Sunday, 22 May 2011

ICT in Schools: The Inevitability of Change

The days of plenty are over. The last government's enthusiasm and urge to spend on ICT is not matched by the current administration, but I may be breaking ranks a little with the profession in saying that maybe this isn't such a bad thing. There are many cases where the huge investment in ICT in schools over the last few years has made a real difference, but there are many more examples of how this investment has largely been wasted. For example the numerous studies showing take-up of the interactive whiteboard being disappointing and it more often than not being used as an expensive projection screen. Similarly the disappointing takeup of the hugely expensive Learning Platforms. Technology has been literally thrust at schools and at teachers without any serious attempt to understand what their needs are.

This is unlikely to happen any more. School budgets are going to be tight, and there will be no ring-fenced handouts from the government to spend on the latest gadgets. Every penny spent on ICT will have to count. It will have to make a difference, in ways that it hasn't really needed to up to now. The ongoing costs of maintaining and supporting the ICT infrastructure will start to come under much closer examination. Schools' wish to have 'control' over their ICT and run their own Exchange and SQL servers, for example, in mini data centres may have to be challenged. In spite of several high profile lapses by the industry, there is an inexorable shift towards renting infrastructure in the Cloud, and teachers have been steadily making the switch from locally installed applications to subscription based web-hosted content. The improvements in connectivity have made it much more attractive to turn to the Internet for more and more ICT resources. Why would anyone nowadays buy and support their own Sharepoint server when Office 365 does it all for you?

This shift to the Cloud will inevitably require less on-site technical support, less up-front investment in hardware and software and lead to a much closer examination of value for money when choosing to subscribe to web based services. All this will be coupled with much greater numbers of web client devices as opposed to traditional rich client PCs, which in turn will increasingly be entirely solid state, have lower capital costs, and last much longer. Again, needing much less on-site technical support. How often does an LCD monitor fail, compared with the old CRT version? We have to drive down the Total Cost of Ownership, and at the same time ensure that what we do spend really makes a difference to outcomes. Deciding not to buy that Interactive Whiteboard which may never be fully utilised, and instead opting for a large projection screen at substantially lower cost but which is used continuously is a case in point. Adding all the interactivity you need with a relatively inexpensive wireless slate starts to make much better sense.

Schools collaborating with each other so that they can leverage economies of scale may also become a necessity in these tight times. It makes sense for schools to share capital investment in ICT and also the ongoing support costs, regardless of any other political or structural set of relationships. ICT as a 'utility' will only come of age when you don't need a team of on-site technicians to cajole and coax the resources to life on a daily basis. Shifting from a capital to a revenue model of expenditure on ICT is something many have argued for years, and something which drove the approach to ICT under BSF. What went wrong there was that the revenue costs escalated out of control. For ICT to continue to be at the top of the shopping list it has to provide not just the same for less, but more for a lot less.

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Scott Jacques said...

Really interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing those.I think the comments about possible savings through more reliable equipment and a greater reliance on the cloud are valid, as we stand. I do suspect however that these may be off set in the furture by business introducing or increasing charges for these sorts of services. I wrote a peice along similar lines a while ago, you might be interested: