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Reducing ICT Costs in an Age of Austerity

Reducing ICT Costs in an Age of Austerity

The loss of Harnessing Technology Grant represented a reduction of some 15% in funding specific to ICT at the same time as other budgets are under threat and general costs are rising sharply. Schools  therefore need to re-visit their ICT budgets and seek savings if they are to continue not only to meet the growing expectations of learners but to maintain modern and effective ICT infrastructure, learning resources and management information systems (MIS).

 This paper suggests that schools seek to reduce costs by considering the adoption of:

  • Open source software
  • Free-to-use Web 2.0 tools
  • Cloud based education services such as GoogleApps or Live@Edu
  • Local cloud services such as an LA wide managed learning environment
  • Aggregation of services and supply chain.

Schools will need to evaluate such approaches against a detailed analysis of their individual needs and future plans, using tools such as the ICT self review framework to support this evaluation.

The attached paper outlines possible approaches for schools to consider.

1. Introduction

ICT development in schools was very well funded over the period 1998 - 2010, though BECTA and OFSTED studies note that, even so, only about 24% of schools make particularly effective use of the tools and services available. During the same period there has been radical transformation in how society as a whole uses ICT tools with massive impact on the way in which learners live their lives outside school - social networking, online shopping, instant access to information, instant communication and the ability to showcase their achievements to a wide audience. They do this often at low cost through powerful handheld devices such as smartphones as well as via traditional computers.

If we could not achieve near universal high quality use of ICT in education when money was plentiful, how can we achieve this objective when budgets are being cut and many costs are rising sharply? The challenge for schools in the coming years is to ensure that the ICT facilities and tools available can meet the rapidly increasing expectations and demands of users, keep up to date with the technologies available while at the same time continuing to develop ICT use across a changed but dated curriculum.

ICT remains an integral part of the wider learning experience for everyone and this is recognised by the present government as Mr Gove outlined at the recent SSAT Conference - (see the video here and text here. A policy statement expected in January 2012.

2.      Costs and the potential for reduction

In any school with a well managed infrastructure and a rolling budget for replacement and upgrade of hardware, software licenses and SLAs, there will be a number of fixed costs. Some of these can be reduced significantly and others marginally while there is little scope with some largely externally provided services. The potential for cost reductions will vary between schools.

2.1 Starting Points

The costs of ICT for a typical school include:

  • Internet connection
  • Curriculum network infrastructure - cabling, switches, servers, etc.
  • Admin network infrastructure
  • Hardware - desktop PCs, laptops, handheld devices, data projectors, IWBs, printers, cameras, camcorders, control devices, microscopes, visualisers, etc.
  • Software licenses (for MIS, mail, office, general and curriculum applications, learning platform services and other online services)
  • Technical support including technician costs, SLAs, etc. 

2.2 Can these costs be reduced?

  • Internet connection - probably not, unless bandwidth and quality of service are reduced. High quality, filtered and synchronous connectivity is essential and large primary schools in particular will require greater bandwidth in future.
  • Curriculum network infrastructure - requires regular update and replacement of switches (every 4- 5 years), server upgrades every 2 years with replacement by 4 years. While upgrade and replacement can be delayed these regular costs cannot be avoided while most ICT tools are provided within the school. Cloud computing potentially offers savings.
  • Admin network infrastructure - as for curriculum
  • Hardware - desktop PCs have a life of about 5 years assuming some interim upgrading, laptops 3 years, data projectors 4-5 years, IWBs 7 years etc. Low cost items - cheap curriculum cameras, camcorders, microscopes etc should be considered as disposable and therefore revenue cost items.
  • Software licences - no choice here if expensive licensed software is used (including paid for learning platforms). However, considerable savings are possible using open source software e.g. Open Office and cloud-based online applications.
  • Technical support including technician costs, SLAs etc. - again unavoidable with traditional approaches but with significant scope for saving via cloud computing approaches.

2.3 Routes to significant cost reductions

There is no simple route to reducing ICT costs. However, the following are worth considering.

  • Infrastructure - a single network for both curriculum and admin purposes.
  • Hardware - life is extended if using older units as web terminals for accessing cloud based applications and tools.
  • Software - use of Open Source tools such as Open Office to replace paid for licensed applications. Again, the cloud route also reduces such costs. Pooled ordering can lead to discounts for education specific applications.
  • Technical support - outsource at least for specialist services such as server technicians, either from other schools or the private sector.

2.2 What About Students' Personal Devices?

For many schools encouraging and enabling learners to use personal netbooks, tablets and smartphones to access learning represents a fundamental change. However, it is increasingly the case that learners have access to a wide range of devices capable of accessing both local and especially cloud based resources and if the school is unable to fund adequate infrastructure itself a strong case can be made for enabling pupils to use their own.

This raises many issues including security and e-safety but, in the case of smart devices connecting to the cloud via 3G, some issues are already beyond the control of the school while access to school services can and should be via a secure single sign on. The other main issue concerns parity of access, i.e. how do we ensure that all learners can have a device and here schools need to look at creation of a local e-Learning Foundation - leasing devices to families. Support for this is available from the e-Learning Foundation - see:

http://www.e-learningfoundation.com/ for full contact and other information.

2.5 Cloud computing

Cloud computing is a generic term for remote services such as GoogleApps, Live@Edu, Wordpress, etc. Basically, applications are run on remote servers hosted in large data farms and accessed via the internet. Providing the school has good internet access and fast internal network, a basic computer or device with web browsing capability is all that is required. The mission critical element is the quality of the internet service.

Some cloud services, such as those mentioned above, are effectively free to schools. However, schools can also run their own cloud services by purchasing 'pay as you go' packages from appropriate providers. A useful basic paper prepared by the Independent Schools Council can be found online at:

http://blog.isc.co.uk/2010/03/08/ict-advice-cloud-computing-explained/ .

Cloud computing, whether a free or paid for service offers the following:

  1. Reduced and/or simplified expenditure on software licensing - With services such as GoogleApps for Education and Microsoft's Live@Edu/Office 365 provided free for education license costs are not an issue. Similar charged-for services will also become available.
  2. Less reliance on school-based ICT staff - When fewer applications are hosted locally technician costs can be reduced, with specialist skills diverted to local network and infrastructure requirements.
  3. Enabling greater ubiquity of access for students and staff - Effectively any time anywhere access, which is what learners now expect from other ICT tools. Cloud computing provides a powerful and effective way of achieving this.
  4. Reduction or elimination of problems associated with software version control and updates - With cloud-based applications these are done by the service provider. There are no problems with varying versions within the school and between school and home.
  5. Leveraging benefits of shared management systems (LMS, SMS etc) - Management systems used to make the running of schools more efficient can be more trouble than they are worth. Using cloud-based applications, or virtualising these services, e.g. within a local authority portal or MLE, reduces the level of investment required in both capital costs of hardware resources and in software licensing. Other advantages include system interoperability allowing seamless transfer of data (with appropriate permissions) between systems so that student learning can continue uninterrupted.
  6. Enables experimentation, choice and agility in terms of applications used - Consider the rapid adoption of Web2.0 technologies beyond school compared to what happens on the inside. Cloud-based services and applications provide for more nimble, agile use and access - allowing lots of smaller products and services to be 'tried out' without the requirement of a large-scale commitment.
  7. Reduce barriers to participation, contribution, sharing - Identity and access management can be resolved readily in a cloud-based world, enabling greater shared access across and amongst systems and applications.
  8. Infinitely expand resource sharing opportunities - Schools have long had problems in keeping software and services up to date and relevant. Cloud computing provides unlimited opportunities for shared repositories to develop, with access rights and management issues addressed on a wider scale than within an individual school.

3. Free Cloud Services for Schools

Schools may consider the use of cloud services in a number of ways, from simply using quite basic Web 2.0 tools to replace paid for applications, integrating specific tools such as Live@Edu/Office 365 or GoogleApps or using these and adding additional Web 2.0 tools such as learning platform functionality.

3.1 Basic Web 2.0 tools

A very detailed list is available from http://cooltoolsforschools.wikispaces.com/ and this should be a starting point for exploration of what is available and suits a school's particular needs.

The downside with these and similar resources (see the website http://cooltoolsforschools.wikispaces.com/ for details) is that they come and go - firms close down or are taken over, better tools come along or fashion changes. And of course each site requires a specific user id and login which can cause management problems for teachers. As with all free tools, schools and teachers do not have the level of local control that they are used to. However, these are the types of tools that young people worldwide are using outside school. There is no reason not to use them in school while accepting the obvious limitations - after all, they are free!

Those who have read this far and explored the range of resources available will realise that it is possible to put together many of the most used learning platform tools by drawing on the list above. The downside is that instead of having a single, easily managed environment the school ends up with a mishmash of tools rather than a single, structured portal. However, for schools not currently using the full range of learning platform functions, careful selection of resources such as basic wiki, forum and web page creation tools may fulfill their basic needs.

3.2 Free Portals

Two main integrated suites of resources are available to schools - GoogleApps for Education and Microsoft's Live@Edu/Office 365. Both offer an evolving set of free online tools specifically designed for education. Note that there are other services available such as ZoHo. However it is likely that schools will only wish to work with the major players since these are likely to have both longevity and a road map for future development.

3.2.1 Live@Edu (evolving into Office 365)

Full details can be found at http://www.microsoft.com/education/solutions/liveedu.aspx .

The key features of this service are:

  • Office Live Workspace/Office 365 - for personal and collaborative document editing
  • Skydrive - providing 25 GB of Internet based file storage
  • Windows Live Spaces - web space (pages) for sharing information and ideas using documents, blogs, discussion groups, etc.
  • Addition features include Windows Live Messaging and Windows Live Mobile
  • A recent feature is a free plug-in for the Moodle learning platform, enabling Live services to be accessed directly with the Moodle implementation

3.2.2 Google Apps for Education

Full details can be found at http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu/  and an FAQ is available at http://www.google.com/support/a/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=139019 .

The key features of this service are:

  • Integrated communication tools - Gmail with 7 GB storage space, calendar and GoogleTalk. Postini filtering and message security (which caused problems with Gmail within ItsLearning) are available as charged extras
  • GoogleDocs - create and share online documents, presentations and spreadsheets
  • GoogleSites - create websites and secure group wikis
  • Groups - create mailing lists and discussion group
  • Video - Securely host and stream video
  • Additionally many other Google tools can be made available
  • Schools can use their own domain name and customize the interface with their own branding
  • Google also offer teacher training and development to support schools rolling our Google Apps for Education

4. Issues to consider

At first glance all of the tools discussed above offer valuable resources. However, are they really an alternative to paid-for services designed for education?

4.1 Cost

Certainly the basic services are free but providing essential levels of security may be subject to unspecified charges. Further, while the service is free at the point of use the school still has to be aware of the management costs - a technician still has to provide local user support, staff will require training, etc. These costs need to be looked at in the context of your particular school.

4.2 Security and e-safety

There are two issues to consider. Firstly the security of data held in free services requires consideration, especially pupil level data. See BECTA published detailed guidelines now archived with the National Archives at http://tinyurl.com/25g5h8a . While both Microsoft and Google set out their security policies and have 'Safe Harbour' agreements with the European Union it is important to remember that schools have no actual contract, they merely sign up to the supplier's terms and conditions.

There is the further issue of e-safety. Although both Live@Edu and Google Apps for Education are under the control and management of the school they are NOT school-provided services and neither are additional security and safeguarding tools necessarily free.

4.3 A Replacement for paid for Services?

Taken at face value the answer is yes and this seems to be a general view amongst institutions large and small that are using them. However, be mindful that you do not control these services but merely have a licence to use that can be changed at the whim of the provider. The service could be withdrawn at short notice or charges suddenly imposed. With a paid-for service the school will have an enforceable contract that sets out all costs, conditions and service standards.

Free services can be cheap, cheerful and immensely powerful but are not risk free. Schools will need to assess whether risks outweigh advantages.

4.4 Can Free Services Replace a Learning Platform?

This depends very much on how the school uses its current learning platform services. If using a full function learning platform that enables work, assessments, etc. to be allocated to specific groups or pupils at particular times; for work to be handed in online, marked online, data ported to online mark books, etc.; and for those learners to also have full e-portfolio facilities, then you need to look elsewhere. Quiz, survey and other assessment tools can only be found in the better commercial learning platforms. However, such facilities could be provided alongside free-to-use services via, for example, Moodle. However, while Moodle is free to download it requires servers, design and management, training and technical support, all of which incur costs. It would also need to be integrated with the school MIS and a portal offering single sign-on to avoid the ongoing issues arising from multiple user identities.

However, in seeking to minimise costs while meeting core requirements, schools need to reflect on the tools they actually do use and whether, at this stage, they need facilities that are not currently exploited. Experience suggests that the main learning platform tools actually used in schools are forums, wikis and web space, all of which are available within the two main free-to-use services. However, to use only these tools is extremely limiting - the full value of a learning platform is not being exploited.

5. Where next?

Firstly schools need to review their overall ICT provision against the ICT Self Review Framework, taking into account potential curriculum changes forced by government over the next year or so. They should then evaluate priorities in terms of learning and teaching requirements before planning for services and infrastructure to support these.

A range of possible cloud solutions can then be considered, from a fully managed and integrated suite of services for all schools, to a mish mash of free services 'managed' by a teacher or technician in an individual school, or some point in between. Thus the spectrum of services might range between:

An LA portal combining MIS, data transfer, email, calendars, website(s), wikis, forums, parental engagement tools, learning platform, all behind a secure single sign-on. This could utilise free-to-use services (GoogleApps, Live@Edu) with a locally managed Moodle learning platform tool - the Moople solution is interesting, see http://www.moople.net/ .

  1. A school controlled version of the above (less the MIS services) - GoogleApps or Live@Edu at the core with a school choice of learning platform, e.g., UniServity Life (which will integrate) or the school's own Moodle. Parental engagement and online reporting could take place via the learning platform.
  2. School controlled use of GoogleApps or Live@Edu without the addition of full learning platform capability. Online reporting (though not full parental engagement) could be provided by, e.g., TASC Insight. MIS remains school based.
  3. School adopts GoogleApps or Live@Edu for email, website and calendar purposes, making some use of wikis, etc. and does not bother with online reporting. MIS remains school based.

Assuming that a total service can be agreed and procured at an acceptable price and with similarly acceptable revenue costs to schools, there are very significant advantages in terms of reducing MIS costs, reducing school level technical support and management costs and in ensuring a coherent, transparent and efficient service for all schools. Costs of learning platform provision with an LA MLE would be significantly lower than would be the case were schools to procure individually. Schools would have a quality service defined by a robust service level agreement and clarity on costs for the duration of the contract period, thus providing budgetary transparency.

However, not only does this solution require all or a very significant majority of schools to opt in but it also negates the opportunity for schools to select their own choice of learning platform (or none at all). There is also the question of the overall procurement cost of an LA portal/MLE since this would almost certainly require a full OJEU process due to the contract value.

Option 2 reflects the evolving situation in some schools where either Google Apps or Live@Edu services have already been explored or in some cases adopted. These schools continue to use the existing provider (UniServity) for learning platform services and, as with others remaining with the service to the end of the contract, will be able to migrate to the new UniServity Life product which will integrate with them. There is also the option for schools to evaluate other learning platform providers including the Moople solution (http://www.moople.net/), though costs of migration and retraining need to be considered. These will not be insignificant and will lead to some disruption to learning and teaching during a transition period. Schools will still need to host and manage their MIS on site unless there is an option to buy into this part of the LA MLE only. Schools considering this approach will need to evaluate the comparative costs and school level overheads compared to use of the proposed LA service.

Option three provides a school with basic services only - basic email, calendar and website for staff and admin purposes plus pupil email and the ability to upload resources in the most common formats. SCORM packages would not be usable as these are designed to integrate into a learning platform. For a school satisfied with being in the lower quartile for standards of ICT provision or with very serious budgetary issues this could offer an interim solution. Again MIS costs continue to fall directly on the school.

Option four, if adopted and evaluated against the ICT self review framework results in a judgment of unsatisfactory provision.

6. Conclusions

In order to meet the future expectations of learners, teachers and government schools will continue to need a robust flexible infrastructure capable of routine upgrading to meet increasing demands, for example, improved wireless capability to cater for pupils' personal devices. Above this technical layer - and considerably more important - lies the online learning environment, accessible from any web-connected device and available 24/7/365, i.e., it's there whenever and wherever the learner wants to access it whether on the bus home via a smartphone, the home games' console, a public machine in a library or their own home laptop. Access needs to be universal and not constrained to particular buildings, locations or times.

Thus a cloud approach would seem to offer the most cost effective solution. Infrastructure and technical support costs at the school end are reduced, with the added advantage that a longer life for some hardware reduces the carbon footprint. If using free services the cost of providing many core functions is reduced, if not to zero, (there are still some management overheads) then very significantly compared to localised provision. Each school will need to evaluate the potential for savings.

Some services will still need to be either managed locally or bought in. School management information systems (MIS) are almost universally school located with expensive servers and software licences. These will almost certainly be cheaper if hosted (at the minimum) in an LA level cloud. The other core service is that of a learning platform, including tools for parental engagement and reporting. Historically, best value in cost terms has resulted from an LA-wide procurement for all schools and this remains the most cost effective approach when existing contracts come up for re-procurement. However, it is essential that future services are flexible enough to meet the increasingly varied needs of schools and learners and can adapt and develop as technologies and demands continue to evolve. Again, a large provider has the capital, technical team and expertise to move such services forward quickly and effectively in a way not possible even in a large school.

Despite government rhetoric regarding freedom of schools to innovate this is still best done in partnership with others and the larger that partnership the better value can be obtained from suppliers. As with the SEGfL service rail these suppliers must enable contracts that allow schools to select and buy only those services that they need while at the same time bringing overall economies of scale. Only an LA or a large school consortium is likely to be able to negotiate and manage such a contract, particularly if the OJEU process is necessary.

While some, larger schools, will no doubt prefer to provide their own systems and services, using a mix of locally managed and cloud resources the majority and particularly those in the primary phase can only make essential cost savings through joining together in an LA managed learning environment provided that these can be clearly demonstrated in relation to the level of services that schools require with regard to expectations for good or better overall provision of infrastructure and services.

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This is a revised version of a paper originally prepared for Portsmouth schools by Paul Heinrich, Independent ICT Consultant, email paul@paulheinrich.co.uk

 

 

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