Cloud Computing's Limitless Options

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be on the go and jump into my files and programs and network wherever I am,” says Brian M. Stack, principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H. “Cloud computing allows me to do that.”

Stack’s perspective on cloud computing is clearly one of acceptance. And, while a lot of administrators share his perspective, not everyone is on board with the idea of storing their applications on servers outside of the organization and accessing those applications via the internet. “There’s still some trepidation because of security,” confirms Rebecca Shepherd, education project specialist for Bellevue, Wash.-based GlobalScholar, which offers a suite of cloud-based education software applications. “We have not had any problems, and we don’t expect to have problems because there is so much good security out there.”

More and more school districts are overcoming their fears and turning to cloud computing’s viable solutions because they are secure and cost effective — and because it allows administrators to focus more on their core responsibilities and less on IT challenges. What can be accomplished through the cloud is as broad as the school districts that are turning to it. Here are three unique and vastly different examples.

Sanborn Regional School District
In the fall of 2010, Sanborn Regional School District in Kingston, N.H., went live with four of GlobalScholar’s seven education software applications: Pinnacle Grade, Pinnacle SIS, Pinnacle Instruction (a curriculum and assessment management system) and Pinnacle Professional Development.

“We went live immediately at the high school with Grade and SIS,” says Stack, who heads the 725-student, grades 9-12 high school, “because we were rolling over from another application. And I think the product overall has been received well; I think the teachers love the flexibility.”

For Sanborn, the decision to move into the cloud was financial. “We had to weigh the benefits of hosting it ourselves and providing the required technical support vs. outsourcing and allowing someone else to handle the technical support,” says Stack. “We’re a small district that is always trying to do more with less, as well as do a lot that is technology based. We only have so much support from the IT department, and there’s no budget to add IT staff. It just seemed to make sense to take it off the IT department’s plate so they could focus on other projects.”

Shepherd notes that her firm’s product allows districts to save money by paying for fewer applications. “I worked with a public school system that had 18 different applications,” she describes. “They’re now all held in our one system, which cut the district’s cost almost in half. Plus, they need no servers, no personnel to manage servers and no memory management — everything is held for them in a secure server base.”

While Stack didn’t talk in terms of pure dollars, he did note that Sanborn is hoping to expand upon its cloud computing endeavor. “The district is looking at going to completely cloud-based computing,” he says. “I’m not privy as to when or what exactly that means, but I do know they want to do it for our entire network.”

State of Illinois
“About two-and-a-half years ago,” begins Jason Radford, system administrator with Bloomington Public Schools District 87 in Illinois, “the State of Illinois experienced a financial crisis. We had a $15-million shortfall in the budget for education, with all 860 districts being affected. Districts were laying off teachers and cutting back on programs.

“We decided to start a co-op,” Radford continues. “We pooled our resources to create an organization that delivers low-cost cloud-based computing to both K12 and higher education. Right now, 400 districts are participating in IlliniCloud, and we hope to build on that.”

IlliniCloud’s Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) solution runs specialty applications by the dozen. Districts use IlliniCloud’s Software as a Service (SaaS) capabilities to run e-mail, as well as data collection, retention and analysis applications to track student performance and perform other administrative and academic services.

IlliniCloud’s backup and data storage services have helped school districts address data growth of up to 200 percent per year, and its disaster recovery services now provide schools with reliable data protection and recovery capabilities. “Backup and disaster recovery are our most popular solutions,” says Radford. “Districts simply don’t have the budget or means to provide daily, weekly and monthly backups of all their data. And this is compounded by the fact that student and teacher records must exist indefinitely.”

Because the Internet bandwidth provided by the state is very limited, IlliniCloud partnered with and resides on the Illinois Century Network (ICN), a state telecommunications backbone providing high speed access to data, video and audio communication in schools, colleges, universities, libraries and more. As a result, the co-op offers members a five-to-one bandwidth increase. Plus, the co-op has placed an entire catalog of movies onto the cloud so that teachers can use them through the ICN without consuming precious bandwidth.

One thing that IlliniCloud offers that administrators really like is the ability to manage their files virtually and remain in local control. “That’s a value of our service,” Radford points out. “We are a non-profit organization with a governing board. We’re a trusted entity, not an unknown service provider. Administrators are guaranteed that their data resides in a private statewide place.”

Membership fees are based on a district’s size and cost between $500 and $15,000 per year. “For that,” says Radford, “they get a certain amount of disaster recovery, a couple of virtual servers, space on the archive service and then, if they want more, they pay a small rate for what they consume. Different districts have different needs.”

IlliniCloud officials plan to keep their heads in cloud computing. “We’re working with the Illinois State Board of Education to expand statewide software initiatives,” says Radford. “One is called Learning Performance Management System (LPMS), a data warehouse that educators can use to make data-driven decisions. It’s individualized reporting from the teachers down to the students. We’re excited about it, and it will have an impact on the outcomes of a lot of students.”

Lakota Local School District

About five years ago, administrators at fast-growing Lakota Local School District in Liberty Township, Ohio, were looking for a way to track population growth to determine where to build new schools, which students might have to be redistricted and, overall, how to find a balance. They met with Matthew Cropper, GISP, president of Cropper GIS Consulting, LLC, Columbus, which is a demographic consulting firm that specializes in using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

“The power of GIS is it’s a mapping system with databases attached,” says Cropper. “We can take a school district’s student database and put it on a map to see where every student lives and find out how many students live on any street and what schools they attend. We use GIS for planning, but school districts want to use it for other planning when we’re not working with them.”

“Working with Matt’s group seemed like a good fit for us,” says Christopher T. Passarge, executive director of Business Operations for Lakota, “especially looking at student projection going forward.” Lakota administrators have used Cropper’s services in a couple of different ways.

One is for accommodating reductions in transportation to trim budget costs. Ohio state law provides for a two-mile drive distance. Students who live inside a two-mile radius of the schools they’re attending must walk or be driven to school. Students who live outside a two-mile radius receive bussing services. “We’ve used GIS to help us create those maps and see which students are impacted,” says Passarge.

Further, the maps are online so that anyone can see the exclusion zones. This has been especially helpful for realtors and families planning on purchasing homes in the district. An added benefit is the time savings: families can look at the maps when it’s convenient for them — as opposed to making a call during regular business hours — and district personnel are able to work more efficiently, as the number of telephone calls coming in — all asking the same question — is greatly reduced.

Another way in which Lakota administrators have used GIS is in creating successful bond campaigns. They map out voter results by precinct and then use that information to target specific messages to those areas where they weren’t successful in order to increase positive results. “Lakota’s success rate has gone up tremendously,” says Cropper, “and that’s not attributed to us. It’s attributed to their using a planning tool that helps them make accurate decisions.”

And, Cropper continues, using GIS as a planning tool in the cloud is efficient. “For the longest time, we loaded software and copied data to district computers,” he recalls. “It was difficult to keep the software up to date, and the information fell out of date very quickly. With the cloud-based solution, we put the data online. Administrators go to a Website that pulls up a map of their district, and they can do everything want to do with GIS on any computer that has an Internet connection.”

“We definitely intend to keep using GIS,” says Passarge. “I am sure there are other unique things that may come up, and we can use it to help us solve those challenges. In fact, right now, we’re thinking about merging it with our transportation data to route our buses.”

Is cloud computing right for every district? Perhaps not. Still, it is proving itself both secure and efficient, with many creative applications. It deserves consideration, if for no other reason than it allows administrators to focus on the business of education, with cost savings to be gleaned from less hardware purchases and maintenance, as well as from a more focused investment of the IT department’s time.