SCHOOL CIO: Heads in the Cloud

6/1/2011 1:00:00 AM

What does cloud computing really mean for your district?

For years schools have used software as a service in one area or another. In fact, in a 2010–2011 SchoolDude survey, 50 percent of districts said they ran software as a service, giving examples that included student-information systems and Moodle. So where does cloud computing come in?

“I think the first thing a district IT person has to ask is ‘Where do I run things?’” says Rich Kaestner, a project director for CoSN. “‘And does it make sense to run them internally, or should I let someone else handle it?’” IT departments, short on staff and facing increasing demand for anywhere, anytime learning, must provide resources that are outside the school walls. Schools aren’t typically prepared to provide 24/7 support. Can turning to the cloud be the answer?

To start the process, make sure your infrastructure is sound. Next, identify core applications that you need control over as well as the ones you don’t have time to support. When evaluating cloudbased apps, make sure to ask about security, backup, disaster recovery, service-level agreements, legal/CIPA concerns, support, and training as well as the vendor’s long-term viability.

The schools and districts in this article have already turned to the cloud.

They Googled It

When Corky Tate started working at Brightside Academy in 2010, everything was hosted locally. “We didn’t have a rich application portfolio, and there weren’t any real IT policies in place,” the chief information officer says. Brightside Academy provides early- child care and education programs to more than 6,500 children from six weeks to 12 years old. It runs 54 centers in low-income areas across New York State, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Needless to say, Tate wanted to establish a foundation and create an AUP and other essential IT policies.

Microsoft was running on most desktops, and the corporate and academy administration staff used Exchange for email and Excel for everything else. “There were lots of capacity and operational constraints, and the licensing and hardware requirements were not inexpensive,” Tate says.

Once the economically disadvantaged communities that Brightside serves had stronger broadband, Tate started using cloud-based applications. The first one, Google Apps for Business, lets Brightside employees collaborate by sharing Google Docs and other items. It costs $50 per user annually, and each user receives 25 gigs of storage. “That’s an incredible value when you compare it with Earth-based solutions, like Microsoft Exchange,” Tate says.

Although Tate admits that Google Apps aren’t as mature as Microsoft applications, he’s seen at least a dozen improvements in Google Docs in the past year and says that the offerings get better every month. And a significant benefit of GoogleApps for Business, according to Tate, is that through its application marketplace, it unlocked a number of business solutions that integrated completely with the GoogleApps framework, such as calendaring and messaging. Licensing is by subscription; you pay only for what you use. Tate has become a huge fan of Smartsheet. “It is a very flexible product with lots of utility,” he says. “We’ve replaced Microsoft Project completely with it. We also use it to manage a number of key business areas ranging from compliance and licensing to defects management.”

For Tate, cloud-based software is a smart move. He no longer has to worry about backup and disaster recovery, because Google handles those components. In addition, cloud-based products offer lower, more predictable costs. “Using Google Apps for Business paid off in the first year,” he says. Last but not least, Tate likes knowing that the apps can accommodate his educators’ needs as they grow. “Cloudbased providers dynamically handle scalability, which is a big relief.”

Initially, people worried because the cloud seemed vulnerable to various security breaches. Many of these concerns have been addressed, Tate says, adding that Google was among the first cloud-based environments to receive Federal Information Security Management Act certification. “I believe that the Google environment is very secure—probably more secure than I could make mine,” he says. He is still hesitant about workers logging into their email on home PC s, so he is working on a BYOD plan that will extend the AUP and protect Brightside against security risks. “It [BYOD] gets a bit more difficult to manage in the cloud-based world, but the ubiquitous access is still a huge plus. You just have to address the security issues as best you can.”

Once he began using Google Apps, Tate began moving other locally hosted software packages, including payroll and attendance, to the cloud. Today 40 percent of Brightside’s applications are in the cloud.

Art in the Cloud

In 2010, the 35 art teachers of Appleton (Wisconsin) Area School District decided to do a district-wide project. They gave each of the 10,500 K–12 students a six-by-six-inch art panel on which to draw or paint their idea of compassion. Then the students wrote a corresponding statement elaborating on their work. “We wanted to make it into a mosaic exhibit, but when I started to do the math, I realized we didn’t have the wall space,” says Jim Heiks, director of fine arts for the district. Instead, the nearby Trout Museum offered to display the exhibit.

“The next thing we had to figure out was ‘How do you find your piece?’” Heiks says. As luck would have it, district parent John Ptacek worked at Skyline Technologies, a local company, and he offered to help. Ptacek said he could use technology to link each artwork to that child’s corresponding statement and to develop a Webbased system in which people could search for particular pieces. Heiks bought four reliable cameras and set up lighting systems, and a large group of retired teachers spent hundreds of hours numbering, bar coding, and photographing the panels.

When Ptacek heard about the project’s scope, he realized that it would be an excellent opportunity to use Windows Azure, Microsoft’s back-end cloud technology. Here’s why: Using a cloud-based product would free the district IT staff from handling all the infrastructure tasks, such as setting up the server, installing SQL Server, ensuring sufficient disk space, and opening firewall ports. “There were no products to buy and no IT time dedicated to infrastructure,” Ptacek says. “Because we used someone else’s hardware, we moved quicker and were more responsive, and the project was more affordable.”

Visit to see the Appleton Compassion Project.

A Better Platform

As a lot of districts once did, Bellevue (Washington) Public School System’s IT department used to handle coding in-house. Fifteen years ago, it began buying major applications. For curriculum-development work, the district used Word documents stashed on file servers, but that approach made it difficult to collaborate, update, and improve. In 2005, Bellevue started using Microsoft SharePoint. Collaboration was much easier, but the system was more of an intranet model, and the district wanted to be able to use it outside of school. It was time to explore cloud-based solutions.

Today Bellevue uses GlobalScholar’s Pinnacle Suite. Teachers employ GlobalScholar tools to create curricula on the company’s platform, and that material is integrated with Pinnacle Grade, a grade-book app. Teachers log in from anywhere and go directly to their subject areas and courses to see units, lessons, resources, and assessments.

“The greatest benefit of the cloud is that people can have 24/7 access; there are no firewall problems,” says Nancy Larson, manager for facilities, IT, and maintenance. “Cloud computing can be extremely beneficial for smaller districts in that they get curricular resources and applications they couldn’t access before.”

Because of the success of this endeavor, Bellevue is looking at other cloud solutions, including Microsoft Live@edu, Google Apps for Education, and ePortfolio. “We have limited storage on our file servers, and our students are saving tons of stuff. It’s more economical to have it hosted elsewhere,” says Mark Choi, manager for instructional technology.

Thinking Straight

Maurice Draggon, technology coordinator for Orange County (Florida) Public Schools, is a huge fan of Inspiration Software’s Webspiration Classroom. He used it when he taught first-grade ELL students and now uses it when he works with alternatively certified teachers.

The cloud-based version of the popular visual-thinking and -collaboration tool, Webspiration Classroom automatically saves and backs up all documents in the cloud, giving students and teachers 24/7 access to a safe online environment. Teachers can deliver, grade, and return assignments online, keeping work accessible. “I can check assignments from wherever I am,” Draggon says. “I don’t have to worry about organization; I just go to Webspiration Classroom and see everything.”

In the past, Draggon’s software license allowed Webspiration to be on only one computer in class and one at home. With the cloud version, that’s no longer a problem. “Having the whole program at your fingertips makes a huge difference in terms of usability.”

Sharon Padget, a science teacher at Ottumwa (Iowa) High School, is another happy Webspiration Classroom user. “It’s a 24/7/365 deal,” she says. “My special-needs and ELL students can work on an assignment at home, and since I’m usually on the computer at night, I can help them if they need me.”

[What’s Your Plan?]

CDW-G recently polled K–12 IT professionals about the status of cloud adoption. Here’s what it found:

¦ 31 percent of K–12 districts have a written strategic plan for the adoption of cloud computing.

¦ 27 percent of K–12 respondents are currently implementing and maintaining cloud computing within their districts.

Of that 27 percent:

¦ 15 percent replaced traditional applications wherever there was the opportunity.

¦ 44 percent are deploying a single application across their enterprise.

¦ 33 percent are implementing a single application for one division or business unit.

¦ 8 percent were unsure about their district’s step into cloud computing.

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