Will the ‘new normal’ result in better value for money for educational organisations?

Independent, procurement and supply chain consultant Naomi Clews, from Naomi Clews Consultancy, on how the pandemic has raised a controversial question for the education sector

With the coronavirus pandemic having a significant impact on UK public sector finances, the ‘new normal’ throws up a controversial question: can the education sector prove best value for money by replacing people with ICT?

Recent figures from the Department for Education (DfE) illustrate how the education sector spends 76% of its budget on people, with the remaining 24% spent on running expenses. Prior to the 23 March 2020, no one could conceive the UK adhering to a draconian lockdown. Is it therefore so inconceivable that education establishments of the future could deliver the same high standards of education without the physical presence of people?

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The smart city concept integrates ICT with the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to collect data and use insights gained to manage assets, resources and services more efficiently.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning has already led to improved voice recognition. Existing technologies are providing more automation to remove people from tasks that can now be performed faster and more affordably by a computer.

Coronavirus may be an enabler to the mass adoption of automated back office services to release vital funds back to education providers. This includes elements of HR such as recruitment advertising, CV sifts, employee expenses, employee inductions and ongoing training and elements of finance such as payroll, accounts payable and debt recovery. In theory, any time consuming, mundane activity or forecast can be completed by an AI algorithm.

Video analytics when combined with identification biometrics: tracking cell phone Bluetooth or WIFI addresses, RFID readers and identity cards provide increased capabilities and usefulness to the public. It’s claimed that its now possible for an AI algorithm to process and sort hours of images from CCTV footage. This can be used to pick out individuals in a crowd or to predict people’s behaviour in terms of their routine and the places they frequently visit. Other claims from technology companies in the use of advanced technology include:

Zone intrusion, direction detection and anomaly detection – monitoring the direction of people’s movements, sounding an alarm if an anomaly is detected e.g. people start moving in the wrong direction in a designated area.

Loitering detection and dwell time – monitoring how long people remain within areas, raising an alarm if people stay for longer than the defined time.

Tailgating detector – detecting if more than one person passes through a secure door to improve the register of who is in a building or area.

Gesture recognition – AI algorithms using visual cues to detect abnormal behaviours such as a cough or standing within 2 metres of another. AI cameras used to measure hand washing compliance for the required duration.

Thermal cameras – these fever detection and screening systems connect directly to existing security camera systems. An alert is triggered when a higher than normal body temperature is detected.

Smart cameras –fines issued without human intervention and logged on a person’s record for example, an overdue library book.

All of the above could theoretically replace the presence of onsite security. Companies claim that through AI, visuals and sound their technologies could detect a fight or other antisocial behaviour and send an automatic alert to the appropriate emergency services.

Occupational health, student assistance services and counselling services could be provided remotely using existing encrypted technology accessed from any smart phone. Services such as NHS 111 already ask questions from a pre-determined script, the AI algorithm helps the operator make a referral to the appropriate support network based on the individual’s responses to the questions.

In the future, we may even have driverless vehicles to transport children to and from school removing the costs and risks associated with safeguarding and DBS checks.

If every student were provided access to their own individual electronic device (laptop or tablet) and a secure connection to access the cloud, a hub and spoke model may provide a more innovative virtual teaching method to the masses.

The hub could offer the full array of teachers for the curriculum, with the spokes offering teachers for more specialist sectors and subjects. The fitness industry has already proved how successfully they can deliver PE to children, virtually, and may in the long-term help overcome teacher shortages. This leaves in-person teaching accessible to those who need it most.

Real-time exams could also be administered via cloud technologies, such as those that facilitate webinars. With students monitored in real-time, inputting their answers directly into an end-to-end encrypted instant messaging service; or a move to open exams where students are allowed to refer to text-to-answer case study-type questions.

A technology-enabled world with virtual human interactions is hard to conceive, but it’s being propelled by the pandemic. Despite the obvious efficiency and cost-saving benefits of shared resources, the major drawbacks to overcome are security, privacy, the ‘who owns the data’ quandary, and ultimately, if and how that data will be processed.

Investing in new, smarter technology could be the solution to keeping the R under control and reopening the entire education sector. But here’s the thing; will the coronavirus ultimately usher in a society where everyone is watched?

Independent, procurement consultant Naomi Clews, from Naomi Clews Consultancy, is based at Keele University’s Science and Innovation Park’s Smart Innovation Hub.

You might also like: The learner’s journey – during COVID-19 and beyond


  • Brian Douglas
    Brian Douglas

    A great article. Technology needs to be seen as an investment but the most important part of any solution is ensuring that children are not exposed to inappropriate content. Free access to the Internet can do more harm than good. Filtering needs to be obligatory with any hardware purchased if targeted at children.

    • Genna Ash-Brown
      Genna Ash-Brown

      Great points there, Brian – I whole heartedly agree. Safeguarding and cybersecurity are such complicated issues – especially now the majority are working from home. Free internet access would be amazing, but there’s no guarantee for the safety of users and so, ultimately, would it be worth it in the long-run?

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