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Technological Initiatives for Building a Better Learning Environment

By Edward Grassia, Cheif Information Officer, Washoe County School District

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Edward Grassia, Cheif Information Officer, Washoe County School District

Benefits of Cloud Computing for the Education Industry

Cloud computing has provided tools and flexibility that were previously unavailable to K-12 schools and districts simply based on budget restrictions alone. Using Backup and DR as an example, we are able to store backups in different geographic regions than our own and be able to have our entire infrastructure online even in the event of a massive natural disaster. While we currently have multiple tape and SAN copies of data in separate locations within our district, in the event that we suffered a massive earthquake and lost our data centers we would be dead in the water due to a lack of hardware to restore to. Using the cloud, we will only need to establish connectivity to be fully up and running. This is much more efficient than having to wait until we rebuild our own data centers or find another physical location out of our area on a temporary basis. This availability will be critical since we will need the ability to write checks through our ERP system to start the physical rebuilding process in our district after a disaster.

“Having the cloud available 24/7/365 for all students and staff provides the services that our users have wanted, and gives the IT Department an integrated, secure, and manageable solution”

When we look at user access to cloud computing, staff and students now have the ability to extend the educational environment by providing anytime, anywhere access to assignments and the ability to collaborate long after the bell rings. Extending learning opportunities for all students by giving staff and student access to collaboration tools has been a wish list item for many years. We explored VDI, but the price tag was too high given all of the competing priorities within the district. VPN access for all wasn’t the answer we were looking for either. Having the cloud available 24/7/365 for all students and staff provides the services that our users have wanted, and gives the IT Department an integrated, secure, and manageable solution. It is a win/win for everyone.

The cloud has, and will continue to be, a major cost saving platform for us as well. We have a user base of over 63,000 students and 10,000 staff when we include volunteers and part time employees. Providing email storage, personal user storage, and network shared storage for that many users on a school district budget is no easy feat. We have made due with 40 TB’s to date but always find ourselves in a position of needing to “clean up” in order to stay operational. Having a service that now gives every user 50 GB’s of email storage and 1 TB of personal storage will quite literally save the district millions of dollars in hardware, software, labor, power, and cooling over the next several years. The same is true on the email front as we move our email infrastructure and associated storage to the cloud. We could never provide the type of access, amount of storage space, and incorporated services on our budget were it not for our cloud providers.

Examining the Effective and Proactive Use of Data

Thankfully I have worked with leaders that saw the need for using our data in a productive way well before “Big Data” was a buzzword. It started out simply and grew during discussions about district transparency. Initially we had an internal need to show KPI’s and initiative updates to our Board of Trustees. However, once people began to comprehend the capabilities that a data warehouse could provide the district the project quickly expanded. We ended up starting with a plan to put real time student data on the desktop of every teacher in the district. This was a huge success and a great tool for classroom planning and tailoring instruction based on student needs. At the same time, it provided teachers the ability to share a graphical history of students to their parents during conferences. We then moved into the operations world and back to our initial transparency goals. We have extended our warehouse access externally so the public is aware of district expenditures and budgets, and the Capital Project needs across our district.

Our BI staff works very closely with individual departments to determine their needs as it relates to the use of available data. This has become easier as the project has expanded since most people initially had no idea what they would use a data warehouse for, or whether they even needed one. Part of this process is a simple interview to ask how their day to day tasks can be made more efficient through the use of data. This ultimately leads to staff that are not only more informed about what they are working on and what their priorities should be, but it makes them much more efficient as well.

As we continue to expand the warehouse functionality it is not uncommon to hear comments such as, “You just turned a process that used to take me three weeks to complete into five minutes and a couple of mouse clicks.” This type of efficiency improvement continues to drive the development of our warehouse for all of our staff, students, and community members. In fact, over the years this project went from something we were pushing out, to one where we can barely keep up with customer demand for more functionality. That alone, at least in my opinion, has made our data warehouse project a success.