Opinion / Berlin Fang

Tap into the potential of the 'cloud'

By Berlin Fang (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-29 07:39

Tap into the potential of the 'cloud'

During my recent 10-day home trip to China, half of which was spent on the road, I borrowed my 84-year-old mom's cell phone, with an amazing battery time, to keep in touch with people. It was a dumb phone and even made me ironically conspicuous at an intelligent learning environment conference, where I had a presentation on, what else but, fluid learning in today's "bring your own device" environment.

When I returned to my hometown, the dumb phone also made me a laughing stock of former classmates, who, like almost everyone else, boast of some kind of shiny, whiz-bang touch-screen smartphones.

On trains and buses I saw that most people were busy chatting with friends, watching movies or playing games on their smartphones. The devices were used a great deal to consume information and to chit-chat online, because people still use computers to do "serious" work, and still store contents in computers which take up space and slow down speed.

So I asked several people why not put their contents in the cloud? Invariably, I got that "glazed" look. What cloud?

In the United States, I am in the habit of putting my contents in a cloud-based storage space such as Evernote, Dropbox or Google Drive, which allows me to access them anytime anywhere using mobile devices. Such cloud-based solutions facilitate many types of performance, and incidental or context-based learning. With cloud-based services, one can start and stop anytime and pick up on another device from where he/she left off. Users can also produce content using multiple devices and aggregate their efforts in the cloud, as well as invite collaborators or readers if teamwork is required.

China's mobile devices are appearing like mushrooms after a spring rain, challenging established players such as Apple. Yet much discussion on hand-held devices is focused on their functions as standalone gadgets, instead of their ability to make learning and personal productivity easier. Users hoard fragmentized contents in multiple devices, vulnerable to risks of malware, viruses and hardware failures. Horror stories of data loss abound, but the culture of cloud computing is still not in sight.

Google's aggressive push of its cloud-based services such as Google Doc and Google Drive is effectively changing the way people work, because such services enable multi-user collaboration, creating conditions for remote teams, teleconferencing and even telecommuting. Baidu, China's counterpart for Google, offers "baidu cloud" for users to share documents and collaborate, but during my short trip I didn't meet anyone who uses such services. Instead, people use thumb drives and e-mails to share documents, creating multiple copies, potentially inconsistent with each other, and wasting time on editing and merging.

This is not a geek ranting about his digital habits. But there is a tremendous disconnect between what is technically possible and what people choose to use. With top-notch smartphones in hand, users are not doing themselves a favor by simply killing time watching videos, playing games and updating their WeChat moments. They miss the opportunity to use their devices to help with learning, personal productivity and team collaboration. It's not that the Chinese are incapable of innovative uses of technologies; in fact, it's fascinating to see people using GPS functions in smartphones to call taxis. The idea is to raise awareness that there are more potential uses to be tapped into, and it is possible to increase personal effectiveness and efficiency by expanding and deepening the uses of the existing cyber infrastructure.

Quite a large percentage of Chinese families now have wifi access and own multiple smartphones. Everything is ready for the "clouds", which hang there, dripping with possibilities. Unless such clouds are effectively used, people's smartphones will be no better than dumb phones.

I have a vision of learning while flowing freely between devices, people, and the physical and virtual worlds. Cloud computing has the promise to help with such fluidity and flexibility. Now is the time to deliver that promise.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

(China Daily 08/29/2014 page9)

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