How Cloud Computing Delivers Classrooms to Remote Students

School districts turned to affordable tech and cloud computing to address inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Christine Parizo

By Christine Parizo February 10, 2021

In March 2020, schools across the United States shuttered their doors to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Although educators posted lessons online, the inequities for rural and low-income students quickly became apparent. Without access to a computer or reliable internet connections at home, students in many school districts tried to complete schoolwork on a cellphone – or didn’t complete it at all.

Over 20% of parents said their children wouldn’t be able to do schoolwork because they didn’t have access to a computer at home, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center. The numbers were even higher among low-income families. In the survey, 36% said they didn’t have a computer for children to use.

In part, the problem is the inability of school districts to get devices into students’ hands. While nearly 85% of urban districts planned to distribute laptops, tablets or similar devices to students, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, only 43.2% of rural districts could say the same. And in those rural districts, many students don’t have access to reliable internet service. For example, Cloudland High School in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, estimated that one-fifth of its students were in remote areas without high-speed internet and only spotty cellphone service.

Although the digital divide among students isn’t new, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid it bare for the broader public to finally see, appreciate and – with the help of low-cost computing devices, free internet and cloud-based e-learning solutions – do something about it.

First: Computers and Connectivity

When it comes to the digital divide, technology is a paradox. It’s a problem and the solution, and this has been especially true during the pandemic, according to Trent Sharp, a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which conducts education-equity research. 

“Challenging times such as these create space for innovations that can expand access and opportunity,” Sharp wrote in a September 2020 article for AIR.  

“At the same time, there is concern that COVID-19 will further entrench inequalities that have plagued our country for generations. The last few months have clearly shown that technology will play a pivotal role in determining which path we take.”

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To expand access and opportunity, some school districts provided devices to students who can’t afford them. But computers can be expensive. Instead of distributing pricey laptops and tablets, many districts therefore purchase – sometimes with help from generous donors – affordable devices designed with equity in mind. 

In summer 2020, for example, California’s Oakland Unified School District raised $12.5 million to purchase Google Chromebooks for use by 25,000 low-income students during the school year. Because they cost hundreds of dollars less than traditional computers, Chromebooks and similar devices help school districts bridge the digital divide without exhausting their limited budgets.

Knowing that some students don’t have reliable internet access, Oakland Unified also distributed portable Wi-Fi hotspots. So did the City of Philadelphia, whose PHLConnectED program will run through June 2022, furnishing low-income students with Chromebooks, tablets and computers, as well as free or reduced-cost internet access – wired internet from Comcast or, for housing-insecure students, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

In rural areas, cash-strapped school districts have had to get more creative. For example, some have helped students find and access free Wi-Fi locations at libraries and other public areas. Others have set up hotspots on school grounds so that students can download materials and upload assignments from their parents’ cars. Other workarounds for students without internet at home have included connecting families with free and low-cost internet service providers and even purchasing data plans for students with cellphones.

“We’ve learned a lot of things during this period, but the importance of internet connections and broadband – I’m not sure you can overstate at this point how important it is,” Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery told WJHL-TV, a local television station in Johnson City, Tennessee, during an interview about educational inequities in rural school districts.

Success Sans Software

Crucial though they are, devices and internet connections aren’t enough to create educational equity in remote learning environments. Just as essential is software: When students log on for remote lessons, they must be able to access shared resources in a virtual environment that’s streamlined and standardized so educators can spend precious time teaching instead of troubleshooting.

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This becomes possible by introducing cloud computing in education. One reason that Chromebooks are so popular in education is that they are made explicitly for use with affordable cloud-based applications instead of expensive native software. 

Consider, for example, Berufsbildungszentrum IDM in Thun, Switzerland. A private vocational school for 16- to 22-year-olds, it uses cloud-based Microsoft Teams to create a consistent experience for students across classes and devices, according to René Bigler, head of information technology. Even if students don’t have Chromebooks, he noted in an interview with The Forecast, they’re still able to access video meetings, chats and files via their smartphones.

The next step for Berufbildungszentrum IDM might be Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), wherein users access virtual applications that live in the cloud instead of on their hard drive.

It has already proven successful at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, which embraced DaaS in late 2017 to give business students more flexibility in its distance learning program. When COVID-19 struck, however, Creighton’s IT team scaled up its DaaS deployment to give its entire student body easier access to applications.

On the back end, Creighton uses an integrated platform – Frame DaaS from Nutanix – to standardize the e-learning experience. Whether they’re logging in from a tablet, computer or phone, students have access to Visual Studio, Microsoft Project and analytics software that would be prohibitively expensive if not for cloud-based infrastructure.

“Even the most complex lab applications and resources are easily accessible using only a web browser and an internet connection,” said Robby Daniels, a central campus client support specialist at Creighton.

In the same fashion, DaaS enables K-12 students to access device-agnostic resources regardless of their family’s location or income. A student using a district-issued Chromebook gets the same experience as a student with a top-of-the-line laptop, including access to CAD/CAM software, photo and video editing suites, and conferencing and collaboration applications.

Plus, DaaS requires minimal troubleshooting since applications are hosted remotely and standardized through the school’s IT department. The result is an equitable experience for students who do not have tech-savvy parents and for students with working parents who can’t be available during the school day to assist them with technology.

“It’s the kids who come from less-affluent neighborhoods who don’t have access to [technology] that are getting left behind. And that is unacceptable,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in an interview with The Desert News. To help disadvantaged students keep pace with their peers, he has asked the state legislature for more funds for education technology, with the end goal of giving every student in Utah access to a device and high-speed internet in their homes.

Education for All

While COVID-19 and associated school closures threw the digital divide into sharp relief, cloud computing in education helped bring equity and extend remote learning to low-income and rural students. Thanks to their low cost and ease of use, DaaS, affordable computing devices, and free internet have formed a triumvirate that promises to democratize education during the pandemic and long after it.

Christine Parizo is a Houston-based freelance writer specializing in B2B technology and has two decades of experience as both a journalist and a content marketing writer.

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