On a warm spring evening in Bloomington, Illinois, a young middle school girl sits at her kitchen table creating 3D designs on her new laptop computer. She is using a cloud-based design application that is delivered to her home over a free wireless connection. Tomorrow, she will use her school’s new printer to bring her designs to three-dimensional life. The school’s investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education—which promotes a critical, creative engagement with the world—encourages students to become the next generation of innovators, educators, researchers, and leaders who can solve the most pressing challenges facing our world. With every design she creates, she is participating in an evolution in her school’s educational technology.
It is an evolution made possible by a visionary use of cloud technology that provides free computing and Internet services to thousands of students across Illinois and its neighboring states: a visionary use of technology that owes its origin to a very old idea.
Cooperating for Educational Opportunity
The notion of a co-op is not a new one in the state of Illinois. With its roots in the rural heartland of America, the state has a long tradition of neighbors banding together in co-ops to share food, water, electricity, communications, and the other resources needed to further mutual progress. So when the technology leaders of Bloomington’s public schools looked for a way to make advanced, enterprise-level computing and Internet services affordable to students in their school district, they realized the solution already existed.
“IlliniCloud is an actual cooperative,” says Jim Peterson, the technology director of Bloomington Public Schools District 87, “just like you would see with a food, grain, or grocery co-op.” Jason Radford, CTO of IlliniCloud and co-founder with Peterson of IlliniCloud.org, adds, “We’re just utilizing the idea of a co-op in a different way.”
The challenges that led Bloomington Public Schools District 87 to form the nonprofit IlliniCloud tech cooperative are not unique. Located in rural, central Illinois, Bloomington’s public schools—like many public schools across the nation—were constantly faced with challenges from rising enrollments and declining revenues.
But in just a few years, IlliniCloud has proven to be a game-changer for a public education system in crisis. The cooperative, in which participating school districts across the state share enterprise-grade cloud computing capabilities, is transforming the technology infrastructures of not just Bloomington’s public school district, but every school district in the state.
That transformation is creating opportunities for thousands of students across more than 860 school districts throughout Illinois and at least seven neighboring states. The IlliniCloud provides an affordable and efficient model that results in major cost savings for schools. This allows the schools to reallocate their financial resources where most needed: upgrading technology and aging infrastructures, and investing in special education and remedial learning. As a result, schools can begin to address, in a meaningful way, the widening digital divide between high- and low-income students.
In Bloomington, where IlliniCloud began, the money saved is allowing District 87 to purchase and issue new laptop computers to every high school and middle school student, and to the district’s faculty and staff.
IlliniCloud is also helping to enable the district’s 1:1 initiative, which provides laptops and other devices to students to enhance the educational experience. With help from the nonprofit tech cooperative, District 87 manages a student-led program for refurbishing donated laptops so that all elementary school students will have a computer when they start school in the fall.
The cost savings also allow Bloomington to offer free broadband access to any student who needs it through a program called IlliniConnect. “IlliniConnect is really important to us,” Bloomington Superintendent of Schools, Barry Reilly, says. “We saw an achievement gap between our non-low-income and our low-income kids, and we realized that if we didn’t have a way for our kids to get access outside of the school walls, that gap would start to widen again.”
This educational transformation comes full circle with the example of the middle school girl creating 3D designs on her school-assigned laptop. When she wakes up tomorrow and goes to school, she will print those designs on her school’s new 3D printer. The IlliniCloud made the purchase of that machine, and the passion it inspired in this young girl, possible.
This is just one story among the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of similar stories in public schools across Illinois and the Midwest. And it is all made possible by the most advanced technology and a very old idea of cooperative community.
Building the IlliniCloud
The IlliniCloud owes its beginnings to a mutual understanding that Illinois schools needed to share resources to keep pace with technological advances. Unlike business organizations that tend to build technology refreshes into their three-to-five-year business planning, public school districts rarely can budget more than one year ahead.
The IlliniCloud solves these problems by providing its member schools with infrastructure as a service (IaaS). Participating schools are only required to purchase the capacity they need, and they only need to pay once a year for what they use—at cost. “We align with our school district’s budgetary year, too,” says co-founder Jason Radford. “It allows them to save money, save that planning, save on maintenance and overhead, and redirect those savings into classroom-based projects, school infrastructure, or to support programs like Bloomington’s 1:1.”
When it came time to build the IlliniCloud, the organizers turned to VMware. It was a natural fit because, as Radford says, “We needed to meet K–12 where they were and not ask them to change what they were doing, any of their software, any of their practices. VMware allowed us to do that.” Jim Peterson, the technology director of IlliniCloud, adds that “VMware believed in the IlliniCloud. They gave us the tools that were the industry standard leader, and the ability to be operationally efficient so that we could launch all these great services that are now benefitting our schools.”
Three data centers, one each in the north, central, and southern part of the state, comprise the IlliniCloud’s physical anatomy. Central to the IlliniCloud is the VMware® NSX™ platform for all of the network virtualization. “NSX does two major things for us,” Radford says. “It allows us to move some of our functions that we typically bought in expensive hardware into software, making it easy to scale and far more economical as we grow and expand. And second, with NSX micro-segmentation we can be very mindful in our approach to security with our students’ data.” Protecting student record confidentiality is critical for schools. In the case of minors, maintaining privacy and security can be a matter of law. When students change schools, or school districts, there is a need to share student records between teachers while maintaining confidentiality. NSX keeps these records secure and private while enabling necessary mobility, thereby solving a systemic problem plaguing education. “VMware believes in IlliniCloud,” says Radford, “and we believe in them.”
The services and applications made possible by the IlliniCloud are changing the way education is being delivered to and consumed by all its member schools. It is allowing schools to transition to a greater reliance on online delivery of digital curriculum. In a sense, Bloomington Superintendent of Schools Barry Riley says, “The devices themselves are becoming the textbooks . . . as online curriculum becomes the primary curriculum.”
With digital curriculum now living in the IlliniCloud, teachers can individualize their instruction to a degree that was not realistic or feasible before, and schools can push content out to their students. This, in turn, is fueling new experiments designed to increase student engagement with the curriculum, and teach them the skills they will need beyond high school for college and the future workforce.
Looking ahead, Radford envisions expanding access to the IlliniCloud nationwide by coupling the higher-level networking functionality of NSX with the packet processing capabilities of Intel’s CPUs. The result of “putting them together and marrying them,” says Radford, “would allow us to create a turnkey service that we could deploy across the county.”
“I know that the IlliniCloud is part of a digital transformation of the educational experience,” says Jim Peterson, the district’s technology director. “It’s extremely important to the entire process because it affects every child from K–12. We are building the digital transformational tools to make this happen with all our great partners, the people who believed in us. That’s what IlliniCloud is all about.”
Technology's Greatest Generation
Just as the traditions of small Midwestern towns and farming communities inspired the creation of IlliniCloud, so did they foster the fascination with technology that inspired the tech cooperative’s founders, Jim Peterson and Jason Radford. “I grew up on a small farm and went to a small, rural school,” Radford remembers. “There just wasn’t a whole lot to do. And when you’re a kid in a rural school with a lot of time on your hands, you can either spend it productively or unproductively.”
Growing up on a farm, Radford had learned to weld by the age of nine and rebuild small engines by the time he turned 12. “When electronics started to become more pervasive and home computing started to make its way down the consumer realm with things like the Commodore 64, the VIC-20, and TI-99/4A,” that’s when things really started to change. “That generation,” Radford says, “I think it introduced kids to a whole other world that they never would have seen.”
Eventually, Radford met a fellow kindred spirit with a hacker’s heart in Peterson and took a job with him in the Bloomington school district. “I’m a former middle school English teacher,” Peterson says, who “happened to know a lot about technology. And if you know a lot about technology in K–12,” he continues, “you’re soon the technology director.”
After the two joined forces, it took just six months, Radford says, “to fix all the school’s technology stuff. And then we both got bored, very bored.” The silver lining for the two was the close-knit community of technology leaders within the Illinois school systems. Their shared challenges and interests led to frequent conferences and participation in LISTSERVS.
That community gave Radford the idea to approach Peterson and say, “You know, we should really look at trying to collaborate and pool services into a type of community cloud because I think it would really work, especially here in Illinois.” And when Peterson agreed a few moments later, the IlliniCloud tech cooperative was born.
Just a few years later, these two original members of technology’s greatest generation, the generation that took primitive computers to the cloud, are proud of what they’ve done and from where they came. Peterson expresses it best for the two of them when he says, “The thing I’m most proud of with IlliniCloud is debunking an old myth that I was told when I was just a young technology director: that interagency work would never happen and could never be sustained. We’ve proven that wrong. People do want to collaborate. And as I meet more districts, and they keep coming on board, that’s our greatest accomplishment.”
Classrooms in the Cloud
Since IlliniCloud began in Bloomington, it has spread with dizzying speed across the state of Illinois. Within another year, the number of school districts that will adopt the cloud, or access it through broadband connections, will likely exceed 1,000. And with every new school district, thousands more students are able to benefit from the education-related applications and services the IlliniCloud supports.
But just as important as the new business model that the IlliniCloud offers, Peterson explains, is the “way education can be changed with cloud resources.” That may become the most important legacy of the IlliniCloud tech cooperative.
“Because we can bring in more information than just the zeros and ones that they have from their local assessments,” Peterson says, “we can start making better decisions about our kids.” With the IlliniCloud, he continues, “we can grab what kids are really doing. We can look at the entire picture and understand more than just what test scores reveal—whether it be how they perform in a musical, or their ability to quickly give a speech, talk to their peers in a classroom, or perform in sports. We can now wrap that, give it value, and provide it to the next level—the next workplace, college, or university they’re going to attend.”
By providing this more comprehensive understanding of each individual child, IlliniCloud can help further refine the process of individualizing the delivery of the education and other resources that child needs to succeed. “It’s amazing,” says Bloomington Library Media Specialist, Kristi Sutter, media center specialist, Sheridan Elementary. “Teachers are now able to create systems where they can take content that is online, and edit that content so that it’s specific to their children. It’s really exciting because we have heard for years that we’re educating students now for jobs that won’t even exist in the future,” Sutter says. “But now we’re teaching students the problem solving, the discussion and debate skills they’re going to need in the long run.” Amazing, indeed. And all made possible by the IlliniCloud.