Cloud Computing | Feature

A Cloud Class Faces Graduation

Arizona State has entered its fourth academic year of having students use Google Apps for Education to do e-mail, documents, presentation, and collaboration work. Those who have been part of the journey said they believe the change has had an impact greater just the technology in use.

Arizona State University is celebrating the fourth year of its use of Google Apps for Education. It was four years ago this week that ASU and Google announced at Educause that the ASU student community would be the recipients of the first large-scale deployment of the free online suite of tools that includes Gmail for e-mail and Google Docs for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. That also represents another benchmark. An entire generation of ASU's students who started classes at the Tempe-based institution in 2006 will be graduating in another few months with an academic career that has relied on cloud computing.

This anniversary arrives at the same time that the company has announced 10 million active users for Google Apps for Education. That count shows remarkable growth from a count of 8 million users in May 2010. The latest number, posted to a Google blog, represents a third of the total population of users for Apps overall.

Jaime Casap, Google Apps education evAngelist, was part of the initial conversations with the university as it was trying to sort out its computing strategy on a broad scale. Casap also has a master's degree from ASU and teaches graduate-level courses in innovation and leadership at the university. Those discussions with Adrian Sannier, then the university's chief technology officer, revolved around the technology challenges ASU faced. "He couldn't provide what Google could for his students. He wanted to find solutions to help scale some of the issues he was facing, and one was around communication and collaboration," said Casap. "We talked to him about Google Apps for Education and whether or not that would be a good fit. He was totally interested."

There was no way the university thought it could provide services at the scale and speed Google could, Casap said. "So they wanted to leverage that." The other deciding factor: Most students weren't using the ASU e-mail infrastructure; they were already using cloud-based e-mail services, such as Gmail.

After getting Sannier's buy-in for adoption of Apps, Casap remembers walking down the mall at ASU, thinking, "We just changed the world and nobody knows it yet."

According to Casap, once the decision was reached to adopt Apps, it took just two weeks for a team of 10 people to make the changes necessary. That encompassed four parts:

  1. Integrating ASU's single sign-on, which enabled students to use their existing IDs to log into Gmail for ASU;
  2. Modifying a utility that would allow students to convert their e-mail from the Exchange servers to Gmail with one click;
  3. Creating 65,000 new Gmail accounts; and
  4. Promoting the new offering to the community and, as it turned out, to the world at large. On the day of the announcement at Educause, Sannier reported that students were converting to their new Gmail accounts at the rate of 300 per hour.

Sannier's decision was risky, said Casap. "If you think about what Google Apps looks like today, it didn't look like this four years ago. It didn't have a lot of the features or functionality that it currently has. So ASU took a giant leap of faith in being able to say to their students, this is the toolset we want you to use. And now we've got folks who have been there for four years using nothing but Google Apps as part of their infrastructure."

A Circular Changeover
Sam DiGangi, ASU's associate vice president of university technology and an associate professor of education, was there when the university was discussing with Google the prospect of adopting the suite of tools. At the time he and others in ASU's Applied Learning Technologies Institute were involved in an Arizona State Department of Education initiative called "Integrated Data to Enhance Arizona Learning," or IDEAL. The idea was to introduce a learning platform that could be used by all educators in the state from kindergarten through post-doctoral work. The pre-service teachers he was teaching in his courses would, for example, have access to lesson plans, videos that could be used in the classroom, assessment resources, and online professional development. "It was very good timing," he recalled.

Google Apps for Education became a major component of IDEAL. After all, this is a set of programs that any school in the state could access, since they're free and require no infrastructure other than the use of a browser. Users "don't need to license and purchase core tools and resources," explained DiGangi. "These are not tools that would be limited to those districts or individuals who can afford them or have resources to run applications."

As ASU students themselves, those pre-service teachers turned out to be excellent subjects for gauging the overall impact of cloud computing in an education environment. As DiGangi explained, education students focus on areas such as how to design and deliver instruction and how to collaborate and teach others to collaborate. "To do that, they're using tools such as Google Apps alongside externally licensed tools, and they're also creating their own resources that become part of their professional portfolio that they then take into the classroom. So they're using the resources such as Google Apps that they're also going to use when they go into the classroom. Likewise, their students are coming in already aware of or being introduced to Google Apps, which will then be part of their learning environment when they come to the university."

If it sounds circular, that's part of the intent. DiGangi said he believes that students who use Apps will continue doing so even after they've left the university and entered the workforce, even if it's just in personal use. "This cloud-based approach to software eliminates the point of disconnect between what's being used in classes and what's being used in whatever field they enter," he said.

The university benefited from the shift to cloud computing too, according to DiGangi. Whereas prior to cloud computing, IT people on campus had to make sure hardware was compatible with software and that all software licenses were in order and students had to track down systems that happened to run the specific programs they were used to or needed to use in a particular assignment, "within a period of less than five years all of that changed," he said. "This is something that is truly available anywhere at any time."

However, the pervasive nature of cloud computing with Apps hasn't permeated the ranks of staff or faculty, where, for the most part, it's being used on an opt-in basis, DiGangi said. The biggest uptake has occurred, he observed, among those individuals who need to collaborate, including faculty members and researchers working together on grant proposals or papers. In those two areas "Use of Google Docs has removed many of the hurdles that we were used to having," he explained. Google Docs allows multiple users to make modifications to the same document, thereby eliminating the version control problems that surface when people shuttle revised files to each other via e-mail.

A Project Audit Trail
The collaboration features of Google Docs may also prove to have another benefit: helping instructors evaluate how much of a contribution any one person makes in a team project. At least that's what Jan Jorgensen said he hopes. Jorgensen is a sophomore studying computer science at ASU. He's also a student ambassador on campus, which means he writes, shoots videos, and shares photos about his experiences at the university using products supplied to him by Google, Verizon, and Dell.

"I feel like in most group work one person ends up doing the labor. When you're passing around copies, somebody in the group has to put it together. That's usually the perfectionist and that person usually ends doing a lot of touching up," Jorgensen grumbles. "But if you're using one copy in the cloud, everybody can work on it at the same time to make corrections as you discuss it."

That process also enables the instructor to review revisions done to a document, he pointed out. "If you get to the end of the project and someone hasn't contributed much, then the others may get more of the credit than that person."

Jorgensen said he likes Google Apps for its generous multi-gigabyte file quota. At his high school, students used Microsoft Office and saved files to network servers. With the sub-gigabyte file storage quota imposed on each student in that particular setup, Jorgensen frequently had to delete e-mail from his Outlook mailbox. That's a distant problem he said. "Now I just archive everything." (It should be noted Microsoft's cloud service, Live@edu, has a much higher mail and storage quotas: 10 GB per mailbox and 25 GB storage per user.)

Another benefit Jorgensen has detected: He's more relaxed on computers that aren't his own. "I'm very possessive of my computers," he admitted. "When I would go to another computer, I used to feel uncomfortable. Now as soon as I hop online, it feels exactly the same no matter whose computer it is. I feel a little better leaving my room without a computer. If I need to print, I can walk over to the [computer] lab, and I don't have to worry about putting stuff on a flash drive."

Developing the Agile Human
The relationship between the university and the vendor has broadened in numerous directions--the creation of cloud computing and Android curriculum, participation in the Google Mars project, and involvement in the now-defunct Google's Lively. But it was that first major collaboration four years ago that truly changed the course for the students attending ASU, insisted DiGangi. "I think this is the first generation that will graduate with a foundation not only in knowledge and expertise of a specific content area, but also in tool skills--the ability to collaborate, to edit, to revise one's work, to dynamically incorporate input in writing and in designing."

Already, he added, the impact of those skills and the broad availability of cloud-based computing is being felt in the workforce. "All of us, we're able to be more agile, we're able to change, to revise more rapidly. And we're able to be more responsive to feedback and observation. The cloud model removes barriers."

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