This article first appeared on on 17 February 2017 courtesy of Merlin John

There are no mysteries for schools wanting trouble-free edtech, says Neil Watkins

We hear much about the “disruption” being cause by digital technologies, but this hasn’t happened as quickly in education as it has elsewhere. Those who have been institutionalised are usually the last to find out!

But schools can make digital disruption work for them and their communities. Logical strategies are essential and the first thing they should do is get their heads out of the clouds — and into the cloud.

Schools have already seen signs of this tech-tonic change in the movement to cloud technologies by the big players. For example, both Microsoft and Google giving their productivity tools away to schools for free and the increasing number of cloud-based-only apps appearing on the market.

This year there have already been three clear signals that seem to have been missed by most of the education community, but they could have a massive impact.

Check the small print — cloud is cheaper than servers

The first was the Department for Education/Microsoft Memorandum of Understanding, released in January 2016. This was hailed by the DfE as a great deal for schools but, as ever, the devil is in the detail. What it says is that the educational discounts applied to Microsoft products are reducing over the next few years. “Yes, but we already get Office 365 for free,” I hear you cry.

That may be, but if you have servers in school running Microsoft products, the costs will rise. Microsoft has been canny about the cost of that rise, but it is going to go up. At a time of falling budgets, this will impact spending in other areas. Unless schools move to the cloud, they will struggle to mitigate costs.
Centralising services will cut local authority jobs

The second signal is the move by Capita to push schools' management information system (SIMS) into the cloud. Capita has more than 80 per cent of the management information system (MIS) market, and moving that product off school servers into the cloud will have implications for schools and local authorities.

The good news for schools is that they will have better access to data. The bad news is that there will be less reliance on school staff because the product can be supported by Capita centrally. This centralisation will have an even bigger impact on local authorities who have been providing SIMS support to schools. Those staff will no longer be needed to go into schools to fix servers, implement updates or provide training. Local authorities will lose that revenue and, with it, jobs.

Laissez faire will lead to ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’

The third signal was the much anticipated DfE ‘Cloud computing: how schools can move services to the cloud’ guidance in July 2016 and updated in January 2017. In essence it says that while there are potentially big gains from moving to the cloud, it’s not for everyone.

If your connectivity is poor, your IT infrastructure outdated and the leadership team is not ‘ready’ for it, then it’s not for you. Reading between the lines this could be interpreted as “If your connectivity is inadequate, if your infrastructure is badly implemented, and you haven’t been keeping up with 21st-century technology, then you’re going to be left behind”. The implications are obvious; we will have a two tier system of “haves” and “have nots”.

Beyond these three educational tech-tonic plates, but highlighting the same point as the DfE’s, there are other important drivers of change for education. The government has already acknowledged that there is a digital skills gap and The Bank of England estimates that 15 million jobs are at risk of automation in the UK over the next few years.

Lord Baker’s Edge Foundation report ‘Digital Revolution’ (May 2016) argues that education is not moving far enough or fast enough to incorporate digital skills into mainstream education. We’re in danger of being left behind.

‘IT is a utility, like electricity or water, not a luxury’

The other big external driver for change is money. There are real concerns across the sector that current economic climate and the fall-out from Brexit will impact educational budgets for at least another decade. While many schools see IT purely as an expense, none can operate without it.

IT is a utility, like electricity or water. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity required to run a school. It therefore needs to be as cheap and efficient as possible, at the same time as providing the highest possible levels of security and safeguarding that our children and young people need.

So what should, and can schools do about it? Here are 12 points for schools to address in moving to the cloud:

  • Strategy – When we ask schools “What’s your three-year ICT strategy?” most can’t answer because they don't have one. Having a simple, easy-to-articulate strategy helps get staff, parents and governors on board, and helps schools make the right investment decisions; it doesn’t have to be onerous. There are a number of templates and tools out there, pick one and give it a go; you’ll be ahead of 80 per cent of the other schools.
  • Connectivity – You can’t take advantage of cloud solutions unless you can connect to the internet. More than 40 per cent of schools say they don’t have ideal broadband. And in rural areas big providers say it’s not economically viable to dig up the roads. Fortunately new 4G solutions can be installed quickly and easily, delivering high speeds and at similar prices to fibre. Ensure you consider the capacity you will need in two or three years’ time as it’s only going to grow
  • Infrastructure – Nearly 50 per cent of schools are not satisfied with their wifi. Many schools make the mistake of upgrading broadband, but then wonder why their wifi is still slow. But the switching technology needs to be upgraded regularly, which can be a big expense. Fortunately there are new pay-as-you-go solutions that can give you constantly updated equipment and software.

  • Equipment – Many schools can no longer afford the traditional three-year kit refresh cycle. By moving to the cloud you can extend the life of kit and save that refresh money. Because the computer processing takes place in the cloud-hosted server, not on the desktop or laptop, it doen’t need the latest processors or large memories. There are new device-as-a-service offerings which provide the device (PC, laptop or tablet), complete with virtual desktop, applications, e-safety and all appropriate licences for reasonable costs.
  • Procurement and finance – There are increasing concerns about financial abuses in schools. Schools were always there to teach. Today they have to be everything to everyone but sadly, not all schools have the in-house procurement skills to tender for technical solutions worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The DfE now provides procurement training as well as guidance (contacts below). It recommends that schools take advantage of recognised procurement frameworks that can provide advice and guidance, as well as save them time and money.
  • Cyber security – This is a BIG topic covering identity management, e-safety, web-filtering, app blocking, mobile device management and safeguarding. Lots of schools don’t think they’ll be targets, but they already are. From professional hackers after money, to bright students trying to hack into school systems for fun. There are lots of free resources out there from the government and others. If you haven’t already, consider ‘penetration testing’ by an external company to find out where your real weaknesses are. Ensure that all your data is encrypted and secure. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it and think “It will be alright.”
  • Data management – Keeping data in the cloud means that you can put it in the hands of people who need it, anytime, anywhere and on any device. This means that data such as information on behaviour, attendance and attainment can be immediately available to teachers, or shared with parents. But data needs to be managed properly, and interoperability of systems is increasingly important.
  • Fully managed service – Many schools realise that they don’t have the skills in-house to manage all their ICT and consider outsourcing to a fully managed service provider. Schools should look for a provider that will work in partnership with them, as undoubtedly the requirements will change over the contract period as the pace of change in technology itself increases. Contracts and costs are important: if you get it right, it will save you money and give you a better service.
  • VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol – This enables you to make cheap (in some cases free) phone calls over the internet. There is a monthly subscription and usually you have to buy VoIP handsets. Obviously you need a good internet connection, but you’ll see your monthly telephone bills come down. The services usually come with a range of additional useful options.
  • Content – It’s all very well having superfast broadband, up-to-date wifi and the latest equipment, but if your content and applications do not match your teaching needs, are slow, un-engaging or a hindrance to teaching and learning, no-one will use them. Look for solutions that offer multiple features, such as lesson plans, games, tests and digital media, as well as the ability to appeal to students of all abilities.
  • Print management – Even though we are being nudged to the cloud, it will be some time before every school is paperless. The average secondary school prints more than 3 million pieces of paper a year, so there has to be room for cutting back and making some savings. 
  • Training – This is often the most overlooked aspect of any IT implementation. You can have the best, most up-to-date, most expensive IT system in the world, and it will be a waste of money if people won’t, don’t or can’t use it. Training shouldn’t be a one-time event. Technology is changing so fast that there should be a continual programme of learning and development. And not just for teaching staff. 

Take control if you don’t want to be controlled

Yes, there’s a lot to work through but, as with computational thinking, reduce the transition to its constitutional elements and work on them. It’s all doable and the benefits are substantial despite the challenges.

Resistance is futile so go with the flow. As with most aspects of school life, the management team has to be in control if it is not going to be controlled by forces that don’t necessarily have the school’s best interests at heart.

The really good news is that the tech-tonic plates are moving slowly enough for you to plan and implement new solutions on a step-by-step basis. It doesn’t have to be big bang, but if you ignore it, the pressure for change will definitely build. And there may very well be one of those cataclysmic events. Don’t let that happen to your school.

Neil Watkins is managing director of Think-IT, the DfE-recognised IT procurement framework for schools and colleges. He has extensive experience in education with schools, academy chains, colleges, local authorities and government.


More information  

“Schools get independent strategic help for edtech”
BBC’s “Councils 'should monitor academy cash" 
DfE’s “Procurement Training for Schools” and "Buying for Schools"