from Technology & Learning

When you want your students to have their heads in the clouds.

Getting a new computer is always an exciting prospect—at first. Your enthusiasm wanes a bit, though, as you consider the two huge chores that lie ahead of you: installing dozens of software programs and moving hundreds, if not thousands, of files.

Such bother may be a thing of the past if cloudware—also known as Software as a Service (SaaS)—becomes the norm. As defined in Wired magazine's "Geekipedia," cloudware is software and services "that once would have run on a desktop operating system (but) now run in the cloud: the unbounded, evershifting, intangible collection of servers that make up the Internet."

To use cloudware, all you need is a Web browser and an Internet connection. Write a story. Create a budget spreadsheet. Edit pictures. Design a multimedia presentation. The tools you use are not on your computer, they're on the Web, as are the files and the products you create.

If cloudware could save you a lot of hassles at home, think of the implications in the classroom. Here are a few scenarios.

Writing. Mrs. Jones assigns her high school English students an essay to write. She takes the students to the school computer lab to get started. They continue to work over the course of the next several days, sometimes at school and sometimes at home. Each day Mrs. Jones logs in and reviews what students have written so far. She adds comments, feedback, and encouragement. Often, she encounters students actively working on their essays, and she uses the cloudware's chat feature to engage in real-time coaching.

Social Studies. Mr. Gonzales's eighth-grade students have handheld computers that connect to the Internet via the school's wireless network. Mr. Gonzales divides his class into collaborative groups for the unit "What really caused the Civil War?" Students use their handhelds to access their online textbook, to gather information from supplemental materials, and to build a slideshow to use in their oral presentations. As each group presents, the rest of the students use their handhelds to complete a data collection and rating form that Mr. Gonzales has prepared to help them reflect on the content of the presentations and the quality of oral communication skills.

Classroom Observations. Dr. Nguyen is principal of an urban elementary school. Third graders and above have tough, compact mini-notebook computers that include a built-in keyboard, a small but serviceable screen, and wireless Internet access. The school was able to afford these units because they use very little software other than a Web browser, and they have no hard drive. For the students and their teachers, these units have almost replaced paper and pencil. And when Dr. Nguyen visits a classroom, she can borrow a computer to record her observations by logging in to her account and pulling up her observation protocol. At the end of the observation, she logs out and returns the gadget to the student. All of her data will be available to her back in her office or at home.

Sound far-fetched? No way. In fact, much of what is envisioned above is possible today with cloudware like Google Docs—which now includes word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs—and wireless devices such as Apple's iPod touch, the AlphaSmart Dana, or the Palm TX. Cloudware may be the bridge to truly ubiquitous computing in schools.

A former teacher and principal, Michael Simkins directs TICAL, a California educational technology service.