How is the education technology industry changing with the rise of academies?
Because academies can buy for themselves, they can pick innovative technologies, such as 3D printing for themselves, but suppliers need to work hard to ensure that these new technologies are embedded in the schools and not just the pet project of one teacher who, when they leave, will take all the knowledge with them while the shiny expensive piece of kit sits rusting in the corner because no one knows how to use it (as one school in the North East said to me).
Having thousands of schools able to buy for themselves is a blessing and a curse for the sector. On the one hand, schools can buy for themselves. On the other, many schools do not have the skills, experience or knowledge of how to specify, tender, evaluate, procure and implement the large technical solutions required to run a multimillion-pound enterprise the size of a large secondary school. That problem is exacerbated in primaries where they often have part-time external support without up-to date-skills.
Many of the smartest companies know that they need to collaborate with other suppliers in the sector in order to be successful. Selling standalone products can get you a bad reputation. For example, if a school has spare cash at the end of the year and decides to buy 50 tablets, but has poor infrastructure, inadequate WiFi and no sensible content to run on the tablets that engages the students, the tablets won't be used and the money will be wasted. Suppliers that come together to take a 'whole-school' approach are becoming more successful.
What do resellers need to know about procurement to be successful in the education sector?
There have been more examples in the press recently of school funds being used inappropriately, or just being stolen, and the more schools that have the power to manage their own funds, the more frequently that will happen. That's not a reflection on the quality or integrity of school staff – just a reflection on human nature. Some people will not be able to stop themselves dipping into the till.
So there will be more scrutiny as schools and their governing bodies want to 'prove' they have used public funds 'appropriately'. That means there will be more tendering (though see the points above about skills for evaluation etc which is a serious issue).
Part of the challenge for resellers with this increase in tendering is that they can invest lots of time, effort and money in helping to 'educate' a school on what they need, only to find they don't win the deal because they are undercut at the last minute. We've had situations where we've done Readiness Assessments with the school staff – work that has taken days and could be worth thousands of pounds – only for a governor to say "I've got a friend who could do that cheaper." The lesson for resellers is to ensure they are very clear on the procurement process in the school/college and ensure as best they can that they know who all the decision makers are along the way.
How does the importance of technology vary between curriculum areas and subjects?
This is dependent on the level of technical skills and confidence of the teacher and their interest in using technology in lessons. For example, I've seen innovative examples of PE teachers having used videoconferencing on iPads on football pitches to get coaching tips for the pupils from foreign coaches.
On the flip side, I've seen lessons that lend themselves well to the use of technology (such as geography and history) where the teachers didn't use it at all, in part because they had no confidence the technology would work because of the poor infrastructure.
What trends are coming up in education that resellers need to be aware of?
From where we sit (and we talk to a lot of suppliers), curriculum changes aren't having that much of an impact on the equipment side, but there is constant churn and innovation in the software and apps market.
Thousands of new or upgraded apps are being released every month, so how do teachers know which ones are the good ones? Organisations such as Educational App Store has real teachers rate new apps and match them against the curriculum to make decision making easier.
The increasing rise of gamification in learning is now becoming more acceptable in classrooms, but even more so in relation to learning at home and engaging parents. Gamification is being used very effectively to teach online behaviours and e-safety to young children in a safe and engaging way that facilitates discussion with parents and teachers.
The rise of gamification means that suppliers need to be smart about how they differentiate their offerings and there is a constant stream of new products from individuals who have created something that hits a niche, right the way through to the big vendors who want to capture young hearts and minds (and eyeballs) from cradle to grave.
The really big trend that no one quite knows what to do with in education yet is the Internet of Things. It is becoming so cheap to produce miniature IP-enabled devices that they can be put in practically anything. An example from the retail world exemplifies this. A well-known clothing manufacturer is rumoured to have trialled the use of IP-enabled devices in the collars of their highly desirable (and often shoplifted) shirts. They can now be alerted when a shirt leaves the confines of an electronic geo-fence around their store. More interestingly, they can tell if the stolen shirt comes back into the store (presumably on the back of the thief) and "retrieve" it. There are lots of implications of this all pervasive technology, not least from a 'Big Brother' perspective. From an educational perspective it's harder to see how it will affect teaching and learning, but the teachers and students are the bright ones; they will find ways.
To what extent are schools embracing BYOD and CYOD?
Many schools do not allow BYOD, as they believe devices in class are too disruptive. My view is that BYOD can be a great enabler – if it is implemented correctly.
Policies and procedures haven't kept up with the pace of change in lots of places – often the most important thing is to consult with parents rather than impose a rigid policy.
There are now much more effective tools for mobile device management, but they are often applied only to school-owned devices.
Very few schools even know what CYOD means, or have the spare cash to let staff or students choose.
Neil Watkins is managing director of Think IT
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