Manitoba schools migrate to portal platform

Manitoba is teaching kids how to use the Internet by moving students over to the latest in portal technology.

Manitoba Education Research Learning Information Networks, or “”Merlin,”” is a special operating agency of the Manitoba

government that provides technology services to the province’s school system. Merlin is in the middle of moving K-12 students, administrators and teachers to a common Internet platform based on Sun Microsystems‘ Sun One portal technology.

“”What we wanted to do was provide a platform that would allow kids to develop the technology skills that are required by province in the curriculum,”” says Merlin’s chief operating officer Greg Baylis.

The Sun One platform will provide students access to e-mail, calendaring, Web storage and file storage. They will be able to access their assignments and schedules from school, home, or any location that’s Internet-enabled because the system is browser-based.

“”One of the problems they were trying to solve was, everybody had e-mail but it was all different and it was incompatible,”” explains Sun One director of business management and marketing David Bryant. “”They wanted that level of consistency and ubiquity that they could get through a browser.””

The problem with teaching students, particularly young children, about using the Web, says Baylis, is that Internet is littered with pitfalls. “”If you send me a get-rich-quick spam message, I can probably figure out that I’m not going to get $50 million from Nigeria, but a kid in Grade 5 probably isn’t at that level,”” he says.

The advantage of the Sun portal is that it’s a closed network. The only way to gain access is through a password-protected log-in provided directly to a student by their school.

“”You don’t teach your kid to ride his bike on a highway, you teach him on a less crowded street where it’s safe. So the idea is to create an environment that protects against the worst stuff, and they can make all their mistakes within that environment,”” says Baylis.

The network is also protected by a Sophos virus checker and an anti-spam tool and content filter from Iron Mail. The network won’t be monitored, per se, but students attempting to send questionable material or swear in an e-mail will be blocked and a notification will be sent to administration.

That policy won’t be in effect across the board and it will be up to individual schools to set up their own policies for students. Grade 12 students, for example, might be granted the same privileges as teachers and administrators, says Baylis.

Another advantage of a decentralized Web environment is that it can be managed from almost any location and administrative responsibities can be meted out to different schools so “”there’s not a need for a single IT staff for processing requests (like), ‘I forgot my password,'”” says Bryant.

The project was first announced in January. This month the system is being tested and is expected to go live in May from the host facility, the University of Manitoba. The portal will be available to 800 schools and 200,000 students across the province, but Baylis expects a gradual embrace of the technology. He estimates that 75,000 students will be online with Sun One by the fall.

A number of alternatives were considered before going with Sun on the project, but portal technology seemed like the obvious answer, given the expense that putting IT into every schools district would incur. About 40 per cent of Manitoba students live in rural or remote areas, “”so they’re really happy to see the province providing (the portal), so they can get access to some of the same types of technology that school divisions in the cities get.””


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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