Review roundtable: Simon Harbridge

Charley Rogers speaks to the Stone Group CEO about how 2017 has changed the edtech landscape, and what’s in store for 2018

1. What are your top three edtech ‘buzzwords’ for 2017? Why?

Efficiencies: All schools across the country are running services on squeezed finances, and this is unlikely to change in the short to medium term, so looking at alternative ways of doing more with less will continue to be a key priority. Schools will find that most suppliers now have specific programmes that will enable them to fund the technology they need, even with tighter budgets. 

Microsoft’s Shape the Future programme and licensing allows schools to purchase hardware and licenses at a reduced cost; and operating leases continue to allow schools to spread the cost of purchase, rather than waiting for one lump sum of budget to become available. 

At Stone, we have seen a surge in interest in our refurbished devices from schools that want all the functionality of the latest devices but cannot necessarily fund them. And don’t forget BYOD; although it has been around for years it is still proving to be extremely popular, either funded through schemes such as AccessAbility or from [the tech] that [students] already have at home. 

Cyber-Security: Speaking to schools this year, it has been clear that cyber-security is at the front of mind for many. The WannaCry attack in May provided a watershed moment for many public organisations, as they watched the NHS deal with fallout. And don’t forget, this is an economic concern for schools as well, especially once the GDPR legislation comes into effect in May 2018. Schools that fail to comply could be subjected to upwards of a £150,000 fine from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). 

Coding: While we have been talking about coding for some years now, 2017 seems to be the year that coding was afforded greater emphasis within the curriculum with the likes of Lego, Microsoft (Minecraft), and BBC Microbit pushing their brands into the Edu-space, and the growth of CoderDojo clubs.

2. What trends do you see emerging in 2018? Which innovations or companies do you think will take the lead?

The Server-less School: It’s very early days, but we are seeing heightened interest in going server-less. With reduced funding as a driver, schools are looking at efficient new ways to manage their hosting needs and when it comes to updating servers, some schools are beginning to look beyond the traditional dedicated server set-up and instead explore the possibility of cloud hosting, i.e. server-less. A large proportion of schools still remain on the fence about going server-less, but the costs of acquiring, setting up and running an in-house server can drain much-needed resources. But, there are pros and cons for both, from cost to security, the decision about whether to bite the bullet and go server-less is dependent on your specific needs and budget.

However, there are scenarios when going server-less provides many more pros than cons. For a primary school joining a multi-academy trust, they can be integrated quickly without the need for costly hardware, and they can be managed remotely from the trust’s data centre. 

Virtual Reality: While virtual reality (VR) may not be new to education with the likes of Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard headsets readily available, we are now starting to see some large players such as Facebook, Amazon (Kindle), Acer and HTC looking to launch their own ‘standalone’ headsets, and this will no doubt mean that VR moves more toward the mainstream within education. When you also consider the growing number of applications that the Avantis VR solution has in the education space, we would expect to see VR become a part of schools’ IT budget going forward.

3. One of the trends we’ve seen this year is big data – what role do you think analytics will play in improving edtech applications moving forward?

While we are already seeing the outputs from big data and analytics changing much of the world around us, it is still some way from being fully embraced in an education setting. Saying that, we can see this evolving organically as more multi-academy trusts take on more schools and potentially make schools server-less or push more business-critical services to the cloud.

4. What would the ideal 2018 look like in terms of edtech? Are there any tools or capabilities of which you think the sector is desperately in need?

We have to call out the elephant in the room here – funding. With the new funding formula, most schools are wondering how they can still push forward, but with fewer resources. 

Outside of funding, there are two upcoming deadlines that schools need to be planning for now. The first – GDPR – is now only a matter of months away, and schools need to make sure they fully understand, and are ready to meet the obligations of the incoming GDPR legislation in May 2018. Secondly, schools still using Windows 7 need to start planning their upgrades because the end of support date is now just two years away – January 2020.

As technology moves on, we must not forget the training needs of teachers – from coding to training on how to get the best out of interactive displays, to the use of new operating systems such as Windows 10 or a move to cloud services such as Office 365. If we were to imagine an ideal 2018, we would see one student with one device that allows them to embrace anytime, anywhere learning.

5. What was edtech’s greatest achievement this year? 

2017 has to be the year that the education sector made great strides in tackling radicalisation. We have seen schools increase their focus on internet filtering and additional e-safety policies, and as a result many are managing to spot potential cases of radicalisation at a much earlier stage. We expect this to continue to improve into 2018 as filtering technologies continue to improve, and with more support from the Home Office’s newly formed Commission for Countering Extremism that will help to train schools and colleges to spot signs that young people are being radicalised. 

It has also been great to see the rise in coding clubs, such as Bradford Innovation Centre’s CoderDojo, a volunteer-led movement orientated around running free not-for-profit coding clubs for children. 

6. We have heard a lot of concern over the skills gap this year. How do you think the issue has progressed, and is 2018 looking any more hopeful?

SH: I cannot argue that recruiting and retaining great teaching staff is not a far-reaching concern for the industry, but I feel optimistic that the level of debate will result in answers being found. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that technology is the solution, I would urge the education sector not to forget that there is technology available that can help to support teaching staff – and hopefully reduce stress, not increase it. 

Cloud and infrastructure services that have been developed specifically for multi-academy trusts, allow teaching staff to log in and access their data anywhere, anytime and from any device and with an individual app store that enables them to share teaching aids and resources – admin time can be reduced and teaching staff will feel the benefit.

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Tuesday, November 30, 11AM (GMT)