Student Information | Feature

Faith Gets Help in Cloud With Student Information

After the IT director at a large private school couldn't find the student information system that worked for his school with both a virtual and brick-and-mortar campus, he went to the cloud for the answers he was looking for.

When the Norfolk, VA-based Faith Academy School of Excellence, a nonprofit K-12 school, needed to find a new provider for its student information system (SIS) last year, the options seemed limited. Information Technology Director Dan Stueck (actually, Faith's entire IT department) looked at a number of traditional SIS providers, but realized the costs would be astronomical.

So he decided to program his own SIS to fit the school's very unique needs. He needed something flexible enough to fit Faith, a school with 2,500 students that attended classes both at a virtual campus and a physical one. However, after a few months of trying to create something himself, Stueck could see the process was way too complex to do as quickly as he needed.

That's when he started looking to the cloud, eventually choosing OutSystems' Agile Platform. Agile was easily adaptable, could be set up in six weeks, and most importantly, would cost significantly less than all the other solutions he explored.

Fast forward a year and Faith has now moved its entire student information system to the cloud, saving money and moving its technological capabilities forward. Faith spends about $10 a month to back up the system on Amazon's EC2 Cloud Platform. Teachers no longer grade multiple choice work done by students instead, bar-coded tests and homework are scanned in and graded by the system. Parents get weekly e-mail reports on student progress, which Stueck said has improved overall student performance.
Stueck, like a growing number of school IT directors when it comes to cloud computing, is now a believer.

According to a study released in May by technology provider CDW-G, 83 percent of K-12 schools have at least one application in the cloud today, though just 30 percent actually have plans to move to a more complete cloud solution.

School IT directors who have moved at least part of their SIS to the cloud say it is more efficient, more flexible, and, most importantly, significantly less expensive than the alternatives. Cost savings seems to be the biggest driver, with at least one school reporting savings of $1 million in one year.

"It allows them to be more efficient with both their manpower and their budgets," said John Pellettiere, director of K-12 education at CDW-G, which created a cloud solution for IlliniCloud, a group of 150 schools in Illinois that pool resources for technology. (See the " Illinois Cloud Initiative Supports Networked K-12 Schools" elsewhere in this e-newsletter for an interview with Jim Peterson, IlliniCloud's CTO.) IlliniCloud schools turned to the cloud for their disaster recovery. Schools pay for the space they use on the cloud, which makes it affordable for schools with varying budgets. Pellettiere said schools involved are now asking to put more services on the cloud.

Last year, Glenview Public School District in the northwest Chicago suburbs joined IlliniCloud in order to store its schools disaster recovery program. Now it's working to transition data backup and its SIS to the cloud, said Brian Engle, executive director of education technology. The district also is using the cloud as a test environment for new software, putting demo versions in the cloud instead of buying software for the server before it sees how well it works.

The school district has saved money on capital expenditures such as servers, money that can be used for other student programs.

"It's providing us an opportunity to continue to move forward with our technology infrastructure without increasing our budget," Engle says.

School districts see even more possibilities for the cloud beyond student information systems. The Santa Clara Unified School District (CA) had 6- and 7-year-old student computers that weren't able to do basic tasks needed today, such as streaming videos. Information Technology Director Mary Phillips began looking at ways to extend the life of those computers for three to four additional years. After exploring virtual networks, she ended up choosing a cloud-based solution from ZeroPC.

Applications went on the cloud, allowing students to use the dated computers with newer software that the computers themselves would never be able to run. Santa Clara has so far moved 200 older computers to the cloud and Phillips expects the remaining 2,000 computers to be using the cloud in six months.

"We've been able to do it at a really nice price," Phillips said. "It costs about $150 per machine to make usable for next three to four years."

Overall, Phillips says her district will save more than $1 million by not having to replace the computers themselves.

About the Author

Jennifer Netherby is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who focuses on technology.