A school’s IT journey from traditional labs to cloud computing and a flourishing BYO network

Technology Article


Until 2011 St Luke’s Anglican School’s approach to digital services provided to staff and students was very much centralised to on-campus computing facilities with traditional laboratories, email not readily accessible off campus and unreliable file download/upload facilities. Most of these services were provided through a staff and student portal hosted from campus on an ADSL service which was inherently slow. With the Digital Education Revolution (DER) funding in full swing, St Luke’s took the opportunity to move to on-campus hosted laptop trolleys with a new server room and Wi-Fi deployment. Knowing that DER funding wasn’t likely to continue in its current form St Luke’s aimed to make platform choices that would be sustainable into the future.

Staff and students were at this point on different platforms for communication, meaning that teaching staff rarely emailed students resulting in almost no digital communication. At this stage the ICT Committee assessed what options were available to consolidate these platforms and bring a level of accessibility previously not available at the school. Having previous experience with Software as a Service (SaaS), IT Manager Mitch Miller recommended to the committee to consider this a method of reducing dependency of on-campus infrastructure given the challenges faced with their geographic location. Regional Queensland presents issues of bandwidth and power, both of which come at a substantial cost to the school given the availability of vendors and infrastructure required to support it locally.

When considering options the most mature of all offerings was Google Apps for Education with a compelling price tag of $0.00. With a background in the government sector, Miller managed a Google Apps for Work deployment which come at a cost of around $5.00/per user/per month, meaning St Luke’s would be getting around $50,000 worth of SaaS per annum for free. While other offerings were ‘free’ they required the ongoing expense of being part of perpetual campus licensing agreements, Google Apps gave the flexibility to discontinue this type of agreement in the future if no longer required.

Google Apps wasn’t only a communications platform it also had a full productivity and collaboration suite available from anywhere on any device, with no dependency of on-campus infrastructure. Bundaberg and its surrounding areas have been subject to a number of natural disasters in the past which, when considering a move to SaaS, was another argument that meant staff and students would still be able to communicate during these times. This proved to be invaluable in 2013 when Bundaberg was hit by rising river water as a result of Cyclone Oswald. The school lost power for an extended period and made the decision to start the school year one week later than scheduled. Having a hosted solution meant staff and students could still communicate and access subject outlines, content matter and interact with each other while they were cut off from the main town.

By the beginning of 2012 St Luke’s had migrated all staff and student email to Google Apps meaning email was gaining momentum in popularity for communicating between these two groups within the school. Google Apps’ other main advantage over all other platforms considered was the fact that it was not platform-specific, meaning that any user with access to the Internet on practically any device could now access their email and files from anywhere in the world.

Discussions began in late 2011 about the opportunity for the school to provide students with a BYO network which would only provide access to the Internet, and given the school’s choice of Google Apps deployment, that would be all that was needed. By August 2012 the BYO network was seeing approximately 350 different devices every week and consuming around 6GB of Internet traffic daily. With this success the focus to have more resources available online became a priority for the ICT Committee and IT team which would ensure the increased use and functionality of student-owned BYO devices over time.

Today the BYO network sees more than 600 student-owned devices every week with anywhere from 60 to 80GB of Internet consumed daily. The rapid uptake and ongoing success of the BYO program at St Luke’s can be largely attributed to Google Apps’ ability to be used on devices that students already owned.

TEACHER AND STAFF ADOPTION

The BYO at inception was in no way mandated for any particular use, meaning teachers could choose to use student-owned devices for anything they wished or not at all. This gave teachers freedom and when the occasion suited they were free to ask students to use their own devices for research or other suitable applications. Having mixed devices also gave flexibility for use, teachers were free to split students into groups so that the right mix of devices across the groups was gained, for example, if a science class was conducting an experiment those students with backward facing cameras were distributed across all teams so that someone was available to record or photograph the experiment. These students could then upload and share the video and photos via their Google Drive app for the remainder of the group to embed into a document or presentation. Given students were using their own devices very little instruction was required from teachers with regard to their use. Students were actively encouraged to see the IT staff for connectivity issues or guidance on App installations etc., with the time gained through not having to host and maintain on-campus email and collaboration tools the existing IT department was available to absorb this type of work.

During 2013 a project was started for teachers to engage their students through the use of a Google Site as a place where information could be distributed, resources located and assignment or homework activities could be posted. The sites’ project ran for 18 months and saw more than 60 sites created by many of the primary, middle and senior teachers. Lower primary utilised their site to communicate to parents using the student’s logon credentials which were communicated home.

With this focus for content to be online Google Sites and Drive have become the new normal place for staff and students to collaborate in and use for sharing and production of school documents. In the last months with the issuing of Chromebooks to teaching staff, St Luke’s has seen the number of documents created in Google Drive explode from 120,000 at the end of 2015 to well over 200,000 at the end of January 2016.

Teachers are now using some of the newer and more advanced features in Docs et al. to suggest edits on student work for drafting purposes, as well as leaving comments, and tracking and monitoring student progress through individual and group assignments all securely from anywhere with Internet access. Many staff are also using tools like Flubaroo to automatically mark and provide students with feedback on assessments based in Google Forms.

Administration and non-teaching staff are also using more advanced features of Google Apps to improve their processes with the adoption of using many of the plugins and APIs to create workflows and time-driven processes that have improved efficiencies. The use of tools like YAMM for mail merges to parents as well as scripting to provide staff and student timetables in Google Calendars has empowered all users to find the information they need when they require it.


I like that I can get the information on my iPad or my laptop and my iPhone, I can share my work with my teacher and she can comment on it at the same time. It is like having heaps of drafts of my work. It helps me keep on track, and I don’t lose USBs anymore, or have my printer run out of ink.

STUDENT ADOPTION

In early 2012 St Luke’s was one of the first schools in Australia to pilot Chromebooks with huge success. This small fleet initially shared amongst primary were in high demand and quickly grew to a 2:1 program by the end of 2013. With the increased availability of technology now in primary demand continued to grow to the current 1:1 Chromebook deployment for students in years 2-6 which leaves the school today with over 450 school-owned and managed Chromebooks.

Given the school’s Google Apps migration is now into its fifth year, students who were in upper primary during the deployment’s early stages are now seniors which has seen linear growth in popularity throughout the years until more recently where document creations in Google Drive have started to grow exponentially. Students become deeply engaged in Google Apps primarily in year 2 where they start sharing documents etc. with each other and with teachers. The use of apps that leverage the power of Google Drive are also explored through the use of online video production and editing using tools like WeVideo.

Students’ ability to work together from home has been transformed by the collaborative nature of Google Docs. What would have been a task requiring the emailing of traditional files between students, collaboration can now happen in real time reducing confusion with automatic backups and versioning – advanced features needing specialist knowledge in traditional suites – all of which happen automatically in Google Drive.

Real-time continuous saving of work in the cloud has meant students no longer have to worry about damaging their device, losing USB sticks or computers crashing. Gone are the days where IT staff would need to run data recovery software on a damaged USB stick to recover a student’s lifetime of work.

All classrooms have been fitted with Apple TVs and Chromecasts meaning students are now able to bring their work to the rest of the class wirelessly from their own desk, whether it is a YouTube clip or a Google Presentation, students can present their work without having to use an unfamiliar device.

The most rewarding part for Miller is the fact that before this journey started he would need to visit one of the school’s designated computer laboratories to see students using technology, whereas now it is rare to walk past a classroom where at least some, if not all, students are using some piece of technology to assist in their learning.

ADVICE AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Given St Luke’s is now around five years out from the previously mentioned DER funding program, many of the devices purchased through this funding have either now been replaced or have gone out of production. With the choice of Chromebooks for primary this has made the purchase of these a much more sustainable process with units costing around one third of the original DER-funded machine.

On a journey like the one St Luke’s has made, it is important to take the time to get the little things to work. Miller says that scripting his student user creation and group memberships from using data directly from their student information system (Tass. web) has meant that sharing in Google Drive and Sites is no longer an overhead for teachers at the beginning of year or semester. Miller has automated the process of students having accounts created and then placed into members of the appropriate subject’s group in their Active Directory infrastructure which then syncs with Google. This means that if a teacher has a Google Drive folder or Site which needs to be shared with “9science1”, all the teacher needs to do is share that site once with a single group and that will continue to work for students who are new and from year to year.

Throughout the last two years the shortcomings of tablet devices with regard to production of large documents in terms of practicality of keyboard-less work has been highlighted. This along with the fact that the Google Drive Apps for Android and iOS are usually lacking some of the features of the full desktop version found inside Chrome has seen the school formalise its BYO program with recommendations which are loosely around “the device must be able to run the full desktop version of Chrome and have a keyboard”. For subjects that require the use of specialist software, there are high-performance laboratories that will be maintained to deliver these subjects. The formalised BYO program is set to kick off for the middle and senior schools in 2017 with parents encouraged to consider these devices if looking to purchase their children something prior to next year. St Luke’s will formally maintain their primary Chromebook program as these devices are likely to be used for controlled environments when looking at future online-based assessment pieces. While St Luke’s is formalising the BYO device schedule, students are still encouraged to bring in their tablets for the functionality they provide above a traditional laptop as mentioned earlier.

Choosing Chrome as the school’s “platform” has meant that it focuses on delivering all of its apps through the browser which in turn makes the user experience centralised and simplified. This also yields simplicity when designing a network that only needs to deliver services that run on common protocols.