Across edtech, are there any general rules for ensuring that your investments are sustainable and future-proof?
In our experience, academic institutions face many of the same challenges as the private sector. Technology is advancing fast, and most organisations are sure that digitalisation will become an increasing part of their operations; they are just not sure what form that will take.
The best choice on hardware is to stay flexible in the face of coming change. Save money where you can with cost-effective solutions like quality refurbished hardware and commodity components where no one is going to see them (the server room, the back office), and redeploy those savings towards developing staff who really understand how to adapt hardware and software to changing needs.
Can you give us examples of current edtech that should have a decent lifespan?
Servers are very hard-wearing, and will be effective as long as they can efficiently support the workload you need. Making this work requires an understanding of how much computing power and speed you need for which particular service. Older equipment can be redeployed to departments that need lower specifications. Just as older computers might be moved out of A-level computer science classes into the Year 7 classrooms, older servers might be redeployed from core function to back-up as upgrades come through.
Networks have a relatively long lifespan compared to app-based products like tablets, simply because networking technology does not advance as fast as other sectors. The core systems often work well for a long period of time, and just require component upgrades to increase bandwidth, for example. IT professionals who know how to upgrade at component level – rather than splurging on entire new systems – are invaluable for the money they save over time. The key to this is knowing where to source replacements and upgrades, even when the original equipment manufacturer has ceased to stock them. The options on this include commodity alternatives which flash with the core system, and refurbished parts available through resellers.
Technology is advancing fast, and most organisations are sure that digitalisation will become an increasing part of their operations; they are just not sure what form that will take.
Storage lifespans are dependent on what kinds of components you use for which purpose. Certain types of hardware have very long lifespans: the computer system responsible for the American nuclear arsenal still runs on 8-inch floppy disks! Storage devices, in particular, tend to last longer the slower their function is. So, technologies designed to store data long-term are very hardwearing – even if they take a little longer to read or write. Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), on the other hand, have a limited lifespan that depends on a number of variables including manufacturer, specification and environment.
What about more general green credentials: do some forms of edtech use less energy and other resources than others?
This is a tough one to answer, particularly for servers. There are websites that publish the idle and maximum power of each make and model that comes out. But the real question is – how energy efficient are they at 70, 80 and 90% power, which is much more relevant for actual workload? Be aware of how you are using your systems, in order to get the best energy returns. Multiple systems running at low utility waste much more energy than with fewer items using more of their available resource – for example, three servers running at 85% is much better for energy use than six running at 45%.
It’s best to be aware of exactly how you are using your IT system, in order to get the best energy returns. So, look at virtualisation (for example, having one physical server running multiple virtual machines) and software-defined storage (combining storage between devices to utilise available space) to make the best use of your resources here. Also consider that you might not need the latest and greatest if you are not going to use it to its full capacity.
In terms of raw materials, it’s worth noting just how many precious materials are embedded in IT equipment. Gold on the connectors, and a vast array of rare elements and critical raw materials in the Central Processing Units (CPUs) and elsewhere, are all finite resources. This means that we are going to have to re-use in order to keep tech advances going. Refurbishing, selling and buying to the secondary market are all vital to make best use of resources.
Refurbishing, selling and buying to the secondary market are all vital to make best use of resources.
How can refurbished tech help an institution’s sustainability?
In terms of the institution’s budget, refurbished tech represents a massive cost saving compared to the retail price – as much as 80% in some cases. This saving adds to flexibility in the face of coming change, as outlined above. Plus, many refurbishment companies also buy back legacy hardware, which adds another revenue stream to the budget. Existing data is safely destroyed, and the equipment is then restored to factory conditions, performance-tested, and reaches the next user with other needs. It’s the equivalent of a hardware library, where organisations can source and deposit what they need and basically pay for the use phase.
The environmental benefits, meanwhile, centre around the fact that even the best recycling processes cannot recover all of the composite materials, which means a lot of the good stuff is lost. Re-use and re-provisioning are a much more sustainable solution because materials are useful for a lot longer, plus the energy, carbon output and water usage of manufacture is reduced too.A lot of the sustainable procurement policies talk about supplier appraisal and positive impact on the wider economy. It’s also worth noting that quality refurbishment creates high-skilled jobs in the local community, far more so than recycling.How much of the sustainability equation is about sourcing the right products, and how much is about helping teachers to adapt their teaching, in order to use edtech more sustainably?
Choosing the right products reinforces the best messages that teachers make in the classroom. Education is absolutely key to making tech work for us long term. Our generation of adults have been responsible for some incredible developments that make a massive positive contribution to people’s lives. We have also contributed to perhaps the highest turnover of raw materials in history. What’s left is a huge conundrum that the next generation will have to sort out. Giving them the tools to do this by talking about materials, energy, and smart solutions other than just buying the next tech fashion item, is vital to their success in making this period of invention work long-term.
Sustainability is also about upkeep. Which solutions are the most streamlined and don’t need continual updating?
Infrastructure hardware does not require updates as regularly as app-based products, and it costs much less to maintain. Servers last at least 5-7 years and, as long as they are deployed in the right way, they require relatively little time input. Other infrastructure like wireless access points and networking also requires little maintenance, aside from monitoring and upgrading when necessary. With the right monitoring, component replacement and upgrades, the core system can run for years and years.