Facing the challenges for a new year: five experts speak out

We asked five audio visual and edtech experts to consider the key challenges for the new academic year, and how to solve them

Around the table are Kul Sihota, head of information systems at Mayfield School in Dagenham, Essex; Adam Hodgess, learning technology manager at Lipson Co-operative Academy in Plymouth, Devon; Adam Harvey, solution architect for AV and digital media at the University of Hertfordshire, and from IT solutions company Comcen, Martin Casey, public sector sales director and Stuart James, head of sales, public sector.

1. What do you see as the greatest IT challenge facing education organisations this year?  

Kul: Definitely budget – making it go further by employing technologies that last longer and that are more resilient is key to sustainability in our organisation.

Adam Hodgess: Developing adaptive and creative mind sets for the useful application of new technologies.

Adam Harvey: I see user expectations as one of our biggest challenges. By users I mean the academic staff and the students. We need to be providing not only high quality, reliable and robust facilities to teach our programmes but also a variety of teaching and learning spaces to appeal to the different ways people want to study.  

Martin: The main IT challenges facing schools this year has to be budgetary constraints. In the Welsh education sector austerity cuts are resulting in a drop in funding to the local education authorities (LEA’s) who in turn cannot provide the same service levels as previous years.

Stuart: Budgetary cuts will have the greatest impact on the schools in Wales. A cut in budget will result in a reduction of purchases of current technology by the schools. As LEA funding is cut, they will inevitably lose man power which will result in a weakened service to the schools. 

2.  What would help them to overcome that?

Kul: More money! No, seriously, carefully choosing your products and rigorous testing (buying in a few units and testing to destruction ourselves) pays dividends.

Adam Hodgess: We can’t try everything and so educational networks providing the opportunity for us to demonstrate good practice and also learn from others are key in determining useful practice to adopt.

Adam Harvey: Constant investment is one thing but actually constantly engaging with users to see what we are doing well and not so well is key. There is no point in us driving projects ahead without knowing the user expectation. 

Martin: Unfortunately, in this current climate and the uncertainty that Brexit brings, we can’t see a remedy to the budget cuts so the schools will have to resort to different methods to counteract this issue. One way would be more investment to increase IT tech collaboration.

Stuart: Looking towards the twenty first century, collaborative working seems to be the way forward. This is a major, long term and strategic capital investment programme in Wales with the development of ‘Super schools’ where schools are merged leading to reduced costs and improvements in IT technologies offered.

3. What technologies do you think are going to help most in the classroom/ lecture theatre this coming year?

Kul: Interactive screens – the dynamics of a lesson change when you invite pupils up to the front and ask them to annotate a screen in real time.

Adam Hodgess: There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. We’ve found that Google Apps for Education delivered through the conventional PC or alternatively the Chromebase and Chromebook provides significant opportunities.

Adam Harvey: For the University of Hertfordshire we are now starting the overdue rollout of lecture capture which will hugely benefit the students. We are also developing ‘concept classrooms’ to help to encourage a change to delivering teaching with a greater focus on using technology to enhance the experience.  

Martin: Collaborative software allows pupils to work in small groups or individually and support and build on the pupils’ contributions. This also allows the teacher to move from teacher-centred teaching to a more student-centred learning model and a more creative hands-on experience.

Stuart: Virtual reality and interactive learning are definitely ways forward in encouraging multi-user interaction, collaboration and creativity. The interactive technology helps students learn quicker and remember longer.

4. How much autonomy do you feel educational IT leaders have in making decisions about technology in the classroom?

Kul: I’m lucky, I actually have a great deal of latitude when it comes to making decisions that will ultimately have an effect of teaching and learning within the classroom.

Adam Hodgess: Decisions relating to how we develop and deliver learning technology within the classroom are based on our academy improvement plan objectives and in collaboration with staff and students. The combination of these areas allows us to understand what is needed, deliver the solution and then support it in a sustainable way. 

Adam Harvey: We certainly have a culture where it’s better to try and fail than not try at all. I don’t mean we don’t think about what we are doing before we roll pilot and concept projects out, we do in great detail, but when we do we actively collect feedback on these new areas so we can keep refining the model. 

Martin: That is not particularly relevant to the Welsh school sector as LEA’s advise how and where the money should be spent.

5.  In which areas would leaders benefit from more autonomy? 

Kul: Software is very much teacher driven, in a sense that classroom software is often demonstrated on a perfect (read sales) system, to teachers. Having the right people in the room from a system standpoint is key, but not often put into practice. End users just assume everything will work on your system without consultation.

Adam Hodgess: At Lipson we pride ourselves on the development of solutions through a co-operative and collaborative process. The autonomy for us to act as required following our consultation processes is already in place. 

Adam Harvey: It’s no use spending thousands of pounds on cutting edge technology in a room if all the users want is whiteboards. With a model based around standards that can flex to suit different environments you get the best of both worlds.  Wrapped around that you have to have the engagement with users to ensure you are providing staff and students what they need to teach and learn in the most effective way. 

Martin: On the one hand, increased autonomy would result in an increase in choice for the school and an increased ability to purchase products that would specifically benefit their school. However, with the increase in choice comes problems such as a loss of standardisation of products and also the loss of the economies of scale that the LEA’s can negotiate. Individual schools may end up paying well over the odds.

Stuart: An increase in autonomy would devolve decision-making to schools that are closer to the point of service delivery, which would allow the individual schools to purchase products and services that are specific to their particular needs. However, if autonomy is to benefit the school, the individual IT co-ordinators must be fully briefed and kept up to date on technologies and current market costs.