Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The cloud finally comes to education

Cloud computing is one of those great buzzwords in IT that, so far, has meant very little to the average Ed Tech customer. We all have a pretty good idea what it means: lots of computers somewhere (we don’t actually care where) doing lots of processing to deliver services to our desktops via the Internet. On the other hand, with the maturation of virtualization technology, the idea of virtual desktops and virtual servers is certainly rearing its head in education as we try to cut energy costs, ease management, and consolidate resources.

SIMtone Corporation has now brought these two ideas together and, although business applications abound, is piloting educational applications of virtual desktop PCs delivered to students via the cloud. Partnering with Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, SIMtone is using its cloud computing technologies to go beyond thin client computing and deliver state-of-the-art educational content designed by the US Fund for Unicef to pilot the idea of virtual computers in the cloud for students and staff.

According to their press release,

[the school] will use SIMtone’s Universal Cloud Computing products to provide approximately 600 students and faculty with “PCs in the Cloud” usable everywhere without a computer…The pilot is being launched during the current fall 2008 semester. SIMtone has also identified other schools and institutions to expand the Education Thunder Program on a national and global scale.

The so-called Education Thunder Program “aims to help close the digital divide and provide access to full PCs in the cloud to the estimated five billion people who cannot afford it, without requiring them to own a computer.” While this is certainly ambitious, to say the least, it is also conceivable that cloud computing just might provide some highly affordable ways to deliver educational content and easily (and remotely) managed PC functionality to emerging markets.

While students/schools won’t necessarily need to purchase new dedicated computers for use with this technology, some sort of presentation hardware will be necessary for the virtual PC to be displayed to the student. However, any computer, netbook, nettop, thin client, MID, or, potentially, even a smartphone with a high-speed connection can provide a student with access to their PC in the cloud. Thus, no matter how old the computer (or how “thin” the device), as long as it can run graphical Linux with Firefox, can access a virtual PC via SIMtone’s “WebSNAP” portal. Similarly, slightly newer machines running Windows XP (or even Vista) can use terminal emulator software (called SoftSNAP) to access the Virtual PC.

Although costs are still up in the air at this time, SIMtone also provides a desktop thin client and an Asus Eee-based notebook (called a SNAPbook) for easy access to the cloud. These devices do not have an operating system or any internal processing; prices can be expected to be quite low. SIMtone will be shipping me a SNAPbook shortly for review (including a test account on one of their virtual PCs), but a first look at their products can be had here.

Here is where netbooks and MIDs are really headed, folks: anytime, anywhere access to your PC. The exciting piece of this for ed tech, though, is the ability to deliver huge amounts of educational content on extremely cheap hardware, limited only by the penetration of broadband. Stay tuned for a review of the device and service. Click here for the full press release.

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