The future at our fingertips

A plethora of innovative systems are available which can help manage physical and virtual study spaces in schools. Damon Jones reports

Information Technology’s capacity to inspire changes in educational culture is undeniable. Within the UK, advocates for digital education spent, according to Nesta’s 2012 ‘Decoding Learning’ report, over £1bn on digital technology between 2007-2012. Yet, despite the potential of these systems, the organisation argued that this investment had delivered no demonstrable improvements in outcomes. “No technology has an impact on learning in its own right; impact depends on how it is used,” they concluded.

Perhaps one challenge inhibiting effective utilisation is classroom culture. Faced with the temptations of listless browsing and ‘click bait’, students may veer ‘off task’ – creating a challenge for system administrators, who need to grant students the latitude to explore, but retain a degree of control over their web access.

“Without appropriate management and control tools in place, it is very easy for students to misuse the technology they have access to in the classroom,” argues Nick Smeltzer, Director of IT Services at Warrington Collegiate, an educator located in north Cheshire.

“Equally, teachers who are maybe at a disadvantage in terms of their own technical ability need to ensure that their teaching is effective in these environments. One of my first objectives was to introduce classroom management software in order to give teachers the tools they needed to be able to monitor what the computers were being used for and to help them conduct their lessons in a productive and safe manner.”

However, implementing the requisite ‘control’ requires deft handling, to ensure acceptance amongst the student body. “Traditionally, this type of software can sometimes be perceived as a spying tool, as it can monitor and block internet use, amongst other features,” observes Chris Lovesey, Marketing Manager at Peterborough based NetSupport, a firm which has been developing educational software solutions for 25 years, and has a current worldwide installation base in excess of 12 million systems. The company offers a classroom management system titled NetSupport School which, he explains, has now evolved from a security solution into “much more of a teaching aid”. According to Lovesey, it now provides “a number of unique assessment tools, revision aids and lesson planning options”. He believes that it is vital such software remains truly contemporary, especially due to the rise of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) learning at numerous schools. Endorsing this approach places obligations on educators to adopt relevant teaching methods, while sustaining compatibility with an evolving mix of desktop and mobile technologies. Some of these platforms include the increasingly popular Chromebook, alongside iPads, Android tablets and Kindle Fire.

One of the system’s stalwart features, PC monitoring, nevertheless remains crucial to “enabling teachers to deliver effective, focused computer-led lessons,” says Lovesey. By allowing a teacher’s PC screen to display a thumbnail of each student’s desktop, the system allows educators to scrutinise learning activities in real time – and ascertain which websites or applications are being used. To ensure that only endorsed content is viewed, approved and restricted website lists can be employed to orient browsing, and a ‘Safe Search’ facility is available to guarantee a risk-free browsing experience. Simultaneously, the platform also functions as a communications channel, allowing teachers to initiate text chats, send messages or take control of student machines. If they feel they are being bullied or need assistance, pupils can also communicate subtly with a teacher, by issuing a ‘silent’ request for help.

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“The terms ‘Big Brother’ and ‘spying’ are often used by students with reference to this type of software, but we’ve taken steps to ensure they are aware of the benefits of NetSupport School,” relates Lovesey. “We provide a ‘Student Information Bar’ at the top of each PC, which provides the exact status of their lesson. It also illustrates other informative data, such as whether any web, application or printing restrictions are in play, and the objectives and expected outcomes of their session. It also provides access to a ‘Student Journal’ feature, which is a perfect revision aid, allowing teachers and students to copy important lesson information to .PDF format for later review.”

Another crucial facet of managing classrooms and personnel is robust, accurate timetabling. Advanced Computer Software Group, a leading UK software firm, offers a tailored suite of software solutions, including management information systems (MIS) and student experience management systems to help teachers flexibly control their classrooms.

“We’re finding that student expectations of how they interact with a college have changed from four of five years ago. If timetabling changes at short notice, or a teacher is sick, they don’t expect to go into a reception area and see a message indicating that a room has been moved,” says Dean Dickinson, Managing Director of Advanced’s Business Solutions Division. “They expect that they will receive a message on their telephone or portable device.”

This service is offered via Advanced’s Progresso product – a recently introduced cloud-based service, which allows various shareholders to view student records, and effectively manage them, amongst its various capabilities. Development of the platform has been funded by a £20m R&D investment, and, since its launch last year, it has been adopted by over 100 UK schools.  

Individual and bulk scheduling changes can be implemented, and ad-hoc amendments made at short notice, with the changes disseminated to impacted parties. “Our timetabling services allow administrators to look at who can cover for them in these circumstances, and reshuffle the timetable,” explains Dickinson. “Once a decision has been made, this solution can then be communicated to other staff and pupils via their chosen devices.”

Proving especially popular amongst academy chains and local government, Dickinson says that a key benefit of Progresso is that it consolidates several different functions (including finance, HR, procurement, attendance and grading records) and, moreover, can ensure engagement with the latest technologies. Relevant information can also be ‘pushed’ directly to members of staff throughout a school to ensure its dissemination.

Whether this strategy can be implemented, however, may depend on the existing infrastructure inherited by managers. “A number of legacy systems within a school’s IT department might be hosted on a client server,” elaborates Dickinson. “So, to allow remote access, the vendor would either need to write specific portals that allow the data to be inspected, or a CITRIX system will need to be deployed.”

A key strength of Advanced’s offering, he says, is that they can simultaneously offer software, consultancy and development solutions, which takes care of these considerations on behalf of educators.  “For us, it’s a really exciting time,” comments Dickinson. “We’ve designed a system which can live in and interact with the cloud, and which takes advantage of mobile technology. A recent KABLE survey of schools shows that, over the next two to three years, over 80% of educational bodies will consider hosting applications in this way.”

As this migration continues, implementing IT procedures which balance security concerns with an awareness of opportunities for student innovation and connectivity may prove key to the performance of the digital classroom.

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