Cloud Computing | Feature

Collaboration Helps Districts Share the Cloud

Cloud-based software is often touted as the easiest way to collaborate online. But what about collaborating to maintain the infrastructure of the cloud itself?

That’s the general idea behind the Ohio Collaborative Services Consortium (OCSC), a collaboration between the Northwest Ohio Computer Association (NWOCA) and the Tri Rivers Education Computer Association (TRECA). NWOCA and TRECA are two information technology centers (ITCs) that provide mandated services to school districts in the state. As partners in OCSC, NWOCA and TRECA maintain ownership of their individual hardware, data centers, and other infrastructure, but work together on how to provide the most complete menu of services to their clients by sharing resources and knowledge.

As state-funded service providers, NWOCA and TRECA are both required to provide three “core services” to the districts in their geographic regions: networking services, including Internet access; a fiscal package for managing financial records; and a student information system. According to Joe Prchlik, director of IT infrastructure and development with NWOCA, district needs have grown beyond the core established approximately 30 years ago.  “The current structure as it exists isn’t really addressing district needs,” he said, adding that what had started as an effort to empower education and standardize reporting has degraded into “territorial disputes.”

Prchlik continued, “We don’t have solutions in search of problems. We go out there and find out what people’s pain-points are, what it is they’re experiencing, what it is they’re trying to achieve, and then try to come up with service offerings in a collaborative environment so they can get the most bang for their buck.”

Prchlik now offers his districts expanded professional training for teachers, an online learning academy for students, and expanded support for the student information system that is provided by his partners at TRECA. NWOCA also contributes IP telephony, wireless networking, hosted applications or virtual desktop services, and onsite technical services.

Sharing the Savings

“What we’re doing,” said Prchlik, “is we’re breaking down the walls of the organization, so it’s not, ‘You do this. We do that.’ It’s going to be, ‘How do we do this?’ We’re working pretty diligently to build an infrastructure between our data centers. So if there are resources that are going to be available at one location or the other, we’re just going to use them.”

While both TRECA and NWOCA are meeting with districts across the regions they serve, they are continually working together to evaluate the technology and services infrastructure they have and working on future development projects to maximize their resources.

For example, TRECA’s current database services allow NWOCA to transfer some of their legacy hosting, meaning that NWOCA won’t need to maintain some expensive site licenses. This frees up cash for other investments. According to Michael Struck, director of IT infrastructure and development with TRECA, “We’re aligning our technology, we’re going down the same path with our infrastructure. We can share resources and share knowledge on that technology.”

Overcoming Political Challenges

Struck said that the partnership with NWOCA has “opened a lot more opportunities for our districts. I don’t really see any disadvantages. None of our issue so far have been technical; they’re all political. There are still a lot of people (who) are scared of that change.”

For example, it took more than two years to form the OCSC, which still doesn’t have a complete infrastructure. The organization will eventually serve as the primary point of contact for districts using TRECA and NWOCA’s services, handling all communications and sales. Until then, either Strunk or Prchlik manages the relationship—based on whoever makes sense to take the lead.

The partners work together well enough that a number of districts beyond the northwest Ohio region they serve have made the choice to supplement the core services of their ITCs with additional services (such as wireless networks) from OCSC. “Our owner saw that we have to diversify to keep the rate that we charge our school districts for services low,” Struck said. “We have to diversity so that if the state funding source ever dries up, it won’t put us out of business.

“I think the other ITCs all realize they need to do something like that, but it’s paralysis through analysis. They spend a ton of time and resources analyzing the situation. In TRECA’s case, we do some analysis, but we take a risk and things are going to fall where they may. It’s better than just sitting around and not doing anything.”

Prchlik commented, “The worst part about being in technology right now, and I don’t know if it’s particularly a K-12 issue—technology’s become a political tool. For people to make decisions about technology on the political level doesn’t make any sense because they’re not looking (at) the problem that they’re trying to solve. Technology needs to be apolitical. It’s a utility just like power, water. You need network connectivity, period. That’s the way the world works these days. For people to try to shape technology into something that’s voted on isn’t right. It’s supposed to be used (as) a tool to deliver educational content to children. To treat it any other way it’s doing everybody a disservice.”

Growing Pains Become Opportunities

In addition to expanding the number of districts they serve, the OCSC partners are also considering new product offerings. TRECA, in particular, is looking into offering hardware infrastructure.

Bring your own device, bring your own technology, some of our districts have adopted that, which has basically saturated our Internet connection that serves everyone,” Struck said. “There is some frustration out there by districts that have not adopted BYOT, and they’re feeling the pain because a few have. Our biggest project focus right now is how to expand our networking infrastructure to support that continuing demand.”

Factor in the buying power of two companies, and the costs for that infrastructure will also drop. Opportunities for identifying and building new technological resources to help districts teach students more efficiently also get Prchlik and Strunk excited.

Both men believe that private, education-based clouds can be a viable solution for cash-strapped schools. Struck added that he looks forward to the day when educators look at his collaboration with Prchlik and say, “This is how you can do it. TRECA and NWOCA did it right.”


About the Author

Margo Pierce is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer.