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Chicago Public Schools get high marks by going Google

Posted by Lachlan Tidmarsh, CIO, Chicago Public Schools

Editor's note: Today’s guest blogger is Lachlan Tidmarsh, Chief Information Officer for the Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the United States. Chicago is one of many districts that have moved to Google Apps for Education. Join the Google team at FETC and BETT this week to learn more.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is a diverse learning community that encompasses 681 schools, including 472 elementary schools, 106 high schools and 96 charter schools. With over 40,000 teachers, administrators and support staff across the city working to improve the education of Chicago children, communication and collaboration are essential.

Technology can play a vital role in making the teaching and learning experience as effective and rewarding as possible. For years CPS relied on two different communication systems—Microsoft Outlook used by administrators and principals, and OpenText FirstClass used by our teachers. Even after federal subsidies, our cost to run these systems exceeded $2 million per year. Having two different systems was frustrating for users and remote access was clunky.

After deciding to move to a single consolidated system, we vetted our two final options—Google and Microsoft— with our teachers and administrators. The decision was overwhelmingly to go with Google Apps for Education. For one thing, many of our schools were already using Google Apps and were enthusiastic about the collaboration capabilities. From an executive management viewpoint, Google Apps would save the district millions of dollars each year. Who could argue with that?

Of course, we had to ensure that the applications were secure, that they met our functional requirements, and that our people were productive on day one. We engaged Google Apps partner SADA Systems to help with the migration and training, and set a goal of finishing before the start of the 2012 school year. Between March 28, when we signed the contract, and August 20, we migrated 270,000 administrators, teachers and students to Google Apps. It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen.

We had staffed up our help desk but had very low call volumes and little drama. The real key to this was strong communication from the get-go and well-planned training. We established “Google Heroes” in each school to lead the charge. Our “Heroes” were critical to ensuring we had at least one trained user in each school from day one. As a result, many of our teachers and principals knew what was coming and when. We also offered a variety of additional training options for faculty and staff, including online tutorials, blogs, and classroom-based instruction. In follow-up surveys of trainees, we received satisfaction levels of 80% and higher for both the training and the tools.

When school started in fall, many teachers immediately began sharing assignments with students through Google Drive. As the year progresses, they continue to find new ways to enhance the educational experience inside and outside the classroom using Google Apps. For example, some teachers create daily quizzes in Google Forms to determine if students have understood key concepts and adapt the next day’s lesson plan accordingly. In the case of a major weather event such as a snowstorm, we can use Google Apps to efficiently coordinate school operations and make sure students know where they can go to for safety.

For Chicago Public Schools, Google Apps is fundamentally transforming both educational and administrative processes for the better – all while saving us millions of dollars each year.