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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Little Johnny, Say "Hello" to the Cloud -- Your New Classroom

I've lived in Massachusetts my entire life and I've never heard of Greenfield, Mass., a town of less than 20,000 souls situated in the western part of the state and home to the Franklin Country Fair, the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra, Greenfield Community College and its newspaper --The Greenfield Recorder. Technically, Greenfield is part of Franklin County, and frankly, as a native of eastern Massachusetts it might as well not exist at all. No offense to Franklin County and all the other counties west of Suffolk and Essex counties in Massachusetts. But if you're from eastern Massachusetts, you know what I mean.

But hold on a second. The Greenfield of 2010 isn't your grandfather's Greenfield.

This week, Greenfield announced that it will be the first town in the Bay State that intends to open, as early as this fall, a virtual school catering to children in grades K-8. The virtual school, and others that are sure to follow, will be allowed to operate via a state-wide education law that went into effect in January. The law encourages innovation in the classroom and gives the authority to local school leaders to develop public schools that are virtual.

Little Johnny, say "hello" to the cloud, your new classroom.

Virtual classrooms aren't entirely new. States such as Colorado, Texas and Arizona have been experimenting with virtual public schools for some time and have been attracting an increasing number of students for reasons that include convenience as well as students' desire for a curriculum that is more challenging that what is offered in some of the brick and mortars.

And what makes all of this possible is technology, and in almost all cases it's cloud computing technology that is responsible for delivering the classroom to the bedroom.

Less than a month ago, for example, the Oregon Department of Education announced that any school in the state is free to use Google Apps for Education, a free suite of applications (email, calendar, online documents, etc.) based on cloud computing technology. Google claims more than seven million students are using Google Apps. And as you might imagine, Microsoft is right there as well with it's own suite of cloud-based services for education - Microsoft Live@edu.

It will be sometime before virtual schools are widespread. Many school districts question the viability and effectiveness of virtual schools, especially at the elementary school level when children are still developing social skills. My wife, a public middle school teacher, echoes this same concern.

For now, students enrolled in a virtual school still have to spend some number of hours inside a school building. However, overtime, I'm sure these restrictions will also ease as advancements in cloud computing technology will one day allow the watchful eye of a caring teacher to be right there with the student slogging through another MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exam -- right there, virtually.

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