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Economic storms and the age of cloud learning

This post was written by Ishmael Burdeau and first appeared on the Epic blog on 25th June 2010.

Spend some time in a city centre shortly after the shops close, and you may be lucky enough to spot a special breed of urban guerilla. So-called “freegans” seek to live off the products that our society throws away. Contrary to our preconceptions about these revolutionaries who forage from skips, freegans are typically young, well-educated and employed. They see their way of life as a logical response to the extravagant and wasteful culture around them. It’s a sensible way of helping the environment and saving money at the same time.

So now you are probably wondering what all of this has to do with e-learning. Who of us does not feel threatened by the twin spectres of financial meltdown and environmental catastrophe? We all feel our budgets being squeezed, yet we are also aware that the quest for unrelenting growth cannot solve our grave environmental predicament. For anyone working in learning technology, these themes have also been repeated. We have all witnessed the demise of technologies which promised much but delivered little. We are often led to believe that the introduction of a new gadget will lead to improved learning, only to be let down with a bump months or perhaps years later, after having spent many thousands on expensive hardware and software.

Recent changes in my family circumstances have meant that I have had to spend a lot more time working from home. At first, to-ing and fro-ing between between home and office meant juggling a complicated and cumbersome combination of USB sticks and VPN connections. Sharing data between two or three different machines is a painful and awkward struggle, even for a seasoned web professional, and led to a few lost files and dropped connections. It did not take me long to see the benefits of cloud computing, so much so that nearly all of my data is “out there”, almost a complete reversal of where I was five short years ago. I have collected a great suite of tools, and these days Google Docs, Prezi and ZumoDrive have replaced Word, PowerPoint and file servers.

Jolicloud, a small company started by Tariq Krim and based in Paris, takes cloud computing to the next level, as its small but beautifully formed OS relies almost entirely on cloud-based applications such as Google Docs, Evernote, DropBox and Spotify to create, store and deliver information. Specifically designed for low-end netbooks, Jolicloud takes a freegan-like approach to technology, assembling a cohesive set of free tools brought together from various cloud-based sources. Readers of the Jane Hart’s Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies blog will no doubt be aware that the index of Top 100 Tools for Learning, which is compiled yearly by readers of the site, is increasingly being dominated by web apps.

In fact the 2009 top 10 was dominated by cloud-based tools such as Google Docs, Google Reader, Delicious and SlideShare as well as very strong performances by up-and-coming web apps such as Prezi, Evernote, Screenr, Animoto, DimDim, Yammer and Udutu. For the “traditional” desktop players, things don’t look so healthy. The past two years have seen Outlook plummet from 17th to 67th, Word sliding from 10th to 36th and PowerPoint dropping from 5th to 13th. It seems very likely that Prezi will overtake PowerPoint and catapault its way into the top 10.

As our new “age of austerity” begins to bite for real, learning technologists seem even more likely to adopt a DIY, freegan approach to delivery of course material and collaboration. The recent launch of Google’s CloudCourse is an interesting development in this area. Along with its cloud-based rival, HootCourse, CloudCourse marks a significant shift in the LMS space, using a learning-as-a-service model rather than the more typical download-and-install LMS that we are more used to. As we all get more comfortable with the idea of both our data and applications moving to the cloud, we will no doubt soon see this type of learning becoming the norm. Now that so many fantastic cloud-based tools are available, it certainly makes sense to invest time and effort in exploring the enormous potential of learning in the cloud. The biggest challenge for learning technologists will be about what to keep and what to throw away.