It is often said that technology is advancing exponentially and in every walk of life. Technology in schools is no different.
When I started my career in this field some 20 years ago, schools were using overhead projectors and whiteboards. Now, they use interactive flat panels. Two decades ago, encyclopedias came on laggy CD-ROMs. Now, through the internet, the world’s information is available in a second.
Throughout this evolution, countless school technology providers have emerged. And many of them have made the all-too-common mistake of focusing on the latest technological crazes. And in doing so, they can often overlook the unique demands placed on our schools from every direction.
My own experience has taught me that helping schools with their technology is best achieved through learning from the challenges they face. Here are some of my discoveries…
Challenge 1: technology that is not designed specifically for schools
Schools have the enormous task of developing our children – the future of our country. They are at the heart of our local communities and must help every student grow as an individual. So it stands to reason that, although facing similar daily challenges, no school is like another. And no school partner or supplier – of technology or otherwise – should shoehorn generic products and services into these unique organisations.
Unfortunately, many schools do not have the time or resources to research and filter the generic technology products and services from those that are specialised for schools. So often, it’s the biggest suppliers – and those that shout the loudest – whose technology products make their way into our schools. And frequently, it’s only then that schools realise their expensive new service doesn’t quite meet their specific requirements – hardly ideal qualities for schools facing ever-growing and ever-changing demands.
Let’s be clear here: this isn’t a blog setting out to criticise the major technology suppliers to the education sector. In fact, as the following example shows, we work closely with those very suppliers…
The solution: products and services that are truly tailored to schools
One example that illustrates the importance and benefits of bespoke solutions for schools is our WebScreen service. It’s specially designed to help schools overcome the dilemma of allowing students and staff to browse the internet safely, without restricting them from useful sites and content.
Building on the industry-leading Netsweeper software and tailoring it for the education environment, our in-house programmers created the service after we listened and learned from our school clients. They had told us that many web filtering services were too black-and-white, complicated, and not focused on their specific needs.
The service actively learns from the information gained in real time from across the 3,000+ community of schools using WebScreen, and shares this knowledge ensuring that each school benefits from the findings. And it does this in the background, with minimal input from school staff.
For instance, one school in the north wanted its students to use a particular educational gaming website, but the site was initially classified as ‘gambling’ – a category banned by the school via their filtering policy setup. So with a few clicks, the school reported this and the website was reclassified, the artificial intelligence that handles on-the-fly website classifications updated, and the newly-adjusted – and more education-setting-specific – knowledge was shared across the entire school community that subscribes to WebScreen.
This whole process is ultimately designed to help schools ensure lessons run safely and smoothly, without interruptions that distract and derail students from their learning – after all, we know this is incredibly important to schools. And as an extra layer of reliability, the service is built to handle huge demand – it analyses more than a billion internet access requests every day for our 3,000+ school clients.
Challenge 2: technology that diverts teachers away from teaching
Whether it’s gadgets in the home or systems in the workplace, technology nowadays is more intuitive and user-friendly than ever. However, this is no excuse for introducing technology into a school before abandoning staff to figure it out for themselves. Teachers must be allowed to do what they do best – teaching – and not be burdened with the responsibility of managing their own IT.
Of course, some schools have their own IT managers and bigger schools might even have their own IT team, but that again does not justify the sometimes common practice of supplying a technology product or service and leaving staff to their own devices – literally!
The solution: proactive support that understands and respects schools
For the reasons explained above, we take a tailored approach to supporting our school clients and reject the break-fix model that’s the basis of too many IT support programmes.
One way we do this is to provide not only onsite support technicians, but also remote support and monitoring – or dedicated IT surgeries at times that suit staff, such as inset days. We’ve done this because we know that, due to their timetables, teachers cannot wait endlessly for answers to their helpdesk responses. They cannot hang on the phone listening to hold music, or repeatedly check their emails to see if their helpdesk enquiry has been addressed.
St Dunstan’s College, for example, is one school where having an on-site technician has proved invaluable. In the words of the one of the school’s employees, we are not just there for if things go wrong, but have been ‘proactively working to ensure the future-proofing, scalability and resilience of’ the school’s IT systems for years to come.
This leads me to another point – about being proactive.
It’s a word that’s often thrown about casually in working life, but for a technology partner to schools, being proactive is vital. For me, it means having a virtual crystal ball into tomorrow’s technology and being able to interpret what’s ahead for our school clients.
This future gazing might, as an example, be knowing about something as seemingly small as a software upgrade that requires all computers to be restarted. Knowing this in advance means we advise our school clients so they can plan for the onerous task of an organisation-wide technology reboot – and choose the right time to do it. This again minimises disruptions to teaching and learning.
Another instance of being proactive could be seeing ahead to extensive industry changes, such as new telephone infrastructure. Again, by advising our school clients in advance, we can help them prepare properly – and not at the last minute, when choices are limited and the risk of being held to ransom over prices becomes very real.
Challenge 3: technology that doesn’t evolve with changing behaviours
It goes without saying that technology has changed the way we work, the way we behave as consumers and the way students learn. And one of the changes in education is the use of video. Not only can it help explain complex subjects in entertaining and stimulating ways, it also responds to the younger generation’s insatiable appetite for video.
The obvious place to feed this appetite is YouTube. And with 400 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute, every imaginable subject in every possible style is covered making it an undeniably powerful resource.
But there’s a darker side. YouTube is awash with content that, sadly, should not be viewed by adults, let alone young people. Despite YouTube’s policing efforts, the site has an ever-increasing catalogue of videos that span from mediocre and poorly made, to downright inflammatory and irresponsible. And to top this off, advertising on the site often has the same traits, appearing unexpectedly and playing all kinds of tricks to hook in impressionable minds.
So for schools, it’s a dilemma: taking advantage of the rich content available on YouTube means navigating the minefield of unsavoury videos.
The solution: technology that recognises and supports changes in education practice
One product that we’ve developed specifically for and with our school clients is myVideos. It’s a powerful tool that helps schools take advantage of YouTube while removing the risk of exposing students to the wrong content.
Through a secure platform, teachers and staff can log in to view YouTube content themselves to judge the suitability of videos for the classroom. Then with staff approval, students can watch the approved videos via the same secure platform without the risk of encountering inappropriate content.
Schools have the option of restricting content to items only approved by the individual school, or, by allowing content deemed appropriate by the entire community of myVideos users nationwide, they can increase the amount of allowed content available to watch, all accruing as a trusted suite of approved videos.
Additionally, through myVideos, adverts and comments are restricted, and the tool can be used in the classroom and at home, meaning students can complete their homework using videos that are endorsed by their school.
myVideos is a great example of helping schools keep up with changing behaviours brought about by technology, while respecting the unique requirements of our schools.
The bottom line
I’ve offered three examples of very real technological challenges faced by our schools and how we’re helping them overcome those challenges. Notably, there’s three qualities that are common throughout – and are traits you should look for in your school technology partner: service and solutions that are personal, passionate and proactive.
I know only too well that the one challenge that supersedes all of these is that of budget cuts and austerity. It’s a topic that deserves at least one blog of its own – so I hope you’ll look out for that in the future.
And there’s one final point, which I hope is apparent in this blog. A technology partner to schools must be willing and able to learn from school clients just as students learn every day. And those partners must share that new knowledge for the benefit of their other school clients, becoming an enabler of new innovations. It’s learning, and sharing knowledge like this that makes working with schools so rewarding and I look forward to more of this in the future.
- If you look after technology for schools, I’d love to talk with you. You can find out more about me through my LinkedIn profile, call me on 01689 814700 or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
- My team and I are also joining a number of leading education events in the coming months – so if you’d prefer to meet face to face, and are visiting one of them, please look out for AdEPT Education and say hello: