A 40-year veteran of public schools helps school districts overcome their technical difficulties.    

George Perreault most recently served as Director, Instructional Technology and Library Media at Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Florida, capping off a distinguished forty-year career as teacher, administrator, and technology leader.

During his time working in schools, Perreault guided OCPS through increasingly sophisticated use of technology in the classroom and across the district.

After retiring from his position as district administrator, ClassLink approached Perreault to join its growing team in the role of Chief Academic Officer so that he could continue advocating for the effective use of technology in education.

Having used the platform at OCPS, he saw firsthand how the company’s technology was changing the way teachers and students engaged with technology and with each other.

In this interview, we explore both the technical side of edtech, and a more general overview of the value technology can bring to education, namely: to school leaders, parents, and ultimately, to students.

We’ll return to some of your thoughts about edtech and education in general later, but let’s jump right in and start with a bit of a technical question. What is “account provisioning” and why does it matter (e.g., how does it relate to interoperability)?

George: Account provisioning in education refers to the movement of data from student information system (SIS) and human resources user lists into Microsoft Active Directory, Google Directory, and Office365. These directories serve as the backbone of user access, helping ensure that the right people, such as teachers and students, get to the right resources.

In many districts, where there are limited IT resources, this is often a manual task, manually created spreadsheets or even paper records. A technician must create the accounts by hand, resulting in a delay between the time a new student or employee enters the district and their ability to login to district resources.

In our case, ClassLink OneSync serves as a hub that connects any number of unlimited data sources, including student information, HR and OneRoster databases (or custom), to one or multiple directories, including Microsoft Active Directory, Azure/O365, and Google.

OneSync not only automates account provisioning, but enables reconciliation of data systems by identifying accounts in directories that are no longer valid. This is a significant step forward in how school districts can manage data security and privacy.

And, with ClassLink Roster Server, which leverages OneRoster™ from IMS Global Learning Consortium, schools can now seamlessly provision Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams simultaneously, something no platform could provide until now.

What are some of the unique challenges when it comes to account provisioning in education?

George: Sometimes education CIOs have to prioritize very technical problems that non-technical peers might not be aware of. But when a teacher can’t access her accounts, or a student can’t access learning resources, those problems become all too real, and the priority becomes very clear.

Account provisioning in education is particularly stressful on tech teams because data is in a constant state of change. Teachers come and go and students enroll or leave on a daily basis. This very fluid nature of data is challenging enough, but now schools are having to accommodate an increasingly disparate set of data systems, from HR to SIS to Google, Microsoft, and others.

So what had been, many years ago, a relatively straightforward issue of managing data flow from one place to another is now a complex tapestry of users, user types, systems, and destinations that changes daily.

If ever there was a time for a next-gen platform to simplify how these sources are woven together, it’s now.

Why did your company build OneSync? Could you describe a bit more of the behind the scenes development of this?

George: As we continue to drive innovation in education technology, it’s important to understand that a lot of behind the scenes work goes into creating meaningful engagement between students and teachers. This work includes everything from building the physical infrastructure to support a technology-rich environment or designing an ecosystem that enables access at the enterprise, classroom, and individual levels. And all of this work can thrive or come undone based on the efficacy and accuracy of account provisioning.

The company had been focused on users who already have a district identity and leveraged that identity to assist with rostering and single sign-on. Since we are passionate about students and teachers having easy access, we sought to tackle the issue of easily and quickly creating the user identity, allowing access promptly and bridging the gap between entry and access.

Initially, we were hesitant to enter this space, but our customer base, many of whom utilize the manual approach, urged us to create a tool to automate this process. Other districts, unhappy with the current solutions, due to their high cost and lack of flexibility approached us as well. They were frustrated with the opaque processes that vendors used to fix issues, often accompanied by additional fees. What districts needed was greater control through better visibility into this whole process.

How does it work?

George: OneSync takes lists from unlimited sources such as your student information system, human resources system, or any other database and automatically creates login accounts in Microsoft Active Directory, Google Directory and/or Office365’s Azure Directory.

OneSync also does something almost no other product does; it can bring back a list of users from Microsoft or Google and compare them to the student information system or human resources systems. With this, OneSync can automatically identify all the login accounts for students no longer enrolled or staff that have long since left the school.

What has been some of the initial feedback?

We’re garnering a lot of very positive feedback, perhaps best exemplified by comments from Ethan Caren, Coordinator of Information Services at Clay County Public Schools (FL). Ethan shared, “OneSync is a robust and effective directory management product that is pleasing to the eye and easy to use, backed by a knowledgeable staff of folks who embody a culture of customer service. OneSync standardizes for us what was previously handled by duplicated manual processes and scripting, which will save us hours of manual work and headaches.”

Okay. So, help me understand then, what is the relationship between OneSync account provisioning and Roster Server?

George: ClassLink OneSync automatically imports your student information system (SIS) and human resources user lists into Microsoft Active Directory, Google Directory, and Office365. So, in the simplest terms, this technology creates and maintains user accounts.

From there, Roster Server ensures those users have access to the appropriate digital learning tools. So, where OneSync is centered on account management, Roster Server is centered on delivering Certified OneRoster® CSV and API access of class rosters to any publisher or platform provider.

ClassLink’s Roster Server is designed so that schools do not send ClassLink their student data. Schools keep their data private and share it directly only with the online providers they choose. This approach is fundamentally different from outsourced data providers that consume, control, and distribute private student data from within their systems. This approach creates a dangerous gap between district tech teams and the data they are mandated to protect and use.

Together, ClassLink OneSync and Roster Server streamline the management of users from start to finish. Rather than toggling between a growing number of systems to ensure user identity accuracy in terms of access, permissions, and resources, we have brought these functions together into a simple console environment.

Your company is perhaps best known as a leading single sign-on provider, but the platform has expanded to include analytics, rostering, and now account provisioning. What’s behind the ongoing expansion?

George: Our growth and expansion over 20 years has always been driven by what school districts need, even as those needs have changed and evolved over the years.

When teachers and students needed easier access to fast-growing portfolios of digital resources, we introduced our single sign-on platform.

When tech leaders needed a faster, more secure way to move rosters into applications, we created Roster Server.

And, when district leaders needed to better understand how their investments in digital learning were being used, we brought Analytics into the platform.

Likewise, OneSync is our response to leaders who cited provisioning as a constant source of frustration. We aim to go where the our customers need us most, which is a guiding principle behind everything, from design and engineering to service and support.

From your perspective, what else should education IT leaders be thinking about as they evaluate platforms like yours?

George: There are some fundamentals that are worth considering anytime a school district is poised to engage with a new provider. In the case of single sign-on, rostering, analytics, and provisioning, we think schools need to be mindful of several important factors:

Inclusivity and Interoperability. Does the platform accommodate all manner of logins, from Microsoft and Google to QR Codes and Facial Recognition? And, are there any limiting factors on the applications that they can connect to, be they limitations on authentication protocols or constraints stemming from pay-to-play relationships between the platform and the applications it connects to.

Business Model. Is the business model looking out for the schools best interests? My comment about pay-to-play is important. If an SSO and Rostering platform is ostensibly free to schools but charges providers to appear, then those costs are inevitably finding their way back to schools, only without the schools having any control. We operate in a totally different paradigm, one that ensures we can and will work with any provider that serves a school system, with no hidden fees to them or to our school partners.

People. How committed is the provider to supporting their technology once it is implemented? In as much as we talk about technology, it is important to take measure the people behind the platforms. So we like it when districts ask: Do you have dedicated Support and Engagement teams? How accessible are your teams? What is your turnaround for support inquiries?

Ours is a relationship first and foremost between our people and the administrators, teachers, and students we serve. This, perhaps more than anything else, is why we are successful. Some of the most consistent feedback we receive is about the high quality of our customer service. It’s important that providers not only bring high quality technology, but high-caliber people to support it.

What do you believe is the role of technology in education?

George: The role of education is, as it has always been, to be a facilitator. I see no need to engage in debates about whether technology will supplant teachers. Anyone paying attention—much less those of us with experience in the classroom—recognize that technology is a tool to foster improved teaching and learning.

Whether that’s leveraging VR/AR tools to do a deep dive on concepts or utilizing single sign-on to give time back in the classroom, the role of technology—and the providers who deliver it—is to make teachers and students successful.

More broadly, what is the state of education?

George: Well, from my perspective, the State of Education is strong. I recognize that we have a long and growing list of challenges in education. Having worked in a school district for 40 years, I’ve seen how these challenges impeded progress. We experienced increasing pressure on student scores and district grading in the face of dwindling funding.

And yes, today’s trend towards polarization is creating conflict and safety concerns in the one place that they shouldn’t exist. So I get that we have a lot of issues.

However, the other thing about having worked in a school district for 40 years is that I’ve seen the resilience, innovation, and dedication that makes U.S. education so phenomenal. Our teachers are steadfast in their commitment to kids, and our students are innovating in ways I never thought possible.

And perhaps as importantly, our students are amplifying their voices and declaring greater ownership of their learning, thanks in large part to technology. So despite our challenges, I have a very optimistic outlook on the state of education.

From your perspective, what are some key edtech trends on the horizon?

George: I’m afforded the luxury of visiting schools around the country weekly, and talking with teachers, tech leaders, and district administrators daily. So with that as context, I’m tracking some of the most commonly acknowledged trends, such as the ongoing push for 1-to-1 computing and the increasingly central role of learning management systems. With that said, I see:

Districts

Districts increasingly holding their ground about pricing and data interoperability formats. Where publishers used to dictate the format of their data, they must now adhere to open data standards on a regular basis if they want to be in schools.

Superintendents

Superintendents are getting more involved in how technology platforms impact operations and learning outcomes. I find they are ever-more savvy about the technologies that their teams need, and this is an important trend that I hope will continue.

Curriculum Leaders

Curriculum leaders, likewise, have moved well beyond evaluating whether or not they should adopt digital learning resources and are now seeing the central, mission-critical role they play in engaging students. This underscores the need for products like those provided by our company, to ensure that issues of access, security, and ease-of-use are no longer barriers to success.

Parents

Parental and community engagement is changing in large part because our expectations about information accessibility has changed. If we can click a few buttons to find our banking, medical, and personal information, it stands to reason that we should be able to easily (and securely) access information about our students.

Our parent portal reflects the fact that parents increasingly prefer an app to the traditional backpack, and I suspect we’ll have to do more to engage parents through apps over time— which is a good thing.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com