Mar 31 2014

Statewide Technology Initiatives Prove There’s Strength in Numbers

From coast to coast, state education leaders are developing IT programs to benefit all students within their borders.

Maine's education leaders have learned several lessons in the 13 years since they launched the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) — a one-to-one notebook computer program for seventh- and eighth-grade students statewide. A key one is this: "When you buy in bulk, it's great," says Jeff Mao, the Maine Department of Education's learning technology policy director. "When you buy in superbulk, it's even better."

Other states are following Maine's lead by leveraging their collective buying and organizing power to achieve three goals: improve service, reduce costs and extend K–12's market reach.

Improve Service

Although some in the business community have questioned the security of the cloud, Phil Emer, director of technology planning and policy for North Carolina State University's Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and head of the NCEdCloud initiative, sees it differently. "The cloud may be more secure for hosting data than any K–12 environment I can imagine," he says. After all, cloud providers can offer 24/7 monitoring, security upgrades and redundancy — benefits that typically are cost-prohibitive for most schools.

What's more, the NCEdCloud created a common infrastructure to support the state's IT needs, Emer adds. Organizers first built a system that integrates data, content and identity. Then they partnered with vendors who can integrate into those systems and provide scalable solutions to schools across the state. This allows them to easily switch vendors if they aren't a good fit.

Maine has recently expanded the MLTI program to better meet the needs of the constituents it serves. Now, school leaders can choose between notebooks and tablets across multiple operating systems. "They said, 'I wish you would give us more choices,'" Mao says of district requests that inspired the change.

No matter which device Maine districts choose, they are protected by the stringent tech support requirements that MLTI leaders build into the technology agreements they sign with vendors, including, most recently, HP.

Reduce Costs

Improved service isn't the only reason to band together for purchasing and negotiation. The larger the implementation, the lower the cost per unit.

Mao says Maine spends an average of $217 per student each year on the MLTI program. "Cost is a significant factor" in such an initiative, he says, but the per-student cost is minimal compared with many other education-related expenditures the state makes.

NCEdCloud saves North Carolina "in the aggregate, $2.5 to $3 million per year," Emer estimates. Some districts save more than others, he adds, but the costs are relatively predictable and consistent across the state. It also helps that North Carolina uses Race to the Top funding to help districts cover the initial costs of migration.

Build a Better Market

The NCEdCloud did more than just save the state money. "There are way too many providers in the education market — we're too fragmented," Emer continues. By creating a common infrastructure, as education leaders did in North Carolina, "you end up creating what's hopefully a better marketplace."

In its most recent bid phase, meanwhile, Maine increased its participation pool by including Hawaii and Vermont.

"As we see more and more systems moving to one-to-one programs, it starts to create a bigger and bigger market," Mao says. And that, he believes, will lead more private sector companies to create great products for the education market. "We can't do this without the private sector," he adds.

IlliniCloud, Redux

It's been roughly four years since IT leaders from Bloomington Public Schools, District 87 began laying the groundwork for the IlliniCloud, a community cloud that was created to provide disaster recovery, Infrastructure as a Service ­offerings and application delivery to school districts throughout Illinois.

Since then, the IlliniCloud has become part of the Illinois Shared Learning Environment and has been contracted by the state to service school data and manage identities, says Jim Peterson, director of technology for District 87 and the driving force behind the statewide cloud initiative.

Identity management is a huge help to schools, allowing single sign-on to multiple application providers and "delivering applications that are more geared toward that individual," whether that user is a student, teacher or administrator, Peterson explains. No one sees data they shouldn't, and everyone can access what they need.

IlliniCloud also is designing a portal that provides access to applications and collaboration tools, such as the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy's CoolHub.IMSA program, which connects students with real-world professionals.

The hard work put into the IlliniCloud hasn't gone unnoticed. In fact, NetApp honored it as a top innovator among public sector organizations in the United States in 2013.

Like the North Carolina Education Cloud, the IlliniCloud is an opt-in effort. Districts get to choose which components they use, allowing them to leverage current technology and applications without any mandates "from above" to do things differently. Data never leaves the state, Peterson adds, so users can rest assured it's safe.

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Frank Ramspott/Getty Images; Ocean/Corbis (inset)

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