Monthly Archives: December 2011

Leading technology

We have a lodger staying at the moment – a primary school teacher. While chatting I discovered that the laptop she was using was a school-supplied unit from the Laptops for Teachers (LfT) initiative, a programme kicked off by the DfES and Becta in 2002. “Of course I can’t do anything useful with it,” she said. “Huh?” I replied (in my usual articulate fashion). “They don’t like me to put any of my own stuff on it.” I’ll admit this floored me. One of two things was possible:

a)  Working on national projects with aspirations at the cutting interface of education and technology has unhitched me from the reality of technology in schools at the coalface, or
b)  My lodger’s school is at the end of a, no doubt, long, trailing technology tail.

I think it’s probably a bit of both. I won’t go into the conversation that ensued, but it became clear to me that the technology in her school was being managed, not to enhance learning and teaching, but to minimise technical issues. Even now, it seems this is far too common.

I’ve been very lucky in my career so far to have visited many hundreds of education organisations. I’ve engaged with all manner of staff from leaders to technicians. What’s become clear to me over time – and please accept that this is a generalisation to which there are notable exceptions – is that the majority of education leaders built their education experience in a pre-digital age. They are not digital natives and regard technology as something between an expensive distraction and an interesting diversion. They don’t intuitively ‘get’ technology and they certainly don’t trust it to make a significant difference to learning outcomes or life chances. Their perception is that budget allocated to ICT is displacing spend on things they do understand, like teachers, and this is uncomfortable and so unwelcome. Furthermore, technology is evolving rapidly and so the knowledge they do have is constantly challenged and there’s relentless pressure on them to refresh their investment in terms of stuff and skills.

As a general rule, leaders are not very good at being out of control and I think technology is one of those areas where many leaders feel exactly that. I’ve met many heads who’ve been proud to tell me they don’t even own a computer, yet their organisation’s raison d’être is to prepare young people for a digital age. It’s also not uncommon to see a head wielding his or her iPad as evidence of a progressive attitude to ICT while their school languishes in the middle ground of technology adoption. It is one thing to be a user of technology and appreciate its merits, but quite another to develop and drive an ICT strategy for an organisation.

So technology is often perceived by leaders as a threat rather than a valuable ally in achieving successful outcomes. The usual responses to a threat are either to marginalise it or dominate it. Given that the former is becoming more and more difficult in a digital age, the latter is the usual course of action. The most common way of dominating technology is to regulate it into submission by creating ring-fenced, in-house control structures, both curricular and technical.

An internal structure is far less likely to expose or challenge than an external one. Better the devil you know. The technology manager in a secondary school usually becomes the trusted source of technical advice, despite the fact that he/she is probably under-qualified to be making learning-focused, strategic decisions about technology adoption. Yes, I know there may be another member of the SMT with the  portfolio for technology, but I’m as wary of technology enthusiasts as I am of Luddites. I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of technology leaders I’ve met in schools who have any significant professional technology experience outside of their school. They usually mean well but lack perspective.

My contention is that in-house technology management is almost always inefficient and a distraction from the core organisational mission. In my opinion, the necessity for an ICT department has become a self-perpetuating myth in most schools and colleges. To change would involve asking the turkeys to vote for Christmas. This is of course why leaders need to get to grips with technology and lead their organisations from the front, not by becoming experts, but by taking expert advice.

To be clear, this is not a gratuitous critique of education leaders. The reason for making these observations is to shed light on the current state of technology in education organisations. In general, we see a very conservative landscape, with significant tracts of technology experience out of bounds for learners, let alone staff. We see tragic waste through under-utilisation of technology assets. We see technology managed to reduce support rather than to enhance learning and teaching. We see inefficient procurement. Mobile phones are a threat. Social networking is a threat. Parental access to school data is a threat. Data is a threat!

I see the proliferation of Interactive Whiteboards as a symptom of this malaise. It is a comfortable choice of technology because they simply perpetuate the same didactic techniques as before but delivered with elevated anxiety. Do they improve learning outcomes? Where is the evidence? Yet the idea of engaging young people through their mobile phones in social learning is almost non-existent in schools. Did you know that 1 in every 5 minutes of Internet time was spent using Facebook in 2011? Where does the opportunity really lie?

My intention over the coming few weeks is to challenge the status quo and blog about how technology in schools can be different and better while costing less. I want to engage education leaders in a dialogue that’s about relinquishing technology control and focusing all their effort on their organisations’ core mission. The trend is already well underway in business, with many SMEs letting their CIOs go and outsourcing their ICT. They see they get better advice, better value, a more agile organisation and better outcomes. I think the education sector is ripe for a revolution and I’m delighted to be one of those waving a red flag.

2012 and beyond (part 5)

I know, I know, this flurry of blogging activity is more than you can keep up with. Don’t worry, it’ll ease off in the New Year. I blame Techmarketview for running their 2012 predictions in five parts. This is the fifth and final part of their series in which John O’Brien does business process services (BPS). You know the routine by now: my edu-speak comments in blue… 1. ‘BPS’ term will become mainstream – The term ‘business process services’ (BPS) will replace the outdated acronym ‘BPO’, very much associated with old era ‘lift and shift’ and delivering ‘your mess for less’. ‘BPS’ in our view, is BPO coming of age, using technology as an enabler, to help drive business process change, and delivering measurable service outcomes back to the customer.

In K12 education, the traditional provider of most business process services has been the Local Authority. The current economic pressure on the public purse combined with acceleration in the number of schools breaking free of the Authority by converting to Academies, means some Local Authorities are losing their advantage of scale. The creation of Free Schools is relevant because, as new schools, they usually have to scale slowly to full capacity and therefore need services to scale with them. It is also a general truth that LAs are often less competitive and agile than they’d have us believe. The consequence for schools is that they’re having to take decisions about how they procure services more efficiently and they’re trying to work out who the successors to Authorities will be. I think we will see a small but perfectly formed proliferation of education-specific BPS providers in 2012 and beyond.

2. Market leaders will cede share – Newer and more agile platform-based BPS players will see their market shares grow. Indian tier ones will continue to gain momentum through new platform innovations, and specialists such as Diligenta and The Innovation Group (TIG) in hot areas such as life and pensions and general insurance will gain further market share. However we expect a fight back by the ‘old guard’ as they embrace M&A in both vertical and platform capability, and flex their muscles on new business and renewals. 

The large BPS providers like Capita and Northgate already have a strong foothold in education but their current offerings are products of a previous world that is rapidly slipping away. Their lack of agility may well leave room for other education-specific BPS offerings to proliferate in 2012 and beyond, delivering value into areas such as Management Information Systems, HR, payroll, Learning Support and CPD. 

3.Unusual suspects’ will disrupt the market – The construction sector is now looking to partner or acquire support service and BPS capability for ‘bundled’ BPS deals, notably in local government and the broader public sector. Costain and Interserve made moves on Mouchel during 2011, although in the end pulled out after spotting ‘something under the covers’. Nonetheless, there are plenty of other partner or M&A opportunities, so we expect one of these ‘unusual suspects’ to make their first big move in 2012. 

In education, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme was instrumental in forcing those Authorities and schools who were involved to look at the lifecycle costs of running schools. Towards the end of the programme, we saw the ‘Facilities Management’ and ICT offerings broadening their scope to include BPS as a way of driving down the overall lifecycle cost of schools. Once again, this is all about scale. The Local Education Partnerships (LEPs) created through the BSF programme were supposed to act as points of aggregation to generate the scale required for more effective procurement of a range of services. The termination of the BSF programme put paid to that ambition. In the ensuing vacuum, there is yet to emerge a clear pattern of aggregation and this will act as a brake on the adoption of BPS. 

4. ‘Big will eat small’ – The big players will look to buy up platform-based BPS rivals as they attempt to close the gap. Insurance specialist TIG, and HR and public sector player Northgate will find themselves subject to M&A approaches. Weak players are also likely to be approached, albeit at far lower valuations. Embattled Mouchel for instance, is likely to sell off larger, more attractive chunks of its business in 2012 in an effort to stay afloat. 

I refer my esteemed reader to (2). Ever has it been thus that big players look to absorb the small in an effort to stabilise their borders. In the education space, I think the players are still feeling their way and so it will be a while before a clear map for BPS in education emerges. After a generation of labour education policies, the upheaval in the political landscape has brought an equivalent upheaval in education. Nevertheless the ‘more for less’ mantra will drive activity. 

5. Perfect storm of disruption – These trends will create a perfect storm of disruption for the UK BPS market in 2012. The risks to large BPS incumbents like Capita, Xchanging and Serco will only increase as a result, making new business wins and retaining client relationships at renewal a far tougher prospect. ‘Staying relevant’ amidst all of this change has to be the number one priority in 2012.

I think I’m in danger of trying to say the same thing in a slightly different way if I give this prediction an education context. Perhaps I’ll just summarise by saying there’s everything to play for. There’s political disruption, economic disruption and, if the 2011 UK riots are anything to go by, social disruption. Against this backdrop, schools are trying to work out how to do the best by their young people. But they’re not business specialists and learning and teaching should be their central focus. Even though the adoption of BPS makes real sense for schools, it will no doubt take both schools and the market some time to work out how to make it work.

2012 and beyond (part 4)

Here we go again with my edu-speak interpretation of the next  flock of predictions from Techmarketview. Flock? What is the collective noun for predictions? I checked here but it’s not yet listed although I did like “an annoyance of mobile phones.” Perhaps I could propose “an inaccuracy of predictions.” Anyway, I digress. This time Phil Codling picks out the headlines for the UK infrastructure services market. My comments in blue…1. Cloud-based infrastructure services will grow at double digit rates – But where cloud is replacing an existing service, it’s a more-for-less substitution that is shrinking the overall market. 2012 is another year of clients putting costs first.

Cloud is a paradigm shift in technology that represents a partial displacement of existing spend. The effect of cloud is to improve utilisation and efficiency while driving down management overheads. Sometimes though, on-premise is the right answer. Optimising the blend of off and on-premise infrastructure will be the evolutionary trend of 2012 and beyond. A consequence of moving off-premise is an increasing requirement for high quality bandwidth. Taken in the round, we may be seeing a redistribution of budget spend rather than an absolute decrease in 2012 but as scale bites, the overall cost-base should be driven down leading to lower prices. What is clear is that the economic climate is helping to drive the speed of transition to cloud services in business and this trend is beginning to emerge in the education sector too. Technology delivery in education, particularly in K12 is often highly inefficient with inadequate local technical support. Cloud infrastructure and services offer schools a real chance to shift their focus away from managing technology to managing learning while at the same time reducing IT budget, if not immediately, then certainly over time. Bring it on!

2. Public cloud won’t make it to the mainstream – Private cloud remains the preferred option in 2012. Small businesses and niche/non-critical applications provide the exceptions to this rule.

A public cloud is one in which a service provider makes resources such as storage and applications, available to the general public over the Internet. The term ‘public cloud’ arose to differentiate between this standard model and the private cloud, which is a proprietary network or data centre that uses cloud computing technologies, such as virtualisation. A private cloud is managed by the organisation it serves. A blended model, the hybrid cloud, is a combination of cloud services managed by both internal and external providers. In fact it is this latter category that will, I think, emerge as relevant to education in 2012 and beyond. Scale is all important here and clearly it is SMEs and education-equivalent organisations that benefit from public clouds because private isn’t really an option. However, larger educational aggregations such as the Regional Broadband Consortia (for example SWGfL) do provide the scale for private clouds. Thus education organisations will probably find themselves in a blended environment.

3. Bring Your Own Technology becomes a market opportunity – Forward-thinking players will seize the chance to help CIOs turn BYOT [Bring Your Own Technology] into a positive for their organisation. Meanwhile the technology in question will include a major new entrant, as Amazon “Fires up” competition in the tablet space.

I’ve already blogged on BYOT and I make no secret of the fact that I believe education is ripe for this trend. The benefits of personally owned tech, for the organisation and the individual, are numerous and profound. Addressing the issue of equal access in education is the challenge. The mention of the Amazon Fire tablet does however give me an opportunity to evangelise about a parallel trend that I think is just around the corner: eTextbooks. Having a 14 year old daughter as I do, I know how many textbooks she lugs around the place. Not only that, but her teenage brain is adept at forgetting most things, including textbooks, at crucial moments, such as the day before an exam. One of the huge benefits of personally owned technology would be anywhere, anytime access to eTextbooks. I find it astounding that it has not taken off. Not only would eTextbooks offer a better quality of experience including multimedia assets and links to extended or remedial resources, but they would be available whenever and wherever a learner required them. It would be possible for teachers and learners to annotate them and otherwise add value. As electronic documents they could also be subject to the range of social tools, such as reviews and rating. Imagine as well being able to measure how a young person used their textbook. That data would be extremely valuable in identifying patterns and trends for understanding learning and timely interventions. The list goes on and on. Yet it hasn’t happened. Perhaps 2012 is the year…

There were a couple of other predictions too but they were very tech-infrastructure-sector-specific and I couldn’t see how I could add any edu-value. So there you have it for this instalment.