Graham Macaulay, LEO, Academy Trust, Sutton
Peter Horner, IT manager, Barton Peveril College
Rachel Beech, Founder & CEO, We Are Fetching, childcare management
Beth Porter, Managing director, Esme Learning Solution
Phil Bridge, President, Ontrack, data recovery
Professor Peter Nikoletatos, Industry general manager for education, TechnologyOne, ERP Software/adjunct professor, La Trobe University
Q. In what ways might a school or university’s legacy systems be holding them back?
Graham Macaulay: Change is difficult. It’s costly, emotive – and hard work. Many of the systems and processes we use in the education sector have evolved over time, resulting from hard work and considerable effort.
Sadly, however, often these processes and systems have not been designed around efficiency or impact – but rather around legacy systems.
Many of the legacy IT systems used across the education sector hold back organisations from developing and enhancing their practice. We are often held back by data sets being generated in a certain format, or by a labour-intensive workflow. Clearly, with the right approach, this can change. But change takes leadership, enthusiasm and commitment.
Peter Horner: Over the years, education institutions have ended up with a patchwork of systems handling various functions – from virtual learning environments to file servers, printing and phones. These systems grow in complexity as time moves on, making them harder to support and resulting in fewer people understanding how these critical systems work together. From my experience, this can slow down innovation, as you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time supporting these systems, rather than researching new, beneficial trends in technology.
Rachel Beech: There’s a great deal of time to be saved by using more efficient platforms for managing existing processes. On an academic side, there are technologies emerging that improve not only engagement, but also the retention of information. If a student’s retention rate increased, imagine how much more they could learn!
Beth Porter: Because of stringent and complex requirements around data privacy, transfer, reporting and control, as well as the special needs of each individual school or university system, legacy platforms often reflect, in their code and configuration, myriad customisations that make them expensive and time-consuming to upgrade or replace.
While some platforms have emerged in recent years that take the legwork out of certain aspects of data management (such as Clever, an SSO solution for schools), many schools are looking at 20 years of investment in existing solutions, resulting in great reluctance to make substantial changes. Loyalty to legacy systems may reduce risk for a university system or district, but it also severely impedes adoption of new solutions.
Phil Bridge: Strict data retention policies encourage the continued maintenance of legacy systems. However, the older a system gets, the harder it becomes to maintain, which increases its risk to the school. Extracting legacy data and migrating it to another system or a private/public cloud could help with understanding what data you hold, and what you can delete or gain insight from – for example, understanding how the school has changed, best methods for engagement, and key areas of interest.
Peter Nikoletatos: Upgrading to an SaaS solution can mean big savings for educational institutions, as on-premise maintenance costs are reduced. All of the IT and software upgrades usually carried out on-campus by IT staff can be handed over to the technology supplier and carried out at remote data centres.
Integrated SaaS systems also bring many other benefits in terms of employee productivity and better self-service tools for students.
The COVID-19 lockdown has really highlighted the need for IT systems that staff and students can access from any device, wherever they are.
Universities are even more dependent on international students to boost income. So, when they can’t make it to campus, it’s vital that these students can access not only online learning tools, but also different student administration portals to pay fees and access other student services. This is just as critical for domestic students now, when online learning has become the new norm. Providing an all-encompassing digital experience for students delivers essential access – and boosts the overall student experience.
“The COVID-19 lockdown has really highlighted the need for IT systems that staff and students can access from any device, wherever they are” – Professor Peter Nikoletatos
Q. What are some examples of legacy software and hardware?
PH: Examples of legacy software often include locally hosted email servers, file servers, MIS systems, HR and finance. Examples of hardware include legacy desktop hardware, standalone servers that have not been virtualised and on-premise phone systems.
RB: Hardware is a large expense and it’s unusual for schools to keep it updated. Staff work on antiquated desktop computers, and many teachers resort to using their own devices. With regards to software, the big players in the payments and parent communication spaces have managed to retain their dominance. School SaaS to this point has been an incredibly ‘sticky’ industry – as a technology provider, once you’re in the door you’re likely to stay there.
BP: Student information systems (SIS) represent by far the most entrenched and archaic legacy solutions in place in most schools. These are often homegrown solutions, hard to maintain due to lack of expertise or resources, or built upon heavy-duty enterprise systems such as PeopleSoft (Oracle), which are robust but, again, hard to maintain because they’re complex and heavily customised.
In higher education, the other relevant category of legacy systems is learning management systems (LMS). The older generation of platforms include Blackboard and Sakai, and though these applications have undergone significant upgrades over time, schools often lag behind in their updates and struggle to keep pace with the speed of progress. In some cases, they’re stuck on older versions because of infrastructure or hardware issues, and the requirement that they continue to maintain an on-premises solution, rather than moving to the cloud.
PB: We’re currently seeing a lot of requests to extract Digital Linear Tape (DLT), Super DLT and LTO 1–4 systems, as they’re fairly old. Not too long ago we extracted a reel-to-reel tape, which was very, very old!
PN: While universities have been doing more and more to improve their student learning systems, both in the classroom and for distance learners, many of the back-end IT systems used by human resources, finance and procurement teams have been overlooked and grossly underfunded. This has led to much manual data inputting – time-consuming and error-prone.
The universities and colleges we work with find that, by moving to far more intuitive, self-service integrated SaaS systems, they can massively improve efficiency by automating processes and workflow. Finance and HR teams can focus on quality work, such as better reporting analysis and customer-facing projects, rather than tedious data inputting or correlating reports. Not only do they save on admin costs, they also have much better business insight and information to make informed and timely decisions.
Q. Which newer technologies might schools and colleges be missing out on?
BP: Cloud-based platforms (SaaS) and mobile applications. While many schools have relaxed their rules around what can be used for ad-hoc engagements with students for instructional purposes or social connections, the official environments that manage interactions with the administration and faculty, such as registration, identity management, grades and transcripts, and change management (such as changing your class schedule), remain woefully inadequate. Most have poor user experiences, slow transaction speeds, rigid definitions about the structure of classes, programmes or schools, and unfixable issues due to lack of continued support from vendors.
Many instructors who are trying to use modern applications don’t aim for official adoption by their schools because of the slow and arcane process for satisfying system requirements and getting approval from IT administrators. Consequently, usage is on the sly and not integrated into centralised systems…which may not matter from the point of view of data integration. But, without at least some rudimentary vetting of applications and platforms, instructors risk exposing their students to weak data protections.
GM: During the COVID-19 response, we have benefited from having cloud-based systems and staff using Google Chromebooks from home.
For us, this was a big change – but it also proved to be invaluable during school closures. Many schools are missing out on the benefits of collaborative working and cloud-based approaches due to their hardware, software and systems not allowing these principles.
PH: We have found that using technology in a meaningful way improves learner motivation and increases engagement. Google’s G Suite for Education has become an integral part of campus life for our 3,600 students and teachers. Using the collaborative tools in G Suite, teachers can instantly share Google Docs with their class, while students can collaborate in real-time irrespective of location or device.
In addition, over the last five years we have invested in 1,400 Chromebooks, giving our learners greater access to digital learning resources and doubling the number of computers we have available. We have found Chromebooks to be fast, low-maintenance and inexpensive compared to Windows or Mac equivalents. It’s estimated this has saved the college £250,000 versus traditional laptops.
Additionally, legacy college computers have been converted into Chrome devices using Neverware’s CloudReady software.
PN: Higher education institutions face growing administrative complexity due to greater global competition and student mobility, and pressure to provide exceptional student experiences. So, they’re focusing on two main technology shifts; firstly, a move to SaaS, as they’re realising that savings can be achieved and productivity improved by moving to an integrated education management system that employees and students can access anywhere.
Secondly, student management systems also become a key pillar of university operations. They can improve student recruitment and admission processing, engage and retain existing students, and empower staff, partners and students through self-service capabilities.
Q. How easy is it to implement an entire system overhaul? How easy is data migration?
GM: As always, the key to our system migration was being realistic and engaging all stakeholders when considering project plans and Gantt charts! It would be easy to suggest overhauling one system at a time; however, a holistic look at all systems can be advantageous.
PH: At Barton Peveril College, we started by offering G Suite for Education and Chromebooks to our users as an additional service – we didn’t replace anything. Then gradually, over time, as we provided training and advertised the new services, more teachers and students chose to use G Suite rather than our legacy desktop applications. Now we’ve reached the point where some of our legacy systems, such as our email servers and Moodle VLE, can be switched off as all those users have embraced the cloud-based system and migrated their data.
RB: If edtech solutions aren’t easy to implement, they’re their own worst enemy. The future of better technology for schools is ‘plug and play’: easy and seamless to integrate and use.
Schools who have suffered with unwieldy, rarely updated software are now reticent to even consider new opportunities. As a result, the biggest obstacle is change management.
Staff, particularly in more rural institutions, may have been in place a number of years, and will warn of the dramas encountered last time the systems changed.
As a result, only the most innovative school leaders will attempt to change the way that things have always
BP: Complete system overhauls are typically not necessary or recommended. A more incremental migration of data and subsystems means less risk and better continuity. Many edtech consulting organisations specialise in developing and implementing migration plans that allow solutions to stay in place while new ones are being developed.
One common scenario occurs when learning and course-management systems are being introduced to get new features and better content experiences. Through common protocols such as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) and Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI), new systems can be integrated through the student information system – without requiring old systems to be taken down.
LTI can also be used to integrate speciality applications into existing LMSs in order to make them compatible with older systems. For example, if you wanted to integrate a new video and text chat solution such as Riff, LTI enables students to authenticate through their school-based system, and go from there into Riff without needing a new login. LTI also allows data, such as grades, to be transferred back to the LMS.
PN: Most commonly, a transition to SaaS will begin when entirely new capabilities (such as student management) are added – or in more core systems like HR/payroll or core finance, because these are so essential to running the business. It can be a challenge to map out that journey on your own. We’ve done it many times now and have mature, tried and tested processes. But, of course, every university is different.
Digital transformation in higher education is easier said than done. Universities are complex. All have legacy systems and processes to take into account – and day-to-day operations to run. Few have the time to throw out everything and start from scratch.
One of the great benefits of SaaS is its simplicity. IT Directors don’t need to reinvent the wheel: they can buy secure, top-class software that’s already been road-tested by thousands of educational institutions and government organisations around the world.
“If edtech solutions aren’t easy to implement, they’re their own worst enemy” – Rachel Beech
Q. How much should schools prioritise such an overhaul, against other costly but important expenditures?
GM: I think schools need to spend time focusing on their strategy and what sort of organisation they wish to be. High-level strategic conversations can then be used to inform more operational decision-making, allaying concerns about keeping up-to-date and whether everything must change so quickly.
PH: School and college closures due to COVID-19 have resulted in distance and blended learning becoming the new normal. Education technology that can provide agility and flexibility is more essential than ever.
Moving to cloud-based systems needn’t be costly. Google’s G Suite for Education is free for schools, colleges and universities, while Microsoft’s Office365 is available to education institutions. What’s more, the Department for Education recently announced assistance for implementing cloud-based systems to support learning.
BP: Institutions should not prioritise such overhauls unless their legacy systems have significant security flaws, or can’t be updated in ways that allow for loosely coupled integrations. Most legacy systems have databases that house critical business intelligence, which can be accessed using application programming interfaces (APIs), just like modern software applications (into which they are typically built from the outset).
This approach allows you to get access to data, using an integration layer that can often broker transactions across multiple systems, as well as reducing a school’s reliance on using legacy systems to do everything.
PB: An IT system’s life cycle is always changing and you’ll be upgrading, updating and advancing your technology for all of time. However, there’s always a balance to be struck. A very good reason to upgrade your systems would be IT security. Criminals are constantly updating their ways of exploiting vulnerabilities, so we should always try and stay ahead of the curve.
PN: The finance and IT departments at the universities we work with have seen the move to an integrated SaaS solution as an opportunity rather than a cost. While there are clearly costs associated with implementation, the investment quickly pays for itself.
Automating many of the finance and HR processes through employee and student self-service can deliver many other savings. Students these days much prefer to do things themselves online rather than trek to the university administration buildings, so payment processes can also be accelerated here.
SaaS enables demand-driven scalability, allowing institutions to easily scale up to support peak periods such as enrolments or exam results, without needing to add additional server capacity on-site.
It provides a highly secure platform that will safeguard the university against cybersecurity risks.
SaaS also reduces the cost of hardware and software updates and maintenance. As it’s stored virtually, future technological advances can also be much more easily integrated, rather than having to overhaul on-premise systems. Employees and students don’t notice any maintenance issues, as they access easy-to-use portals via the internet, rather than ageing hardware.
Q. Has the COVID-19 outbreak slowed down legacy system updates – or, conversely, has the remote working made schools, colleges and universities more aware of the need to update systems?
PH: Remote working has quickly highlighted those systems that are no longer fit for purpose. Our goal is to ensure that every college service and application can be accessed from any device or location.
We have taken a cloud-first and web-friendly approach to the systems we’ve developed or purchased.
Our legacy, on-premise phone system relied on outdated technology that meant it could not be accessed remotely. In response to this, we deployed Google Voice, a cloud-based phone system, to all of our teachers and support staff. This was achieved in less than an hour. Now our staff can access their college number from any device or location, and keep in contact with our learners.
RB: The outbreak has definitely made schools conscious of their ability to progress learning remotely, which will have been a wake-up call in many cases.
However, I worry that the current crisis could actually work against edtech. Many schools and universities have had to adopt new tech quickly, which may or may not have worked for them.
Having not had the time to undertake due diligence, train teams and properly integrate their chosen system, they may have encountered problems – and may have been further put off adopting new tech.
BP: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the roadmap for nearly all technical initiatives at schools, especially those that enable remote access to data systems and delivery of remote class sessions. Many initiatives were under way, but not to the extent required or on the schedule now anticipated to support a prolonged period of remote learning. Most core systems (SISs and LMSs) will remain intact, but connected applications and content experiences will undergo significant changes in the next 6–18 months as a response.
PN: The pandemic has meant that many sectors are undertaking digital transformation processes that would normally take years in just weeks. It’s no different with education. Whether the lockdown eases or not, universities and colleges now realise that they need to be able to teach virtually and work remotely, in case this happens again.
“The outbreak has definitely made schools conscious of their ability to progress learning remotely, which will have been a wake-up call in many cases” – Rachel Beech
Q. Why are so many IT leaders across the sector so reluctant to update their systems?
GM: I think there are two main reasons: finance and mindsets. Making changes often costs money: but, more importantly, it means managing people’s perceptions and mindsets. Schools and colleges need to put managing mindsets at the forefront of decision-making.
PH: Before implementing G Suite for Education and beginning our digital transformation five years ago, I didn’t recognise the need for change. Moving services to the cloud can seem like an insurmountable task, as it requires developing a new skillset. However, once we learned more about G Suite and the migration tools available, we were pleasantly surprised at how simple it was to implement.
RB: I think training is the key here. Implementing a new system in any organisation is challenging, but in an industry where most employees are consumed with the education of their pupils, it becomes even harder to set time aside. Inset days are already full enough without adding what are likely to be seen as non-essential system upgrades.
BP: As mentioned earlier, core systems are often old, entrenched and hard to modify – especially if they’ve not been regularly maintained over time. Hybrid approaches are safer, easier and result in better business continuity for schools. Education leaders are rightly reluctant to update core systems. However, when it comes to modernising what they offer and being more responsive to administrators, instructors and students alike, they have many other options.
Most schools also lack the staff and budget for taking on large, comprehensive projects, which require a huge amount of preparation as well as significant ongoing maintenance… just like the systems they are replacing. Incremental approaches are better.
PN: Clearly, digital transformation in HE is easier said than done. Universities and colleges are complex, as are change management and data migration. HEIs have legacy systems and processes to consider – not to mention day-to-day operations to run. Few have the time to throw out everything and start from scratch.
However, by switching to SaaS, they can reduce the burden of costly IT overhauls because, rather than inventing everything from scratch, they can buy online systems that have proved successful in other institutions.
On-premise software also runs the risk of system versions falling years behind, as IT may have resource constraints. SaaS enables institutions to easily take advantage of the latest software releases, with any enhancements for one customer made instantly available to all.
● Leo Academy Trust: leoacademytrust.co.uk
● Barton Peveril College: barton-peveril.ac.uk
● We Are Fetching: wearefetching.com
● Esme Learning Solutions: esmelearning.com
● Ontrack: ontrack.com/en-gb
● TechnologyOne: technologyonecorp.com
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