Distributor Westcoast, aiming to tackle one of the many pressing issues affecting the UK channel, recently staged a Specialists in Education reseller event at the Lady Margaret Hall, at Oxford University.
Lord Brian Mawhinney, Tory peer and former MP, kicked off the day in mid-May with an inspirational talk underlining that education was going to remain an important area of investment despite current economic strictures, and ICT would be a key part of many more effective investments in the education sector.
Chris Sweetman, associate education consultant for Nexus Associates, spoke to resellers on the best ways of selling to an academy - defined as a secondary school that is primarily state-funded but independent of Local Education Authority control. Academies also have a curriculum specialism under the Specialist Schools Programme, for example in areas of business, technology or the humanities.
Sweetman said that resellers must be careful they are not relying on the engagement concept to sell technology. Many technology providers have been guilty of arguing simply that academies should buy technology because it helps students become more engaged in their education.
"Some technology engages people, but some technology disengages people from lessons. An example is mobile phones. So how will IT transform learning if it disengages the pupils?" he said.
Work harder on partnering
Sweetman said that the channel must work harder on partnering with academies to find out what they really want, need and can afford to purchase. Then they must work harder on helping the schools actually make the best of the technology purchases they have already made as well as any new purchases.
"People often say, 'I've got a fantastic management information system (MIS), and I cannot use it," Sweetman said.
Technology providers need to work more closely with academies to see how IT can be dovetailed with their specific needs to make savings in time and money, and generate efficiencies, and then help them configure the technology to ensure those savings and efficiencies are achieved. An example might be around the current emphasis on continuous assessment of pupils.
"Teachers ... and young people ... [in their education] they need to know where they are now, and what they need to do to get to the next level," he said. The right technology deployment could help with this. "What if they could look at an e-portfolio on a mobile phone, and leave a message for the child about the curriculum - 'That's great; this is Level Six work, and now you need to go and look at these Level Six resources', for example."
Another example might be facilities management. Resellers need to learn to speak the language and approach different areas within the academy to get the deals happening.
"Also, consider being a one-stop shop. Around about 50 per cent of schools really value this. In some research we did, they said we would really want to just buy from one place. So your partnering can be very significant if you can build up the best-of-breed services," he said. "And also, consider that schools are full of 'digital natives', for example, so can they help you with your R&D as well?" he said.
He reiterated that the 71 new academies that still have capital financing will still have about £800 per pupil to spend. Some also will have access to a maintenance grant - but many will not be aware of that, so resellers should bring it to their attention, with details available from the Department of Education website.
Reasons for deploying
Neil Emery, a contractor, 'Distinguished Educator' for Apple, and training manager at the New Technology Institute (NTI) Birmingham - part of Birmingham City University - talked about the reasons for deploying Apple technology in a classroom.
He noted that although Apple is seen as something of an IT staple for schools, fewer schools than you would think are getting real benefits from their deployments, and therefore there is an ongoing role for resellers and other technology providers in helping them not only buy the right technology for them but make the most of their investment when they have got it.
"[Education reseller] RM has been finding that the schools that it managed are having to deal with Apple [product] a lot more, and people were not wanting to support Apple. So we want to show them [schools] what the technology can deliver," Emery said.
Emery said Macs had many applications preloaded that teachers and school IT staff perceived as annoyances. However, used properly they could be beneficial to learning, he insisted.
"There is iLife, including iMovies, GarageBand, iDVD, and things like PhotoBooth," he said. "You can create storyboards, firlm clips, basic 'green screen'-type effects. Many schools have high-end kit - higher end than this Mac stuff - but are not using it [either] because no one is capable of it."
His view is that the more simple technology can be truly beneficial, if schools are helped to make the most of it. This is of course an opportunity for VARs of various stripes to offer consultancy and layered-on services.
"Ninety per cent of the schools I go into are not using this [Apple] stuff," Emery said. "Not every teacher is going to be doing IT - but if they are offering it in the first place, they can really make a difference with it. People come up to me and say, 'I hate Apple'. I say, 'why?'. And they say: 'The school has bought it and I have to look after it; I hate that bloody stuff.'"
Resellers could work with distributors such as Westcoast, and with Apple where possible, to make the experience better both for school administrators and for classrooms, Emery maintained.
Hard row to hoe
John Mason, head of networking at the University of York, told attendees at the Oxford University event that university IT departments have a particularly hard row to hoe in coming years as the austerity measures kick in. Because of that, selling ICT to universities would probably be difficult - but not impossible.
For example, at York university just two staff manage the entire network, incorporating more than 20,000 devices networked via more than 600 switches, mainly utilising 100Mbit and 1Gigabit connectivity, across 30 academic departments and research centres. Using a one-port-fits-all philosophy, two staff can just make it work, Mason said.
On top of general financial issues, the University must cope with a reduced budget, and a research-grant culture which means that grant recipients have a tendency to want to firewall their stipend off from other users. Although tuition fees are rising, there will be a two-year lag before they start to cover the budget shortfall, he warned.
"And the research grant culture means that people finance their own [IT] architecture and that can be a challenge and is not the way to work. People are building little mini-datacentres all over the place, and then we have to pull them into the central datacentre," Mason said.
He said that while Moore's Law had not proved to hold quite true when it comes to academic departments' IT needs, the institution needed to keep up with the play and remain cutting edge with the facilities it offered. This necessitated a need for near-constant upgrades, with an eyewateringly-tight focus on lifting efficiency and controlling cost. It was nearly impossible to get permission to add human resources, for example.
Because of this, universities would need help with their IT and technology providers that could apply themselves to their unique needs would likely prove themselves invaluable for years to come, said Mason.
Vendor sessions from HP, Toshiba, Microsoft and Samsung rounded out the event, although attendees could only select one of these each as they ran concurrently.
Alex Tatham, sales and marketing director at Westcoast [pictured], said that Westcoast was keen to help resellers delve deeper into the education market. Opportunities still exist, but the key would be to understand the market better and ensure the offering matched the needs of the individual institutions.
"We can certainly help you," Tatham said.
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