For years, cloud computing has been helping local and state governments provide applications that are accessible from any device. School districts and education programs are also joining the movement — in some unexpected places.

Educational Services of America (ESA) – a private company that provides alternative education programs for students at-risk of dropping out and for special needs students – says it has partnered with 230 public school districts in 21 states to help 12,000 students each year.

ESA has deployed Citrix cloud services to support desktop and Web-based applications in a single environment.  The cloud is helping students adhere to deadlines for standardized testing and other important timelines, company executives say.

Alan Watson, CIO of the ESA, said the program started using Citrix about three years ago with virtual desktops. ESA staff became familiar with virtual computing through ESA’s data center, since the company is operating a private Citrix cloud.

“As with everything in education, you have to go slowly,” Watson said. “You have to prove that it works.”

ESA shifted away from using PCs in its learning centers and began to transition to the use of thin clients. The ESA no longer has had to put Microsoft Windows software and other products in its existing computing environment, and is finishing the conversion later this year.

Watson said shifting to a virtualized environment was the best way to address the ESA’s small IT staff.

After developing a comfort level with the virtualized desktops, the ESA began to introduce apps to its virtualized platform — apps accessible from any device that students would use to complete course curricula. With the cloud technology students can use their device of choice, such as a laptop or tablet.

Watson said many of ESA’s students can’t afford higher-end tablets, so the company issues computing devices to the majority of its students.

And because access to the software is no longer limited to computers on-site at ESA learning centers, students no longer have to come to one of those centers to use those applications. They can work from home or elsewhere.

ESA students typically don’t intersect with traditional public school programs other than for standardized tests and other state-mandated standards. However, the students still operate on similar timelines as public schools. Because software use requirements can vary from school district to school district, Watson said the cloud has helped the ESA test and deploy software within days as opposed to weeks or months, like the program had done in the past.

Besides what Watson says is slower-than-ideal rollout of technology in education, he said ESA didn’t face challenges when deploying the cloud.

The initial million-dollar rollout may seem like a hefty price tag, particularly with similar technology being developed specifically for education. But Watson said costs incurred in the past when purchasing new PCs made it more cost effective for the ESA to switch to thin clients. Moving to the cloud also reduced operating costs since the ESA’s IT staff didn’t have to travel as much to attend to computer problems.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.