Hannah Rusch, a senior at Lake Weir High School in Ocala, Fla., was always considered a top student. It turns out, though, that the 18-year-old still had room to improve. Over the past two years, Rusch raised her grade point average from a 3.7 to just past the 3.9 mark, earning her entry into the National Honor Society.
What made the difference? Rusch credits Lake Weir's new e-mail system.
In fall 2009, Lake Weir became the first school in the 48-school Marion County Public Schools system to offer students their own e-mail accounts through Microsoft Live@edu, a free hosted e-mail, communication and collaboration solution available only to educational institutions.
Managed and maintained by Microsoft staff in data centers that reside in the cloud, Live@edu gives each student a 10-gigabyte Outlook Live mailbox, a 25GB Windows Live SkyDrive for online content storage, and access to tools such as instant messaging and Office Web Apps.
Thanks to Live@edu, Rusch and her peers have 24x7 online access to all of their assignments and study materials. They can send questions to teachers or collaborate seamlessly with classmates whenever needed.
"Now, instead of having to wait until I get home, I can work on my schoolwork at lunch or during other free times throughout the day," she explains. "That leaves me a lot more time to really study and prepare for tests. It's made a big difference [in my academic performance]."
Rusch isn't alone in her success. This year, Lake Weir earned – for the first time in its history – an "A" rating for school performance from the Florida Department of Education. Principal Cynthia Saunders attributes Lake Weir's accomplishment to several factors, but the cloud-based e-mail system is high on the list.
"Students are more focused now because they have all the materials and tools they need to do their work and excel," Saunders says. They no longer can say "they didn't do their homework because they left their assignments in their lockers or get less out of their classwork because they left their books at home. We've taken all of those excuses off the table."
For IT administrators, who typically are turning to the cloud as a practical matter, these educational benefits are icing on the cake. "Honestly, there's no way that we could have afforded to offer to our students what Microsoft is delivering to us for free," says Ed Beers, supervisor of infrastructure for Marion County Public Schools.
Live@edu provides far more than mailboxes and storage capacity to end users. The solution, Beers continues, offers anytime, anywhere availability; greater uptime and reliability; better security; and access to the latest tools. There's also built-in disaster recovery functionality, because mailboxes and storage drives reside in data centers outside hurricane-prone Florida.
"It's lifted a huge burden off of the district," Beers says, noting that Marion County hopes to eventually move all of its teacher and staff e-mail to a cloud-based solution.
Marion County's migration to the cloud is hardly unique, however. A growing number of school IT departments are looking to cloud computing as a way to keep up with fast-moving changes in technology while operating on shoestring budgets. And they're finding a nascent market of providers who are willing to offer free or discounted cloud-based services.
Thomas Hyman, director of technology for the 20-school Greece Central School District in North Greece, N.Y., currently relies on IBM LotusLive iNotes for e-mail. But he plans to move e-mail to the cloud by fall 2013 and is already exploring his options.
"Right now, my task is to try to save the district money," Hyman says, "and I can save almost $140,000 a year by moving us to one of these cloud-based solutions. With them, I can get all the functionality that I need to provide, but I'll also save money. It's the best of all worlds."
Chuck Austin, manager of the Kentucky Department of Education's Field Services Group, oversaw efforts to move the e-mail accounts of all of the state's 174 school districts to the Live@edu solution. He calls the move to the cloud, completed in May 2010, a "no-brainer."
As Austin points out, "It's a rare opportunity in the technology business when I can significantly increase my capacity, dramatically improve my operational efficiency and, at the same time, lower my costs." Microsoft may manage the service on the back end, he adds, "but we own all of the data and still have administrative control. What's not to like?"
By traditional IT standards, moving to the cloud is fairly easy. The Kentucky DOE, for example, transitioned the e-mail accounts of 600,000 students and 150,000 teachers and staff from 180 distributed Microsoft Exchange 2003 onpremises servers to the Live@edu environment over a weekend.
Beers says the biggest technology issue his team faced involved writing a script that could pull information from Marion County's student information system so they could auto-provision e-mail accounts and then sync them with the cloud-based system. (This need will disappear within the next year, when Microsoft upgrades and rebrands Live@edu as Office 365 for education and fully integrates the solution with Active Directory Federation Services.)
Moving to the cloud presents a few challenges, but they tend to be more cultural than technical. To access online cloud services, administrators must comply with federal and state regulations regarding minors' safety online. These include the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental consent for students under the age of 13.
One sticking point is that this first generation of cloud-based e-mail solutions typically includes both enterprise and consumer applications. Outlook, for example, is an enterprise application, so privacy and use agreements between Microsoft and districts using Live@edu give district officials the legal and technical right to inspect e-mail content – a critical point because they are legally liable for anything that travels across their systems.
Live@edu applications, meanwhile, are individually owned, which means the privacy agreement exists between the end user (in this case, a student) and the service provider. As a result, schools have no right to inspect these applications. Plus, parents must sign a consent agreement and, under Microsoft's model, provide a credit card number to verify their identity.
In Kentucky, many schools serving children younger than 13 have been unwilling to adopt the consumer applications because their administrators can't monitor what students do with them, Austin says. And parents are reluctant to share their credit card information, reducing adoption of these applications even further.
To avoid potential legal complications, Marion County has delayed offering e-mail to its middle and elementary school students until Microsoft releases Office 365. The new solution is expected to include enterprise-only applications and to address concerns pertaining to younger students, including consent. Once Office 365 is available, Beers expects to make it available to district middle schools within a year.
Those who follow the K-12 sector understand why schools are reticent to transition to the cloud. But at least one of them calls the consent issue around e-mail "a red herring."
Doug Johnson, author of Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part: Observations about making technology work in schools, points out that "districts provide plenty of services and resources already by entering into contracts on behalf of students" under the age of 13. At the same time, he adds, "where e-mail is concerned, I just don't see it as an issue."
Among the early adopters, the consensus is that more schools will move to the cloud – and not just with their e-mail – as the model begins to overcome the regulatory gray areas. "For any new application, our first step will be to see who can deliver it in the cloud," says the Kentucky DOE's Austin. "It's the capability, the operations, the lifecycle management, the cost. Those things are just more optimal with this type of solution.
My question is: Why would anyone in K-12 not want to go to the cloud?"
The Kentucky Department of Education estimates that it will avoid $6.4 million in operational costs over the next five years by moving all 174 school districts and their teachers, staff and students to Microsoft Live@edu.
E-mail may be the preferred gateway application into cloud computing for schools, but it won't be the only one for long. Among the other applications and information that schools are considering moving to the cloud: