Interview | CloudConnect with Pearson’s Steve Curtis

With more than 20 years experience in managing the development of software applications and solutions in the pre-K through 12 education market, Steve Curtis has held executive positions at World Institute for Computer Assisted Teaching, Jostens Learning and PlaNet Software. He co-founded Edustructures, a leading provider of Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) products and services, in 2001. Acquired by Pearson in 2007, Edustructures is now the Data Solutions Group of Pearson. A driving force behind SIF, the Data Solutions Group has been involved in hundreds of SIF implementations across the U.S. and abroad. Steve has served on the SIF board of directors and has been instrumental in the SIF Association and has been a key evangelist for SIF and enterprise interoperability solutions. SIF makes it possible for programs within a school or district to share data without the bother of additional programming and without requiring each vendor to learn and support the intracies of other vendor’s applications—all the more vital as more schools look to cloud-based solutions for their technology needs. In this informative interview, Steve shares his insights on interoperability, CloudConnect—and why it all matters.

Victor: What is Data Solutions?

Steve: The Data Solutions group of Pearson (formed in December 2007 when Pearson acquired Edustructures) provides innovative enterprise interoperability solutions for the PK-20 education market in three key areas:

Solutions for state education agencies (SEA). These robust, scalable integration solutions solve many of the common data challenges faced by SEAs today, including automated and flexible data collection, state reporting and analytics, management of unique student and staff identifiers, and loading of data warehouses.

Solutions for local education agencies (LEA), which include school districts, local educational authorities and regional consortiums. These standards-based solutions are used to connect disparate, mission-critical educational systems to facilitate the timely transfer of highly accurate education data.

Learner credential management solutions. These solutions include electronic transcripts and academic and professional record exchange solutions to automate exchange of data between LEAs, SEAs, colleges and universities, and employers.

Victor: What is CloudConnect?

Steve: CloudConnectTM is an identity management tool that simplifies and automates the setup, creation and management of student and staff accounts in Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education.

CloudConnect also provisions Microsoft Active Directory® using SIFWorks® Directory Manager, so IT admins can exchange student and staff identities between Active Directory and Microsoft Office 365 for Education using the data contained and managed within an existing SIF-compliant student information system.

As students and staff move in and out of a district or transfer between schools, CloudConnect automatically provisions or de-provisions their Office 365 for Education account, greatly simplifying administrative updates and maintenance needs. This frees up time and valuable IT resources, as it is no longer necessary to set up and configure Office 365 for Education user accounts individually for new or existing students or staff.

Victor: Why did the people at the Data Solutions group of Pearson create CloudConnect?

Steve: The Data Solutions group’s focus is providing innovative, proven solutions for enterprise interoperability in the PK-20 education market. SIFWorks® Directory Manager, our integration and management solution for Microsoft Active Directory, has been leading the market in features and capabilities, and for a number of years, that product has been providing customers with provisioning support for Active Directory, Microsoft Exchange and Terminal Server.

When Microsoft introduced Live@edu (which is now named Office 365 for Education), it made their customers’ lives easier by moving management and physical hosting of those services into the “cloud.” Adding support for this new set of cloud-based services from our integration platform was a natural next step for us.

We also believe it is a natural next step for our customers to continue using automation to manage the provisioning and de-provisioning of all of the users across the educational enterprise. School districts that are using Office 365 for Education are still going to have to manage accounts locally in their network Active Directory installation. Without automation, synchronization of accounts both locally and in the cloud is going to be a management headache for IT administrators.

CloudConnect makes this easy and even synchronizes passwords so that whether students are logging in to local computers in the computer lab, or logging into their email or instant messaging app on smartphones, they have a consistent login.

Even more importantly, when students and staff leave the district, their accounts are automatically de-provisioned on both sides, so accounts, user lists and distribution groups stay clean and consistent, and stay that way all year.

Victor: What are the benefits of CloudConnect to schools, districts, states?

Steve: CloudConnect automates provisioning of Office 365 for Education accounts to exchange student and staff records using the existing student information system. CloudConnect offers significant cost savings when compared with manual integration, and is compatible with any SIF-certified student information system. Some of its features include synchronized sign-on, provisioning of Office 365 for Education groups, customization for access and account control, user permissions and password policies.

In addition, CloudConnect is built on top of the same flexible scripting platform that is used by SIFWorks® Directory Manager, allowing virtually unlimited flexibility for IT administrators with unique needs.

Victor: How is CloudConnect unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Steve: Microsoft provides a set of tools for managing Office 365 for Education, including a script-based tool called GALSync and Microsoft’s Forefront Identity Manager, a separate product that can be licensed and installed. Both of these tools require IT training or hiring a consultant to set up, and are based on nightly or weekly batch-style processing.

CloudConnect is unique because it’s based on the leading data standard for PK-12 education, which is SIF. SIF is a real-time interoperability standard, which enables accounts to be created and managed in real time as data is entered into the student information system. There are many integrators for Office 365 for Education in the

Microsoft consulting space, but we’re not aware of any other solution that is based on SIF automation.

Victor: What impact can an identity management tool, such as CloudConnect, have on student achievement?

Steve: CloudConnect will enable better communication and collaboration between teachers and students, and prevent students from missing out on access to communication tools, creating a more productive learning environment.

Victor: When was it developed? What’s something interesting or relevant about CloudConnect’s development history?

Steve: CloudConnect was developed during the second half of 2010. During its development, we decided to develop support for both the U.S. and U.K. markets simultaneously, because of similar interests and needs in both markets.

Victor: Where did CloudConnect originate? Where can you get it now?

Steve: CloudConnect originated out of our development efforts and work with our SIFWorks® Directory Manager product for Active Directory. CloudConnect is available directly from the Data Solutions group, at 877-790-1261.

Victor: How much does CloudConnect cost? What are the options?

Steve: There’s a $1,200 implementation fee for CloudConnect plus $0.25 per student for a subscription license agreement or $0.75 per student for a perpetual license agreement.

There are many options for mapping fields from SIF to fields within the Office 365 for Education account, including patterns for creating usernames and passwords. In addition, distribution groups can be created and synchronized with groups created within a local Active Directory.

Victor: Who is CloudConnect for, who is it not for?

Steve: CloudConnect is for any PK-12 school district that wants or needs to take advantage of cloud computing, and Microsoft’s cloud offerings.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating CloudConnect?

Steve: The development of CloudConnect was informed by my experiences in both the education market and the technology industry. However, CloudConnect is actually not an educational software product, but an enabling technology based on Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education. All of this is new technology that didn’t exist two years ago. CloudConnect will enable better communication and collaboration between teachers and students, and lower administrative overhead for IT administrators at the district level.

Victor: How does CloudConnect address some of your concerns about education?

Steve: CloudConnect simplifies the creation and administration of accounts. Because of its automation, students and teachers don’t have to wait (sometimes weeks) for an administrator to provision accounts for new students. New students can walk into the classroom, and their Office 365 for Education account will have already been created and be ready for their use — there won’t be any lag with the main office coordinating the setup of the account. What this means is that teachers can focus on teaching and not have to work around or chase down administrative IT resources to have new student accounts provisioned.

Victor: How is the Data Solutions group of Pearson helping to make the vision of SIF a reality?

Steve: SIF is the only data standard that has broad acceptance across the PK-12 sector. SIF is required for most new state PK-12 education business, and many school districts require SIF for any major new procurements for educational and/or data technology.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Steve: There will be other innovative products and solutions such as CloudConnect in the not-too-distant future that will make it even easier to connect, share ideas and collaborate and, ultimately, improve teaching and learning for students.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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