One of the most amazing technological advances in recent years, in my opinion, is cloud computing. However, as teachers we have only just begun to see its implications.
For those of us in homogeneous EFL environments, like Japan, getting students to communicate with each other spontaneously using the target language is one of the biggest challenges we face. And yet, we have opportunity to circumvent this obstacle using technology.
Imagine an ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) environment where students from different countries are being matched within a project group. Target language communication would be a must in this situation. Impossible?
Not at all. The same modern cloud computing technology which allows business professionals to collaborate on projects can be utilized by students from different countries toward truly impressive global communication objectives.
So what is stopping us?
It is certainly not the teachers. Most teachers I know would jump at the opportunity to expand their classroom to an international stage. It is also certainly not governmental resistance which stops us, at least not in the “free-world”. In Japan, for instance, we have the MEXT initiative toward globalization.
So, it seems all that is left is administrative resistance. Perhaps it is the all seeing eye of Google they fear, or security concerns in general. However, this fear is not justified.
Firstly, there are many types of cloud computing solutions which can be had outside of public clouds, including community clouds shared exclusively by private entities (Ahmed, 2013).
Secondly, security concerns are status quo within any system, digital or analogue. Many of the “security threats” of cloud computing have been “blown out of proportion,” (Dlamini, Venter, J. Eloff & M. Eloff, 2011), and are manageable by knowledgeable professionals (Carlin & Curran, 2011; Zissis & Lekkas, 2012).
It is also certainly not cost, with an average savings of 21% (CDW-G, 2011) cloud computing can in most cases substantially reduce costs. Many companies offer cloud computing solutions specifically for higher education, such as Cisco Systems Inc.
A more likely possibility is that it is change itself which is resisted (Starr, 2011). However, sometimes we must calculate the risk of NOT adapting to the changes already happening around us.
In America, universities are put under pressure as they operate in an ever increasing financial bubble. Much like home values were inflated though sub-prime loan endorsement, educational value has also been inflated. I say inflated, because little or no actual educational value has been increased, and yet the cost of higher education has increased 600% since 1985. This has put the entire system in jeopardy as student loan default rates also continue to rise.
In addition, technology has opened up new doors for learning. We now have MOOCs from many of the top universities providing education in science and technology to the world for free, or at minimal cost. This has put universities slow to adapt in a precarious position (Yuan & Powell, 2013).
In Japan the crisis is slightly different in that while educational costs are second highest in the world per capita income (Taylor, 2012), population remains in steady decline (Asahi Shimbun, 2014). It is clear that across the globe institutions must find new ways of making themselves attractive to incoming students without substantially raising costs.
Many universities try to make themselves attractive by building new facilities. A new library, or new football stadium can attract students. However, this ultimately increases the cost of tuition (Ehrenberg, 2002).
Employing higher caliber instructors is one option which has been explored, though under the false assumption that published research equates higher caliber teaching (Hattie & Marsh, 1996; Figlio, Schapiro & Soter, 2013).
Another option is to increase connectivity between students and instructors across institutional walls. The Greek maxims often displayed on an institution’s crest are a testament to the ancient roots of modern education.
Modern technology has the ability to provide us something similar to the ancient agora of Athens, where learning is a robust, peer developed, social activity extending beyond a single instructor or school of thought.
Many institutions already have a “sister university” connection with foreign entities. In this case, a community cloud approach would allow for the creation of intercollegiate and intercultural virtual learning environments.
Kenneth Bruffee refers to Collaborative Learning as the “conversation of mankind” (Bruffee, 1984). The potential of modern technology to facilitate this “conversation” has not yet been explored by the vast majority of higher education. The possible applications of this technology are tremendous. We can only imagine what intercollegiate virtual learning environments could accomplish. Imagine international project groups working across a community cloud. How about medical students from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea collaborating on a poster presentation for an English for Specific Purposes class.
Rather than building new facilities or putting pressure on teaching staff to publish more research, intercollegiate connectivity through a community cloud model would accomplish more, at less cost. In the English as a Lingua Franca setting, this would allow for exciting global communication strategies which could match learners from several language backgrounds. From an overall pedagogical perspective, intercultural collaborative learning can become a reality, giving students opportunity to develop needed 21st century skills.
For more on implementing cloud computing in higher education see the white paper Shaping the Higher Education Cloud offered jointly by the non-profits Educase and NACUBO (2010).