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:
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.