Neil Watkins, managing director of IT procurement framework, Think IT, looks at what the biggest IT successes and concerns were for schools in 2016
Last year, we have witnessed a number of significant – and at times controversial – changes across the world, and it’s fair to say that the education sector didn’t escape this turbulence. 2016 has left us with a number of crucial issues to consider and address, including: the impact that Brexit may have on education; the government’s plans for academisation and the subsequent U-turn on the plans; the reintroduction of grammar schools; and the continuing teacher recruitment and retention crises.
However, amongst the commotion, one thing that has steadily evolved is the influx of education technology available to schools. With technology no longer being a shiny new concept, schools have started to become wiser. Rather than purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets, staff are spending more time assessing what resources and tools will be of most value to the school and students, investing in edtech that will be both beneficial and effective.
With the sheer amount of technology available, it comes as no surprise that schools have faced several challenges this year involving cloud computing, cyber security, internet connectivity, IT procurement, as well as emerging concepts like gamification; all of which help schools to enhance students’ learning opportunities.
With 2017 started, let’s take a look at some of the innovations that schools have tried, tested and triumphed with.
Using mobiles in the classroom
Mobile devices have been around for a while now, and are often found glued to the hands of students. More recently though, the use of smartphones in the classroom has been an area of contention; some believe that they can be used to boost students’ education, whereas others argue that they are simply a distraction.
My personal view is that mobile devices, when used appropriately, can enrich education. For example, students can take photos and videos relating to a topic, access a whole host of educational apps and research material using the internet.
When considering whether to introduce mobile devices in the classroom, teachers need to be aware of how to monitor and manage the technology. It’s important to ensure that they are being used safely and in a controlled environment which will provide reassurance to teachers and parents, while at the same time providing the student with ownership and the privilege of being trusted to use their phone during lessons.
We need to be preparing students for future jobs that will no doubt incorporate the use of technology in one way or another. Therefore, schools need to at least consider the opportunities mobile devices present. From this, we can equip students with the knowledge and confidence in understanding how to get the most from technology, so that they’re as prepared as possible for life beyond the classroom.
Using devices like tablets and mobiles in school has presented further challenges, including broadband bandwidths and Wi-Fi connectivity. In a report from the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) in June 2015, 41 per cent of schools stated that they didn’t have adequate broadband bandwidth and a further 48 per cent revealed that they didn’t have sufficient Wi-Fi capacity. The report suggested that limited improvements were to be expected by the end of 2016.
From my experience, too many schools stick with what they already have in place, regardless of whether it’s suitable, simply because it’s too big of a challenge to change things. However, with the right supplier, schools can be reassured and advised of the best options with minimal disruption or impact.
With technology evolving at a rapid pace, being tied into long-term contracts simply isn’t feasible. Something that may be right for a school’s needs this year, is likely to become outdated by 2020. Therefore, contracts should ideally be no longer than three years and schools should ask for automatic annual increases in bandwidth to ensure they’re keeping up to speed with technological requirements.
If I could only offer one piece of advice, it would be to plan ahead. If schools are looking to buy a number of iPads over the next year, they need to think about what that is going to do to the bandwidth and Wi-Fi network. With the right infrastructure, schools will have the flexibility to grow and adapt with continual changes in the sector.
Implementing cyber security
With the increasing use of the internet, cyber security has been a major consideration for schools this year. While smaller schools might think they’re exempt from things like hacking and scams, the truth is, more and more are being targeted regardless of their size.
As methods of hacking and malware become progressively more sophisticated, it’s crucial to ensure both staff and students are trained in identifying potential threats, and the right policies are in place to minimise the risks or manage a situation.
If it hasn’t already been done, schools should implement strict password policies and consider trialling ‘penetration testing’ by an external company in order to identify any areas of weakness in the system that could be seen as a ‘way in’ by hackers.
Schools need to be prepped and well equipped for 2017 and beyond, with the right steps and processes in place so that if a threat is identified, they’re confident in managing this to ensure their data remains encrypted and secure.
Considering the cloud
This year, Microsoft revealed its impending licensing changes, meaning that schools who didn’t review their license arrangements have missed the first deadline, and the educational discount has been reduced for new licenses they need to buy from now on.
This change, along with the DfE’s supporting guidance, which encourages schools to move to the cloud, has meant there has been a steady rise in the uptake of cloud computing. However, many schools that I’ve spoken to are still considering the move, and stated that they’re likely to do it in the next five years. While it might not seem like a priority, the trouble with this approach is that nobody knows what budgets will look like in that timeframe, meaning that schools could risk spending twice as much on migration costs.
I’ve seen first-hand how anytime, anywhere, any-device access to school networks has dramatically improved the teaching and learning experience. Understanding the benefits on offer may help schools to make the move sooner. Schools will experience greater efficiency, easier access to school data, a more secure system – not to mention a saving on ongoing maintenance costs. Working alongside a trusted supplier will also mean that the move won’t impact on teaching and learning, and can be made seamlessly within the timeframe and budget available.
Over the past year, gamification has been thrown back into the mix. With a huge amount of apps available on the market, can gamification really impact teaching and learning?
With the launch of Microsoft’s Minecraft Education edition, and next year the launch of Google’s 3D World, the big players are entering the market. While we’re yet to see a ground-breaking app with the potential to disrupt the market across the entire age range, creating something engaging and relatable will undoubtedly encourage students to persevere and ultimately achieve the overall learning outcomes.
Gamification has the potential to become instrumental in education, however, I believe there are a few more things that need to be done in order to get there. For example, imagine a series of inter-connected games that cover a range of subjects, skills and topics, with tailored ‘levels’ based on age and ability. This would provide a truly personalised experience, allowing students to learn at their own pace and who would otherwise struggle with more traditional methods.
We could then use the data collected from the game in order to better prepare students for future skills and work placements.
Understanding procurement frameworks
One common theme we’ve seen this year has been schools using funds ‘inappropriately’ when it comes to sourcing technology. Schools are given the freedom to make these purchases, however, while it is important that they follow the rules, many are often unaware of the specifics including the legalities of EU procurement law.
Finding the very best resources for the classroom can be a long process, and quite frankly, the majority of schools don’t have the capacity or the skills to create a detailed specification, go out to tender, evaluate lengthy technical proposals, interview suppliers and then negotiate the best deals.
The good news is that the whole process can be done through an EU Procurement Framework, helping schools to save time and ensure value for money.
So why aren’t more schools utilising this service? Because they simply aren’t aware that this is even an option. The recent DfE guidelines heavily promote the use of frameworks to relieve schools of these pressures. Ready and waiting to help are various procurement framework providers, however schools do need to choose carefully. They should look to work with a framework provider that has the best of both worlds: a comprehensive level of education experience as well as the technical expertise and list of suppliers.
This means a school can seek expert advice and identify the most suitable products and resources from a bank of suppliers with the highest calibre in terms of product, service, cost, suitability and customer care, ensuring they are providing a valuable experience for their students.
2016 has been full of changes and opportunities that schools have started to embrace and tackle, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this continues to develop over the next year as well as the new prospects in store for 2017