The secrets to a successful IT partnership in education

Examining at the critical success factors for a winning partnership, and identifying red flags for technology decision-makers to take note of to keep things on track

The past 18 months have forced a ramp-up of core IT systems in educational establishments, meaning school business managers are demanding better than ever performance, value, and security from their technology stack. The challenge for today’s educational establishments is finding an effective solution that’s accessible and usable for teachers and students, with minimal downtime or learning disruption, to deliver a more flexible model of learning for demanding 8am-5pm daily schedules. The potential to take this learning environment beyond the classroom is enabled entirely by deploying appropriate technology.

As schools navigate the technology market for external skills and support for a digital transformation, many business managers have limited vision due to their acute financial focus. Too many schools hold back on their budgets and spend all their CapEx budget in two to three years’ time because they haven’t invested in infrastructure. Many are under-resourced, have a lack of planning and forecasting or are wary of third-party involvement. A small IT department may not know what a well-performing and functioning IT department should look like, especially in terms of measuring technology performance. And in many cases, the classic managed service provider only provides reactive IT support.

Too many schools hold back on their budgets and spend all their CapEx budget in two to three years’ time because they haven’t invested in infrastructure

A second common scenario is that even the most progressive institutions might not be working towards an IT roadmap. By bringing in external objective expertise, both parties can identify what’s right for the school.  The right technology partner will work with the school to achieve cost-efficiency, and not just opt for the cheapest solution. If a headteacher is trying to fix the server which in turn, has led to the business manager searching via Google ‘what’s the best solution’ for their school, only to find out it doesn’t do what he thought it was going to do, then the strategy needs further development. Schools are realising that they need to invest in experts, that support time is critical to success and utilisation and that they need to invest their money wisely.

Critical mistakes

Too many business managers try to shoehorn the technology without considering what the school really needs or appreciating there are better ways to make the budget work harder. For instance, there are alternative devices offering what an iPad does for half the price – especially if you’re only using it for web browsing. And there’s no point having 90 iPads in the school if you can’t connect to the WiFi. Schools require a high-quality broadband connection that’s superior to that required in a domestic setting, and the government has provided detailed guidance for senior leaders on this. IT managers sometimes overlook the fact that mobile devices are harder to look after. This was evident during the government’s Computers for Schools initiative, when schools expected IT providers to set them up the next day. A quality technology partner can prevent costly mistakes from being made.

Key considerations 

An effective digital transformation partner knows that longevity is important to schools to ensure they standardise on platforms so that as new technologies become available, teachers and students can take advantage of them. They will prioritise the importance of pupil data alongside permissions for accessing the internet and applications, and security will be key to minimise the risk of breaches. They look at current uses of technology, the challenges and future aspirations to support the business. This will provide a detailed roadmap, which enables schools to take advantage of new and relevant technologies and make them work for their business. What’s also critical is to ensure the IT support in place offers good service and is continuously monitored, not just at the annual health check.

First – goals and roles

The business manager will lead the school from an IT perspective, typically with support from an IT Co-ordinator and the head teacher, ensuring alignment of technology to the teaching and learning needs of the school. These roles need clear definition from the outset to clarify the structure of the organisation and technology direction. The digital enablement company should discuss key objectives and budget considerations; this could be infrastructure and networks, such as what ISP to use and cable systems, right down to applications. Trust is the backbone to this education/technology partnership and all investment decisions should be made jointly.

Look at the users first

Only through addressing the staff and students’ user experience can schools and learning institutions increase user engagement and adoption. This, in turn, can significantly reduce operational costs, deliver continuous and undisrupted learning, and generate efficiency gains. To highlight users’ issues with technology and pain points, it’s most effective to conduct user/behavioural indexing and to carry out a training assessment. This can be conducted via interviews with a cross-section of the organisation, splitting users into categories based on job role and school. Their motivators, device usage, technological understanding/engagement and communication preferences are also important in generating user ‘personas’. Only the best understanding of users will avoid classic mistakes of costly IT being deployed inappropriately.

Technology audit, security and compliance

A comprehensive technical asset review should then analyse all systems including third-party vendors. This audit should flag common performance issues of slow-running or redundant hardware and software. It should also cover service delivery assessment and SLAs, addressing when SLAs aren’t in place. In terms of support, the helpdesk, tickets, and resolution times should all be looked at. With a strong partner by your side, schools need to feel like they are taking positive steps forward rather than two steps back. Ensuring that the right level of support is built into your plan is critical to avoiding high unexpected per-hour charges found in the small print.

Cybersecurity is becoming crucial for schools and a cybersecurity vulnerability review and cloud services strategy review are essential. Schools need a strong ISP for maximum security because if a school is hacked or attacked with ransomware, data loss can be permanent. To be qualified to handle these important checks, ensure that your technology partner is ISO 270001 certified, or working towards it.  This standard gives you the peace of mind that your partner understands and is committed to safeguarding the data held.

GDPR support should be in place, and the ideal partner will check where the data resides and who backs it up

Governance and compliance evaluation is an area often overlooked in quick-fix strategies to implement digital technologies. GDPR support should be in place, and the ideal partner will check where the data resides and who backs it up. Another critical element is having a GDPR service which updates policies and allows the right permissions and access to data. Data management should be in place, with live monitoring and tagging of data. 

Return on investment

Schools should approach digital transformation from a value-add perspective, meaning that an investment in the right technology to start with can provide significant savings in the long-term. A technology partnership is a two-way relationship where there’s no one party dictating to the other – only then can you build trust and achieve the best results. Ensuring that a partner is ISO 270001 accredited, or working towards it, will also provide peace of mind. A user-first approach is key in order to specify relevant equipment, tools and devices, which factor in the class size and the needs of the students. Security and compliance in the education industry are of paramount importance, to ensure the right data permissions and access, and eliminate risk. With key consideration for users, analysing current technology and factoring in future needs, a strategic plan can be produced which is tailored for the establishment. A partner who clearly marks improvements or additions against a timeline will keep the school abreast of when the new ICT system will be up and running.

A technology partnership is a two-way relationship where there’s no one party dictating to the other – only then can you build trust and achieve the best results.

Putting in place the right and affordable continuous support will address the changing needs of students and curriculums and ensure the performance is of a high standard. Having continuity in the staff and engineers working on the project is crucial to achieving a joined-up approach which, again, builds trust and confidence.

When it comes to the education sector, there are very specific and delicate needs. What might work for a mainstream school, for instance, might not work for a school that supports SEND students. Only by following the ‘people first, technology second’ rule of thumb can the school and its technology partner accurately deliver an effective digital transformation.

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