Managing expectations in education

With ICT provision for educational institutions becoming increasingly advanced, we investigate how managed ICT is aiding both schools and universities

When it comes to ICT provision for education, there are a multitude of options available, on many different levels. A Computing at School white paper from 2013 states that, “school ICT Infrastructure and how it is managed can be one the biggest impediments in the implementation of Computer Science education”. This confirms that the management of ICT in schools is, in fact, an essential element to successful learning. 

Definitions

So what does outsourced ‘managed ICT’ actually mean? Mike Brown, Commercial Director at Dataspire, explained: “A managed services provider, commonly known as an ‘MSP’, is usually an information technology (IT) services company, which assumes responsibility for providing a defined set of managed IT services to its client schools, academies, or trusts.” This provision of services, then, reduces the amount of service management that has to be done in-house, and as James Eaglesfield, Head of IT Services at the University of Derby, explained, “take[s] away a lot of the risk, and the need for you to have specialist IT staff”. 

Managed ICT can include any number of services, from student records, email systems, business applications, and management information systems (MIS). Some institutions, such as larger universities, may manage all of these systems in-house, whereas many smaller schools and colleges rely more heavily on outsourced management. But how does a school or university go about evaluating which is the best option for them? 

Considerations

Deciding between in-house and outsourced, managed, ICT, is a huge decision for any institution, and for schools, colleges and universities, there are numerous criteria that go into making this call. Tony Gale, Network Manager at Eastbury Community School, explained that this decision relies on a number of different factors, including, largely, what is actually being taught, and that deciding what needs for ICT management are required by a school, in particular, “depends on the curriculum.” For example, Tony said, some areas of the school may need more attention due to their housing particular high-spec machines for teaching computer science and coding. These computers run more complex programs than other machines in the school, in order to facilitate these areas of the curriculum. This means they may need more complex management if a problem arises, than, say, a desktop that only has to run Office. 

“No matter whether you’re the smallest of primary schools, or the largest of universities, ICT management is essential to the running of your institution.”

This consideration of what services your institution runs, and how you need to be able to make sure they are fully functional and updated at all times, also needs to take into account your staff provision, and what your institution is capable of handling in-house. As previously mentioned, this is likely to differ between different types of institution, such as schools and universities. James Eaglesfield commented: “When we’re looking at systems, we’re looking for value for money, if it’s fit for purpose – does it meet our business requirements – and with GDPR, it’s about data location, what type of data we’re holding, where can we hold it, etc.” The University of Derby keeps most of its ICT management in-house, due to the abilities of its IT staff, but there are still certain elements that make sense to outsource. This includes their email management system, which is outsourced to Microsoft: “Why would you spend a lot of money running an operating system, running servers, running a mail service, when, as part of your licence agreement, they will do it for free?” said James. 

As with many edtech considerations, a large part of the decision of whether to outsource ICT management comes down to cost. This is particularly prevalent for smaller schools, such as primary schools. Mike Brown at Dataspire explained that although MSPs can solve a lot of skills-based issues, their provision needs to be aligned properly with the school’s desired outcomes to work well: “However good an ICT Managed Service Partner or school Senior Leadership Team is, neither will deliver to expectations if their ICT systems and ICT strategy is not directly aligned to the education strategy and desired educational outcomes,” he said.  

Big data

In order to fully realise what your institution’s needs are, aside from the consideration of curriculum requirements, it is pertinent that schools and universities are able to make the most of the data they have. Here is where a management information system, or MIS, comes in. Rich Harley, CEO at ScholarPack, describes an MIS as being “used by schools to collect and manage all of their data, whether that’s records on pupil performance, behaviour and attendance, staff information, and anything in-between”. So how can this information contribute to well-managed ICT systems? 

As well as providing an insight into specific metrics within the school, such as how pupils are coping with different subjects, which pupils are consistently late or absent, and a log of accidents and incidents, an MIS is also an essential tool in the day-to-day running of a school. As Rich elaborated: “You need to understand how things are working before you can spot patterns and create efficiencies.” These ‘patterns’ can include how ICT facilities are used within the school, and therefore what kind of maintenance they may require. Being able to rely on an efficient and thorough MIS will mean that your ICT management will almost certainly run more smoothly. 

“Deciding between in-house and outsourced, managed, ICT, is a huge decision for any institution, and for schools, colleges and universities, there are numerous criteria that go into making this call.”

Data security

Along with cost and integration, data security issues are something that is of major concern in any ICT management for educational institutions, and indeed for service providers. As James Eaglesfield described: “[GDPR]’s got the managed service providers rushing around a little bit, trying to prove for all intents and purposes that they are the right people [for the job].” James went on to explain that since the new GDPR implementation in May this year, data protection assessments on any use of data, and on any suppliers that are used for the management of this data, are required. He also explained that the process involves “reviewing the suppliers and what they’re doing, what are they going to do with the data, how are they doing the backups, what the recovery process is, etc.” 

There is also a concern, with outsourced management, about how suppliers handle data if or when the contract between said supplier and an educational institution ends: “With GDPR now, there’s a lot more of making sure you’ve got the right contracts in place, so you know what they’re going to do with the data, and what’s going to happen at the end of the contract,” James said. 

Implementation

The question of whether to employ outsourced or in-house ICT provision, then, largely comes down to each institution’s own personal needs. There is a plethora of companies available to provide managed services, as well as plenty of information and opinion on whether in-house or outsourced services are preferable. If your institution’s main consideration is cost, you can decide whether to invest in training up in-house staff to cover ICT maintenance needs, or employing a third-party company to do it for you. Tony Gale voiced his preference for the former option, and stated: “I think with in-house, you’ve got more control of your own system. You can obviously see for yourself what changes you want to make, and because you’re onsite, you can see the impact of those changes and when they’re made.” 

If, however, your institution decides that outsourcing is more effective for their needs, James Eaglesfield provided some starting points for researching what is available: “Eduserv is a good resource; they do a number of software and supplier services reports for education, and so you can go and have a word with them, and they’ll point you in the right direction.” For higher education specifically, James also recommended Jisc: “Jisc have a number of forums, that’s a nice friendly way of putting your question out. It’s a group of peers that give good feedback and can point you in the right direction.”

No matter whether you’re the smallest of primary schools, or the largest of universities, ICT management is essential to the running of your institution, and it seems, for the most part, that research is key. The considerations listed above are big ones, but each institution will also inevitably encounter its own particular requirements and hurdles. The resources on offer, though, are numerable, and as Rich Harley said: “Picking a system that is GDPR compliant is the first step. But secondly, don’t be afraid to interrogate your options, and make sure you’re picking the solution that you feel is the most reliable for your needs.” 

The Key to data security
The Key, an organisation providing leadership and management support to schools, ran a short-term poll on the subject of data security and ICT management, and asked its members ‘Do you think school data is safer if IT systems are outsourced or managed in-house?’. Over half of respondents (66.09%) said that they thought in-house was safer, with the remaining 33.91% opting for managed systems. Commenting on these findings, Amy Cook, Head of Content at The Key, said: “Recent news coverage of data breaches is likely to have raised concern among school leaders, and may go some way towards explaining why most of those we polled consider in-house IT provision to be ‘safer’.” 
Although the worry about a lack of control could be contributing to these worries, Amy went on to explain that thorough checks on suppliers can quash some of these concerns, such as following due diligence and checking that suppliers are meeting the requirements for GDPR: “While you cannot completely eliminate the risk of a data breach, you can take measures to minimise it – and to stay compliant with data protection law, you must ensure that any suppliers that process personal data on your behalf meet certain requirements.” 

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