Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Digital nomads with their heads (and data) in the cloud

My son Jake, a rising high school senior, doesn’t have his “own” computer. Instead, he seems to have everyone’s. At school he moves from the computers in the computer lab to those in the student center to those in the film studio. He emails documents to himself or carries work on a flash drive. At home, well, at home no computer is safe. I’ll open my work laptop and find FirstClass open, my son’s Facebook page on the browser, and a couple of homework documents on the desktop. “Do you need any of this stuff?” I ask. “No, I got it.” My computer was handiest; he used it and pushed his work into the Internet cloud to be retrieved at the next available machine. When we travel Jake always manages to find someone or someplace with a computer, iPhone, or some other cloud-friendly device. He connects with friends, moves pictures to Facebook, and checks tennis scores. Welcome to the world of the digital nomad.

Don’t get me wrong, Jake wants his own laptop. He needs a base (we have an aging iMac at home that is “his” in general), but his ability to exist in the cloud frees him from that base (making anything “his” at any moment). And the shrinking size of computers and growing power of cell phones offer the promise that maybe the base can move with him as well. Or at least be available wherever he goes. For him, with the exception of a few specialized applications, school work has no boundaries. Any computer in our house, at school, at a public internet station, or anywhere will do.

As more and more work, student and teacher, exists in the cloud, the opportunity to do something really interesting with it grows because we can all access the cloud and what it contains. Despite my own experiences, direct and vicarious, with mash-ups and remixes, I’ve been slow to see the potential of the collaborative Web 2.0 promise. I’m finally beginning to see the light, but it’s fraught with questions and issues we still need to figure out.

Let me give a specific example: We are about to launch a new program, Timeliner XE. The original TimeLiner 1.0 in 1986 turned Apple IIs and early PC’s connected to dot matrix printers into simple systems for generating banner time lines with ease. Type in events in any order, and the software created a proportionally-spaced chronology that could be printed out sideways on the scrolled paper of those early printers. Simple and sweet. Over the years and releases, the program added the ability to print posters, save as html, create slide shows, and add graphics, links, and other media. This new version takes a huge leap forward. Timeliner XE, built with Adobe Flex and Air, contains a built in browser that enables users to gather, organize, and present information within the same application. In addition to time-related events, any sequential information -- like the life cycle, the steps in a research project, or the plot of a book -- can be managed in the program. It’s very cool.

So what happens to the time lines and sequences that students and teachers create? While having thousands of students create their family histories or story arcs for Tuck Everlasting each year is nice, can’t we take their efforts further by putting the work into the cloud? Imagine a Day-in-the-Life time line that students from around the world contribute to. Each contribution gets its own category and color code so that they can be distinguished and turned on and off. How about collaborative time lines highlighting the flow of information and technology around the world as it happens? What might it look like for users to stand on the shoulders of previous work rather than simply repeating what others have already done? We’re having fun imagining the possibilities.

We’re also straining to understand the implications. What student information is private? Is it okay to share a student’s day in the life in the cloud? Can other users change someone’s time line? What about ownership and attribution? How do we make sure that copyright is respected in what gets posted? It is exciting, but it’s also complicated.

Many of our students are already living in the cloud. It’s happening even as the rules are being created and understood. We’re working on it. I hope you’ll be part of the unfolding story.

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