When administrators and technicians at Garden City Public Schools in Kansas began considering how to upgrade the district’s aging mail server, they knew that their current server was operating on borrowed time.
The school district was still running Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. The software giant discontinued support for the product in April 2014, giving administrators all the justification needed to make a change.
Though administrators originally considered installing another on-premises Exchange server, Roxie Schafer, director of technology, says her staff was intrigued by Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud product, particularly its ability to transition traditionally data-intensive administrative applications, such as email, to cloud-based severs.
“It just seemed like the right time to move to the cloud,” says Schafer, whose team officially replaced its Exchange servers in July 2014, joining the increasingly large cadre of school districts adopting cloud-based software and services.
Among the rewards reaped thus far: more storage, improved mobile access to email and files, quicker maintenance, and increased collaboration among faculty and between students and teachers.
“No more long hours at 2 a.m. trying to get email going again,” says Doug Reha, the district’s network manager. “We don’t maintain it. Microsoft does all that now.”
Moving to the cloud also makes financial sense for school districts because of the economy of scale offered by cloud providers, adds Laura DiDio, principal of ITIC, a technology consultancy. Districts often have limited budgets available for IT equipment and staffing, and moving to cloud providers gives them access to state-of-the-art technology and expertise, as well as flexible scalability, she says.
In addition to administrative resources such as email, many schools rely on the cloud to house and deliver a growing number of classroom resources.
For example, McKinney Independent School District in Texas recently transitioned to Adobe Creative Cloud, which offers access to Adobe’s popular suite of design tools, including Photoshop and InDesign. Adobe’s cloud option trades the traditional model of stand-alone software licenses for a subscription-based service run entirely in the cloud. Under the old model, McKinney’s Career and Technical Education classes purchased software licenses department by department. Now the entire district has access to Adobe’s full suite of tools.
“As a district, we’re really taking advantage of as many tools and resources as we can with that software,” says Alyssa Boehringer, audio/video production teacher at McKinney High School and the district’s lead trainer on Adobe solutions.
Boehringer and her students have long used Adobe products to create and produce a biweekly news-style TV show and website. With the switch, she says, her students hardly noticed a difference in the products. That continuity is important. The last thing most teachers want when they switch services in the classroom is to have to relearn or reteach important programs or skill sets.
But where Adobe’s Creative Cloud really pays dividends for schools is on the back end, explains Boehringer. Adobe performs all the necessary software updates and uploads the latest versions directly to the cloud, ensuring that students and teachers who subscribe to the new cloud-based service have access to the most up-to-date technology.
The updates provide peace of mind; they also save time, says Boehringer, who adds, “We never have to buy another disk and wait three hours for it to load.”
Making the Move
Certain benefits of cloud-based software are obvious, but that hasn’t stopped some educators from taking a wait-and-see approach to the technology.
When Garden City Schools announced its decision to transition to Office 365, some employees worried about the possibility of losing important email messages. But those concerns proved largely unfounded, Schafer says. “We moved a couple hundred gigs of data, and we didn’t lose anything.”
That’s not to say the district’s cloud migration was without challenges. Because the district’s Exchange server was nearly 10 years old, there was no way to upgrade directly to Office 365. Administrators first had to set up a temporary server and convert the Exchange 2003 product to a more modern format.
Despite the extra step, administrators say the transition to the cloud is already generating benefits. Among the most notable advantages, an increase in storage capacity — from 100 megabytes per user to 50 gigabytes per user, Schafer says.
While Office 365 contains a suite of applications, most of the staff at Garden City Schools use the technology primarily for email, though Schafer says some are starting to explore other uses for the product. For example, an application called OneDrive allows users to store and share documents. Some Garden City educators use the resource to create collaborative lesson plans.
Having a document-sharing program that’s in the same location as email and a calendar has also been a huge timesaver, says Mallory Hayes, a district behavior consultant. “I didn’t have any prior training on sharing files with staff on OneDrive, and it was very easy to set up,” she says.
Because the technology is cloud-based, users can access their files from anywhere, on any device. That makes it easier for staff to transition from home to work, explains Dale Wainwright, Garden City Schools’ technical support services manager. Prior to OneDrive, educators who wanted to take work home had to either email themselves the files or store them on a portable thumb drive.
“Invariably, teachers would get back to school and start working on the old version. Now they’ve got changes to two different copies,” says Wainwright. With OneDrive, a single file syncs in the cloud, “so they’re always working on the same copy.”
Coventry Public Schools in Rhode Island recently began exploring the benefits of cloud-based services. In August, administrators handed out 2,700 Chromebooks to sixth- through 12th-graders. They also gave each grade from third through fifth portable carts outfitted with the same devices.
Educators received their own devices in April. Many of them spent the summer preparing lesson plans with cloud-based resources, such as Google Apps for Education.
Since the district moved to the Chromebooks, administrators say students who received the devices are able to access assignments from home, and teachers increasingly share documents electronically rather than copying and distributing handouts. Many educators are using the technology to flip their classrooms, creating lecture-style videos for students to watch on their devices at home on the Internet while devoting class time to hands-on activities and relevant drills and practice.
“Students are learning to work productively and collaboratively and mirror those skills that college-ready and career-ready students need,” explains Lynne Burke, Coventry’s director of educational technology and information systems, referring to the changes.
How the district conducts assessments also has changed, says Superintendent Michael Almeida. Teachers conduct pre- and formative assessments using Google Forms. The results are used to tailor the delivery of daily instruction.
“The teacher can actually see the kids who aren’t making progress and intervene immediately,” explains Almeida. More advanced students can move ahead, increasing engagement and reducing the chance that students will “check out of the learning environment,” he says.
Coventry’s IT team knew that moving to the cloud was more than a matter of purchasing the right technology. For the resources to be effective, teachers and students had to learn to use it.
To ensure success, the district trained 38 teachers to model new technology and collaborate with colleagues. Officials also created a professional development team, held weekly training sessions throughout the summer and hosted a technology summit with trainers from Discovery Education, Google and the district.
“The learning curve was not only learning to use the tool, but learning how to manage a digital classroom, and many of our teachers have really embraced that,” says Burke.
She credits much of that transformation to Almeida, who proclaimed this “the year of discovery,” meaning teachers are expected to learn how to use technology in the classroom — and it’s OK if they make mistakes along the way. “Because he made it a safe environment for people to explore, teachers are willing to take risks,” says Burke.