Friday, October 24, 2008

3 Ways Web-Based Computing Will Change Colleges

3 Ways Web-Based Computing Will Change Colleges

Cloud computing, one of the latest technology buzzwords, is so hard to explain that Google drove a bus from campus to campus to walk students through the company’s vision of it.

After students sat through a demo at computers set up nearby, they boarded the bus and got free T-shirts. The bus only stopped at colleges that had already agreed to hand over their student e-mail service to Google, which offers to run it for colleges free (Microsoft has a similar service and made a similar road trip).

At first I wondered why Google needed to demonstrate its popular e-mail service. Didn’t students already know how to click send? But when I hopped on the bus at George Washington University last month, I saw that the demos highlighted all the other Web services in its Google Apps for Education e-mail package for colleges, which includes a Web-based word processor called Google Docs, a Web-based spreadsheet program, and other tools.

Those tools are the cloud computing part—the term usually refers to programs that run over the Internet rather than locally on a user’s computer. And Google officials explained that many students don’t yet know about those new Web-based services.

Google’s bus is just one of many signs that cloud computing is starting to shake up campus technology. In the next five years, Web-based computing will likely bring important changes in how students study, how scholars do research, and how college information-technology departments operate.

Here are the promises and the challenges:

Sharing From Everywhere

At a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that I sat in on last year, I asked students whether they had stayed up all night at the library finishing their final group projects, as the program’s organizers had predicted. One of the students looked at me as if I were crazy. Yes, he had worked late—until about 3 a.m.—but he had been at home by himself. The students all contributed to a shared document using Google Docs, which anyone in the group could edit online from anywhere. All of the students were essentially logged in to the same computer (in this case off at Google somewhere), one adding a paragraph at the end, another changing the font, and another rewriting the title. There was no longer any need to worry about getting everyone in the same room at the same time.

Such virtual collaboration is a key benefit of running something like a word processor on the Internet instead of on an isolated PC. Students can easily ask parents or faraway friends to edit their term papers remotely without having to send clunky attachments. Or students can set up a shared online document or spreadsheet to plan the next big fraternity bash. And that’s what is already happening at many institutions.

For professors, having documents stored in the Internet cloud means they can easily move from their home offices to their university office to the classroom without worrying about leaving the latest copy of their lecture notes behind. They can just log into Google Docs, or Microsoft’s Office Live or some other networked service, from any location. And the cloud-computing tools make it easier for professors to collaborate with colleagues on scholarly papers, too, supporting the trend of interdisciplinary research.

Supercharging Research

Google and other companies may be the innovators in cloud computing for things like word processing, but colleges have been leaders in using cloud computing for research.

Specifically, many colleges are setting up systems that let professors tap into supercomputers over the Internet using a standard PC. Then there’s a closely related trend of grid computing, which allows colleges to string together normal computers working in tandem over the Internet to provide the equivalent firepower of a supercomputer. The cobbled-together approach has meant that small colleges that could never afford a room-size supercomputer can set up something with the same processing bang on the cheap.

Basically, cloud computing is bringing supercomputing to the mainstream of research. “You reduce the barrier to use advanced computing facilities,” says Craig A. Stewart, associate dean for research technologies at Indiana University. (He will be co-moderating a panel about the promise of cloud computing at this week’s annual conference of Educause, the higher-education technology group.) And that ease of use means historians will increasingly join climate experts in using supercomputers to tackle their problems, he predicts.

Reshaping IT Departments

Cloud computing is also leading colleges to band together to offer services. After all, because servers that run Web-based software can be anywhere, why not get together with a few other colleges to build a joint data center?

That is already happening in Virginia, where a consortium of more than a dozen colleges is building the Virginia Virtual Computing Lab. The system will let students or professors at the different institutions use their own computers to access specialized software, such as 3-D modeling programs. The idea is to bring the kind of programs usually found in college computer labs right to students wherever they are, and one day it might make old-fashioned computer labs obsolete.

The Virginia project is modeled on a system already up and running at North Carolina State University, and that virtual lab is being shared with two community colleges and the University of North Carolina system.

“Students can’t really tell where it is since they’re going over the Internet,” says Henry E. Schaffer, coordinator of special IT projects and faculty collaboration at North Carolina State. “With a normal broadband connection, it just works.”

Meanwhile, colleges will outsource some services that it makes more sense for a big consumer company to handle, like e-mail, saving the colleges money to go build the services that they can do better.

The Challenges

That’s the rosy vision, but there are downsides.

The main one is privacy. Storing all your research notes on Google’s servers, for instance, may make the contents easier for government agencies or others to subpoena than if the data were on personal computers, because of the inconsistencies in current law, according to Daniel J. Solove, a law professor at George Washington University who explores the issue in his book, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age. Companies like Google may be tempted to mine that data down the road and sell it to advertisers, especially if those companies fall on hard times, he said in a recent interview. “I think we need better laws for data security,” he said. “It is a problem that has not yet been solved.”

Also, there are human obstacles to collaborations like Virginia’s virtual computer lab, so just because such projects make good sense doesn’t mean that colleges will be able to pull them off if partners have conflicting ideas of how they should operate.

A new book by Educause that is scheduled to be released this week at the group’s annual conference captures the mix of promise and confusion that cloud computing poses today. Called, The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing, it offers more than a dozen essays with predictions about the next stage of computing on campus. The book’s introduction argues that a cloud is an apt metaphor for the shift ahead: Clouds get harder to see your way through as you walk into them.

“We are letting go of a known and trusted toehold,” the book contends, “in favor of an uncertain one.”

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