Bradford Central School District students can no longer profess that the dog ate their homework. Nor can they claim that they lost the flash drives containing their term papers or that they left their netbooks on the bus.
Within this tiny K–12 district about five hours northwest of New York City, the PCs stay in the classrooms and the data lives in the cloud. That's because BCSD moved en masse to Google Apps for Education in May 2010. Its 325 students have been trying to cook up new excuses for unfinished homework ever since.
After running a nine-month pilot program to "iron out the bugs" (which included persuading teachers and staff to change their procedures), the district rolled out the web-based suite of communication and collaboration tools to students and staff, says Technology Director Jeff Tham.
Now, when students move from English class to science, they simply log out of their accounts in one classroom and log back in in the next. "Using Google Apps lets them seamlessly access their information no matter what machine they use," Tham explains. It also allows faculty and staff to continue working during off hours or when district facilities are inaccessible.
The move was spurred in part by budget concerns. Switching to Google Apps, which are available to school users at no charge and compliant with federal laws pertaining to the protection of school data and student privacy, saved the district the costs associated with renewing its Microsoft Exchange and Office software licenses. It also gave Tham the flexibility to finally retire BCSD's aging e-mail servers.
It helped that BCSD already had plenty of network bandwidth. Tham's only major changes to the infrastructure involved upgrading the network switches in the district's lone building and shoring up its wireless local area network. For that, he replaced consumer-grade equipment with enterprise-level access points and network controllers from Cisco.
The move also gave district officials the chance to try out new hardware. They're currently testing wireless headsets for use with Google Voice (which, if adopted, could cut the district's long-distance bills significantly) and experimenting with Motorola Xoom tablets.
In addition to refreshing its stable of Acer netbooks and notebooks, the district is making 105 Chromebooks available to its middle and high school students. This new mobile computing device from Acer and Samsung features Google's Chrome operating system, which works exclusively with web applications.
Besides having the proper infrastructure in place, Tham says staff buy-in and technical expertise are crucial. "Administrators really need to embrace the idea, or it's not going to happen," he says. "And your tech staff needs to be comfortable with migrating to the new environment. If they aren't, you'll probably want the assistance of a third-party consultant who is."
Bandwidth on the Run
Financial constraints also drove Maine Township High School District 207 to Google.
The three-school district near Chicago began exploring cloud-based applications in July 2007, recalls Chief Technology Officer Henry Thiele. Rather than spend up to $35,000 annually on a new e-mail solution, District 207 decided to run a pilot program using Gmail. By August 2008, all 7,000 students were using it. Along the way, Thiele's team also gave students access to Google Docs. When a budget crisis hit in 2010, the district moved staff to Gmail and Google Docs as well.
"We estimate that going Google has saved us more than $250,000 over the last four years on e-mail server maintenance, staff and subscriptions for tools such as spam filters," Thiele says. "Our primary impetus for implementing a Google environment was e-mail replacement. But since then, Google Apps have really taken off."
Today, District 207 relies on a mix of cloud-based and desktop applications for its 3,500 computers. Thiele says the district's infrastructure did need more bandwidth to support Google Apps' web-based offerings, so some of the money it saved was pumped into bigger pipes. "When I arrived in June 2007, we had three T1 lines," he says. "But that wasn't enough to meet demand. Now, we have a 200-megabit direct connection."
To make technology as invisible as possible, he adds, "you need a reliable Internet connection, wireless access across the district and close to 100 percent uptime. Google helps us go a long way toward achieving that."
Uptime All the Time?
Of course, if Google goes down (or if the Internet connection itself is lost), students and staff alike lose access to their data and their apps.
So far, at least, Google's cloud has proved more reliable than the Novell GroupWise system that District 207 previously used, Thiele says. "Over the last three or four years, we've had zero downtime that wasn't caused by us or by our service provider."
Reliability remains a constant concern, however, says John Saecker, technology coordinator for the 1,040-student Rosendale–Brandon School District in Wisconsin. The district moved its five schools to Google Apps four years ago, and also relies on a hosted cloud service provider for data storage. "I worry about uptime all the time," Saecker says, but the service providers he's relying on "have a pretty good track record."
Transitioning to Google aligned nicely with his district's goals for one-to-one computing, he continues. "We were planning to go with one-to-one regardless, but it all came together with Google Apps," he says. "It met our goals for anytime, anywhere access to data; addressed the digital divide; and provides integration so everyone can communicate with everyone else."
But tread carefully, advises BCSD's Tham: "Weigh all of your options. Google Apps isn't necessarily the best fit for everyone. Look at your existing infrastructure and needs, and go from there. We were pushing for as much web-based content as possible because we feel that's where everything is going."
Moving your school district to Google Apps (or any cloud-based solution) is less about upgrading your infrastructure and more about policies, procedures and politics, says Bill Rust, a research director for Gartner. For example, you may encounter pushback from staff who are reluctant to learn new tools and from educators who believe that students should be trained on standard corporate platforms such as Microsoft Office. "For a long time, many people thought that Web 2.0 tools such as Google Apps were just for hobbyists," he says. That perception is slowly changing.
Getting approval at the state level — as Illinois, New York and Wisconsin have done with Google Apps — makes the job much easier.
Of course, you must ensure that cloud services meet the district's security and privacy requirements, and have archiving solutions in place for staff e-mail. But Rust says it's also important to take a 360-degree view of the environment before plunging in. "You need to look at the total cost of ownership over the next three to five years, not just the license fees," he advises. "You should include the cost of training and retraining, as well as the indirect costs of losing employee time. If the transition happens at the wrong time, the results could be horrific. Understanding where the user community stands in this choice is extremely important."