April 28, 2010 By Russell Nichols
With no ads, no costs to schools and no hardware to maintain or software to install, launching Google's cloud network in Oregon public schools, officials say, was a no-brainer.
Oregon became the first state in the nation to offer Google Apps for Education in K-12 classrooms, according to the company on Wednesday, April 28. School officials believe the move will save money, enhance communication and collaboration, and prepare students for the digital work force that awaits them. The state's 197 school districts can choose to use the cloud-based suite that comes with filtered e-mail, calendaring, document sharing and a host of multimedia streaming options.
"All they need is a Web browser," said Susanne Smith, public affairs manager for the Oregon Department of Education. "Everything happens in the cloud. Our agency went after this because we have an online learning environment."
As cloud computing continues to evolve and expand in the public and private sectors, it's no surprise that education officials would want to tap into the benefits of the free online tools. Launched in November 2006, Google Apps for Education equips users with not only critical 21st-century skills, but also collaboration experience, according to Jaime Casap, Google Apps education manager.
Arizona State University was the first institution to adopt the solution, said Aviva Gilbert, Google's spokeswoman. Now, she added, more than 3,000 schools and universities worldwide, and some 7 million active students use Google Apps for Education. But it's never been rolled out statewide until now.
Given the shaky economy, education officials in Oregon jumped on the idea of cloud networking at no cost to schools. With Google Apps, the Oregon Department of Education estimates saving $1.5 million a year just in e-mail alone.
But, officials said, the apps suite also fosters more flexibility: Teachers can work with students on group projects from home or through mobile devices. As a cloud-based solution, it frees up servers and needs no system upgrade requirements.
"How much money you save is important, but the way you save money is Google will be storing your data for you," Casap said. "You would have to invest a lot in a school to do something like this."
A typical Google Apps deployment would take about six weeks, Casap said, including the time it takes to get the account and pilot the program. But in Oregon, the entire process took about 10 months.
"That's typical when you do something this big for the first time," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that we're in new territory. We wanted to make sure that we were crossing our T's and dotting our I's."
During the process, security and privacy were key priorities. Google worked with education officials and the Oregon Department of Justice to craft a user agreement that met federal and state security requirements.
"There are very few K-12 districts using these services," Smith said. "When you're talking about cloud networking, we really needed to make sure that we did due diligence around federal and state requirements so students were protected."
With more and more agencies exploring cloud computing options, students must be ready to dive into a digital work force.
Google is a participating member of Accelerate Oregon, a public-private partnership pushing the adoption of technology in the classroom. Founded by the Oregon Department of Education and Intel, the group seeks to equip students with the tools needed to excel in the work force. Partners include Cisco, Willamette Education Service District, Compview, the SMART Technologies and Oregon State University.
The push of the partnership is that companies need graduates who can effectively navigate the virtual world. Education officials, Smith said, believe the Google Apps solution will not only support that mission, but also spur innovation throughout the state.
"More and more we're seeing companies do this to free up IT resources and it's good to see our schools have those same opportunities," she said. "We hope this helps drive technology even more in our state."