Future proofing is a term that has developed a whole new meaning in the last 12 months. The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced almost all of us to adapt to a more digital world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the education sector, where the digital divide has been put into sharp focus by the thousands of children unable to work effectively from home due to a lack of equipment and the antiquated systems found in many school lT labs.
It was recently announced that schools in the UK will be returning on March 8 and even more recently, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson took to that now-iconic podium to disclose what that return would look like with a £302 million recovery grant. This is welcome news for some and no-so-welcome news for others but, generally speaking, it’s been seen as a positive sign that things are finally starting to “get back to normal.”
In the coming months, there are going to be some significant challenges to overcome as students and teachers alike readapt after a year of remote learning. But there are also longer term challenges that are going to be revealed in the years after schools return.
To gain some insight into how schools are going to cope over the next 5 years with students who have spent the last year relying on remote learning, we surveyed 43 school IT managers based in the UK. We’ve already touched on what they thought about the challenges faced when schools first moved to remote teaching, what challenges they faced when schools reopened last September and their immediate concerns for 2021. Now, let’s discuss their concerns for the next 3-5 years, and how they intend on levelling up educational technology to meet the increasingly tech-savvy demands of a generation raised by iPads.
Infrastructure is key, with most of our surveyed IT managers pointing out that replacing existing machines in schools should be the first port of call. They have also suggested that investing in loans of low-cost laptops such as Chromebooks to students would seriously help to bridge the gap between remote and traditional learning.
There are dozens of schemes dedicated to giving schools greater access to future proofed computer equipment. The British manufacturers of the low-cost Raspberry Pi portable PC are on track to deliver 5,000 kits to schools across the country in March after receiving up to £900,000 of donations through its Learn at Home campaign. The government themselves have also pledged to distribute 1.3 million laptops and tablets to children that need them through the Get Help with Technology scheme; a scheme worth an estimated £400 million.
One of the key concepts that kept coming up as we interviewed our school IT managers was the cloud. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, cloud computing means utilising off-site servers not only to store information, but also to provide computing power. This allows schools to use more storage and processing power without storing expensive and bulky server equipment on-site. In recent years, cloud computing has become a more cost-effective and viable solution for schools and chances are, if you’ve experienced any remote working in the last year, you’ve already used cloud computing.
Google Classroom, for example, is a software suite that thousands of schools across the world have been using to organise remote learning. Google Classroom is also a cloud-based system. The primary benefit of the cloud, however, is that it allows for a more organic melding of remote and traditional learning. Students can start one piece of work at school and then continue at home from where they left off, as they are accessing the same system from both locations. As Google Classroom and other services continue to evolve they will undoubtedly become more and more vital. That is, however, going to require a greater investment in connectivity and updating school infrastructure (in terms of broadband and WiFi power) so it can handle the advanced resources.
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There’s a phrase that lingers in the tech community and seems rather apt here - “all the gear, no idea.” This is a rather tongue-in-cheek but no less apt sentiment that suggests a school could have the very best equipment at-hand, but if the staff don’t know how to use it, that equipment is almost useless.
Thorough training is going to mean 1:1 device parental schemes that teach parents alongside teachers, consolidating software solutions so that there is one platform from which all work is assigned and delivered, and accommodating mobile into the classroom. It also means implementing comprehensive IT strategies that can be dynamically adapted to meet the shifting needs of the situation and ensuring teachers can follow these strategies. To achieve this under constant budgetary restraints and ever-evolving tech is going to be tough, of course, but it’s the only way schools are going to be able to stay relevant.
Of course, this is all just scratching the surface. The next few years (or the ‘post-COVID years’) are going to see schools relying more than ever before on their IT and IT managers. As one of our managers explained: “What we really want to see in the next few years is the ability for staff and students to take ownership of a new build in 2 days, new telephone systems, better WiFi, CCTV, firewalls, web filters and new fibre capacity. Once this equipment is installed, we’ll also need to keep systems updated, keep network architecture updated to make sure that the systems can handle the amount of network traffic and keep finding new ways of using it in general.”
It needs to be a continual thing - a rolling programme, not a one-time deal. Technology is always changing and school IT should be doing likewise. It’s the only way they’ll stand any hope of being fully prepared for the next global crisis...whatever that might be.
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