Education IT Suppliers, and the move towards Consultative Support
Stuart Wilkie, IT Consultant and blogger, shares his view of Education IT Suppliers and the move towards consultative support.
Another quick follow-up from BETT 2016 with Capita – this time with Steve Smith, the new Director of Learning for the Managed IT Solutions division. We had a discussion and some much needed ‘sit down time’ about how the role in IT providers has changed over the past few years. The last few years has seen a revolution in education technology, with an explosion in the use of mobile devices. Lots of families now have devices at home, and many mobile phones that students have, and bring to school, are highly capable.
The strange thing is that it is headed towards the point where the numbers of devices in school owned by the pupils will outnumber the rest. Not surprising given the continuing funding challenges that schools face, and the ever greater demands placed on technology. The challenge for schools is exploiting this revolution in a way that will meet the needs of their students and staff – but also fit their budget.
The landscape In the past, many schools wanted their ICT supplier to be just that - a company that supplied the kit or software and then left the school to decide how it was to be used. This is your stereotypical ‘box-shifter’. This could sometimes see exciting and innovative technology being under-utilised, or expensive kit being purchased that had little impact on teaching and learning. As some of the levels of technical expertise in school has lessened as a result of cuts, and time to research and implement new technology is pressed; a new outlook is needed.
Schools today require a very different approach. They are calling out for advice on what technology to implement, how to implement it, and what course to take based on their specific situations. The continued growth in organisations like the Association of Network Managers in Education and EduGeek show a very active base, appetite, and enthusiasm from the ‘in-school’ support, who need advice and assistance to implement the technology on the ground.
Schools want to be able to use IT in a way that helps them tap into the enthusiasm their students have for all things technology. However, they increasingly need support to help them ensure that the latest network, device, or software not only offers value for money, but also fits with the school’s long-term goals.
The shifting tides in educational technology
Enter a new concept, and one which a lot of schools and companies alike are waking up to. A cursory glance at the exhibitor list for both BETT and the Education Show demonstrate a growth in ‘service provision’ type offerings. This is true of both software and hardware, and just plain old ‘new fashioned’ support.
Of course your traditional ‘sell only’ providers will always exist, as there will always be a need. But many more will now give a consultancy or survey before committing to a product or products.
And there is another difference. Often, a lot of these ‘providers’ will offer more than one product – a suite of products (perhaps even from different companies) to fit a need; determined from the consultancy. Enter a concept from retail, pre-sales.
According to Steve Smith, this is what has changed within Capita Managed IT - the element of pre-sales and holistic provision. Rather than having an IT supplier, schools today need to develop more of a strategic IT partnership built on a shared and deep understanding of what the school wants to achieve in terms of pedagogy and outcomes. This is often where the IT Support in school faces a challenge. They have the technical know-how, but need the education proof and on-boarding help.
Steve told me his view that the IT partner needs to understand what it is like to teach and learn at the school. From my time as an IT Manager, I can definitely equate to that. It was often a key decision guider who took into account our particular situation. Greater than that, the consultants also need to gauge what all the stakeholders (students, staff, leaders, managers, administrators, parents, governors and trustees) want to be able to do. This means spending time on the ground in the school and understanding a school strategy and wider improvement objectives.
This doesn’t mean that the school is necessarily doing anything wrong, all schools have improvement plans. It is important for a school to have a clear overall strategy, even if this strategy is to maintain the great work they are already doing. In some cases, this might involve actually helping the school to develop a strategy. You can see that already, this is more than just ‘sales’, this is selling the right things to fit a need. To get the right technology and infrastructure in the place where it will make the greatest difference, the use of IT needs to be linked with the objectives within the school improvement plan.
Only then can the potential role of technology be explored in terms of driving, enabling or supporting the school’s ambitions. What is right for one school may not be right for another; some may be part way down a technology journey with particular hardware or software choices. Therefore there is no benefit in changing something which is already working but just needs expanding. It might not even always be a technology decision, it may be adoption guidance that a school needs.
I’ve seen examples where schools have ‘flip-flopped’ between technology solutions, not really ever settling on one, or giving it chance to bed-in before being sold onto the ‘next one’ because someone has said it will be better. School leadership teams and staff may not always be aware of what is possible in respect of how technology can support the various strands of a school improvement plan. It is the responsibility of the industry, in this case suppliers, to put an end to what some would call the wasteful purchase of technology.
Educational technology and services can often come with a price tag that takes little account of schools’ budgetary constraints. Schools can frequently end up purchasing a full software package when a Google app would achieve what they are looking to do or find themselves paying for comprehensive IT support when online or occasional support is all they need. There is a growing requirement for a more tailored approach to the purchase of technology and IT services in schools.
Technology partners with a wide experience of the education sector can often give examples of where technology has made a difference and helps their client to explore how what is happening at one school might work well for them. This can be at all the different ‘levels’ of a service or specification that can be supplied. According to Steven, this is the kind of help many schools will acknowledge they need and is also a school of thought I subscribe to.
A long-term partner will have the technology expertise available so they can custom-fit the IT to both the school’s budget and its improvement goals. It becomes a relationship, not a selling operation and this distinction is important.
When technology is tailored to a school’s individual needs and budget, it can be a key enabling factor to allow the school to meet its objectives, while providing a crucial dynamic in ensuring that students receive the most appropriate learning experience. Everyone wins in this scenario, the supplier sees a steady income stream and has a satisfied customer who can go on to be a showcase for other schools to learn from.
In addition, the school is able to make strides towards its aims, supported by appropriate technology, with support from the partner. The IT staff in the school also feel supported, as they have the backing of a supplier who understands the technology need, current situation, constraints and education effects; as well as well as gaining a valuable source of advice and the personal touch that often comes from such a mutually beneficial relationship.
Author: Stuart Wilkie