The direction of travel towards the use of tablets and other personal devices in the classroom seems clear, even if the speed of transition varies between different schools and colleges. Tablets are steadily establishing themselves in the classroom, sometimes ad hoc by Bring Your Own Device, sometimes in one go through personal issue to each student. Online content has existed for many years and is getting a boost from this trend, and being transformed by better delivery technologies.
Higher education is leading a debate about the role of the campus and face-to-face interactions. Numerous institutions have been behind some successful projects to move courses online into so-called MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. Non-institutional MOOC platforms such as Coursera and edX are providing ways for universities and others to deliver such courses without needing to get into the technology themselves. Social media platforms are seen by some as promising new tools to deliver content and enable interaction in ways that couldn’t have been contemplated until recently.
Content delivery, interaction, flexibility and mobility are the dominating drivers at the sharp end of education, as is the search for the best ways of engaging with a generation that hardly ever turns a physical page in their personal lives. Some are wondering whether the school library is a thing of the past or must just be re-thought in this new world, along with everything else. The speed of change is remarkable, as anyone who visits BETT each year will know.
This is a very different environment from the business of running the organisation. The administration department runs all year and there isn’t the same annual cycle as in the classroom, to open up opportunities to introduce new things as academic years change. Continuity is vital, and disruption causes real problems. There are regulatory and fiduciary responsibilities that surround data and access to systems. As a result, a much higher standard of care is needed with pupil records, HR, accounting and facilities management, record keeping, budgets and planning, and the associated systems and hardware.
By comparison with the classroom, this ‘back-office’ world is changing at a very different pace and has quite different pressures and drivers. The volume of stored data is growing to levels never anticipated and the sprawl of existing network equipment, which is often aging, is struggling to support it and the deep dependence on the applications that the back office needs. Against these pressures are the constraints of governance and best practice – security and privacy, availability and resilience are dominant themes. Budgets and workloads have to be juggled. Too often, high quality and expensive technical staff are consumed by the business of keeping the infrastructure running, and have little time to add value to the education process. The world of finance and administration is more constrained and nuanced, and has more complex objectives.
Hitherto, the available information technology systems and infrastructure in schools has often supported both of these worlds – the classroom and administration using common networks, internet connections, sometimes even equipment. Technology was relatively unfamiliar and quite expensive. Skills and technical knowledge was needed to know what to buy, how to connect it all up, and keep it running. The range of solutions wasn’t large and so options were few.
Divergence, though, began several years ago for some. Parallel networks started to separate the relatively low-value, high-volume student data and media content, from critical organisation systems with their highly sensitive, regulated data and crucial record keeping. This bifurcation was an important step that would enable forward thinkers to develop very different strategies for each very different environment. Some duplication resulted in areas such as networking infrastructure and data storage systems, but prices were beginning to fall quickly, making this much less of an issue than it had previously been
The separation of ICT delivery into two, removes the need for awkward compromise, and frees planning and implementation from constraints so that classroom and administration can be properly served with what they need, when they need it and how they need it. The different directions of travel and underlying priorities of each can be identified and used to drive ICT strategy. The tensions between the incompatible requirements of each environment can be resolved, with annual step change easiest to implement in the classroom, and gradual system-by-system migration preferable in finance and administration.
ICT planners in schools now have a second tool to deploy, that complements the separation of systems for classroom and administration. The advent of Cloud services – IT capability hosted elsewhere and delivered over network connections – has added new energy and possibilities, and helps resolve the problems of building and running credible ICT in the school environment.
Cloud services have been taken up with some rapidity for classroom applications. The industry is producing an exciting range of applications and platforms that open up all sorts of new directions for delivering education outcomes and engaging with generations for whom technology is a native environment. The resources required to put together and deliver whole suits like those provided by Google and Microsoft are vast, yet their market size enables them to make these available to education at low cost. These are just two examples of what is now available and can be deployed for students and teachers with relatively little fuss and internal infrastructure.
Cloud services for finance and administration have developed more slowly and with less fanfare, but the range and diversity of services available is growing all the time. With security and privacy, resilience and continuity paramount in this environment, wholescale shifts to the Cloud are not at all suited to the prudence and diligence that is required, but revolutionary change is not the only approach made possible by Cloud services. Many of the services in finance and administration can be separated out, with some well suited to be moved while others remain on site. The steady progress of new developments will widen the range of possibilities over time, so planners can take a pragmatic, gradualist approach that sets out to manage risk first, and take advantage of opportunities as and when they unfold.
Cloud services also help solve the long standing problem of the shortage of technical skills and manpower. From the advent of ICT in schools, skills have never seemed adequate and technical staff have too often been swallowed up by the low level tasks needed to keep things running, with too little time to spend on the real business of schools: education. Besides applications for administration, high quality services to provide secure, hosted IT infrastructure are becoming available at very low cost. This makes it possible for schools and colleges to pick, switch on, and scale up different components of capability to meet their plans and complex requirements.
The business of routine IT management is borne by others, who can concentrate on these and amortise the costs across many customers. This frees up internal headcount and budget for more important, higher-level activities that contribute to the educational mission. The best of these services can be implemented in stages, in a programme of careful transition that is better suited to finance and administration requirements than the large scale, almost revolutionary change to the Cloud advocated by some vendors.
The low costs that are possible, and prices are falling all the time, mean that bursars and heads of ICT can at last develop separate strategies and development plans for the two dissimilar worlds of the classroom and administration; one with its high volumes of relatively low-value data and media content, its need for speed, and the other where data volumes are lower, but require much higher standards of care and governance. In fact, while the two do coexist, there are few touch points where each must interact with the other, if any. This liberates ICT planning and operations from the awkward compromises that have been needed until now. At last, classroom and administration can be served separately and appropriately, delivering what each needs, as they need it, and responding to the very different requirements of each.