How can resellers help educational institutions navigate emerging technologies? Comms Business talks to the experts.
Schools, colleges and universities depend on technology, with the pandemic pushing institutions to adopt new ways of learning. Some of this might be temporary, with many teachers and students relishing the return of in-person learning, but it is clear that establishments now require a more flexible approach to education. Remote learning options, robust connectivity and student access to devices are now paramount.
Mark Whitfield, director of schools and sales at the Stone Group explained his company has seen a huge spike in hardware requirements. He said, “The Stone Group has been delivering IT solutions to educational institutions for over 25 years and has also supported digital transformation strategies. Unsurprisingly, the demand for devices in education has been unprecedented throughout the pandemic. It has been essential to ensure the security of those devices and safeguard pupils online.
“Most pupils can now learn via online platforms such as Teams and Google Classroom as schools seek to maintain the delivery of high-quality education if students have to isolate. It should be said that there is still a huge demand for devices to ensure that every child has access.”
For Nick Offin, head of sales, marketing and operations, Dynabook Northern Europe, the rapid adoption of online learning has ushered a new era in education, with technology at the heart of teaching and learning strategies. He said, “As a result, whilst the future remains uncertain, digital plans for education institutions have taken on a new significance and IT teams have had to undertake a technology reset – assessing whether existing infrastructures and technologies are fit to deliver a secure and reliable learning experience. In fact, a recent study by Dynabook found that nearly two thirds of IT leaders in education will increase their IT budgets this year.
“Unlike businesses, hybrid working isn’t having the same impact on the education sector. However, the pandemic has certainly shone a light on the need for appropriate ed-tech that can be used effectively in school and at home. With flexible working likely to continue beyond the pandemic, channel partners will be crucial in helping education institutions by providing advice and consultancy around which ed-tech technologies and tools to adopt, as well as support with services required for remote working.”
Mel Nethercott, vice president, international business development, PSI Services, noted how as the pandemic forced schools and campuses across the globe to shut down, institutions were faced with a dramatic increase in demand for online learning and virtual assessments. “In the absence of in-person tests and exams, we saw the mass adoption of secure online proctoring in education.
“Secure online proctoring presented a viable alternative for institutions looking to provide much needed continuity for students in uncertain times. Instead of monitoring rows of desks in a physical exam centre, an online proctor monitors individuals using the webcam and microphone on their device.
“Institutions with online learning and testing technologies already in place were able to largely carry on with business as usual. With the relatively simple task of upscaling existing solutions to cope with increased demand. Other institutions were taken unawares and forced to adopt completely new technology at scale, often in a rapid and haphazard manner.”
For Lewis White, vice president, enterprise infrastructure, CommScope, the pandemic has both accelerated trends already existing in education – and created new challenges. He explained, “Firstly, it accelerated cloud deployment and digital transformation at an unpredictable rate, with the added dimension of remoteness. It drove a need for virtual platforms and robust networks to support these, but moreover it smashed through the barriers to adoption previously presented by teachers who wanted to stay within their comfort zone of the traditional classroom.
“There was no escape and as the pandemic progressed, adoption very quickly ceased to be optional. In terms of new challenges, enabling the remote classroom overnight was huge. Monitoring the safety and wellbeing of students remained a priority, but was put under pressure. On top of the need to protect access and data digitally, it has become more important to physically monitor students for social distancing.”
Chris Hopkins, public sector specialist, Logitech, agreed big changes have taken place. “At the start of the pandemic, teachers and IT teams had the challenge of adopting technology that enabled lessons to continue and students to continue learning. In just 18 months the classroom of the future looks very different to what it did pre-pandemic. Ways of teaching and learning have been turned on their head, and education IT procurement specialists are now tasked with deciding which technology to use moving forwards and, more importantly, what will have a lasting impact.”
The increase in devices has created a huge demand for schools to update their IT infrastructure, according to Whitfield. “Wireless Systems such as Meraki and HP, along with switching and bringing systems up to date to manage capacity is now vital. Audio Visual is another area we have seen a significant demand for over the last 12 months as student interaction is imperative.”
Offin feels remote learning has “no doubt” demonstrated the power of cloud-based technologies. “While educational institutions shut their doors in the face of national lockdowns, many lessons were able to continue online with the help of digital solutions.
“This has naturally had an impact on IT and their priorities. For example, our study found that cloud-based solutions, remote IT support and assistance and cybersecurity infrastructure were highlighted as top priorities for education IT administrators. The latter saw the biggest jump with 84 per cent of IT decision makers citing security as more important than before Covid-19, while three-quarters of organisations noted cloud platforms as higher up in priorities.
“Indeed devices have long been an essential part of the classroom, even before Covid, their role within the education world has transformed in the last year. Laptop devices, in particular, have been the unsung heroes during national and global lockdowns. According to our research, almost three-quarters of IT departments in education see purchasing decisions around these devices as more important now than they did prior to the last year.
“As a result, this increasing demand for technologies provides resellers with an opportunity to develop a whole end-to-end package for education institutions looking to integrate and use such tools.”
When asked if purchasing behaviour is changing, PSI Services’ Nethercott said that institutions that made snap decisions at the height of the pandemic are now realising they may not have made the best choice. He added, “Solutions that address concerns around AI and biometrics are in high demand. For example, reassurance that a human proctor will always be involved, or technology such as a secure lockdown browser that prevents remote access to a student’s device.”
White at CommScope thinks institutions continue to shift from a traditional model of purchasing discrete hardware and services, moving much more towards subscription-based models such as cloud-based services and infrastructure as a service. He said, “Wi-Fi and LAN services can now be provided using cloud platforms that allow networks to be managed and maintained remotely, with updates always delivered in real-time, increasing the level of service they are able to offer their students, and also reducing the risk of unforeseen obsolescence.
“Integrators who used to see requests to provide specific hardware or network elements are now seeing requests to provide guaranteed connectivity and application support inside buildings as a chargeable ongoing service, utilising wired and wireless infrastructure that they themselves specify and takes ownership of.
“This model places the onus upon the partner to choose and design with long-term support and flexibility in mind, reducing the pressure upon the institutions to make technology decisions that they may not be expert in. Moreover, with this comes a move from CAPEX based transactions to more OPEX based models where the service and experience delivered comes at a fee rather.”
For Will Liu, UK managing director at TP-Link, the rise in remote learning has created both opportunities and challenges for educational institutions. “However, as we know this can come at a cost. Suppliers should be offering high performing, good quality, license-free products that will get the job done quickly, meaning educational institutions can be provided with the longevity needed and a good investment for the long-term.
“That said, it is not just about introducing blended learning tools. Schools are quickly realising the importance of investing in their networking infrastructure in order to cater to tools that require more bandwidth than traditional methods. In line with the wider trends across the UK, remote management of school wireless networks is also an area of increased attention in order to alleviate pressure on resources, improve efficiency and enable monitoring to be carried out from anywhere via the cloud.”
For resellers looking to grow their customer base in this sector, it is important to highlight expertise and customer support. Whitfield at the Stone Group, explained, “We dedicate our time to our existing customer base to ensure they receive the care, attention, and service levels they deserve. We build partnerships for years to come. Nevertheless, we have teams dedicated to attracting institutions we have not previously worked with. For example, we typically begin to trade with 400 to 450 new schools every year and have a team dedicated to this market. Our aim with all our clients is to ensure they become loyal and long-standing partners. We dedicate a great amount of time, effort, and resource to this area to help educational establishments understand the benefits of dealing with us as a dedicated public sector IT service and solutions provider.”
Nethercott pointed out, “Our approach has not changed as a result of the pandemic. In fact, the things that were important before Covid-19 are even more important now. Develop a solution that addresses a need in your customer base, and then listen and respond to how that need might change over time. This was the case pre-pandemic with the shift to flexible online learning and assessments, and it’s the same now as we take lessons from the mass adoption of these technologies.”
For Andrew Dickinson, CEO, Jola, whilst there will remain a demand for remote learning via Teams and Zoom, resellers and suppliers will have to be realistic about how much data they will actually use and what charges are sustainable. He said, “Many suppliers already accepted onto government frameworks do not have the necessary capabilities in mobile data management and will be looking to work with organisations that do. There is an opportunity here for resellers and MSPs to either get onto these frameworks themselves or partner with established framework suppliers.”
Resellers and MSPs should also pay attention to emerging trends that could shape the needs of the education sector. Offin, from Dynabook Northern Europe, believes sustainability will become increasingly crucial. He said, “As the pandemic continues, and governments and schools work to provide teachers and pupils with the right tools to work from home, there are questions about the damaging impact that this could have on the environment. While the current consumption of electronic devices is seen as unsustainable by some experts, schools and universities investing in electronic devices to power their employees and students could look at moving away from a linear model and towards a circular economy in electronics, by improving the life-cycle environmental performance of products.
“For a sustainable, circular economy in the education sector, reducing e-waste, and using schemes such as reusing, recycling and asset recovery has never been so important and will become a growing factor when making purchasing decisions. The channel will play a key role in supporting institutions on this journey to adapt to these new sustainable initiatives.”
Nethercott, from PSI Services, expects to see a move away from fully automated online proctoring powered by AI. “Institutions now understand the importance of a human proctor, who should never be fully replaced. AI should only be used to make the process more efficient, and never be allowed to make decisions about a student without the involvement of a professionally trained human proctor.
“With online, flexible learning here to stay, institutions will continue to need more agile assessments that maintain fairness and protect the integrity of an academic qualification. We are seeing increasing demand for additional elements to an online proctoring programme, such as data forensics and web crawling, that efficiently and accurately identify instances of potential dishonesty.”
White at CommScope feels virtual reality is a new trend entering the classroom to enhance the learning experience, “Artificial intelligence and machine learning provide a means to improve the analysis of how students are progressing and provide better predictions for their future results and learning needs,” he said.
The pandemic has forced educational institutions to reanalyse their technology needs and adopt new practices to support an increase in blended learning. That’s the view of Liu at TP-Link who added, “For seamless blended learning to become a reality, schools must implement robust and efficient connectivity that can scale to meet the rise in digital learning capabilities. The provision of a central network management system and convenient maintenance are increasingly important and have quickly become essential practices for school network managers.”
Hopkins at Logitech firmly believes hybrid teaching and learning is now here to stay – which brings with it its own technology requirements. “An interesting development has been around the demand for solutions that can cast the content from a teacher’s whiteboard to those learning remotely. This was a key challenge that many teachers have been facing with remote learning, in keeping analogue learning techniques alive.
“Recently, Logitech introduced a digital AI powered whiteboard camera called Scribe that does exactly this; projecting what’s physically on the board into a video call. The AI capabilities deliver a transparency effect – meaning digital attendees can see ‘through’ the presenter for an unobstructed view of the whiteboard.
“When it comes to evolved purchasing behaviours, we’re seeing that there’s a real move by schools in opting for high quality equipment that’s built to last, with a realisation around the longer-term economy that comes from purchasing quality technology solutions.”