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Cloud Computing in a K-12 Environment

By Candace Threadgill, MBA-ISM, Director of Information Technology, Klein Independent School District

Candace Threadgill, MBA-ISM, Director of Information Technology, Klein Independent School District

If you are an Information Technology (IT) administrator in a K-12 entity, you most likely are facing the same dilemma as all IT officers both public and private. The question is, “do I move my computing environment to the Cloud, and do the benefits outweigh the risks?” At the Klein Independent School District (Klein ISD), located in Northwest Houston, TX, where I serve as the Director of Information Technology, we are also testing the waters for Cloud computing to determine if the scales tip to our advantage.

What is the “Cloud” anyway? The “Cloud” is an all-encompassing term for an environment of web-based shared, resources generally not physically located in a user’s location. There are private as well as public Clouds or some are a combination of both called a Hybrid Cloud. A prime example of a Cloud resource that Klein ISD is using Google Applications for Education (GAFE). Google offers many applications and resources that are free to educational entities, such as email, shared documents, and storage for each end-user account. Each student, teacher and staff member in the Klein ISD has a Google account with unlimited storage and all students have Gmail, Google’s email system.

“Dependency on the Internet, potential loss of privacy, the threat of compromised or non-secured data, best practices continuity and data retention are just some of the questions that need to be reviewed and answered”

Currently, the Klein ISD has a very robust network with a 10GB fiber ring that connects and provides all 42 campuses and departmental buildings with ample bandwidth. So why consider moving to the Cloud? The following bullets list some of the major reasons Klein ISD is exploring the Cloud:

• Reduced costs – Moving to the Cloud may reduce costs associated with managing and maintaining the Klein ISD IT network. Reallocating resources to the Cloud can save on purchasing very costly physical servers and infrastructure. Operating budgets can also be reduced by — not having to upgrade hardware and software or energy consumption costs may be reduced. Maintaining our large data center is expensive in terms of energy use. The costs associated with keeping the center at a constant temperature is excessive and, (3) curtailing time delays as resources are at our fingertips at any given moment.

• Increase IT personnel effectiveness – While some may argue that the Cloud should reduce the need for IT experts, I contend that most IT departments in K-12 are understaffed and overworked. Moving some IT responsibilities to the Cloud will reduce the current workload on IT professionals and allow them to be more productive and effective. In the long run, the need to hire additional IT staff may be reduced once a certain level of efficiency has been achieved.

• Scalability – Using Cloud resources, we can now better control our capacity. No more excess capacity to worry about since we can increase or decrease our computing capacity as needed. In Klein ISD the IT department, as do all IT entities, must continually look for innovations and new ways to deploy and use technology. Using Cloud resources is an excellent way to provide the means to innovate without first investing in expensive hardware or software. We can use the Cloud to set up Proof of Concept (POC), or pilot s, and experience the environment without risking taxpayer’s dollars on conceptual projects.

• Security and Backup – Being a public school system in Texas, Klein ISD collects very sensitive data (student, family and personal information) that must be secure at all times. It is imperative that any enterprise Cloud solution selected by the district has the physical and technical systems in place to provide the security and redundancy required by most public school systems.

• Increase flexibility and mobility – The workplace is changing and along with that so is the classroom. Students and teachers have the flexibility to work anywhere and at any time they desire. As long as they have Internet services they can access resources at a moment’s notice. In this ever-changing environment, the availability of online course work is a standard for most of higher education and is now becoming accepted in K-12 also. It is mostly seen at the high school level, but will soon filter down to the lower grades.

• Collaboration – Cloud computing is natural for collaboration. In a Google environment, Klein ISD students have the ability to share information and collaborate on class projects. Editing documents and collaborating as a team from anywhere is a real world experience that will follow them to higher education or to the workplace and beyond. Klein ISD teachers are also finding that using collaborative tools in their Professional Learning Communities (PLC) is a very effective and time efficient venue for sharing information.

Flying high in the Cloud is not without its risks. Dependency on the Internet, potential loss of privacy, the threat of compromised or non-secured data, best practices continuity and data retention are just some of the questions that need to be reviewed and answered. Understanding and mitigating those risks is of the utmost importance before you jump out of the plane….just make sure your parachute is handy.

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