How the cloud helps scale innovation in K12 and primary education
While there is no shortage of innovation in the K12 sector, the inability to scale innovation stands out as one of the most common roadblocks to transformation across the vast and diverse K12 population—including students, teachers, and administrators. While an individual teacher, administrator, or school may have a great idea, securing funds and technical support to expand and adapt a successful concept is often difficult. And scaling a new tool across a whole district—or even state—requires agility, expertise, and collaboration.
At this year’s IMAGINE conference for education, state, and local leaders, three K12 technology leaders convened to answer the question: How can the cloud help innovative ideas scale and expand in K12 education? During the panel discussion, the group identified four key themes:
1. Lower the investment required to innovate
By migrating on-premises servers to the cloud, K12 organizations can reduce spending to implement and expand new technology. Building on the AWS Cloud lowers technology costs by allowing K12 organizations to only pay for computing power when needed.
“In K12, a lot of our stuff is very cyclical, so we don’t necessarily need the same technology January through December,” explained Michael Coats, IT infrastructure manager and cloud architect at Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency. Coats hopes to take his API instances serverless using AWS Lambda with Amazon API Gateway. The move reduces computing needs, enabling his organization to be “more scalable, more flexible, and a lot more cost-effective. We get the same functionality for significantly less cost.”
Savings generated from a planned cloud migration can be passed onto the district or school—or, in some cases, the student—without compromising quality. Guillaume Salva, vice president of engineering at African Leadership International (ALI), is helping to produce a software package to help high school and post-high school students learn to code, in order to scale up the training of software engineers on the African continent. He noted that by building ALI’s education programs in the cloud, they can provide “one year of education for less than $20 per student” across Africa.
2. Smart small and go-to-market quickly
Another boon to K12 innovation is the opportunity to start small and scale fast. While budget-conscious K12 organizations might be reluctant to invest in new initiatives, the cloud allows the chance to experiment—and even expand—successful programs. For instance, at ALI, Salva wanted to be able to test new areas as they grew. There were many variables to account for—language, culture, urban versus rural—as they approached potential new locations. Instead of guessing how best to serve learners in new areas, ALI could spin up a new virtual school in a test environment much more quickly than with on-premises servers, allowing them to learn about its specific education needs.
Similarly, a Texas education service center is moving to the cloud to go to market more quickly. “The development cycle was just tedious,” explained Jeff Kohrman, chief technology officer (CTO) of Region 4 Education Service Center (ESC). “As we grow, we want to be able to move, to be more agile, and to deliver.” TX-Region 4 recently completed their migration of their escWorks platform to AWS, a digital platform that allows Texas K12 organizations manage professional development workshops and conferences, to AWS. They also refactored the Analytics Dashboard feature of escWorks, utilizing Amazon QuickSight to provide data reporting and visualization for professional development modules and event activity taking place on the platform, replacing their previous on-premises business intelligence solution.
Being able to deliver—and deliver quickly—on behalf of students was a goal shared by all three panelists. They all valued the cloud’s flexibility, which allows them to get new technology into the hands of students, teachers, and administrators faster. “If we weren’t in the cloud,” Coats said, “we wouldn’t be able to go, ‘Hey, we have this great idea! Let’s develop a tool around it and make it accessible to our students.'”
3. Be less afraid to fail
Not every experiment or expansion will be successful, especially in a learning environment. The potential for failure can be daunting within K12 organizations. As Coats put it, “Every penny we spend on failure was a penny that could have been spent on student success.”
But while failure and experimentation can go hand-in-hand, failure is not a wasted effort. With the flexibility of the cloud, K12 technology leaders can quickly learn from their prior work and pivot as needed. “We are better able to change course and build on what worked—instead of wiping everything out,” said Kohrman.
Instead of starting from scratch, you can iterate. For instance, Salva’s organization recently started too small as they built their infrastructure. “When we started out, we built a two-Availability Zone (AZ) infrastructure. But as we grew over time and built skillsets up, we realized we mis-scoped it, and we ended up building out another AZ.” Rather than scrapping their build, Salva’s team was able to learn from their mistakes and move forward without wasting time and budget that could be spent on providing education services. “Bottom line,” said Salva, “you’re going to do things the hard way, and you’re going to do things the wrong way, but you’re going to learn from it and continue to get better.”
4. Work effectively with a lean team
Building on the AWS Cloud supports each panelist in keeping their teams small but mighty. Salva emphasized that the cloud mitigates some staffing needs when you’re just starting. “Do we need to have an IT person? Do we need to have DevOps? No, AWS can do that for you.”
Because they’re just starting their cloud journey, Kohrman and his team have leveraged the AWS Partner Network (APN) and are working with APN Premier Consulting Partner, Slalom. “We’ve grown up using on-prem,” said Kohrman. “That skill set is just different. We can’t depend on the same people who have been doing that their whole careers to be the ones moving us forward.” Using an AWS Partner has allowed Region 4 ESC to start its transformation while concurrently working to upskill its staff with training from Slalom and AWS’s vast documentation library.
Scaling to serve students
The cloud lowers many tangible barriers to innovation— lower costs, decreased time to market, smaller teams—but it also supports educators to embrace the intangible and imagine what’s possible. Kohrman has been inspired by the focus groups he’s watched as his team prepares to move to the cloud. “It was really eye-opening to me to see the ideas and innovation that came from the people that use this every day.” And Coats is encouraging his whole team to look toward the future of their technology by mandating a half day of professional development each week.
To Kohrman’s point, to scale, technology must serve the needs of students, teachers, and administrators across K12. “At the end of the day,” says Salva, getting to the heart of what drives innovation in education, “We’re talking about people—people learning.”
Explore how AWS can help your K12 organization scale to serve students in your school or district.
Over 14,000 education institutions of all sizes—from primary and secondary schools through higher education—use AWS to provide flexible, affordable technology solutions that support their core mission and deliver on their most strategic institutional priorities. Learn more at AWS for Education.
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