District goes online to help students

SD42 first in B.C. to offer
students free file-sharing, email and Microsoft apps

David  Vandergugten

David Vandergugten

When students in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows return to school next week, they will have a new resource to help them navigate the high-tech world that awaits them.

Thanks to a partnership with software giant Microsoft, the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district will be the first in the province to offer students their own free email and online file-sharing accounts.

Students will be offered a 10 GB email account, as well as 25 GB of additional online file storage, allowing them to create an online portfolio of their work that will stay with students from kindergarten to Grade 12.

Called Live@edu, the program is designed to allow students, teachers, and administrators to communicate and share files seamlessly within a controlled online environment using Microsoft’s “cloud computing” model.

“Our kids are already out there in cyberspace, but those systems are not vetted, and they aren’t controlled,” said David Vandergugten, the district’s advanced technology director.

While similar services exist for free online, with Live@edu, the district will maintain administrative rights over students’ email and file-sharing accounts. While teachers and school administration won’t have open access to a student’s account, should an issue arise, the district’s IT department can access the student’s files.

The network is closed for elementary students, meaning that only teachers, administration and classmates can communicate via a student’s email.

Once a student reaches high school, the network restrictions are removed, allowing the student’s email account to function just like any other email service, such as Gmail or Hotmail.

Students’ accounts will also be equipped with anti-virus and anti-spam software, as well as anti-bullying software, which blocks messages with abusive text.

The Live@edu program is the district’s latest attempt to incorporate technology in the classroom. While the move towards greater use of technology in the classroom has the potential to leave some underprivileged children behind, as school board trustee Stepan Vdovine noted at Wednesday’s school board meeting, Vandergugten believes the Live@edu program will make technology more accessible for poorer families.

Firstly, Live@edu allows students free access to web-based versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

“Not everyone can afford $150 for the Microsoft office suite,” said Vandergugten. “With this program everyone can use the same versions of this software, no matter what computer they are on.”

Secondly, because the applications are web-based, they are accessible by any computer with Internet access, allowing students without computers to work on assignments at a library, or on a classmate’s computer.

It also means that very basic, inexpensive computers can be used to access the service.

“You don’t need a brand new computer to run the latest software,” said Richard Eskandar, the district’s IT manager. “Any computer capable of accessing the internet can run this.

“This will breathe new life into old hardware.”

The district has also entered into an agreement with Toshiba computers that will net the district one free computer for every 10 bought by the district, or by parents of students taking part in the Grade 8 one-to-one laptop program.

The district has already received six free computers, which will be distributed to students hoping to take part in the program, but unable to afford a computer of their own.

In fact, a computer may not even be necessary, as a smartphone will also be able to access the applications.

“Our policy is that access is key,” said Eskandar.

While a number of universities already use similar systems, School District No. 42 is the first public school district in the province to offer the service to students. Microsoft has given the district a $10,000 rebate on the service for being the first to implement such a program.

As a result, the service is costing the district just $5,000.

“Five thousand dollars to get this sort of service is very low,” said Vandergugten. “They are hoping we will be the flagship for the rest of the province.”

Vandergugten said the service will also save the district money by not having to rely on its own servers to host district staff email accounts, and by saving on licensing costs for Microsoft office software.

A student’s email and file-sharing account will be activated upon the return of a parental consent form being sent out this week. Because the information will be stored on Microsoft’s servers in the United States, any information would be subject to the U.S. Patriot Act.

“Johnny’s social study homework might be opened by the Pentagon,” said Vandergugten. “I don’t know why they would do that, but they may.”

All U.S.-based email services, such as Gmail and Hotmail, are subject to the same legislation, he noted.