Precursors to Cloud Computing in Education

"Precursors of Cloud Computing in Education -- Past and Present"

Moore's Law predicts that any computer you buy tomorrow will be worth less than half as much, a year and a half later! :-(
The other side of the coin is that you can now buy ten times as much stuff for what you spent 5 years ago;
And for what it cost 15 years ago, you get a thousand times as much computer resources;
Conversely, you MAY be able to get much more than you need, for a tiny fraction of the cost -- IF   you can figure out ways to make judicious use of emerging technologies.

One of those technologies -- alluding to the vernacular term for the internet -- is now called "Cloud Computing" or simply "the Cloud". In the next session, Tony Iams will point the way forward to show how teachers and students can exploit the power ot "the Cloud" in order to "Change the Economics of Computing to Empower Future Students and Teachers".

  • In this session, I'll start by showing off a few of the early "precursors" to "cloud computing" I have used in teaching classes at SCCC and elsewhere.
  • Then, I'll open the floor to a discussion of some more-recent examples, such as using the power of the internet to make education both more-effective AND cheaper.
  • In the following session, Tony Iams will reveal a huge bag of presents that are just around the corner (or here already), opening up the vision of the great promise that these technologies offer for the future of education.

In keeping with the season, I suggested to Tony that I introduce him as "the Ghost of Christmas Future", since I am really representing "The Ghost of Christmas Past". When I'm done, I hope all of you will join in in a general discussion of current methods, which we could call "the Ghost of Christmas Present".

About 15 years ago, I was asked to teach a course called "Homepage and Website Development" (it is still called that -- how quaint!) I was working at Brookhaven Lab at the time, where I had been using web pages, with both raw HTML and strings generated by CGI scripts, to display the status of equipment scattered along the collider ring. So this promised to be a piece of cake (especially when compared to teaching Pascal and Assembler, or the PL/I course I was asked to teach when I first started as an Adjunct at Suffolk. ;^)

The original plan was to put the student files on the school computer, but I had several objections to that:

  • Students had to be on campus (perhaps in the same classroom) just to work on them.
  • As soon as the semester was over, the student files would be flushed from the system,
  • Many students wanted to show off their web pages but the pages were not available from outside.
  • In fact, many who took the course were not even students -- they just wanted to make a website for family stuff, a business, etc.
So, I discovered Geocities -- with free hosting for anybody's web pages. Each student got his own account, and kept it after the course was over!. I put my class page there, too, with links to each student's home page, so they could see each others' pages.
CM-35 Class Page / Projects / HTML tags / Web resources on the web

There was another, unexpected benefit: the school system had problems, and students could not have uploaded until 3 weeks into the semester. (I'm not saying that this could never happen with something like Geocities, but it's a much larger venture than one school, and things tend to get fixed more quickly!)

Creating web pages introduces both pedagogical and logistics problems that are not present when the students merely have to write a program and debug it. These programs, and the input data, could be carried around on a floppy disk (or a deck of punched cards -- remember them?) and run from anywhere (as long as you a compiler for that language).

But a web page has hyperlinks that point to other files, in the same directory, elsewhere on the same disk, or maybe on another computer -- somewhere off in the clouds!

To create a web page, students have to upload their HTML to a server, somewhere, and that presented some logistical problems. As well as some opportunities:

  • Sure, they could create and debug their HTML on the local disk, but it still has to be uploaded to a server, to really be on the web.
  • Configuration management and version control rears its ugly head, when the server has one version, the client has another, and the flopy backup contains a third.
  • Then, there are different browsers, and standards that don't necessarily work the same everywhere. Someone on the FORTRAN committee once said, "the nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from!
On the other hand:
  • If the student can upload his work in progress, in the classroom, then he can continue debugging it at home, or at work, or ANYWHERE in the world (with any Operating System on ANY kind of computer!).
  • There are no floppies to save on, to forget at home, to jam in the drive, etc.
  • The instructor can look at work in progress, at any time. From anywhere.
  • Tests and assignments can be posted on line; all you need is the URL.
  • Projects and tests can be submitted on-line, just by uploading to the server.

Unfortunately, Geocities did not last forever:. Geocities
By that time, I already had a block of web-hosting accounts on a commercial shared server (Netnation), so I used one of the spare, unused web-hosting accounts and moved things there. (Even if you have to pay for it, web hosting is available for only a few bucks a month, and sometimes for free. You only need ONE account -- so long as you can log into the server and set up passworded folders for each student. Just make sure you get hosting on a server that you can log into!)
This migration took some effort, bu it wasn't very hard to write a simple Perl program to upload student files into passworded folders, and do other maintenance.
One thing I realized right away was that I no longer needed to bring in a briefcase full of handouts, or go home with a briefcase full of papers. Just think of threes we saved! Nowadays, this sort of thing is "old hat" but I can tell you that only a decade or so ago (back when the same computer cost 1000 times less!), it was a great technological benefit for its time! (Just like the computer that flushes the toilet, when you get up.)

Pretty soon, I began using the same scripts for all of my courses:

Of course, I do all of my Course outlines there. Students may print them out, but there's really no need. (My department still insists on a few paper copies, so I print those out, but I don't waste any other trees. Since it is a web page, my course outlines are interactive, too.

In addition to outlines, tests, assignments, and so forth, I also put presentation materials there (and I like it much better than Power Point). The presentations remain accessible to students, and they can have hyperlinks that go to other reference material on the web.
Sometimes, I make interactive pages (with Javascript) to teach certain things (number-base conversions, metric prefixes, etc.): ASCII / Metric

Yesterday and the day before, I gave midterm exams,
I didn't need to bring anything with me (except for one printed copy, just in case), and I didn't take anything home.
During the week, I had worked on the exams from five different locations, including one mod I made from my iPhone.
About 10 minutes before one of the classes, I discovered a serious error. All I had to do to fix it was to ssh into the server and make the correction there. There was no need to hand-correct all the tests or throw out the paper and print new ones. Midterm
Invited Talk:   Tony Iams (Ideas International)

How the Cloud Can Change the Economics of Computing
to Empower Future Students and Teachers

Speaker Background:   Tony Iams is Senior Vice President and Senior Analyst at the IT research firm Ideas International, where he leads research on system software, focusing on the leading virtualization technologies and operating systems in use today. In addition to delivering in-depth reviews of the functional tradeoffs between Linux, UNIX, Windows, and other operating systems, Tony has performed detailed assessments of the key virtualization technologies in use today, including virtual machine platforms, resource management software, I/O virtualization technologies, systems and service management software, and cloud computing approaches. Tony has produced a variety of publications on the features and functions of virtualization tools and operating systems, and he has also conducted multiple user studies on their use in real-world environments.
Tony has been widely quoted in the press on these subjects, and has spoken at a number of user conferences as well. Before joining the firm in 1992, Tony worked as a software engineer at Computer Graphics Laboratories, Inc., where he developed applications for UNIX and Windows platforms.