Rural School District Takes Cloud Journey, Connects Students to the Future

"When we saw how simple and reliable we could make storage in the cloud, we understood what else we'd be able to accomplish with Microsoft cloud services.

The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario had the technology to help its students grow and learn. It had the devices, too. What it couldn’t provide was adequate connections for students or teachers across its 12,000-square-kilometer jurisdiction. In 2013, the board began a journey to a more reliable, more productive hybrid-cloud environment. Now teachers have the tools to teach and inspire, and students are more connected to school, each other, and their futures.

The hamlet of Westport (population 645) is the smallest municipality in Ontario, Canada, and still the biggest place nearby. It’s a nice place to grow up: tidy, neighborly, quiet—but you can’t call it isolated. At St. Edward elementary school in Westport, educators have long used technology to help students learn and stay connected to school, to each other, and to the rest of the community.

But a few years ago, if a teacher at St Edward built a lesson plan around a YouTube video, she could wind up frustrated while students spend half the class time waiting for it to buffer. When it took too long to open a webpage or download learning material, students sometimes got confused or lost interest.

It wasn’t just St. Edward or just Westport. St Edward is managed and governed by the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario. With 13,000 students at 49 schools spread across 12,000 square kilometers of rural Ontario, the board couldn’t deliver adequate IT bandwidth over its far-flung bailiwick.

In 2013, the school board began a multiyear journey toward a cloud infrastructure based on Microsoft cloud services. Less than four years later, teachers and students all over the school district work and learn in a more reliable, more productive, more connected environment.

Moderate budget + large area = poor connections

The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario is publicly funded by the Ontario Ministry of Education, and funding is tied to enrollment. So the board must stretch a moderate budget over a large geographic area that may have little existing infrastructure. Sometimes, something has to give—and it’s often IT.

That meant very low-bandwidth network connections and spotty access to important resources for students, teachers, and administrators at every school in the district. Internet connections were painfully slow and streaming video was almost impossible. Email issues were common. “It felt like I was calling every day about network access,” says Jameson Lee, Special Education Teacher and Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario.

For many schools, IT support could be hours away, and IT techs could spend more than half a day just getting to and from a single service call. “Some teachers are already wary of technology,” says Lee. “And we had trouble providing immediate support.”

On a cloud journey

In 2013, the board began a visionary journey to transform its digital environment with Microsoft cloud services. It first adopted a hybrid cloud data storage solution, and it wasn’t long before the IT team had used the solution to resolve what it called a “very scary” disaster recovery event in hours, with no loss of data. The dodged bullet left the team a little shaken—and very impressed.

“When we saw how simple and reliable we could make storage in the cloud, we understood what else we’d be able to accomplish with Microsoft cloud services,” says Ken Konink, ICT Supervisor of Systems at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario.

Some schools had used third-party providers to help build and host their own websites, which sometimes complicated coordination across the district even more. In 2014 and 2015, the board centralized the entire district’s web presence on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Schools had a standardized but flexible site template they could follow, customize, and easily update—without IT help. With a centralized and more reliable web platform, the board and individual schools could focus on connecting with students and communities instead of fussing over technology.

In 2016, the board began to adopt Microsoft Office 365. Now 15,000 students, teachers, and administrators use the cloud-based service to send and receive emails; communicate by voice, instant message, or video; create and share materials; and collaborate on teaching and learning.

Teachers and students use Office 365 services for class instruction and to collaborate in groups or work independently to capture and share documents, pictures, videos, and other learning materials. Teachers built a digital staff notebook to keep and share teaching resources, podcasts, webinars, and professional development material.

One school experimenting with an innovative classroom approach used Office 365 to give teachers at other schools live digital tours. Anyone, from anywhere in the district, could see the techniques in action, and connect with the students and teachers in real time—and nobody had to drive an hour or more.

“Where our teachers and students used to have technology nightmares, they now use Microsoft cloud services to make instant connections,” says Lee.

Connected today and tomorrow

Today, the board can store and manage almost a petabyte of data, and it delivers a network connection with 100 times more bandwidth than it could in 2013. The IT team is using Azure infrastructure services to support network applications, systems, and devices. Schools are working independently, with each other, and with the board to move files into the cloud and develop pilot initiatives. The board intends to migrate its entire on-premises datacenter to Azure over the next three to five years, as licenses expire or software and hardware wear out.

Now the IT team delivers more reliable services, and can also support schools remotely. It can address issues quickly and install updates without spending weeks to visit every school and touch every machine. That means students have access to the latest learning tools as soon as they are available, and the IT team can spend less time reacting—or driving.

Vision + the cloud = bright student futures

Lee notes that staff throughout the district are proud that their smallish rural school board had the vision and the leadership to accomplish more with cloud technology—and sooner—than many bigger, richer districts in the province.                 

“We’ve used Microsoft cloud services to become as connected as any school district in North America,” says Lee. “Our teachers have the tools to inspire their peers and their students, and our students have the resources to become more connected to their future and the opportunities available to them.”

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Learn more about what Microsoft cloud services can do for your school.

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