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Higher Education and K12 — Partnerships for Success

A Q&A with Larry Dougher

K12 gets students first — long before they reach higher education. What kinds of partnerships can better serve the overall trajectory of IT services, from K12 through higher education? CT asked Larry Dougher about K12/higher education IT partnerships.

Mary Grush: As a CIO in K12, you've partnered with higher education on some substantial IT initiatives. Could you give us a little background on your work with the school districts there in Vermont?

Larry Dougher: I am the chief information officer at the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union in Vermont, which consists of four school districts that our IT Services Team oversees. We have always had a very progressive and forward-looking IT department here, and our superintendent and the district boards have been supportive of our vision.

A lot of that vision stems from higher ed. When I look at higher ed, I see that they generally have significantly more IT resources than K12. We can't just go out there and buy these resources, so we ask, is there any way that we can leverage theirs? That's something I've been working on these past few years. And I've been fortunate to have an administrative team that has been able to see the whole value of technology — not just the costs.

Grush: What would be good examples of what you wish to leverage?

Dougher: Take for example, our partnership with the University of Vermont for Internet2. We can not afford Internet2 on our own, but, by collaborating with UVM, we've built a partnership with them and our ISP, Sovernet, which enables us to get Internet2 at basically no cost to us.

First, we upgraded to a fiber gigabit network connection with Sovernet. They had a similar connection with UVM for Internet2. So, I worked with the engineers at UVM, who were very helpful and patient with me — I had never done this before — and over the course of a couple days we had Internet2.

We do all the routing in house. We partnered with Brocade to get a switch that had enough BGP routes to handle the entire Internet2 routing table. So, if we have a packet going to the commercial Internet, it will go out through Sovernet. If we have a packet going out to an Internet2 resource, that will go to UVM and then out to Internet2.

It's a great example of a K12 and higher ed symbiotic relationship, where UVM is really helping us out by allowing us to leverage broadband and Internet2 resources.

Grush: That's a great example. Can you cite another?

Dougher: There is a similarity in what we have done with rSmart, through its OneCampus offering, to leverage a model originally developed at Indiana University, a technology known as One.IU. It's a technology IU developed to replace their portal with more modern, search-based, mobile services.

Around the time that we had forged our partnership on Internet2 with UVM, we were also looking at redoing our portal and upgrading access to the services we had been providing to our community. Researching that, we were amazed at what Indiana University had been doing with their One.IU implementation. IU is, as far as I can see, the gold standard among higher education IT, and we were very impressed with what they had done. We thought that the model they had achieved with One.IU — which provides their users with an updated, search-based approach to finding and accessing campus services — was perfect for us.

Similar to IU, we already had a portal, but even though it was very well-received, I knew that it couldn't really become more than what it was at the time. Even though it was very popular, I could see that over time it would run into problems with scale. And, with our old dashboard, even though we had taken the approach of having users click on icons to obtain what they needed, certain information such as news stories had to be laboriously created with HTML code. It also became very clear that going forward, as we add more and more resources for our K12 students, educators, and parents, the old portal would have needed a cumbersome folder structure to work at all — kind of a step backward I thought. Finally, it was not mobile-ready, and mobile was where we wanted to be with our services.

OneCampus allowed us to scale, so we could add more apps as we go. It allowed us to offer a one-click search paradigm instead of a cumbersome folder hierarchy. And, it works great on mobile.

Now, we offer our new dashboard — live as of August 2015 — as a mobile service based on OneCampus []. It allows our users to access the mobile interface and use the search features to locate services at the same time that we are sending out push notifications. The new dashboard has been heralded by our students and faculty — they absolutely love it. More than half of the visits on our Web site go to the dashboard. It is the most visited site in our portfolio.

Grush: Those are certainly two good examples. 

Dougher: We think so. These are technology implementations and IT services we are able to leverage and base on higher education models. We don't have developers. In most school districts, you are fortunate to have an IT director, and maybe a network administrator, and perhaps technicians for your help desk. But that's about it. Like most school districts of our size, as I said, we don't have developers. I can't go out there and hire a CSS developer or an Android or iOS developer. But, using software as a service, I'm able to leverage other institutions' work — seemingly bringing all this in house, even though it's actually in the cloud as SaaS.

Grush: Are there some advantages K12 might have over higher education in terms of technology implementation?

Dougher: One of the benefits of working in a K12 district is that by our very nature we are lean and mean. We don't have legacy software and technology that may be out there in a lot of universities. Many universities have these legacy systems simply because they are so large and have a long history with so many different stakeholders.

I think K12 is actually more nimble and quicker to the cloud.

For example, while universities have provided access to e-mail — on their own servers — for decades, many K12 school districts have more recently launched e-mail, using cloud services — whether it's Google Apps or Office 365, for example. And while there are a lot of colleges and universities that have moved to the cloud for e-mail, I think that in general it may be the K12 districts that were there first.

Grush: How does all this affect the students?

Dougher: For our students, the cloud is an everyday occurrence. They use cloud technologies in their day-to-day lives. We have a flourishing one to one program, where every student in grades 3-12 gets a Chromebook. So, these students are all using cloud technologies, every day.

And because we don't have legacy systems to maintain, we can shed all those legacy costs and go right to the cloud, for storage, authentication, and so many of our requirements — then, we are able to put our funds directly into providing devices for students.

As you may know, the Common Core State Standards require that every student be college or career ready. So our students, when they eventually do go off to college or to their careers, when it comes to technology, they will be ready — they will have had these tools, and they are literally digital natives.

Grush: Do you think that higher education is watching K12 and picking up on some of these strategic points, both about the nature of the student experience of technology, and about the nature of technology implementations in the K12 setting? It seems as though in the types of partnerships you are forging with higher education, these insights may be among the powerful things K12 can bring to the table.

Dougher: I can't speak for them, as to whether or not they are looking at us, but I hope so. I certainly pay attention to what higher education is doing. It would be a missed opportunity for me not to look to higher education for inspiration.

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