The last time Billings School District 2’s e-mail server crashed, it took three technicians working a combined 40 hours over the course of a weekend to get it back up and running.
That’s expensive, said Karen Palmer, SD2’s technology director.
So starting June 28 — at 4 p.m. to be exact — School District 2 will move all its data and programs from its servers at the Lincoln Center to an online storage facility maintained by Google, a service called cloud computing. The move will save the district roughly $235,000 over the next three years in reduced labor, hardware and software costs.
“It really is a plus for us,” Palmer said.
Google provides the district e-mail accounts for students, staff members and administrators and a whole suite of document programs similar to Microsoft Office. The advantage, Palmer said, is that Google’s service is free. It costs the district nothing to join and it requires no more buying licenses for each district computer that uses all the software it has.
The e-mail students use is ad-free and, so far, spamproof. School District 2 officials have set it up so that students won’t be able to e-mail anyone outside the district’s system.
With no servers to maintain, the district also saves in utility costs, she said. Servers are temperature-sensitive and need to be housed in chilled rooms, which is expensive, she said.
But the biggest advantage may be to students.
“It extends the learning that happens in the classroom,” said Susanne Smith, communications director for the Oregon Department of Education.
Moving servers online means there’s no longer a district network, which means students and teachers can access schoolwork, calendars, projects and assignments anywhere there’s an Internet connection — be it in the classroom, at home, in the library or from a laptop on a beach in Ibiza.
Students out sick can work on assignments or take tests while at home, Smith said.
The ability to share documents also allows teachers to see various drafts of a student paper, lets students work together on a project or to get real-time feedback from their teacher.
“It’s going to improve the quality of education in the district,” said Karl Schwartz, an engineering and web design teacher at School District 2’s Career Center.
The Oregon Department of Education switched over to Google’s service in May and the 197 districts in the state will use the summer to switch over and train on the new programs.
“This is what businesses and corporations are using today,” Smith said.
If students are going to compete outside school after graduation, they need to be experts with the tools these organizations employ, she said.
Besides, Schwartz said, these are tools students are already using.
“These guys are used to communicating electronically,” he said.
Over the past year, hundreds of school districts and colleges from across the country have moved to Google’s cloud computing service, including Northwestern, Arizona State and Notre Dame. Prompting the change in many places was budget strife.
“We were running out of (e-mail) server space,” said Scot Graden, superintendent of the Saline Area Schools in Saline, Mich.
The district couldn’t afford to expand what it had, so it turned to Google last year. Students from grades five to 12 were given their own district e-mail accounts, and teachers are now able to communicate much easier with their pupils.
“The staff has really started to think a little broader,” Graden said.
His staff is trying out new techniques — like giving small, five-question pop quizzes through Google Docs to gauge what curriculum is sinking in with their students — and collaborating more with other teachers.
If there’s a downside, Graden said, “We haven’t run into it.”
Palmer said the biggest — and most obvious — downside is that the district must have Internet access to operate its computer systems. Some programs will be available offline, but there will be no way to update them until Internet service is restored, she said.
Another drawback is the loss of local control. If hardware at Google malfunctions, SD2 will simply have to wait until Google technicians fix the problem.
“I don’t worry about it much,” Palmer said. “They have more resources to throw at it than we would.”
Questions of security have also come up, Palmer said. And again, it was a concern she was able to satisfy with Google, which she describes as one of the most secure Internet companies on the planet.
“This (cloud computing for schools) is the same system they use as an enterprise,” she said.
And Google retains no ownership of anything created by students or school staff with its applications, Graden said.
Google offers the same service to businesses, but charges for it. Google makes cloud computing free to educators — the company was started with a grant from Stanford, Palmer said. This is Google’s way of giving back, she said.
“It’s been great,” she said.
Contact Rob Rogers at email@example.com or 657-1231.