Cloud computing is far from new for Broadalbin-Perth Central School District in upstate New York.
BPCSD has been driving information and critical systems to the cloud for years, says Assistant Superintendent Marco Zumbolo. How?
The four-school district that serves 1,850 students has taken advantage of cloud capabilities mostly for student management, the financial and human resources system, special education, district email and mass communication systems available from the local New York State Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.
As the district came to rely on and trust the cloud, it started to explore ways to tap into cloud services directly for teachers and students, says Zumbolo, who also serves as business administrator and CIO.
“They asked for more mobility,” he says. “You get more mobility by driving resources to the cloud.”
Last year, the district created a new mobile learning environment, a key component of which is Classlink LaunchPad, a cloud-based service that provides personalized desktops to users on almost any device. “The advantage of a technology such as LaunchPad is that teachers and students can access all their information and applications from wherever they are, whether it’s at home or at a public library or in a coffee shop,” Zumbolo says.
The convenience of single sign-on and the fact that the cloud-managed desktops are easily customized helped to overcome teachers’ initial reservations about adopting the technology, adds Stephen Gennett, BPCSD’s instructional technology coordinator.
“Classrooms themselves are becoming more mobile and flexible,” he says. “Learning is not confined to one spot.”
Now, the district is working toward a one-to-one program that will blend BPCSD-provided hardware with a bring-your-own-device initiative, Zumbolo says. The one-to-one program began with the distribution of notebooks and the rollout of LaunchPad to all staff and faculty. LaunchPad will be made available for students at the start of the 2015–2016 school year.
The transition to the use of Google Apps, Gmail, Google Classroom and other tools in the Google environment continue to be an important part of the cloud-based teaching and learning enironment at BPCSD.
Focus on the Experience
A chief benefit of using cloud services is that they reduce the time the district IT staff must spend on maintenance and other management tasks — and that transforms the team’s role, Gennett says.
“The IT department transitions to providing more educational support as less purely technical support is needed,” he says. “IT staff gets out into the schools and works with teachers and students to take advantage of instructional technology.”
BPCSD’s move to provide more mobile services through the cloud was made possible by a 2013 building project that included installation of a districtwide, high-speed wireless broadband network. The network foundation ensures a high-quality experience for all users, Gennett and Zumbolo say.
Avni Rambhia, industry principal for digital media at Frost & Sullivan, agrees: Plenty of bandwidth is critical to reaping the benefits of cloud-based desktops and helpful for almost all services delivered from the cloud.
“Patches will speed up. You can provision new applications in a cloud desktop service more efficiently, and you’ll enable BYOD more easily,” Rambhia says.
Cloud-based productivity suites such as Google offerings and Microsoft Office 365, as well as individual cloud services, use less bandwidth than Desktop as a Service (DaaS) solutions, she says.
Rambhia cautions against the ad hoc use of cloud services she says are now common. Instead, she advises IT departments to vet and coordinate services, as well as maintain ultimate oversight of the computing environment.
Mark Fuller, technology director at The Emery/Weiner School in Houston, has the challenge of managing a largely ad hoc cloud environment, much like the one Rambhia warns against. Despite enthusiasm for cloud-based tools, teachers at the independent school for 6th through 12th graders have resisted adoption of the DaaS platform implemented by IT.
“We chose the technology to help us with one-to-one and BYOD — as a single place to go to for all resources, with more security and the convenience of single sign-on,” Fuller says. “Many of our teachers were using other shared tools from the cloud. It just wasn’t our culture to force them to standardize.”
Emery/Weiner serves about 420 students and employs an academic technologist who helps teachers find tools and integrate them into their curricula, a crucial role in a diverse environment with
a variety of cloud-based services and other technology, Fuller says.
“It’s important to have that person provide some guidance and then ask the teachers to share their results.” Constant adaptation is a necessity in the ever-changing ecosystem of cloud services available to educators, Fuller adds. For now, a large portion of the community uses Google Docs and Dropbox, and the school will likely adopt Office 365 soon. “Finding the best services from an educational perspective is a moving target,” he says. “We’re always looking for services to help teachers and students.”
A Transformational Cloud
In a 2007 pilot, Maine Township High School District 207 in Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, became the first K–12 district in the country to adopt the Google Apps for Education cloud platform, says Henry Thiele, assistant superintendent of technology and learning. The technology quickly became the center of the district’s culture of communication and collaborative learning. “It took off because of the freedom and flexibility the cloud provides,” he says. “Soon, we had teachers asking us why students had better tools than they did.”
Even in its earliest iteration, Google Apps revealed the true potential of cloud services, allowing real-time collaboration with anyone who had access to a browser, Thiele says. “The cloud liberates individuals from individual machines and fixed places, and that opens up new possibilities for learning.”
Since 2008, one of the district’s main goals has been to invest in infrastructure that will let users access the Internet as quickly, reliably and securely as possible, Thiele says. By September, each of the district’s three high schools, serving about 6,850 students, will have a 1.25-gigabit-per-second fiber connection.
Maine Township HSD leveraged Google Apps to create a one-to-one environment featuring Chromebooks that can be purchased through the district, as well as a BYOD program for other student devices that meet baseline network requirements, Thiele says.
“This set of cloud-based tools is part of almost everything we do from an educational standpoint,” he says. “It’s helped us to adopt a collaborative learning culture, and we’ve collaborated to find more ways to use the tools.”