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Virginia Journal of Education


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Web Tablets and 'Cloud Computing'


by Glen Bull

Recently I spent a morning with Bob Kahn, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocols that connect the Internet. He noted that designing a system such as the Internet involves the challenge of considering the diverse uses to which it may be put before it even exists. The resilience of the protocol that he designed with Vint Cerf is testimony to their ability to envision this future.

In the 1980s I proposed development of a system to connect Virginia’s schools. This system, Virginia’s Public Education Network (PEN), linked all of the schools in the commonwealth. Tim Sigmon, who collaborated on this initiative, thought it essential that K-12 schools be connected to the same resources as higher education. We assumed that future educational resources such as electronic documents and images would be widely shared via the Internet.

The idea that applications would also be run over the Web was futuristic at a time when most users were using dial-up modems. That future is now a reality. The ability to access applications and data via the Web in this manner is known as “cloud computing.” The ease of disseminating and sharing Web-based programs has resulted in widespread access to free and inexpensive applications.

Today’s smart phones have become handheld computers connected to the Web. A recent Pew Foundation study reports that three-fourths of all teenagers have mobile phones. These phones are bridging the digital divide by providing Internet access to teens from low-income families without computers at home. A new generation of Web tablets based on smart phone operating systems is emerging. The Apple iPad is the first such device. A Google tablet based on the Android operating system will be released in the near future and Nokia is also developing a Web tablet based on its operating system.

Web tablets are grounded in the concept of cloud computing. A lightweight, low-power device is made possible by shifting data and resources to the cloud. These devices are lightweight, small enough to easily fit in a backpack, and will have a battery life that will last for an entire day. This brings us closer to Alan Kay’s “DynaBook” - a “personal computer for children of all ages.”

In cloud computing, both data and applications to manipulate the data are available on the Web. Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) offer a good example of cloud computing. For example, the Google spreadsheet “importHMTL” function can import data from a table on a Web page. To illustrate how this works, the average monthly temperatures for three cities, one in North America, one in South America, and one in Russia, are provided in a table on a Web page at www.teacherlink.org/data/temperature. To access the average monthly temperatures for the three cities and import this data into a Google spreadsheet, enter the following into the first cell of the spreadsheet: =ImportHtml("http://www.teacherlink.org/data/temperature).

This command asks the Google spreadsheet to import the first table on the Web page.  Numerous websites display data in the form of tables. If data in a table is updated, the spreadsheet data can also be linked to reflect changes in that data.

A related command, “importFeed” can be used to import data from RSS feeds. Much of the data on the Web is now available via RSS feeds, making this a particularly useful way to analyze and display data that changes over time.

Once a spreadsheet and visualizations have been created, cloud computing makes it easy to jointly edit a spreadsheet and publish the data and associated charts on the Web. Charts that are created can be linked and embedded in a blog, for example.

Educational Implications
The noted public health analyst Hans Rosling has devoted his career to the concept that public discussion and policy decisions should be informed by effective representations of data. Cloud computing facilitates this process. Rosling has made analysis tools and global data available at www.gapminder.com. Students who learn to explore and analyze data by using these kinds of cloud computing tools at an early age will develop skills needed to participate in global discussions of the kind that Hans Rosling envisions.

Virginia’s schools need good connectivity to the Internet to realize the potential benefits. A quarter-century after we first began linking Virginia’s schools to the Internet, some school systems still do not have reliable, high-speed access in every classroom. More Web applications, data, and the devices to access them will continue to appear and improve. It is up to Virginia’s school leaders to ensure that solid connections between our classrooms and the outside world are in place so that we take advantage of the educational opportunities.

Bull is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.


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