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Balance of opinion

Is it possible to invest in technology while balancing budgets? Steve Wright asks a panel of experts from across the edtech sector

Posted by Hannah Vickers | February 11, 2017 | Business

Contributors:

  • Frazer Whitehead, Senior Business Manager (Public Sector), Brother UK
  • Andy Howard, CEO/Executive Headmaster, Myddelton College, Denbigh
  • Paul McKean, Head of FE and Skills, Jisc
  • Dave Kenworthy, Head of Software Services, CoSector University of London
  • Will Gardner, CEO, Childnet International
  • James Grew, Chief Sales Officer, Impero Software

Q. Are schools realistically able to provide high-quality tech on their current educational budgets? 

FW: According to our research, schools typically spend between seven and 10 per cent of their annual budget on IT. This can make it challenging for schools to find high-quality technology which meets modern day requirements.

Schools need to have an understanding of how much their technology will cost over the full year, in order to forecast properly and to ensure that they’re getting the best solutions for their budget. In print, a managed print service (MPS) is the best way to do this, as it provides insight into the school’s print structure, an overview of where efficiencies can be made and the capability to project-spend over a 12-month period.

AH: I do think schools can do this on tight budgets, but it can be best achieved by looking for those cost savings that effective deployment provides – things like savings on cover and supply staff by utilising digital delivery of work for absent colleagues, for example, and/or seeking reductions on copying and printing costs. There are huge savings to be had in these areas, but it does reiterate the fact that the acquisition of technology is only effective if looked at in the context of the whole organisation.

There are suppliers out there who can provide better value, often by looking at partnerships. These firms want to showcase their wares, and so for them having a high-quality installation in a school that is making effective use of their equipment is a win-win scenario.

PM: Educational budgets in FE have decreased significantly over the last few years, and are continuing to decrease albeit at a slower rate than was expected prior to the comprehensive spending review of November 2015. That said, colleges do not have significant ongoing resources enabling them to invest in edtech. 

Fortunately, Jisc is grant-funded by the Department for Education to provide high-quality bandwidth to colleges via the Janet network. This network ensures that all colleges, staff and students have access to super-fast broadband speeds, enabling them to access the internet and virtual learning environments, and to submit assignments with ease. Jisc also provides colleges and their students with free access to e-textbooks, which those students can then access from anywhere.

Q. Do you think the majority of the sector is prioritising edtech investment?

AH: In a word, no. Without the driver for change, and without the incentives from central government, it takes a visionary school leadership to be able to put a strong case for prioritisation. Unfortunately, as well, in order to make the changes work, whole system changes are required. These inevitably result in a short-term dip in outcomes, something that school leaders are petrified of – and rightly so, when they have the job security of a Premier League football manager.

Unless school inspection regimes and/or league tables highlight the need for more tech inclusion, edtech investment will always play second fiddle to other needs in the vast majority of schools.

PM: Through the area review process in England, we are aware that colleges are now seeing technology as an agent of change – something that can enable them to work more efficiently and effectively. 

As part of the area review process, colleges are seriously considering how an investment in edtech can improve their business efficiencies – and, more importantly, the experiences of their learners.

JG: Edtech investment is important in all three sectors (schools, colleges and universities). The reasons vary in each sector, although there are common themes. 

Online safety is driving a lot of the investment in edtech, as schools strive to meet the many demands placed on them from Ofsted and the Department for Education. This is being driven by legislation like the Prevent Duty (fuelling the procurement of counter-radicalisation software) and also the imminent threat of Ofsted inspections – plus the consequences of failure.

In colleges, we are seeing spend focused around the consolidation of software packages and network design. The merging of many colleges is driving change: larger networks, with increased scalability, is the key driver. Colleges are also looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their edtech – and to save as much money as possible, given the budgetary pressures across the board.

In higher education, we are seeing an increased focus on edtech that improves the student experience – as well as software that drives efficiency through cost savings and increasing stability of mission-critical systems.

In my view, the common areas in which all education establishments are prioritising spend are: 

1. Mobile learning drives – purchasing mobile devices, then the tools to manage these devices. This adoption also means that spend has to be allocated on engaging content on these devices, and managing them through master data management to ensure that the devices are safe to use and work seamlessly – both on the network and at home. 

2. Online examinations: globally, we are seeing spend being allocated to providing edtech on online examination solutions through labs or mobile solutions, along with sophisticated examination software and next-generation learning platforms.

Q. How can schools and universities guard against obsolescence, given that technology is always evolving, causing existing models to become out-of-date and even obsolete?

FW: The key to future-proofing IT is to make sure that the right technology is purchased in the first instance. IT managers need to look beyond the initial price of the machine. A cheaper printer, for example, may seem the best option right now – but the likelihood is that its features and capabilities won’t meet the classroom’s requirement in one to two years’ time.

Working with a MPS provider will ensure that printers remain useful for a longer period of time. At Brother we complete a full audit for MPS customers before installing new printers. As the technology is leased for 12–36 months, schools can review the setup at the end of the contract to ensure that it is still suitable.

AH: I think that there are multiple possible answers to this question. In the first case I would argue that, providing the institution is buying and shaping the tech to fit a well-developed and strongly visioned pedagogy, the issue of obsolescence is minimised – if the tech is serving the purpose (rather than the purpose fitting to the tech), then there is no obsolescence.

On the other hand, more recent changes to tech development make hardware less prone to obsolescence, with much more cloud-focused developments.

And finally, there’s the alternative, which is to build a robust and effective system that utilises the personal tech of the ‘end user’ – the backbone and infrastructure tech is less prone to fast obsolescence and the end user is more likely to have the most up-to-date tech anyhow.

DK: Like any other organisation, schools and universities can minimise the challenges of obsolescence with two complementary approaches: simplicity and standardisation. 

The simpler your technical solutions, the more buying options you will have available to you – and the more straightforward will be any migrations in the future. Keeping requirements to ‘what is necessary to succeed’ rather than an aggregated wish list from every possible stakeholder will allow you to select from more mainstream technical solutions. However, if mainstream solutions cannot meet your requirements it is often wiser to adapt your own processes so that they fit mainstream solutions – rather than the expensive, sometimes crippling approach of using obscure or even bespoke solutions. Adapting one’s own processes can be unappealing and painful but – and it is a big but – they are in your complete control and usually simply take time and energy, rather than massive financial outlay, to adapt. 

PM: Jisc is currently working with a number of providers to do exactly this. Our Zero IT project aims to help providers move away from the total cost of ownership of IT equipment, towards a pay-as-you-go model where providers only pay for the software, hardware and storage they use. 

As the pace of change within the technology space continues to grow, Jisc recognises the challenges faced by schools and universities whose staff and students want more personalisation and customisation from their technology – while the organisations themselves simply want IT that enables teaching and learning, not hinders it. 

This is why Jisc is engaged in promoting an alternative approach to ICT procurement, delivery and consumption: one which removes the barriers to innovation, and enables organisations to move from a traditional ‘total cost of ownership’ of ICT towards a ‘total usage cost’. It’s basically a case of moving from Capex to Opex or on-demand ICT, where you pay for what you use, try before you buy, and take away the complexity from keeping up to date with evolving technology.

Schools can minimise the challenges of obsolesence with two approaches: simplicity and standardisation

Q. Can you give us three ground rules for schools to follow when looking for the most cost-effective, high-quality technology?

FW: 1/ Speak to an MPS provider. Managed Print Services help IT departments to take better control of their printing, manage its costs and make their print infrastructure more efficient by offering a tailored solution for the organisation based on insightful reports. Speak to the experts to see if you could make cost savings before purchasing new print hardware.

 2/ Purchase for the future, not just the present. Technology is developing at a rapid pace, making it more difficult to invest in long-term solutions. Don’t buy printers simply because they meet budgets and needs this school year alone: consider their longevity and how useful they’ll be in two to three years’ time. 

3/ Obtain referrals. Speak to print companies that have experience in saving money for other organisations in the sector. They’ll likely have learnings and insight which can help cut your print costs, too.

AH: 1/ Build from the needs of the institution, rather than buying the brightest, shiniest pieces of kit. 

2/ Plan, plan and plan some more: make sure that the technology will serve the ethos and pedagogy first. 

3/ Think in the round – when planning, make sure that every system is reviewed and adapted to get the best from the tech. And don’t forget to build in lots of training…

JG: 1/ Choose carefully what you want and always trial any software. If the vendor does not offer a trial, it could potentially indicate that the solution is difficult to use or set up, so this should be a huge red flag. 

2/ Complete a total cost of ownership/return on investment evaluation for any large projects and commit in for three to five years to maximise savings. Where possible, choose vendors who quote the full costs bundled in, such as free training and support. 

3/ Reference, reference, reference. If the supplier cannot give you five good references, beware. Other schools will tell the truth, and you can learn how to get the best out of your investment by seeking their views.

Q. When it comes to e-safety, how crucial is it for schools and universities to earmark funds for a) software to help protect users, and b) training and education for staff to spot cyberbullying etcetera?

AH: E-safety has to be crucial and built into all systems from the beginning. This will mean funds for software and security systems, as well as sufficient time and expense earmarked for training staff – but it goes back to looking at everything in the round. We have moved on (thank goodness) from the position we were in a decade ago, where we thought of every young person as a digital native, automatically at ease with the technology. Now we see that this isn’t the case at all, with headlines in the news stating that the internet was never designed for young people after all.

PM: Cybersecurity is crucial in the current climate, particularly given colleges’ obligations to comply with the government’s cybersecurity strategy, Prevent. Providing staff and learners with e-safety training should be a key part of any college induction programme. Jisc provides colleges with cybersecurity via its Janet network, as well as a web-filtering service. It’s well worth getting more information from technology companies about the services they offer in this area – and which are paid for and which are free.

WG: With emerging risks and requirements, it’s more important than ever for all schools to make online safety a priority, while the positive opportunities offered by technology can be harnessed to create a generation of empowered digital citizens. 

‘Keeping children safe in education’, statutory guidance for schools in England and Wales, now requires schools to have ‘appropriate levels’ of filtering and monitoring. At the UK Safer Internet Centre we have some helpful guidance about what that means in practice. See www.saferinternet.org.uk/filtering-monitoring 

The guidance also sets out clearly the need for schools to deliver online safeguarding education to pupils and training for staff, an essential part of protecting children from harmful content and other online risks. 

Many schools are doing a fantastic job of empowering children and young people to have a positive time online, and are investing in staff training and infrastructure to support this goal.

However, research shows that many schools could look to improve their provision. Ofsted data from 84 schools inspected about online safety in 2015 has found that, while schools are on the whole very strong when it comes to e-safety policies and filtering, they are weaker on staff and governor training, pupil involvement and evaluating impact of e-safety policies and practice.

It is definitely worth investing in e-safety improvements, and staff training in particular is a key priority here. That said, there are a range of free ways that schools can improve their e-safety provision, and here are just a few:

  • Get involved in Safer Internet Day on February 7.
  • Attend a free Online Safety Live event.
  • Access free advice and resources at www.saferinternet.org.uk and www.childnet.com, including new guidance for schools on preventing and responding to cyberbullying, and a new toolkit for PSHE, covering sexting, cyberbullying, peer pressure and self-esteem. 
  • Run your own staff training with our free INSET presentation www.childnet.com/teachers-and-professionals.
  • Review your school’s e-safety provision using the free online tool www.360safe.org.uk  

www.imperosoftware.com

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