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    Ontario school board putting learners first in digital-first era

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    In early 2020, many educational institutions across Canada were ill-prepared to support remote learning. However, for the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario (CDSBEO), the drive to innovate is helping fulfil their vision and desire to put their learners first even after mandatory regulations for remote learning begin to lift.

    The CDSBEO currently serves roughly 13,000 students in 39 schools in eight counties in Eastern Ontario, and employs approximately 1,400 staff and faculty. “In terms of size we’re not on the scale of, say, the Toronto District School Board,” said James Proulx, CIO at CDSBEO, “but 13,000 is still a lot of students – each with their own particular path and way of learning.”

    Proulx said the CDSBEO’s focus on putting learners’ needs first has driven its adoption of the newest technology, which makes it easier to accommodate virtually any kind of learner. “In an age of differentiated learning, we’re always looking for ways to be progressive and proactive. Technology has been instrumental in making that happen.”

    Many businesses now offer their staff a hybrid workplace, said Proulx. “But in education, and specifically with children, there are complexities. There are layers. With this in mind, we have managed to successfully pivot to a unified cloud environment without negatively impacting the quality of our students’ education. We may take pride in this, but at the end of the day it’s something we knew we had to do.”

    Unified and Secure

    Today’s students live in a connected world – one vastly different from that of their parents and teachers. Advanced technology, once considered a nice educational add-on and aid to learning, is now expected to work seemlessly as part of a rich educational experience.

    The CDSBEO began its move to the cloud several years ago as part of a strategic digital transformation. From the get-go, the school district’s executive team knew that it wanted a unified technology environment – one that not only students and teachers but also admin staff and families could use without a steep learning curve.

    “We knew from past experience what problems arise from a disjointed IT environment,” said Proulx. “Without an integrated approach, weaknesses can occur in accessibility and how that affects the student’s experience. It can also impact areas like security.”

    “We committed to using Microsoft 365, with Windows 10 and a robust array of security features, to cover all our bases. With Microsoft, users have access to their files pretty much anywhere; and with Microsoft security being so strong, students and teachers are free to dedicate their full energies to learning with peace of mind.”

    The CDSBEO as an organization sees digital transformation as a journey or process as opposed to a single dramatic event. Its board is now evaluating other technologies like Microsoft Power Platform, including Power Automate and Power BI for deeper insight into the operation of its entire digital infrastructure.

    “Microsoft was the only technology provider we found with a complete ecosystem, from devices to OS to cloud services and security,” says Proulx. “I don’t have a large IT staff, but by using the Microsoft ecosystem, my team can be very agile and efficient.”

    Security-wise, the CDSBEO is on a much stronger footing now, having adopted Microsoft Defender for Endpoint, Microsoft Defender for Cloud, Microsoft Sentinel, Microsoft Defender for Cloud Apps, and Azure Active Directory with multifactor authentication. Said Proulx: “I now have a true security group, with great vision and a super-quick response to potential threats,” says Proulx. “In a weekly security meeting we review our Microsoft security score, and are always working to improve.”

    Accelerated Journey

    The global pandemic had the effect of jolting many organizations onto a digital path who before 2020 might have been just talking about digital transformation with little to no urgency. According to Proulx, the CDSBEO was already well down the digital road before the pandemic.

    “Like any other school district, we had to think and move fast in early 2020 to support students and teachers who were suddenly now operating from home,” he said. “We turned to Microsoft Teams to support remote learning as well as teaching, including conducting classes, holding report card interviews, and posting school assignments.”

    But as Proulx said, the quick shift could have been much more difficult had the CDSBEO not already been on a digital-first track. “Our cloud journey was far enough advanced that we were nimble and had flexibility. A couple of weeks into March of 2020, we had all our virtual learners and teachers up and running.”

    Powering IT in 2022 and Beyond

    By embracing a cloud-first environment and leveraging all that Microsoft has to offer digital-first organizations, the CDSBEO has become a leader in education technology.

    “We have done remarkably well considering all that has happened,” he said. “We’ve given staff and students the tools they need to excel, whether they’re learning at home or in the classroom. From an admin perspective, I see a structure that will perform, no matter what disruption comes along. The pandemic hasn’t deterred us, and in fact, by testing our mettle, it may actually have made us stronger.”

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    Glenn Weir
    Content writer at IT World Canada. Book lover. Futurist. Sports nut. Once and future author. Would-be intellect. Irish-born, Canadian-raised.