Tablets for teachers, netbooks and notebooks for more students: All have played an integral part in Sunnyside Unified School District’s dramatic renewal, which is evidenced by the soaring number of its students who are graduating and earning college admission.
But it’s up to Executive Director of Information Technologies Javier Baca to manage the mobile devices proliferating in the 18,000-student district in Tucson, Ariz. — and to maximize their educational value. He’s achieving both goals using private cloud technology based on Lenovo Secure Cloud Access (SCA) and Stoneware’s webNetwork software.
“Our teachers have been asking for remote access to district systems since we gave them notebook tablets two years ago, and now they have it,” Baca says. Thanks to the solution, “students can get to all their school files and apps wherever they can get on the Internet.”
Like businesses, school districts of all sizes are beginning to use private and hybrid clouds to streamline the management and provisioning of digital resources, as well as to simplify user access to those resources, says Ezra Gottheil, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research, a market intelligence firm in Hampton, N.H. Creating a private or hybrid cloud also can alleviate the security concerns of administrators who are reluctant to use services directly from the public cloud, he adds.
“A private or hybrid cloud allows you to use shared resources securely and efficiently,” Gottheil explains. “SCA makes the most of the client/server relationship in a cloud environment, putting specialized software on the client and the server, which provides greater security and efficiency for all the transactions between them.”
Sunnyside USD currently operates a one-to-one computing program for all fifth-grade students at its 13 elementary schools and sixth-grade students at its five middle schools, and is committed to extending the initiative through grade 12 within three years.
According to Baca, this agenda will be easier to support because of specific features that the SCA/webNetwork pairing provides. “Integrating legacy systems, especially directory services, into the cloud can be a long, difficult process,” he says. “But Stoneware takes care of the Microsoft Active Directory integration for you.”
Delivering virtualized applications through the cloud facilitates single sign-on access control, which simplifies access for users and cuts password management hassles for IT, he says. What’s more, the logic built into the Stoneware cloud supports scripting capabilities, giving Baca and his staff the flexibility to solve challenges within the computing environment as they arise.
Remote access and resource sharing require tight security, of course, but Baca dismisses the notion that the cloud raises special issues.
“It’s pretty straightforward. Antivirus software is installed on the cloud portal server, and any documents uploaded to the cloud are automatically scanned for malware,” he explains. “All communications go through an SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] encrypted tunnel. Directory services control role-based user access so teachers can share resources and information that might not be appropriate for students.”
Bigger Cloud on the Horizon
The Rolling Hills Local School District is scrutinizing security and all other aspects of cloud computing as it continues its steady adoption of services. According to Director of Information Technology James Buckey, the five-school district in Byesville, Ohio, has been using Google Apps for Education for about a year.
Additionally, Buckey has been using Wyse Technology’s PocketCloud software to remotely manage all aspects of Rolling Hills LSD’s cloud infrastructure. PocketCloud provides secure access to its hardware and software assets from anywhere, on a variety of devices.
“The time savings is tremendous, especially in a geographically spread-out district like ours, which is 30 miles from end to end,” Buckey says. “The technology has averted more than one small crisis because I’ve been able to quickly address problems without driving to another building.”
During the 2010–2011 school year, district IT staff installed mobile computing labs in all five facilities. This year, they began a one-to-one program for the fifth-graders in the district’s three elementary schools. In the future, each new class of fifth-grade students will receive computers, which will travel with them through the higher grades, Buckey says.
The district’s client management needs are increasing alongside its efforts to put technology in the hands of more students, Buckey continues, noting that he’s now evaluating PocketCloud and other technologies for additional uses, with an eye toward scalability, management and long-term benefits. “We’re looking for the right solution to maximize the cloud’s potential for the users accessing district resources and for those of us who manage them,” he says.
The Niagara Wheatfield Central School District enjoyed similar benefits after moving to the cloud, but increasing access to instructional resources was the key driver of its efforts, says Mary Ann Buch, director of technology and training. The six-school district in Sanborn, N.Y., implemented a webNetwork-based federated (hybrid) cloud for its four elementary schools during the 2010–2011 school year to support a new one-to-one initiative for fifth-graders. It extended the cloud solution to all schools and administrators this year.
“We have many great instructional tools, but no one was using them because they all required a different login,” Buch says. “Young students aren’t yet proficient at remembering their user IDs and passwords. With our cloud solution, the user submits credentials one time and has access to all those resources through single sign-on.”
Through its cloud computing environment, Niagara Wheatfield CSD delivers instructional and management applications in a number of ways, adapting each delivery method for efficiency based on the needs of the application, the end user and the district, says Dennis Hirschfelt, a webNetwork administrator for the Western New York Regional Information Center. (Based at the Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, WNYRIC provides technology assistance to more than 100 schools.) Niagara Wheatfield CSD’s cloud “functions as a broker, delivering resources to [users] from a range of sources as smoothly as possible,” he explains.
Although a cloud solution increases the need for network administration expertise, Buch says it pays off by reducing the installation and management requirements for individual applications. Niagara Wheatfield CSD has always maintained layers of security. The Stoneware cloud takes advantage of existing security and adds an extra level for external users, she says.
Managing software licenses can be tricky, however. “When you’re delivering an application to your entire organization through the cloud, you still need the appropriate licensing for your users,” Buch says. “I can see the potential for people to misuse the technology.”
Sunnyside USD’s Baca also stresses the need to carefully manage the digital licensing process. But he believes the biggest glitch in cloud adoption is educating the school community about its possibilities. “Getting users to take advantage of all that we’re making available to them takes a while,” he says. “Universal access to instructional resources is where we’re going. This technology makes it easier to reach that goal.
The best advice Ezra Gottheil can offer to any school district contemplating cloud technology is to take full advantage of the resources available on the Internet. “There’s a wealth of applications available,” says Gottheil, a senior analyst with Technology Business Research, “and the security provided by the vendors that offer them is usually at least as good as that on local networks.”
Districts around the country already are moving in this direction. Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., for example, is exploring public cloud options such as Google Docs and Microsoft Live@edu, says Javier Baca, executive director of information technologies. “These options will provide the most scalable solutions as our users’ needs grow and we expand our one-to-one program to more grade levels in the coming years,” he explains.
Applications and services from the public Internet reduce management headaches significantly, adds Mary Ann Buch, director of technology and training for the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District. Her district, based in Sanborn, N.Y., oversees a “federated” cloud that offers both web-based and local resources. “When I buy a cloud application that’s hosted by someone else, I’m not storing it locally, so I don’t have to worry about whether I have enough storage space on the server or about backing it up,” she explains. “All I have to do is put that application on our menu.”