Challenges in IT in education in MEA

Obtaining the right IT for your educational establishment can be hugely challenging – this situation has only intensified in the past year, with the COVID pandemic and its seismic impact on learning practices worldwide

School closures have meant the sudden need to adapt to remote or (later) blended learning.

Facing a global challenge

Now, of course, there’s much discussion about what education will look like post-COVID. Children are returning to schools across the world, and in-class learning – albeit with varying levels of controls and restrictions in place – is, generally, returning as the way of doing things.

However, most educators and commentators are clear that our experiments with online learning during 2020-21 have left a significant impact on the way learning will happen in future. Debate is centred, in particular, on how much educators should adopt a ‘hybrid’ model of education – one that retains much of the time-honoured, face-to-face style of learning, but also incorporates some of the online strategies that were practised, honed and, ultimately, shown to be highly effective over the past year.

Teachers have been clear that there are some ways in which remote learning will never fully compensate for a teacher and pupils being in class together – those moments of shared understanding and communication, the ways that physical proximity, eye contact and others make it much easier to gauge whether a pupil has truly grasped a concept. In other ways, however, online learning has shown itself to be enormously effective – for example, in allowing pupils to undertake their learning journey at times and paces that suit them. In short, the ideal going forward appears to be a mix of traditional and online learning.

For many schools, the past year has demanded – and this hybrid future will continue to demand – a significantly upscaled connectivity and tech capability in general.

Now, more than ever, it’s essential for schools around the world to offer secure, reliable broadband connectivity. A proportion, whether large or small, of your lessons, assemblies, or other school activities may be broadcast to students at home, and the last thing you want is for the technology to fail. This is especially true when it comes to video content going back and forth from schools to students: schools need total visibility into, and security of, those networks.

Learnings from Ghana

One MEA establishment that has successfully adapted to the new landscape is the Al Rayan International School in Accra, Ghana. With 160 staff and 600 students, Al Rayan is one of the region’s largest and most prestigious schools.

When the pandemic hit, like so many other schools, Al Rayan had to pivot quickly to remote learning. And this, naturally enough, meant some rapid technological adaptations. All the school’s systems, including both Learning Management Systems and School Management Systems – were on the cloud, so connectivity was absolutely crucial. The school approached Cisco Meraki for a full-stack solution. The result? A speedy upgrade to their entire IT provision, and an academic year that continued largely uninterrupted – changed, of course, but not fundamentally disrupted – by the pandemic and its enforced changes to learning.

For Nausheen Siddiqi, technology manager at Al-Rayan International School, two key priorities were visibility – being able to see what content was being shared across all school devices – and a sustainable connection.

“We needed the ability to log into the dashboard and see what was going on at a device level,” Nausheen explains. “It was essential for us to be straight across any problems with authentication, signal strength, etc., so that we could leave the teachers and students to focus on what they do – teaching and learning.”

Nick Malherbe, head of sales (Africa) at Cisco Meraki, liaised with Nausheen throughout the upgrade. And he has advice for other schools considering improvements to their IT provision.

“Think about how to plan for an increased bandwidth consumption, and ensure that your students can connect with as little fuss as possible,” Nick advises.

“Explore Wireless Access Points, switching range, and MX devices. Security is very important – you must ensure that whatever sites your young minds are visiting are secure and curated. You’ll need to be planning for increased performance and density on the wireless side – and be aware that those increases in need can be unpredictable during the school day.”

But how to plan, financially and educationally, for the IT upgrades that you will need? Is it better to make changes piecemeal or to follow Al Rayan’s example and go for a full-stack solution?

“Of course, finances can be hard to get hold of, so I recommend that schools put a lot of thought into what technology they need at any given time,” Nick advises. “What you put into today will benefit you in future.

“Schools should be investing in cloud technology, but also they need devices with telemetry – devices that can give insights into how applications are performing. You need to ensure that you’re getting ROI. Buy from authorised suppliers, get to know both the product and the vendor.”

Where possible, a comprehensive upgrade is preferable – but, if finances dictate that you do things in a more piecemeal, step-by-step fashion, the key is to start at the top – with your router, the point at which you’re actually connecting to the internet.

“Look carefully at what bandwidth you are using and ascertain whether it’s appropriate for your needs,” Nick continues. “Schools should approach IT as not just another department, but as the base of running the entire school – the heart and the core of their learning ambitions.”

You can watch Nick Malherbe and Nausheen Siddiqi discussing Cisco Meraki’s solutions for Al Rayan International School here

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