High school kids put their heads in the cloud

Minnesota's "Online High School" puts the cloud to work delivering virtual desktops to students on the wrong side of the digital divide

SIMtone's recent announcement that it will deliver low-cost, virtual desktops to students and faculty at an "online" high school in Minnesota grabbed me, so I did a little digging. Minnesota's "Online High School" (MNOHS) is a public, state-funded school open to any Minnesota resident age 20 or younger.  Not too exciting at first read, until I found out that teachers and students at MNOHS connect via a cloud computing infrastructure. MNOHS is using the power and flexibility of cloud computing to prepare its students for college, jobs, and life in the digitally connected world. Curious about how effective the system was, I asked the school's Executive Director, Ned Zimmerman-Bence, a few questions about the impact cloud computing was having on his students and faculty.

[ In an earlier column, whurley suggested a national computing cloud for higher education | Keep up on the latest in cloud developments with InfoWorld's Cloud Computing newsletter and Cloud Computing channel. ]

whurley: What was your impression the first time you heard about cloud computing as a potential option for delivering services to students and faculty?

Zimmerman-Bence: There are two significant problems that our school needs to solve in order to ensure our students have reliable and timely access to their course materials. Solving these two problems are crucial to our school and mission success.

All of our students and faculty work offsite. In addition, our faculty use several different applications that require that us to manage rights -- turning access on or off depending on whether a student is enrolled in a course. These two factors create a nightmare scenario for delivering software -- and required significant staff time mailing out CDs, managing our Key Server that serves up the license key, collecting deposits, and remembering when to turn off access to remain within the license agreements. Despite our best efforts, often times students had a week or longer lag before they had their software properly configured.

The second problem centers around training and standardization. All of our students supply their own computers. While a number are "computer literate," many are using computers for the first time as the primary interface for learning. The multiple platforms and emerging skill base create a host of support issues. A single desktop with controlled configuration greatly reduces the potential for students to "get lost in the technology" and limits the support variables we need to address. Again, support issues will now diminish thereby enabling faculty to concentrate more on teaching. There are undoubtedly other benefits that will arise -- we just haven't had the opportunity to identify those yet in our pilot.

whurley: How has the move to cloud computing affected your budget? Is there a demonstrable positive impact?

Zimmerman-Bence: Moving to cloud computing will generate near-term costs for us, but these will be short-term pain for long-term gain. SIMtone's solution was by far the most attractive option, especially considering it hit that sweet spot of scalability, reliability, and cost. The fees are entirely reasonable and in some instances a fraction of the quotes for other options.

I believe the ability to deliver our course software and instruction through a cloud will be a driver for growth for the long term. Currently, students become quickly overwhelmed with technical issues and fall behind. The SIMtone cloud will dramatically reduce that frustration and consequently help us retain more students, providing a crucial link for growing out program. Retaining students is the key revenue driver for the school -- more students retained -> more revenue, more revenue -> more options for serving students.

whurley: Do you think the idea of "PCs in the cloud" will spread to other school districts?

Zimmerman-Bence: Where schools will find value is in the promise of stable and affordable access to information and tools. This will allow schools to expand learning much in the same way corporations are able to extend productivity by providing access outside of the office. For instance, students without access in their homes might be able to access their cloud computer at a public library -- where they can grab all of their curriculum.

whurley: As an educator, do you see cloud computing as a major force in helping close the digital divide underprivileged students face?

Zimmerman-Bence: While cloud computing won't solve the physical and economic problem of access to both connection and processor, the greatest potential the proposed SIMtone education initiative has is in reducing logistic problems for managing student access to content and tools. So while cloud computing doesn't solve how to get a connection and processor to students, the cloud has already solved the next problem -- how to massively scale serving and supporting curriculum, content, and student tools.

I'm still hoping the Obama administration will help create a national computing cloud these students can use once they've moved on to college. Until then, this is one of best educational uses of cloud computing I've come across. Kudos to the Minnesota for taking the obvious risk in kicking off this program and SIMtone for making such a system available. Who knows? Maybe an MNOHS student will come up with the next great idea that closes the digital divide.

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