I have the privilege of helping a new Bible College1 to get their ICT systems up and running. As the college is both young and small, and also because they are trying to remain affordable for students, one of the key goals is to keep expenses down. An additional challenge is that there are multiple “campuses”, and by that I mean there are a few different churches around Australia where students meet for training, but no head office, no existing infrastructure and no budget for ICT Support staff. For these reasons I am endeavouring to help them deploy a “cloud-only” (as opposed to cloud-first) infrastructure.
As with any education provider there are a few standard requirements, as well as one or two additional requirements as a not-for-profit:
- A domain, DNS and website
- Mail, calendar and contacts
- Productivity suite and collaboration tools
- Accounting (finance and payroll) package
- Student Management System
- Learning Management System
- Authentication and Directory Services
- Fundraising system
- Inbound phone calls
I’m learning as I go but so far I’m pretty impressed with the quality of the offerings that are available.
Domain, DNS and Website
The most expensive thing so far has been the domain name… for some reason a .edu.au domain costs $45 a year, more than most premium (e.g. .tv, .ws) domains.
For DNS I chose CloudFlare as they give you full control over your DNS (including TXT and SRV records) and their free tier seems more than adequate for a small college.
I haven’t set up a website yet but at this stage I’m leaning towards Squarespace. I probably just listen to too many podcasts but I use them for two of my own sites and I like how good the sites look (especially on mobile, which is outpacing desktop web browsing in many cases), I love that they take care of everything so I don’t have to patch WordPress or install plug-ins and I know I can get under the hood to tinker if I need to. That being said, if anyone has any better ideas I’m all ears.
Mail, Calendar and Contacts
I know some people love Office 365 but for a cloud-only organisation I feel like Microsoft is often held back by their legacy (of being the largest desktop computing platform ever). They seem to be improving rapidly but I still think Google has them beat in many ways. Additionally, the staff are comfortable with Gmail so that’s a win for training and user acceptance.
Productivity Suite and Collaboration
This is another contest in which I think Microsoft is held back a little by their legacy. On the other hand, when dealing with other organisations, greater legacy support can be a good thing. Both Office 365 and Google Apps are brilliant in their own ways which makes it hard to recommend one. So I don’t think I will. At this stage I’ll suggest we make both available and let people gravitate towards the one they are more comfortable with.
This decision was out of my hands as the college will be using a financial services provider for finance and payroll. This company also offers additional support services if required such as phone answering, mail handling and supporter administration. That being said, I was very pleased when I found out they’ll be using Xero. I’m quite impressed with Xero and how well it integrates with other SaaS and cloud offerings.
Student Management System
The college will be using a good system that’s been designed by someone who used to audit training organisations and who knows all the compliance requirements. My only concern is that it is an Access database and I suspect it is designed for and suited to local use in a regular office. This is the least “cloud-only” part of the solution so far but given the circumstances I still think it’s the right choice.
Learning Management System
I need to do more digging but at this stage I’m leaning towards recommending that the college keeps this very simple. Given their size and requirements I think their best bet may be to just incorporate it into the website (by giving instructors control over a password protected area for their students) or perhaps using Google Classroom. My biggest concern with Classroom is that it may not be suited to vocational style training but that isn’t a well founded fear, just a gut feeling I’ll need to investigate.
Authentication and Directory Services
The de-facto standard in the industry is Active Directory but the college doesn’t have a server room and doesn’t have an IT Staff to maintain an AD Server running in the cloud. Thankfully, Office 365 includes Azure AD Services (in fact, it relies on it behind the scenes). Based on my initial testing this is a powerful option for a cloud-only organisation.
I have no doubt I will come across some older or poorly designed apps that refuse to work with anything other than an on-premise AD server but so far I’m very happy. In a relatively short space of time this morning I was able to register for both Google Apps for Education and Office 365 Education and get them linked together. Creating an account in Azure AD Services provides access to both Office 365 and Google Apps (via Single Sign On) and Xero can be linked in this way too.
The financial services company I mentioned earlier put us in touch with someone who develops a web based fundraising system that doesn’t seem to be available publicly. It’s in use in a number of ministries, is very customisable, integrates with Mandrill/MailChimp for emails, supports multiple SMS gateways and connects directly with Xero for finances. The only thing it lacks is SSO capabilities, a minor complaint given it will only be used by a few people.
Inbound Phone Calls
This is an area I need to do more research on. It’s probably overkill but one possibility I have experimented with in the past is Twilio. Twilio is very flexible and supports phone trees, call routing, text messaging and interactive voice features. It can scale up or down as required and it’s APIs could link back in with many of the other systems.
Another option I will need to investigate more is the Office 365/Skype solution. If anyone has any experience with it in Australia at an organisation with multiple sites, no IT staff and very little money I’d love for you to get in touch!
The unique thing about this Bible college is that it offers Vocational Education and Training (VET) qualifications, rather than the typical Higher Education (university style) approach. This makes it suitable for a broader audience and gives hair dressers, office workers, tradies, factory workers, retail staff and many more an unprecedented opportunity to study the Bible and gain practical ministry experience. ↩