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IT Trends | Feature

Migrating Administrative Systems to the Cloud

A New Hampshire high school is migrating its administrative systems to the cloud, a move that so far has allowed it to do things that weren't previously possible for its resource-strapped IT department. Among other things, the migration has enabled  Sanborn Regional HS to implement a new student information system and add new nutrition management and health records management systems.

Brian Stack doesn't like being behind the curve, but that's exactly where this principal at Sanborn Regional High School found himself last year when it came to technology. "To put it bluntly, we were in the dark ages," said Stack, whose Kingston, NH-based school serves 725 students. "We had a lot of technology and our own network, but managing multiple services and servers was really taxing our small IT department."

According to Stack, a team of four IT employees handled all upgrades and systems maintenance on the school's software programs and operating systems. Working with teachers to solve IT issues and troubleshooting individual network problems was nearly impossible because the IT team was tied up trying to keep the school's systems running properly.

Then Stack discovered cloud computing and the advantages it offered educational institutions working on limited budgets and with few resources. Working on a "stop thinking about it and start doing it" philosophy, Stack and his team tapped into an ARRA-funded grant and began investing in cloud technology.

New Capabilities
One of Sanborn Regional High School's first cloud implementations involved the GlobalScholar student information system. Installed for the 2010-2011 school year, the system incorporates student information, curricular resources, teacher grade books and other data for instructors to access on a 24/7 basis.

The school's other cloud implementations include SNAP, for student health records management, and Nutrakids, a school food management application that manages all of the high school's student lunch accounts.

Stack said the school's push into the cloud took place over just a few months--in this case a private cloud solution from Dell and Stoneware called "1 to 1 Access."

"We describe it as going from the 19th Century to the 21st Century overnight," said Stack, "during the summer of 2010."

That quick transition created challenges for Stack and his IT team and left more than one school employee wondering how he or she was going to learn how to use the new systems. Stack said he was braced for that resistance and fear that so often comes along with change, particularly when that change takes place on a global scale.

"There will always be people who are ready to jump right into a new system, and some who are used to doing things a certain way, and resistant to change," said Stack, whose team spent nearly a year working through such issues. Part of that approach involved identifying tech-savvy staff members who could lead the charge on adopting the new, cloud-based technology options.

"Once we identified these individuals, we set them up on a timeline that was about a month ahead of the implementation process," Stack explained. "They were troubleshooting for us and giving us insights into the technology hangups. That allowed us to resolve a lot of the issues before the systems were rolled out to the rest of the teachers and staff."

Initial Challenges
There were other IT challenges to work through during the school's move into the cloud. One of the biggest issues, according to Stack, was the sluggishness of the institution's new student information system. "Speed was a big issue for us with that Web app," said Stack, who after some investigation learned that the system was being hosted clear across the nation, in Washington State.

"It took us about a month of working with Verizon and Comcast to figure out that there was a logjam somewhere in Montana," said Stack. Solving the problem would require a full reroute around that logjam--a move that increased the system's speed by a factor of 10, according to Stack. "It's still not ideal," he said, "but we understand that GlobalScholar is a smaller firm and that they're working on the issue."

Administrative Efficiencies
Challenges aside, Stack said the school's cloud initiative has freed up his IT staff and other employees to focus on more important tasks while also opening the doors to affordable, state-of-the-art software options.

Take high school scheduling, for example. Previously, a small group of guidance counselors created schedules and sent them home to parents over the summer. Come the first day of school, at least 30 percent to 40 percent of pupils needed changes, which meant long lines in the guidance office for the first few days of the school year.

"It was extremely disruptive for the students and for the school as a whole," said Stack. This year was different. All schedules were created in the cloud-based student information system and e-mailed to students, who used Google Docs to create schedule change requests before the first day of school.

"It's early August, and we've already handled the typical number of schedule changes that we get during a given year," said Stack. "That means no lines this year, and a lot less hassle for the students and guidance department."

Stack, who said he expects Sanborn Regional High School to add more cloud applications in the near future, has no regrets about leading the institution into the cloud in one fell swoop.

"We reached a point where we needed to jump in," said Stack. "It was a huge undertaking--and it meant a lot of changes for teachers, parents and students--but once we got over the initial hump, it opened up a lot of new possibilities for us."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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