Alberta teachers learn collaboration

Alberta educators are getting some valuable lessons on collaboration as the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) embarks on a five-year IT restructuring program, centered on a new browser-based information portal.

Running on Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server 2003, this site will serve as a central repository where all information will be stored, accessed and shared by members. ATA wants the portal to serve as a single, comprehensive resource, replacing individual Web sites of the association’s 82 subgroups.

“Right now each subgroup (has) its own (Web site),” said Patricia Dalton, coordinator of operations for ATA, based in Edmonton, Alberta. She said a single, secure and comprehensive site would improve communication between subgroups.

Collectively the subgroups – which include specialists in various educational fields and – serve ATA’s 33,000 members, and resolve their grievances.

Dalton said ATA is still developing the SharePoint portal architecture, identifying features and capabilities to be integrated into it.

SharePoint will be a critical tool for the association, according to Jeff Zado, senior product manager for Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada Co.

Being such a huge organization, ATA generates a great deal of information, Zado said. Members, he said, need a single access point for all that data – whether Word documents or Excel spreadsheets — and also need one version that’s accurate, up to date and secure.”

He said ATA wanted to start from scratch and re-build the entire IT infrastructure. This made sense considering the disparity of its existing applications – Lotus Notes for communication, Word Perfect for word processing, and a highly customized Oracle-based financial system and teacher information network.

According to Dalton, ATA wanted to provide its new records management and financial system to all our subgroups, so it needed a robust, easy-to-use system.

The association also wanted to use the same communications tools as its members. Most members use Windows-based operating systems, which made it difficult for them to open or manipulate e-mail attachments in Word Perfect format.

“Not being able to speak the same language as our teachers is very difficult,” Dalton said.

After reviewing various vendor offerings, ATA settled on a Microsoft-based platform that will centralize its IT operations, while improving compatibility and communications.

ATA began the transition process two years ago by adopting Microsoft’s Windows XP and switching its e-mail system to Outlook. Simple as it may seem, this initial transition meant a lot for the ATA members. Finally, the ATA and its members are communicating on the same level, Dalton said.

The next three years (in the five-year rollout plan) will be dedicated to implementing centralized and automated records management, financial management, case management and events management.

This will be accomplished through Microsoft Business Solutions’ Great Plains software.

For this project, ATA is working with Softworks Group Inc., a consulting firm based in Edmonton specializing in association management.

ATA will also be running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft Active Directory, which would contain information on all the members in a central location to ensure the whole system acts accordingly, said Zado.

In addition, ATA will use Microsoft .Net connection software to ensure system interoperability and to implement necessary customization.

“.Net allows the creative solution that ATA never had before for sharing information and collaboration. It can also expand based upon the needs, as membership go up or different business problems arise, they can be assured that the .Net framework underlying all of the solutions they have can be extensible,” Zado said.

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