Case study: Oregon schoolchildren living well in the cloud

Back-to-School Special Report, Part 1
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By all accounts, Oregon schoolchildren have been living very well in the cloud so far.

This fall, the Oregon Virtual School District completes its third year as the first state-wide rollout for Google Applications for Education, a cloud-based platform for email, student accounts, profiles, database access, file sharing and collaboration services for students. A majority of local school districts have signed on to the program, which serves 76 percent of students in grades 6-12 in the state.

That Oregon was selected for the pilot was no accident. ORVSD Director Steve Nelson told FierceEnterpriseCommunications that the state legislature created and funded the umbrella technology provider following years of poor technology investments at the local level.

The ORVSD receives $900,000 annually and is charged with negotiating group technology product or service purchases, investigating best implementation practices and providing educational software, applications platforms and teacher training to any district that requests them.

As part of that effort, Nelson said the ORVSD began looking for a new student email service. As the saying goes, timing is everything. When Oregon education officials contacted Google reps, Google was on the lookout for a Google Apps program pilot.

The fact that Oregon had an in-house state-wide technology provider in place made it a perfect fit for testing a full-blown suite of cloud offerings. Google reps outlined what a total roll-out would involve, including email service, content management features, file sharing, peer review features and administrative controls.

"It started simply as, how can we provide email to all students. By the time we were done, it was Google Applications for Education," Nelson says.

The arrangement was that Google would provide such applications as Gmail, Google Groups, Google Calendar, Talk, Google Docs and Sites. This year, Google Hangouts was added, Nelson says.

Nelson stresses that the ORVSD was the key to landing the Google pilot and also to being able to successfully administer it. The ORVSD is unique among state educational districts and provides a ready-made support system for each local school district that wants to sign on.

Participation is not mandatory in the state Google roll-out, Nelson stresses. The first year, 10 districts signed on. By the end of the second year, the number was up to 122 of 206 Oregon school districts. This summer, another 10 joined, Nelson says. When a local district wants to move to the cloud, they simply notify the ORVSD, request a domain and sign a legal obligation. They are then given access to cloud-based services through the state's Open Data Portal.

The most important lesson from the Oregon effort has been to roll out cloud services in stages and to sell the effort from a top-down approach. As Nelson notes, cloud-based applications are a very different environment and change the way users do a lot of things.

In Oregon's case, that meant targeting school superintendents first, Nelson says. Once superintendents were on board, regional Educational Service Districts took over the training of the most tech-savvy and tech-inquisitive teachers in the various Google cloud applications. Those teachers became the effort's champions, bringing enthusiasm and basic skills back to their local schools.

Many technologists nation-wide have heard of or attended one of numerous Google Summits. Those events were actually started by the ORVSD the first summer of the roll-out as a means of introducing these early adopters to the Google Applications for Education offerings, Nelson explains.

The other part of the strategy: Introduce small populations to the cloud as you go rather than attempting a full-scale transition. Oregon started with one grade level the first year and added two more the second year. Only in year three did it expand cloud services to the rest of middle school and high school grades.

Of course, not only is Oregon three years into the effort, but Google is as well. That has meant improvements to all of the cloud-based features, Nelson says.

As in business, the one area that is difficult to pin down with cloud-based computing in education is the return-on-investment (ROI), according to Nelson. "I do not have the perfect metric for measuring its impact," he says.

Still, Oregon educators are convinced that the program has increased productivity among students. Teachers like the collaboration that the cloud platform enables. And the cloud has had a significant impact on special education.

"There are a number of success stories that come out of the classroom," notes Crystal Greene, communications director in the office of the deputy superintendent of education for the Oregon Department of Education. "But we will never be able to tie the cloud to test scores."

(This is part one in a series looking at lessons of cloud computing in education. In part two, a look at the first county-wide roll-out for the cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 for Education.)

Read more:
- see the Oregon Virtual School District website
- check out the Google Applications for Education website

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