EdTech: What Is Cloud Computing?

You may have heard the now ubiquitous term 'cloud computing' and wondered if you should be reaching for your umbrella. Far from a meteorological phenomenon, cloud computing allows people to save, collaborate on and share documents using networked computers (or smartphones or tablets, such as the iPhone/iPad or Samsung Galaxy) on the internet in place of individual computers in an office or home - it's a bit like having a virtual safety deposit box, but with far more powerful features.

Before cloud computing existed, if you were working on a document on your computer and wanted someone else to amend it, you'd need to either send it via email, or put it on a USB drive (or even, going back far enough, a floppy disk) and give or send it to the recipient personally. Of course, the latter only works if you live nearby or can wait a few days for the post, and the former means having to send files back and forth through email, which leads to version control issues (having to keep track of which is the latest version), not to mention clogging up email servers if you have to send a lot of attachments back and forth.

Now, however, you can use a cloud-based (ie online) storage service, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Apple's iCloud or Microsoft's SkyDrive, to upload files to your own personal 'hard drive' in the cloud (ie the servers maintained by those companies); you can download said files from any computer anywhere, as long as it has internet access, by logging into your account. You can also share files with specific people you nominate, who can access them only via a password, or you can make a public folder that anyone can access if you give them the URL for it (no login is needed, but the URL is usually complex enough that it would be unlikely that anyone could simply stumble onto it). Just as on your own computer you can create a folder structure for organising your files, with Dropbox you can use their install software to create a Dropbox 'folder' on your personal computer, so uploading files to it, or downloading copies from it, is as easy as dragging files in and out of the folder on your desktop, just as you would with any folder on your computer.

Using a cloud-based storage service allows you to share files with others, but also to keep safe copies of things online for yourself, where they'll be safe and accessible even if your computer is stolen or gets broken. It's also very handy when travelling, for example, to keep copies of your trip itinerary or travel insurance information on your online server, which you can then download or print out from a computer in an internet cafe any time you like.

Besides file storage, cloud computing also lets you and other people use the same applications online through a web browser, which is handy for collaboration, and avoids issues of dealing with different application versions and computing platforms. The best-known example is the application suite available through Google Drive (formerly known as Google Docs), which offers free versions of the same software you get in the Microsoft Office suite: word processing (like Word), spreadsheets (like Excel) and presentations (like PowerPoint); you can even use a drawing application for quick illustrations or create a form that allows collaborators to enter data directly into a spreadsheet.

These applications work just like their MS Office counterparts - the spreadsheet app can do calculations, the word processor can do tables and TOCs - although they're not quite as full-featured as the MS Office software. (For example, there's no Track Changes function in the Google Drive word processor, although you can leave comments.) So while the Google Drive word processor may not be robust enough to use for professional editing work, it's still very handy to have as a way to write up things on a computer away from home, or to share and collaborate with others. A revision history on Google Drive allows you to access all saved versions of a document, so you can see exactly who has added what, or go back to an earlier version any time you like.

Many of these cloud-based services offer a small amount of storage space for free, usually a couple of gigabytes, and subscriptions that allow you to increase your storage space dramatically. There are also cloud-based services such as Flickr or Everpix that allow you to keep copies of your digital photos online, which means that if your computer were to get stolen or lost, your data would be safe in the cloud - a real silver lining, indeed.

Ali Lemer