For small educational institutions such as Central Wyoming College (CWC), enhancing the student experience is a critical part of maintaining enrolment. Today’s students want and need access to flexible tools for working with their classmates, as well as communicating with teachers. 'We have to provide as many services as a larger college, such as applications that work on mobile devices,' says John Wood, CIO of Central Wyoming College. 'But costs have to remain fixed. We can’t double the size of the IT department or double our budget, so a cloud-based model seemed like the right fit.'
Cloud-based tools could also respond to the unique challenges faced by a community college in a rural area, with students, teachers and staff travelling long distances to get to school. The school’s 2,000 students are spread across four campuses as well as remote wilderness sites for its Outdoor Education programme. 'It’s extremely hard for our students to get together in person,' Wood says.
At the same time, students are being encouraged to work in teams. 'Collaboration among students is much more common than it was several years ago,' Wood says. Professors assign projects to groups of students, not single students. Collaboration has become the norm on the staff side as well, Wood adds: 'I can’t think of the last time I worked on a project by myself.'
"With Gmail, we provision new accounts – and that’s about it. We let Google take care of sorting out the spam."John Wood, CIO, Central Wyoming College
Off-campus access to email and documents - without 'sneakernet'
CWC’s existing email and file storage systems did not offer flexibility for students and staff in terms of where and how they worked. They had to be on campus to access email and stored documents. People who needed to transport files from school to home used 'sneakernet' strategies, such as USB drives or external hard drives. Besides posing security issues, such as exposing networks to viruses, the process could create multiple versions of key documents.
Wood believed that the cloud and cost-effectiveness were the two key ingredients for updated email, storage and productivity tools that could be accessed anywhere. Email was tackled first, and Gmail replaced CWC’s on-campus email system. Besides the fact that G Suite for Education tools are free to schools, Wood found his IT department also saved money and time.
'The on-premise email required more staff and more servers to manage,' Wood says. 'With Gmail, we provision new accounts – and that’s about it. We let Google take care of sorting out the spam, which used to be a never-ending problem for IT.' For a small IT department, Wood says, being able to cross such tasks off their list 'is a godsend.'
Putting a collaborative spin on budget planning
As students and staff began using other G Suite tools, such as Google Sheets and Google Meet, they discovered new ways to team up even if they weren’t in the same classroom, library or conference room. Professors and staff can choose to work remotely as needed, and cut down on long commutes to CWC campuses. 'Their collaboration can now take place in other ways,' Wood says. 'Meet are becoming popular, since students can use them to meet face to face when they’re not on campus.'
With G Suite, students have every tool that they need to create academic papers or share research with classmates. 'They don’t need to worry about buying a student version of Microsoft Office,' Wood says. 'That’s a home run for us and them. I don’t have to worry about people installing outside software, or installing it incorrectly.'
Even budget spreadsheets are getting a collaborative spin. Administrators used to email spreadsheets back and forth to solicit updates and approvals, increasing the introduction of errors – or people making changes who weren’t authorised to update the budgets. Today, Woods and other department leaders can create a single spreadsheet in Google Sheets, and add user permissions cell by cell.
'That’s been a powerful tool – much better than shuffling paper or emails back and forth,' Wood says. 'People can’t simply override data in cells if they don’t have permission.'
With students and staff 'owning' permissions, they can take control of who gets to share their work. 'You used to have to rely on IT admins to share documents and folders,' Wood says. 'Now the users can decide.'
Free, cloud-based tools are helping CWC provide a better learning experience for students, without adding costs. 'Even simple tools help us drive down costs and save time,' Wood says. 'For example, something like travel requisitions – we used to run paper forms back and forth, but now we can create a shared Google form for everyone to review.'
As collaboration becomes a must-have in teaching and the work world, Wood sees long-term benefits for students who are embracing G Suite before they start their careers. 'The comments and suggestions that students share are helping them work better together,' Wood says. 'and just as important, they’re building the soft skills that they’ll need to collaborate in the workplace.'
"As students share comments and suggestions, they’re building the skills that they’ll need to collaborate in the workplace."John Wood, CIO, Central Wyoming College