COVID-19 reveals the need for a firmer IT foundation in schools

Distance Education

Gradually and then suddenly. It’s how Ernest Hemingway once said people go bankrupt. But it could equally apply to how organisations have evolved since the COVID-19 outbreak – and the education sector is no different.

In many ways the pandemic is accelerating developments that have been happening for some time. But just as in the case of remote working technology for a work-from-home workforce, schools who were already investing in online education delivery have found themselves in a much better position to carry on with business as usual during these disruptive times.

Yet even for those who have found themselves able to quickly shift to online delivery of education, challenges remain. These challenges go beyond being able to engage students now located far and wide to the very foundations on which we are building our 21st century schools.

Systems do not play well together

We are seeing quite a smorgasbord of technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype and Google Classroom being used to help teachers continue the learning experience for students now stuck at home. The diversity of this technology is exaggerated by the fact that no one vendor has an end-to-end system that covers both learning management systems (LMS) and back end admin and finance. This has resulted in schools experimenting and pulling together a medley of options.

A lack of integration – or interoperability – between the classroom technology and backend systems can make the experience of delivering online learning less than ideal. From the perspective of those in the classroom, shortcomings can include schools forced to use a LMS that is not a first choice, or doesn’t fit with its teaching style simply because it’s the only one that integrates with their prescriptive admin and finance system.

On the other side of the coin, the same lack of integration can lead to teachers doubling up on tasks. This, in turn, can lead to inefficiency, inaccuracy and ultimately, compliance issues. Such dual processing might include, for example, taking attendance in one system and logging it in another, or manually adding students to class groups in learning tools.

The other side of this story involves the impact of shutdowns on admin and finance staff. A lot of schools’ people and pastoral data is held in on-premise systems in schools that can’t be accessed outside the school’s physical walls. So, while it might be possible for teachers to provide classes from outside the school building, admin staff and business managers don’t have the same opportunity.

For many schools, the decision not to shift these crucial back end systems to the cloud comes down to the fact that some of the new technology is not so feature-rich as the older systems. However, the recent surge in remote working and learning from home highlights why it’s still critical that schools consider backend systems that can be accessed from any location – and why this imperative goes beyond the present moment.

Not having access to those systems in today’s current environment is delaying some important decisions – like how the school is performing financially against forecasts, or how are enrolments looking for next term or next year. Beyond this, it’s to be expected that our ways of working will change in a more permanent way due to this current crisis. This could see an increasing number of employees wanting to work from home more regularly. In an environment like that, organisations who require bums on seats in their physical locations will not only be less efficient but may also suffer from not being able to attract as many great candidates.

This is not to mention the fact that the age of the systems and the effort and cost required to keep them running grows almost exponentially every year. At a challenging time when funding is a critical issue for schools, this is a major problem.

A future-proofed foundation

This scenario is a time of reflection for many reasons and one of them is about how we ensure schools are fit for the 21st century, both at the front and the backend. There’s so much potential for technology to transform classroom experiences, but too many backend software solutions are prescriptive about the other software that can be integrated into their ecosystem.

Schools must prioritise back-end systems such as administration and finance that will play well into a wide variety of classroom solutions being used today or which may need to be integrated in the future.

Getting the right foundation demands that IT managers approach the task of choosing a new administration and finance solution within the context of a larger IT strategy and roadmap. Rushing into a new solution because IT support has ended, or because a data security issue has emerged, could lead to a poor decision that limits staffs’ ability to efficiently tap into other technology to transform a school going forward.

We recommend looking for a vendor who can work with a school as part of its broader transformation. If certain technologies have been working well for you at the classroom level, you may not want to stop using them. Prioritise vendors able to help you keep those operational while swapping out the backend.

It’s important to look for partners who understand that how schools will be run has changed post COVID-19; a partner who is excited about helping you manage that adaptation and future-proofing. Overall, the next step in schools’ technological journey may mean finding a more practical compromise between functionality, accessibility and usability.

Technology is enabling the kinds of classroom experiences that we may once only have considered in our wildest dreams. From immersive, mixed-reality that lets students ‘step into’ history, to the ability to digitally analyse a child’s everyday learning experience and offer a personalised and adaptive curriculum, the opportunity to enrich student learning opportunities with technology has never been greater.

At the core of this transformation are effective administration and finance systems that not only free up resources to be invested in more exciting classroom-based technologies, but also free up teachers to choose the technologies they consider right for their students.

Iain Finlayson is Managing Director of Library and Education Solutions for Civica ANZ

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Managing Director of Libraries and Education at Civica

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