Update: scaling up

Implementing edtech across multi-campus institutions is no easy feat, so how do they ensure consistency when scaling edtech solutions? Nicola Yeeles explores the subject

Scalability is essential in today’s fast-changing world of tech. New staff and students will inevitably arrive; more documents and data will need storing; and this year’s software and hardware will need updating. That’s why organisations are demanding technology that can scale up and down with changing needs, alongside seasonal and unexpected peaks. 

Neil Watkins, director at Think IT, the public sector procurement framework for ICT, sees that planning and having a strategy are key to effective scaling, especially but not exclusively within the schools sector. He says, “Most schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs) don’t have a fully formed three-year ICT strategy.  If you don’t have a strategy you make reactive buying decisions, either when something goes wrong (eg. we need a new server now or the school will cease to function) or when you’ve got some extra budget, so you go and buy a load of iPads/Chromebooks/robots/3D printers – delete as applicable.” Neil has found that when schools do have a strategy, it’s usually centred around a technology ‘wishlist’ – like CAT-6 cabling and XYZ-32 access points in the science block. He says, “Very rarely do they think about the ‘outcomes’ they want technology to achieve for them. Once you know what you want to do, you need a plan. You can’t start ‘scaling’ without one, or the wheels will quickly come off.”

Planning ahead can certainly help organisations avoid surprise costs. 

For example, when University College London decided to choose a single comms system, they chose Microsoft Lync 2013 and then upgraded to Microsoft’s replacement, Skype for Business. But of course, new users would need to be added in the future, and to ensure they wouldn’t have to worry about hidden costs, their IT project managers GCI arranged for them to have a fixed annual price per user subscription for additional users, payable as new staff joined the organisation.

Scalability is also crucial in areas where demand changes throughout the year. 

One example lies in phone use: in schools, phone lines are busy in term time, quiet in the holidays. At universities, phone lines may be red hot during clearing weeks. Every year, starting on the morning of A-level results day, the University of Southampton can receive over 10,000 calls. The university found that dealing with this spike demanded significant investment in physical ISDN hardware, yet it was only a temporary demand and might leave little room for additional capacity requirements on the day. Consequently, many calls were left unanswered, and with no facility to leave a message, leading to frustrated applicants and a lower level of service for future students.

Daisy corporate services were commissioned to help. They proposed using cloud technology for processing calls and mitigating bottlenecks caused by existing equipment and ingress. By moving to a cloud-managed solution, the university would mitigate the costly, labour-intensive process of installing additional hardware and benefit from a solution that can scale both up and down with changing demand. Nick Hull, associate director (head of admissions) at the University of Southampton, explains that scaling the technology also helps university staff plan for other resources: “We are now able to use the data generated by the solution to inform staffing levels and marketing campaigns for future years and are assessing how else we might utilise the solution to benefit both applicants and current students alike.”

  Complex technical solutions always come at a price, be it in the implementation, staff skills or cost of maintenance  – John Herd, network manager, University Campus Suffolk

A key area of concern for universities in terms of scalability is storage. University Campus Suffolk (UCS) was faced with a Storage Area Network (SAN) that was unreliable, causing disruption and failure. 

It needed a new storage solution that would be stable, scalable and cost-effective. 

The SAN had suffered two catastrophic failures and as a result, the institution decided to migrate to two Fujitsu ETERNUS DX80 storage systems in just one weekend, providing 100TBs of modular storage and backup. John Herd, network manager, University Campus Suffolk, says: “With two SANs rather than one, we’re able to balance service load more elegantly, and guarantee resiliency for staff and students, which is a positive step forward for the university.” But he warns: “Complex technical solutions always come at a price, be it in the implementation, staff skills or cost of maintenance.”

Expanding MATs, colleges and universities are faced with the challenge of having to get the underlying infrastructure right across multiple sites. The King’s School in Canterbury is expanding into new buildings around Canterbury, on top of opening a site in Shenzhen, China. “When I joined in 2012, we had 80 access points,” says network manager, Simon Reynolds. “We’re now up to 380 and climbing. The change has been dramatic.” Having scalable Aruba architecture provides a flexible platform for the school’s teaching environment. This allows the school to “flawlessly integrate the latest technology without damaging the heritage of the school.”

Neil Watkins comments, “Scaling should in theory be easy. You create a model architecture such as a hybrid cloud model with an on-premises server for local solutions, like door-entry and print management; Microsoft or Google for your productivity solutions; cloud-based backup and a standard end-user device policy.” You then need “good connectivity to take the ever-increasing traffic; good infrastructure, particularly wifi and security, and trained people.”

But what about the education technology itself? Some not-for-profit organisations are starting to effect lasting change by creating technology that is truly scalable worldwide. In 2019, the UK not-for-profit organisation onebillion won a US$5m X-prize to further develop their app called onecourse, seeking to help raise literacy and numeracy skills across various settings with different cohorts of children and across country boundaries. The Unlocking Talent alliance is now working to roll this out to help as many people as possible, hoping to improve outcomes for 330 million children leaving primary school while still unable to read or do basic maths (UNESCO, 2017). The Malawi government is now using this in 100 primary schools countrywide.

What’s the lesson for smaller organisations? That scaling involves training masses of end users. Neil Watkins says, “This is an area that is massively underestimated in many scaling projects. They just assume that users ‘will get it and get on with it’, but they don’t. If you haven’t allocated a significant portion of your budget to this, there is a high likelihood of failure.” In this case, it is working. Research by the University of Nottingham into the onebillion app that’s being used across 14 primary schools in Malawi has shown that it can prevent gender discrepancies in mathematics – where boys initially outperform girls. What’s more, both genders now learn equally well in reading and maths using the apps. The future is brighter when it’s scalable – and when everyone is on board. 

Trusted back-office management with IRIS

Software that can automate day-to-day tasks are revolutionary for education providers

Martin Holyoak is a fully MAAT-qualified Education Product Specialist working with IRIS Education and PS Financials. Having worked with the education sector for seven years, Martin has implemented hundreds of Enterprise Resource Programmes (ERPs) for education providers.

Nowadays, IRIS relies on Martin to head up their account management department thanks to his wealth of product and sector knowledge.

IRIS is trusted by thousands of UK schools to power their back-office management. That’s because we produce and curate software suites that are designed to meet the unique needs of the education sector. Our solutions cover financial management, parental engagement, human resources, payroll and a wealth of other mission-critical functions.

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