, about which the report says:

Educational institutions are beginning to take advantage of ready-made applications hosted on a dynamic, ever-expanding cloud that enable end users to perform tasks that have traditionally required site licensing, installation, and maintenance of individual software packages. Email, word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, collaboration, media editing, and more can all be done inside a web browser, while the software and files are housed in the cloud. In addition to productivity applications, services like Flickr (http://www.flickr.com), YouTube (http://www.youtube.com), and Blogger (http://www.blogger.com), as well as a host of other browser-based applications, comprise a set of increasingly powerful cloud-based tools for almost any task a user might need to do.

Cloud-based applications can handle photo and video editing (see http://www.splashup.com for photos and http://www.jaycut.com for videos, to name just two examples) or publish presentations and slide shows (see http://www.slideshare.net or http://www.sliderocket.com). Further, it is very easy to share content created with these tools, both in terms of collaborating on its creation and distributing the finished work. Applications like those listed here can provide students and teachers with free or low-cost alternatives to expensive, proprietary productivity tools. Browser-based, thin-client applications are accessible with a variety of computer and even mobile platforms, making these tools available anywhere the Internet can be accessed. The shared infrastructure approaches embedded in the cloud computing concept offer considerable potential for large scale experiments and research that can make use of untapped processing power.

We are just beginning to see direct applications for teaching and learning other than the simple availability of platform-independent tools and scalable data storage. This set of technologies has clear potential to distribute applications across a wider set of devices and greatly reduce the overall cost of computing. The support for group work and collaboration at a distance embedded in many cloud- based applications could be a benefit applicable to many learning situations.

However, the report also notes that a level of caution is necessary:

The cloud does have certain drawbacks. Unlike traditional software packages that can be installed on a local computer, backed up, and are available as long as the operating system supports them, cloud- based applications are services offered by companies and service providers in real time. Entrusting your work and data to the cloud is also a commitment of trust that the service provider will continue to be there, even in face of changing market and other conditions. Nonetheless, the economics of cloud computing are increasingly compelling. For many institutions, cloud computing offers a cost-effective solution to the problem of how to provide services, data storage, and computing power to a growing number of Internet users without investing capital in physical machines that need to be maintained and upgraded on-site.

The report goes on the provide some examples of use.

I doubt that there will be much here that is exactly 'news' to regular readers of this blog (though this is not true for other sections of the report which cover areas that we don't really deal with here). On the other hand, it is good to see this stuff laid out in a relatively mainstream publication. I remain bemused (as I was last year) at the relatively low level of coverage this report gets in the UK and wonder, in a kind of off the top of my head way, whether a UK or European version of this report would be a worthwhile activity?


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Something that is missed out here is that cloud service is limited to doing what the service provider wants. Many will have heard me describe how we decided to use Digg to vote for posters at the OR08 conference, only to have the Digg management 'undigg' all the posters and throw all our users off for attempting co-ordinated spam voting for a limited set of resources. As you can see, our objectives for a cloud service did not line up with the service providers assumptions about how normal users behaved. I have a feeling that a lot of organised educational and para-research activities will be treated similarly.

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