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Highlander Institute: Adapting Technology to Better Match Organizational Mission and Vision
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Highlander Institute: Adapting Technology to Better Match Organizational Mission and Vision


The Highlander Institute, located in Providence, R.I., is an education non-profit working around the country to support schools with new ways of imagining learning for children. Highlander Institute cultivates and disseminates innovative education solutions that improve educator and system capacity to provide personalized experiences for every learner in a rapidly changing and complex world. Through the Institute, thousands of educators have had the opportunity to learn about emerging educational technology trends, converse with colleagues and experts, and exchange best practices to better educate 21st century learners.

Since 2005, Highlander Institute has become the leading state provider of technical assistance and professional development related to the integration of personalized and blended learning models. Through its targeted work, the Institute focuses on creating student-centered, tailored learning environments, and improving teaching and learning across Rhode Island and throughout the country.

An example of this in action in Rhode Island is the initiative to ignite education through blended learning with the Fuse RI blended learning model. Fuse RI is a grant-funded program run by the Highlander Institute that leverages statewide educators through a fellowship program. Fuse RI fellows are paired for a two-year consultancy engagement and placed in a participating district or charter that is not their own, creating a large interrelated system for cross-district collaboration. This also allows Highlander to become a “connecter” among the different entities in the education space, including educators, EdTech companies, policy makers and researchers – and help act as a “translator” between those different worlds.

A large part of Highlander Institute’s work also focuses on research and development, specifically around how to measure impact. It becomes increasingly hard to pinpoint the exact impact on students or at the educator level, and as a result, the organization’s data and analytics team is doing a growing number of evaluations to get a clearer picture of how initiatives are directly affecting education. This team is consistently collecting data using a walk-through tool that brings researchers into about 200 classrooms, four times a year, where they can measure if educators are exhibiting growth by using a framework that shows if classrooms are becoming more personalized, or meeting the needs of students in a better way.

These and the Institute’s many other successful initiatives have led to tremendous growth. Its team went from 4 -1/2 staff members three years ago to more than 20 at present. As a result, Highlander Institute needed to grow its footprint in terms of space, and also needed to expand its rapidly growing technology infrastructure.

Implementing New Technology Solutions to Meet Changing Needs

All of the data to support Highlander Institute’s programs, R&D, and daily business needs has to live somewhere! With the prior cable network solution that Highlander had, there were certain limits to download versus upload speeds. While there may have been enough download speed to meet the staff’s needs, there were constantly issues with uploads. For example, Highlander’s team wanted to upload certain files to store in the cloud. Uploading these files actually took more than a day of one machine running nonstop to accomplish. Buying more bandwidth from the former provider did not really make a difference on upload speeds – and while the Institute could have subscribed for a higher level, the cable solution didn’t provide the upload speeds it was looking for at a reasonable price.

“Our whole back-end solution is cloud-based,” said Eric Butash, director of operations at Highlander Institute. “If we can’t get online, we are in trouble.”

With technology being a central part of Highlander Institute’s mission, no one understands the importance of fast and reliable internet better than they do. OSHEAN took the time to understand the goals of the Institute, the pain points experienced with its previous provider, and developed a solution to address these challenges.

One of the first projects that Highlander Institute chose to partner with OSHEAN on was its EdTechRI program. Blended learning requires both dedicated educators and products that are well suited to support classroom educators at scale – and there is no “Consumer Reports” for EdTech products. EdTechRI bridges the gap between educators and EdTech companies to foster collaboration and bring innovative educational technology products into the classroom.

As part of EdTechRI, Highlander created a short-cycle research project to test the efficacy of EdTech products in the classroom. Rhode Island is one of eight testbed sites funded by the Gates Foundation to test blended learning products in classrooms using a short-cycle research model. The goal is to design a process by which EdTech companies and district purchasers can receive feedback from product trials lasting between 10 and 20 weeks, rather than the traditional two-year studies that currently exist.

Through this testbed initiative, the Institute sought to expand the current ecosystems of blended learning educators, leaders, and classrooms - as well as its network of high-quality software developers and entrepreneurs. This project had strict data guidelines and agreements, and the wealth of data collected needed to reside somewhere secure.

The testbed leveraged OSHEAN’s Virtual Private Cloud service that includes private, high-speed access to a world-class cloud infrastructure supported by NaviSite. This dedicated and trusted route offers OSHEAN members a level of performance and predictability that cannot be achieved by public cloud service providers. After working on this initial project with OSHEAN, Highlander knew definitively that it wanted to be part of the OSHEAN network.

As a subscriber to OSHEAN’s suite of IP Services, Highlander Institute’s internet connectivity speeds have been increased by more than 50x and latency has been significantly lowered. It is also able to directly connect to 94% of the K-12 school districts and 50+ private, parochial, and charter schools in RI that already choose OSHEAN as their Internet Service Provider (ISP). This superior level of connectivity enables Highlander to better fulfill its mission, do more work faster, and take advantage of technologies such as cloud infrastructure and high-definition video services in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with its previous provider.

With OSHEAN, upload and download speeds are the same. Butash noted that Highlander Institute went from 15 lanes of Internet traffic to about 300 lanes of traffic available when everyone was online. “I ran a test when everyone was active at the office and we still had 300MBs of Internet speed available, which was out of this world. We are finally getting the capacity out of our equipment,” continued Butash. “We previously had frequent internet issues, but we haven’t had one since we put the OSHEAN equipment in.”

Butash also noted that there are significant benefits to being on the same network that the majority of its schools are on. Now, the Institute can potentially host a solution and share it across the whole network without having competing internet services. Furthermore, being part of the OSHEAN network offers a lot more opportunities in terms of collaborating – including more options for collaborating electronically, with different systems or cloud-based options. Additionally, as a national non-profit organization in education, being a member of a Research and Education Network (REN) like OSHEAN creates possibilities of connecting with like-minded organizations that are part of other national REN networks.

Another benefit for Highlander Institute is the caching server set up with entities such as Google, Netflix and others. All members that subscribe to OSHEAN IP services are able to access private peering via OSHEAN’s Enriched Internet Services. As a result, OSHEAN has the ability to keep this traffic “On-Net” (it stays local and avoids the commercial Internet because it is switched through OSHEAN routers) for better performance and cost savings. As Highlander Institute runs on the Google platform, this caching service helps with its bandwidth needs as the organization continues to grow.

“I can’t think of a better solution than the OSHEAN network, and the service has been phenomenal,” concluded Butash. “We are always alerted to what is happening in the network -- for example if there is an update planned -- which saves time, too. We never had that with our previous provider.”

Highlander Institute is also now evaluating video conferencing providers that it never had the option to look at before. Fifty percent of its staff can be on the road at any given time, and there are board members across the country. The Institute likes to host live board meetings and tie in the members that can’t be there. It used to rely on Google hangouts to self-adjust because of the bandwidth issues and the amount of users, but now with OSHEAN, the options are much greater.

But it’s not only technology that makes the Highlander & OSHEAN partnership valuable - it’s understanding, a joint mission, and a shared vision for education in Rhode Island (and beyond).



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