Alberta Teachers’ Association plans broad MS rollout

The Alberta Teachers’ Association is taking this week to reassess its IT strategy before it continues with a broad initiative to standardize on Microsoft software.

Some of the association’s applications have already moved over,

including a shift from Corel office products to Microsoft Office, and a migration from Lotus Notes to Outlook. As part of a five-year plan, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) has said it will also install Windows XP, Active Directory, Microsoft Great Plains business intelligence software and establish a SharePoint portal for all its 33,000 members.

ATA director of operations Patricia Dalton said she presented the strategic plan and got a financial commitment from the teachers about two years ago. Since then, however, many of the association’s 82 subgroups, which may include specialist councils creating curricula, are being factored in according to their application needs. 

“We don’t want to overwhelm our staff,” she said. “We have a good idea of the databases and the information that we want to get. We have a classification system, a lot of the database building blocks. We’ve been talking about if we are going portal. Next week it will be back to tactical details and how to roll all this out.”

Dalton said she helped develop the strategic plan after joining the ATA four years ago and encountering system crashes that left employee systems down about 60 per cent of the time. The teachers’ unions were also going through labour unrest around the same time, which also put more demands on mission-critical systems, she said. Tying its legacy Oracle system for managing teacher data with its financial systems wasn’t going well either, and the association was having trouble finding the IT expertise it needed.

The ATA narrowed down a short-list of about groups of firms after issuing a request for proposals (RFP), but in the end it didn’t choose any of them. Instead, it cherry-picked specific firms to deal with specific sub-projects.

“No one could show me that they had done (a project of this size) before,” she said.

Jeff Zado, senior product manager, development tools at Microsoft Canada, said the company employs a group of evangelists who will work with customers to understand the kind of information challenges they’re facing. He said the ATA’s approach reflected an effective way of evolving to a more reliable software platform.

“I can see the natural extension of people starting with Microsoft Office and to do that before implementing something like Microsoft Business Solutions-Great Plains,” he said. “Office is used fairly widely, especially with applications like Excel for understanding financial data. They’re leveraging those benefits from Office and then going to how to share this information globally using SharePoint.”

Dalton said she hopes the ATA will be in the second iteration of its Microsoft-based software platform within the next three and a half years, so that users will understand the strategic plan isn’t ending with the initial rollout. Besides greater uptime, she said she will be measuring the success of the project by the degree to which it fosters collaboration among the ATA’s distributed membership.

“I would feel great if every single teacher could open up their laptop and up would come the ATA portal,” she said. “They’d have their pedagogy, their online resources . . . if they belonged to a committee, their stuff would be right there.”

Microsoft said the ATA will also be using its .Net connectivity tools to integrate applications and customize them where necessary.

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