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Support Services: A Better Way for School IT

Schools have become increasingly reliant on information technology as a core component in their teaching and learning toolkits which has put additional strain on the resources available for systems management and technical support. Making informed decisions on which technologies are right for a school is hard enough but ensuring they are implemented smoothly and maintained for stability is arguably just as big a challenge. At the end of the day it all has to come back to assisting staff and students to achieve the best possible teaching and learning outcomes.

An emerging trend in education IT for schools is to enhance operational efficiency by engaging third party support services to complement their internal staff and gain access to a richer pool of high level technology skills and solutions that would otherwise not be available to them. It makes sense for them to eliminate much of the mundane monitoring and maintenance tasks so as to spend more time on strategic direction as well as customised configuration and personal support.

Education Technology Changed Forever   With approximately 970 students and 135 staff spanning Prep to Year 12, Cannon Hill Anglican College (CHAC) in Brisbane’s eastern suburbs has a team of three full time IT staff. According to Paul Bothma, CHAC’s Director of ICT, education technology has changed forever as the result of the previous Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER) program. Under DER, funds were made available to schools to invest significantly in technology solutions that dramatically increased the number of systems under management and provided access to high bandwidth Internet.       

That funding has now discontinued, so the great challenge for schools has been to find effective and affordable ways to continue delivering 1:1 access to technology as well as creating a secure infrastructure that optimises access to fast Internet. Creating a stable, secure environment and preparing for a future that could potentially change rapidly are also critical objectives identified by school technology administrators.

“Schools are now approaching the end of the Commonwealth’s four year DER funding assistance and many are considering BYOD programs as a means of integrating cost-effective technology into their educational programs,” Bothma said. “With high speed internet available and the maturing of cloud technology there is opportunity for innovation but also very real challenges in security, management and support. Meeting these challenges requires a significant investment in ICT infrastructure in a relatively constrained financial environment,” Bothma said.

“In addition, given the current skills shortages in the ICT sector in Australia, we also face the difficulty of competing against better funded commercial organisations to employ the necessary expertise. One of the benefits of outsourcing services and skills through a managed services solution such as is offered by Computelec, is that for the investment it is more cost effective, as you have access to a richer pool of skills and experience which compliments the skills of our ICT staff. It also allows closer strategic alignment of our focus to the support of pedagogical outcomes and achievement.”

The Pace of Change   Jocelyn Martin, Business Manager at Radford College in Canberra identified “the pace of change” as the key challenge for technology strategy within school environments. Radford College is an independent, Anglican, coeducational day school, with over 1600 students and close to 200 teachers.

“I think there are quite high expectations from users these days about what IT can do and its availability,” Martin said. “One of the things that I’m trying to avoid is reacting prematurely to a new technology or sticking rigidly to a defined strategic plan. Things just change so quickly.

“Teachers will go off to conferences and see products which they then think they have to have. The challenge is that we need to strategically think through all the options out there and choose the appropriate solutions based on what is best for our school. That takes time and expertise that we don’t always have.

“IT is very prone to fads. We need to sort through the hype and work out what is going to be useful in our school environment. That ability to help us make the right choices and prioritise is where a trusted technology partner is invaluable.”   

Martin said that her strategy at Radford College has been to “focus on building front of house service and support” so it was interested in the concept of leveraging a third party managed services provider to ensure the college’s infrastructure is secure and operating reliably.

“Our IT staff never had the capacity to effectively support and maintain the large number of devices the school now used,” Martin said. “Our knowledge base was spread too thin and at the end of the day, we would prefer to build up our capability as an IT services hub for our customers.

“It makes sense for us to focus on strategy and service while having the back-end managed remotely under best practice processes by a third party support services company. We use Computelec which specialises in the education sector. We are developing our people to be able to assist with the minor and/or more sophisticated IT issues while leaving that large majority of back end management to our managed services partner.”

The value of education experts   There are many organisations that specialise in delivering managed services solutions for small-to-medium sized organisations but CHAC’s Bothma cited the value his school placed selecting a partner that could demonstrate commitment to education when it decided to follow this route.

“Schools face unique technology challenges and every hardware and software vendor will tell you they have the right solution,” he said. “Therefore, it is critical to deal with a partner that intimately knows the vertical and has runs on the board in implementing education solutions that make a difference”.

“It has been very good for us to seek specialist advice from our partner in regards to collaborative projects which address performance issues or identify infrastructure deficiencies. I get a monthly report of every issue we have and monthly meetings allow us to proactively work towards improving the delivery and reliability of ICT services.”

As a Business Manager, Radford College’s Martin sees value for the school from managed services delivery in real time performance monitoring and rapid response to issues when they occur. Keeping the infrastructure operating at optimum levels allows students and staff to get the best out of technology investments and therefore provide a better education experience for all. “Our managed services provider enables us to be more confident to deliver lessons in the classroom using IT with less downtime and outages,” she said.

In addition, she said having a partner that has strong relationships with key vendors generates confidence that the school’s critical security and back-up requirements are taken care of.

“What our managed services partner has been able to bring to the table is a highly resilient network that delivers valuable performance, reliability and scope for change in the future. The support services engagement monitors all our servers, back-up and patching. These were previously mundane, repetitious tasks that kept us distracted from strategic improvements.”

Getting the Best Out of Education IT

Greg Henshaw, Deputy Principal at North Sydney Girls High School (NSGHS) said he was looking to establish a clear picture of what the school’s IT infrastructure looked like and whether it was capable of supporting its defined strategic direction to have a secure platform that supported a broad range of systems and applications whether they be school assets or a BYOD policy.

 NSGHS is an academically selective, public high school for girls located at Crows Nest, on the Lower North Shore of Sydney with over 900 students.

“We were looking to build a new platform but were far too close to objectively envision where we wanted to end up,” Henshaw said.

“We engaged a third party support services partner with significant education experience to audit our infrastructure, establish some performance benchmarks and share some ideas on what would deliver the best outcomes for our school.

“There was quite a bit of resistance at first from the internal team who had been doing a great job with what we had but this alleviated over time as the relationship with our chosen support services partner developed. Once they realised that this was in fact an effective way to introduce objectivity, alternative opinions and innovation to our operations that opposition diminished.”

NSGHS had invested significant resources in back-end network and servers over the years but also wanted to explore the possibility of moving to a cloud computing model which would allow its staff and students to access desktops and applications from anywhere and on any device. One of the audit outcomes showed there was too much time, money and energy being spent on basic infrastructure management and maintenance with not enough being allocated to strategy and development.

Engaging a managed services partner not only provided NSGHS with the comfort of guaranteed security, back-up and stability but it also introduced new expertise that could help with enhancements and configurations that would facilitate future plans for virtualised desktops and a BYOD environment.

An End to Fire Fighting   All three schools said they have reaped many benefits from their managed services engagements as the result of no longer having to continually fight fires in their network and server infrastructures. There is an assurance that comes with 24x7 monitoring of their infrastructure and additional remote support when required while they also claim to experience improvement in the skills base of their own staff as well as being able to tap into experience and expertise in education sector technology solutions.

“Costs have been reduced but, more importantly, we have achieved the higher goal of being proactive in our technical support so that we avoid the time involved with emergency repairs and trouble shooting,” Martin added.

“Having a managed solution with service level guarantees is much less costly in the long run than bringing in help for every incident.

“We no longer find out by default when things are not working as we did in the past. Instead, we often don’t find out about them at all until we receive our monthly activity report showing issues that have been fixed before they create dramas.”

Meanwhile, NSGHS’s Vice Principal, Henshaw needs no further convincing that leveraging a managed services provider with remote monitoring capability has provided great value to the school. He said there has been a 60 per cent annual saving on its previous on-site support arrangement. In addition, he said the school has experienced 100 per cent reliability with its local infrastructure.

The Bottom Line

Managed services including the remote monitoring of on-site infrastructure is not a new concept but it is one that has not been traditionally popular in the education sector where schools were able to manage their own environments without third party support. This all changed as information technology matured as a teaching and learning tool as well as when DER funding created an explosion of the number of devices under management and allowed for the implementation of more complex network infrastructures designed to take advantage of fast internet access.

Eliminating the day-to-day burden of managing core infrastructure allows schools to focus on improving IT service delivery which in turn improves education outcomes. Leveraging an experienced, specialist education IT services provider can reduce maintenance costs to a single, predictable monthly figure while helping to achieve a reliable platform upon which better solutions can be developed in the present and the future.

It also provides schools with an extended, collaborative engineering team that can break through the fads and product hype and share market intelligence about trends and opportunities in the education sector as well as transfer that knowledge to internal staff.

Additional information about the cost savings, operational efficiencies and performance improvement that is created for schools through having core IT infrastructure and support externally managed by a specialist education services provider can be obtained from the Computelec website.


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