Everything you need to know about digital education platforms for schools

This is one of our longer blogs – lots to cover. For a quick summary, click here.

When it comes to technology and Covid-19, discussion often focuses on the colossal changes that have been forced, at breakneck speed, on organisations.

You’ll have seen the stream of TV adverts featuring people on video calls, mirroring our own new ways of connecting in a disconnected world. You’ve no doubt encountered the various guides on how to make the best of remote working. And you’ve probably heard businesses talking about the radical steps they’re taking to protect their staff and customers.

In many cases, the dialogue unfolds in a way that suggests change is a new thing. But we all know that this is not the case.

That’s not to say the changes we’re all making aren’t profound. But rather, for many organisations, the pandemic has accelerated shifts that were already on the cards.

The education sector is a powerful example of this. Even though coronavirus is the most unwelcome of catalysts for change – and follows years of digital transformation in this sector – these organisations have responded amazingly.

Throughout the pandemic, our work for many schools – and organisations such as LGfL – has once again shown us that the desire to give every child the best opportunity to learn trumps every technical challenge posed by Covid-19. And despite the fact that those challenges have emerged with no notice and after years of budget restrictions.

This is why it’s worth explaining one of the most notable developments in remote education – the digital education platform (DEP). And why we’re encouraging you – an education professional – to take full advantage of the financial help that’s available for schools to adopt such a platform.

Before we explain how a DEP works, it’s worth noting that although these platforms have obvious benefits to schools during lockdown, they are extremely useful for life beyond the pandemic, when all students and staff return to school. Adopting one now – while Government funding is available to help with the setup – is an investment that will prove valuable for years to come.

What is a digital education platform?

As the name suggests, a digital education platform is an online ‘environment’ comprising applications and tools for the education sector. It’s used by teachers, administrative staff and students – and is designed specifically to accelerate digital teaching and learning for schools and is therefore a brilliant platform that can be used for remote teaching and learning.

A typical DEP contains tried-and-tested productivity software, such as those for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations – as well as email and calendar tools. No doubt you’re already familiar with such software.

For DEPs, however, these standard applications are bolstered with software for education. This includes virtual whiteboards; planning, assignment, marking and collaboration tools; and software to run lessons by live video as well as in-class lessons.

In short, these platforms are a collection of software and tools that all work together for education organisations and professionals – and the communities they serve.

Extra help in the wake of the pandemic

Due to the pandemic and its impact on schools, the Department for Education (DfE) is offering your school financial help to roll out a DEP.

In its announcement, the DfE detailed a number of schemes available to schools, For digital education platforms, the DfE explained the funding is available for setting up one of two free-to-use platforms, with grants of between £1,500 to £2,000 per school.

Notably, we are one of only five accredited suppliers across the country to offer advice and services for both platforms, meaning we can give truly balanced guidance on which of the two platforms is the right choice for your school.

Meet Google’s G Suite for Education and Microsoft’s Office 365 Education

The two platforms that schools can get funding for are those from Google and Microsoft: G Suite for Education and Office 365 Education respectively.

In both cases, the platforms run from the Cloud, meaning you can use them through a standard internet browser – perfect for everything from a quick check of a document on a smartphone, or for a student to join a lesson on a desktop computer. And naturally, being browser-based and suitable for multiple devices, they are ideal for remote teaching and learning.

Here’s one example of how this might translate into the real world: As a teacher, you might plan your lesson and produce materials using the familiar productivity tools, as well as your school’s own curriculum materials stored conveniently in the same platform. Additionally, the Oak National Academy, in conjunction with the DfE, is providing 180 video lessons free each week, across a broad range of subjects, for every year group from Reception through to Year 10.

You would then run the lesson either remotely or in-class, using a presentation format, live video, or a mix of both. Based on the lesson, you could then issue an assignment to students, who would complete it remotely and return it through the platform.

You could issue the assignment in question-and-answer format created with the platform’s questionnaire tools. Or you might ask the student to submit a freeform typed document – or even a handwritten response using a device stylus. For more practical subjects, the student could submit multimedia formats of their work – for instance, a photo of their drawing, or a video of a musical performance.

Once these assignments are completed and submitted, you could mark the work using the marking software. These are tools that go beyond marking up documents with comments – they’re intuitive and interactive, and can be set up so the data flows to a spreadsheet tracking the student’s progress.

Some important features for teaching and IT staff

Notably, both Google and Microsoft platforms can be set up to use existing user accounts. So there’s no need to create masses of new online ‘identities’ for staff or students. This is often music to the ears of the school’s IT team – and those of us who are averse to creating and managing yet another online account.

Another crucial point about the platforms is that they are impeccably secure – and designed from the ground up to address schools’ concerns around safeguarding and student welfare. For example, while students can collaborate on a project under the watchful eye of a teacher, they are restricted from communicating with each other in the ‘open field’. This prevents the platform from mutating into a form of social media, reducing the possibility of distraction or online bullying.

If you like to customise, both platforms offer a huge range of options.

From an administrative point of view, access levels can be adjusted at a granular level – meaning documents or features can be restricted to specific classes, or staff.

Another way you can tailor the platform to your school is through app marketplaces. Both Google and Microsoft platforms can be enhanced with a huge range of vetted add-ons and integrations. For staff, this might mean ways to streamline work, such as automation tools. And for students, this might mean new ways to foster innovation and creativity, such as software coding or video editing tools. With the direction and expertise of teachers, these platforms could bring out the next Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg in our young people.

A final point worth repeating is that the platforms are free to use. In the case of the DfE programme, funding is available to help with setting up the chosen platform. As technology projects go, this is a typically straightforward process, but there’s a few things of note…

How to choose your digital education platform and what next

There are three key steps to setting up a DEP:

1. You must first decide which platform you will use – Google or Microsoft. As mentioned before, we’re one of only five accredited suppliers of both platforms, so we can objectively talk through your situation and help you make an informed decision.

2. Once you’ve chosen your platform, you must apply through the official channels. In this instance, you can do it here, through The Key. As you work though the form, you’ll be prompted to indicate your partner – we hope you will choose AdEPT Education (part of AdEPT Technology Group plc).

3. Your application will come through to us, and we’ll get in touch promptly to roll out the platform – and we can do it all remotely, without having to step foot in your school.

In terms of payment, the DfE will issue the funds to your organisation once completion of the work has been confirmed, which must in turn be paid to your chosen partner.

A note for multi-academy trusts (MATs)

Digital education platforms are particularly beneficial for multi-academy trusts. Using one can bring together the trust community, pool resources and give students the opportunity to learn from staff that they would not ordinarily encounter. To help you set up a DEP, your chosen partner can receive DfE funding of £1,000 per school, to a maximum of £10,000 per MAT.

More information

One of the best places we’ve seen for guidance on digital education platforms is from LGfL, through its digital cloud transformation programme. The Key is also a good place to – we suggest you do so here, on the main page – and for some inspiring stories of how digital education platforms work in the real world, see the case studies.

How we can help

Having rolled out these platforms with more than 900 schools already, we’re also on-hand for impartial guidance. You can call us on 01689 814700 or email enquiries@adept.co.uk. If you email, please use the subject line ‘DfE funding’ as given the circumstances, we are prioritising these enquiries.

Summary

  • Digital education platforms (DEPs) are a collection of software and tools designed for schools.
  • DEPs are extremely useful for online teaching and learning, meaning they can be of great help during the pandemic.
  • In the wake of coronavirus, the DfE is offering schools funding to set up one of the two main DEPs: Google’s G Suite for Education, or Microsoft’s Office 365. Both platforms are free to use.
  • The platforms offer benefits long beyond the pandemic. We’ve highlighted some of the key features above.
  • In order to secure DfE funding for a DEP, you must use an accredited supplier. AdEPT is one of only five companies in the country that is accredited to advise on, and set up both the Google and Microsoft platforms. We can help you make the decision with genuinely balanced guidance.
  • There are three main steps to setting up one of the DfE-approved platforms and getting funding. You must start here – but be sure to read this blog fully before you do.

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  • This blog was written by David Bealing, Managing Director of AdEPT Education, and Clive Bryden, AdEPT Technology Group’s Chief Technology Officer.
  • Both David and Clive would love to connect with you on LinkedIn – you can find David here and Clive here.

Written by David Bealing

Managing Director, AdEPT Education

Coronavirus: technology helps, but it’s people that make the biggest difference

There is no way to sugarcoat it. The coronavirus pandemic is the most disruptive global crisis in decades. It will change every industry, every business, every employee and most of all, every human being on this planet.

So, what can I, a CEO of a technology company, say in a blog about this?

My natural leaning is, of course, to talk about technology. In many ways, it is glueing the world together right now. It is helping a lot of people continue their work, keeping the wheels of business turning.

But really, it’s about much, much more than that. So, I’d like to talk about the thing that is at the heart of all technology: People.

Helping teachers teach, and students learn

The most significant effect of the pandemic that we’ve seen on the people we serve relates to education. We help some 4,000 schools and education establishments with their technology – and right now, among all the other support that this community needs and deserves, is technology that helps teachers to continue teaching.

It is no small undertaking to meet that most critical of challenges.

After all, our youngsters need their developing brains stimulated and nurtured. They need routine. And even with the best will in the world, their parents and families cannot do this alone.

At the same time, our teachers want desperately to teach. They want to give their students as much as stability and continuity with their education as possible.

I know this, because not only am I a parent myself but because AdEPT has worked with the education community for a long time. And so, I’m proud and honoured to say we’re playing our part. It’s where our own people have come to the fore.

For example, working with organisations such as the London Grid for Learning (LGfL) and Virgin Media Business, we’ve been able to massively strengthen Freedom2Roam. This service allows school staff to remotely connect to school servers from their own devices and locations. From there, staff can access essential files and information – such as lesson planning documents, marking assessments and management reports.

In the wake of the pandemic and school closures, we’ve seen such a huge demand for the Freedom2Roam service that we have made it a top priority, putting the best brains from our back-end infrastructure and our front-end UX and UI teams onto this service.

We’ve expedited our normal, ongoing work; boosted its capacity to meet the 1,047 per cent increase in demand we’ve seen; and introduced a browser-based interface to make the service easier and quicker to use. Because – perhaps more than ever – no teacher or education professional wants to spend time downloading, installing and figuring out new software.

Of course, Freedom2Roam is only one tool to help – and it’s no substitute for face-to-face classroom time – but it is helping teachers get on with their job. One of them recently described it as a ‘godsend’. It is a real privilege to hear such praise.

I should also say a big thank you here to our staff here for working with the experts at LGfL to help develop guidance for schools around safeguarding. Through this work, we’ve contributed to official government guidance available here, under the ‘Children and online safety away from school and college’ heading.

Helping community healthcare communicate

Another area of work we’ve been doing in response to the pandemic pertains to public healthcare. I wish I could say here how we have somehow swapped our engineers’ day jobs for making testing kits, personal protective equipment for our fantastic NHS, or ventilators for those suffering from coronavirus.

I can’t say this. We are not specialists in any of those things. But we do specialise in helping public health organisations use technology to communicate. It is a less obvious and less pivotal aspect of the response to the pandemic, but still an important one.

One example of this is a recent project by our Wakefield team who work with a local GP practice. Like all primary care organisations right now, the practice needed to tackle a seemingly-impossible, threefold, challenge: respond to a surge in calls from concerned patients, maintain everyday community healthcare, but at the same time protect staff from exposure to coronavirus. 

Among our considerations was the sense that if primary care organisations like this cannot continue working, then there would be even more pressure on our NHS. So, for this practice, our Wakefield team set up a cloud-hosted soft phone system meaning staff could use their own mobile phones to answer practice calls while working from home.

Through this phone system, patients still dial the same number and get the service they are familiar with – a reassuring kind of continuity that is especially important right now. From the practice’s viewpoint, calls are recorded in the usual way, the setup adheres to NHS technology and data protection rules – and most importantly, staff can protect their own health and in turn keep community healthcare running.

Again, I am immensely proud of our team to have helped this practice, because they have played their part in protecting the welfare of health professionals, and ultimately, the public.

Adapting to increasing and changing demand

Away from public sector organisations, we’ve seen an enormous increase in demand from commercial businesses and some fundamental changes in the nature of those demands. One indicator of this is the 85 per cent increase in calls to our general helpdesk.

One way we’re responding is to use our own remote access and diagnostic technology to resolve queries. But such tools are the tip of the iceberg: in truth, the real difference to our clients is our people. They have genuinely shone – working longer hours and doing things that are over and above their day jobs.

For example, we’ve moved staff who would ordinarily be working in sales – or visiting sites to install equipment – into helpdesk roles. Not only does this reflect our culture of rolling up sleeves and getting stuck in, but it is also a real testament to having a workforce with breadth and depth of technical knowledge.

We’ve seen clients requesting products and services for temporary periods. Under normal circumstances, we’d work to long-term contracts, but this is not the time for red tape. For instance, a customer asked for extra phone lines for a short period and we’ve pulled together to solve this unique challenge.

Another sign of the times is the rise we’ve seen in orders of laptops. And here’s where I must thank our suppliers – it’s because of them that we’ve been able to honour every order. And I must thank our customers too – particularly the one who requested toilet paper, paracetamol and a few G&Ts with his laptop order. We very much value this humility and humour during this difficult time.

Working together

There are other, additional steps we are taking in light of the pandemic.

At the risk of being pests, we’re overcommunicating with our clients. In many ways, because we help organisations in technology, we get to see those organisations’ inner workings. We’re seeing the challenges and the repercussions of the pandemic first hand, every day. So, that means when we reassure our clients and say ‘we understand, we’re in your corner’ and ‘we’re available to help’, we’re saying it because we genuinely empathise.

When it comes to our staff, we keep in mind that, as technology specialists, we’re classified by the government as key workers – rather like the fourth utility. So, we’re not going to do anything at all that compromises the health and safety of our workforce.

Of course, we’re doing all of this with the incredible help of our partners. These are businesses and organisations like the LGfL and Virgin Media Business, which are facing and meeting demands on them from left, right and centre. There’s Gamma, whose staff are doing a lot of fancy footwork to increase voice capacity for our clients. And there’s Avaya, which is doing brilliant work to support our clients in remote-access technology.

Protecting people

There is little I can say to mitigate the challenges we’re facing now and will continue to face. Right now, it’s all hands to the deck and we’re busy – and in some ways, working from home is a novelty. But there may be a point where loneliness kicks in. I say that from experience as a regular home worker. So, among my responsibilities is keeping company morale buoyant.

There are a million articles out there about best practices for working from home. So, I’ll only offer a few tips.

Be flexible and adaptable. Be prepared to get involved in activities that are generally not part of your job role. Of course, those tasks should not be an unreasonable diversion from your usual work, but adopting a can-do attitude helps your own self-preservation and the spirit of your colleagues.

Overcommunicate. As mentioned above, we’re already doing this with clients, but it’s equally important to do that with colleagues. Calling or messaging a teammate to share a joke might not feel as spontaneous or natural as banter across office desks, but it matters. It’s ok to laugh among all of this.

Maintain the regular cadence of business. I’m still having my regular Monday review meeting. And my Friday sales meeting. And I’m still meeting investors. Even if all those meetings are virtual and I’m getting tired of seeing my head on the screen.

Thank your teams. You really can’t thank colleagues enough at this time. I hope I’ve highlighted the fantastic work of my colleagues in this blog, but in case it isn’t clear: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Most of all, take the government instructions seriously and follow them to the letter. At the heart of all of this is our collective responsibility to save people’s lives. There is no other responsibility to take more seriously. After all, it’s people that matter before everything else.

Written by Phil Race

CEO - AdEPT Technology Group

An appetite for innovation: our experience of working with the public sector

Ahead of Digitech19, we’re turning the spotlight onto two of our public sector experts, Alex Larcombe and Paul Mathews, who have many years of working with the sector under their belt. I spoke with them about their experiences…

Ben Rogers (BR): Can you tell us a little about what you do at AdEPT – how you came to work here and in your field?

Alex Larcombe (AL): I’m a Sales Director responsible for the public sector at AdEPT, so my main focus is building strategic partnerships with our clients and partners. I’ve been in this industry from the start of my career, having worked at BT and Virgin Media Business prior to AdEPT.

Paul Mathews (PM): …And I’m a Head of Business Development, also specialising in the public sector. Like Alex, I’ve been at other technology and telecoms companies before AdEPT, including hSo, Century Link, PGi…

BR: Why do you work in the fields you are in? What interests you about the work?

PM: For me, and I’m sure for all of us, it’s the opportunity for problem solving – the ability to build bespoke solutions. I can visit a client – ranging from a doctor’s surgery to a large health trust – and develop a solution that doesn’t just give them value for money, but will work for them well into the future.

I think the reason I love being at AdEPT so much is that I can really get involved – with some other, larger, companies this perhaps doesn’t happen as much. At AdEPT, we’re encouraged to develop customer-focused solutions. That mentality starts at the top with our chairman Ian Fishwick and works its way through all the teams and people. And that’s why we’ve been successful with HSCN despite being a relatively small player.

AL: From my perspective, telecoms and IT is the most exciting industry out there because it’s got so much going on – certainly over the last 20 years the amount of innovation that’s happened probably outweighs any other sector. Yet at the same time, it’s a very people-orientated field of work and with AdEPT it’s very much about having that personal, consultative-led approach. I believe that people who work in the public sector are looking for the personal touch – not least because the market’s so complex: there’s too much technology and so many suppliers. So for me, it’s about properly investigating the client’s issues with them – and really understanding where they want to go as an organisation – before developing a meaningful solution. That’s the challenge and it’s incredibly rewarding.

BR: So you’re both in senior positions, but you both get hands-on with solving problems?

AL: Exactly that – we’ve got everything in our kit bag to solve our clients’ problems. Whether that’s internal capabilities or through our ecosystem of industry-leading partners.

BR: A lot of companies talk about the personal touch and their consultative approach. How is AdEPT different?

PM: One of the main things is that we don’t discriminate on budget. All of our clients are treated equally, no matter the size of their budget or company. Our solutions are based on what the client wants. It allows us to develop a solution that will work for the future, not just something for now.

AL: You’re absolutely right – there is a lot said about having a consultative approach and sometimes it is empty talk – so I think what Paul’s said is very important. Another thing that can get in the way of being truly consultative is red tape. Perhaps because we’re a smaller business, we can make decisions more quickly – so it means we’re agile and responsive and can build solutions that are genuinely tailored to each client.

BR: In your experience, what are the biggest challenges facing these organisations?

AL: There are a number of challenges. Obviously the biggest one is budget, and having to do not just more with less, but better with less. Often, IT is one area that can offer savings, so it does come up a lot in our line of work.

There’s also Brexit. There’s so much uncertainty in the market and often we find that, understandably, people are holding onto their budgets.

At the same time as these challenges there’s also the issues of legacy kit. Every public sector organisation will have IT equipment that’s coming to the end of its life and will need to be replaced.

Of course then there’s security. Take for example the Wannacry attack of a few years ago – that demonstrated the significance of IT security. And then there’s the GDPR, which is another challenge.

One more is the shutdown of legacy voice. In 2025, the traditional copper telephony environment is being switched off. And there is so much out there in the public sector that is reliant on this infrastructure that it is quite astounding. So those organisations will have to look to future-proofing their telecoms systems – in the future they won’t be able to pick up the phone and get a dialling tone from a traditional phone line.

And I guess one final theme that links all of these challenges is that there is an overwhelming level of technology, and there are so many vendors which can cause confusion to anyone unfamiliar with it all.

Obviously we can talk about the ways that AdEPT can help, but I think it’s worth turning the attention from us for a moment and talking about the culture within the public sector. There is an enormous appetite for innovation and underlying all of it is a huge passion for serving the public. These two things drive an extraordinary level of determination to overcome the challenges.

PM: I think that’s why we like to consider ourselves as a ‘trusted advisor’. We’re there to help the public sector get on with their core business and not have to worry about the technology. It’s certainly the approach we take with our existing clients.

BR: So that goes back to what you said earlier – about helping organisations irrespective of size? Do you think with the public sector, it helps to work with smaller and larger organisations of different types, such as health, local government, and central government? Does it allow you see the bigger picture?

AL: Absolutely. Take, for example, our work with about 800 GP surgeries right up to our work with large NHS authorities. Or, our work with smaller, individual local authorities, right up to large county councils. There are definitely lots of common challenges across the public sector – especially the challenges I described earlier – and often, knowing how to tackle something with one public sector organisation can provide valuable lessons for another public sector organisation. Of course, while every organisation is different, I think the days of working in isolated silos are coming to an end.

BR: Technology is really the tool that enables change – and for the public sector, those changes can affect communities and people’s lives. How does AdEPT fit in with this?

PM: Where we help, primarily, is with technology as a backbone. We help put the backbone in place so organisations can get on with what they do best – with faster, more reliable connectivity and communication tools. We do our job so they can do their job.

AL: Another challenge that’s relevant here is about the Cloud. There’s a lot of public sector organisations that use on-premise equipment, particularly from a voice and contact centre perspective, but they want to move to the Cloud – or need the flexibility of both. So for that reason we’re investing a lot in our own Nebula solution, to provide voice, data and IT services, either on-premise or in the Cloud. There’s no one-size fits all with public sector organisations so, as a partner, being as flexible as possible is really important.

BR: Let’s consider people for a moment. I’ve recently been reading a report by Deloitte, called ‘The State of the State’, which is all about the public sector. It includes some interesting quotes from senior public sector officials. One, for example, is from a police crime commissioner, who says: “In terms of technology, we’ve come from a bad position. Getting a chief constable to focus on their back office is hard when all they want to do is fight crime. It’s like pulling teeth to get chief constables to talk about technology.” How do you, and AdEPT, respond to such experiences?

PM: It really is about investigating the organisation’s problems properly and to do that, you need to talk to the right people and ask the right questions. We’ll find out what works for them and what doesn’t work. We don’t believe you can advise without talking to people who are doing the day-to-day business. And that means as many stakeholders as possible.

AL: That statement is interesting because although it sounds negative, it’s actually what we want. We want our chief constables to focus on their core work of fighting crime. We don’t want them worrying about their IT, or their telecoms system. Whatever it is, we don’t want them worrying about it all. They’ve probably got six or seven vendors all trying to get their attention and being very confusing – so that’s why we prefer an outcome-led conversation with the stakeholders. In a way, it doesn’t matter about the technology – it’s about the people and finding out what works for them.

BR: On the subject of people and the IT department, earlier this year, there was a report by Socitm that explored some of the key trends within public sector technology. One of them said: “2019 is likely to see significant pressure on IT to make fundamental shifts from past operating models”. What’s your take on this?

AL: One of the things this hints at the role of IT within an organisation becoming more flexible. For example, if you consider a typical local authority workforce, there’ll be a mixture of care workers out in the community helping vulnerable people, there’ll be other workers with minimal technology in their working day, and then there’ll be people who are entirely office based. To meet the needs of this workforce, the IT department will have to work more closely with other departments and develop a more agile, flexible approach.

PM: We’re seeing that happening with our existing clients and what’s impressive is that they’re doing this despite budget restraints.

BR: So there’s a transformation in culture and mindset that’s happening?

AL: Definitely. Of course, there’s a lot of historic ways of working that are embedded in the public sector – as there is with any sector. But that appetite for innovation – that we talked about earlier – is incredibly strong in the public sector. And it’s that appetite that matters now, and will make a difference in the future.

  • You can meet Alex and Paul at this year’s Digitech19, being held in the Manchester Central conference centre on Tuesday 19 November. We are the title sponsor of this event and you’ll find Alex and Paul at our stand in the central hub. But, if you’d like to say hello before then, you can call them on 0333 400 2490, or connect on LinkedIn:

Written by Ben Rogers

Group Marketing Manager at AdEPT