Futureproofing and sustainability: Neil Watkins

In the third of our series on sustainable edtech, Steve Wright talks to Managing Director at Think IT, Neil Watkins

Across edtech, are there any general rules for ensuring that your investments are sustainable and future-proof?

Hardware and tech is changing so fast that the best advice is to ensure accessibility of data and applications, regardless of your chosen hardware. Moving to the cloud is the answer here.

The other key thing, though, is training. Ensuring that staff understand how to use the kit will help to prolong the life of your technology. For example, while interactive boards can be a costly upfront investment, they are also powerful tools. Yet most teachers simply don’t know how to use all of the functionality.

My three general rules would be: Don’t overspend on shiny and whizzy new tech that might not be right for your school; make sure that training processes are in place, and not just when hardware is installed; and don’t forget about maintenance or updates! Numerous schools have not updated hardware or software – and it’s simply fallen out of use.

How can you know that the hardware and software you are buying will have a reasonably long, active life, and won’t become obsolete too soon?

Common sense has to apply here. If you buy something mainstream that’s going to be used regularly and frequently, for example a laptop, then you know it’s going to last a while. If you buy something that’s ‘cutting-edge’ or ‘exotic’, meanwhile, it’s bound to fall out of use quickly. For instance, how many 3D printers are there in schools that aren’t being used? ‘Lots’ is the answer you’re looking for…

How can refurbished tech help an institution’s sustainability?

It certainly can help, but users often struggle to get it right. Old PCs can be changed into ‘thin-client’ devices that run all the machine’s applications on a server or in the cloud. That means that the processing is done elsewhere, saving energy and extending the PC’s life. Usually, this is best done with adding solid state drives (SSDs) to the device in order to speed things up, but we’ve seen schools try and do it without and it hasn’t worked.

Ensuring that staff understand how to use the kit will help to prolong the life of your technology.

Elsewhere, software like Neverware can turn an old laptop into a Chromebook, again extending the life because processing is done in the cloud rather than on an old processor in the device.

How much of the sustainability equation is about sourcing the right products, and how much is about helping teachers to adapt their teaching, in order to use edtech more sustainably?

It’s not just about sourcing the right products or helping teachers adapt their teaching. While those things are of course important, the biggest priority is having the right strategy. If you don’t have a strategy, you end up buying reactively only when something goes wrong, or when you have some spare cash left at the end of the year.

Unless you have a strategy in place, you miss the fact that every part of your IT is interdependent and connected. For example: you need good connectivity so you can run anything internet-based; but, even if you have a 1Gb pipe to the door, it’s pointless if your network and wi-fi infrastructure has not been updated. Also, there’s no point in having good connectivity and network/Wi-Fi infrastructure if your end-user devices (tablets, laptops, PCs etc.) are old, running out-of-date operating systems or are broken. Not only are these now unusable, they also present a security risk for hackers (both internal and external). Which leads me onto security: if that’s not up to date then your entire operation is at risk; and often that risk comes from people doing untoward things, whether inadvertently (like putting their password on a post-it note under their laptop) or maliciously (hacking and ransomware), so you need policies in place, and regular training. That, in turn, which leads on to training teachers in how to most effectively use the tools available to them.

Ultimately, it’s all interlinked – one break in the ‘chain’, and you have problems. So the best way to mitigate this is to have a fully planned strategy.

Sustainability is also about upkeep. Which solutions are the most streamlined and don’t need continual updating?

You need to make sure you are constantly updating and maintaining your ICT estate. If you need just one reason: data security. It’s a fact that you can’t run an organisation the size of a school without good ICT. If you don’t want breaks in the chain, you need to maintain and update.

W: think-it.org.uk