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The EdTech Industry: Pain Points & Solutions

Technology has rapidly changed education, just as it has for most major segments of culture.  Teachers now have more tools to engage students and prepare them for their digital future. When technology is applied to education, it creates a new form of learning environment.  These digital learning environments are unlike IT environments in other industries. IT professionals from these school districts experience a multitude of pain points that make their job more difficult.  The rapid expansion and demand for EdTech have caused many districts to fall behind. IT professionals must have solutions for specific needs that must adapt to new technologies and respect their shrinking budgets.  This blog will examine the 14 billion USD EdTech industry, the pain points facing the industry, the solutions available and the benefits those solutions will provide the district [1].

“What is EdTech and Why is it the Future” a blog published by Wibbu, states that EdTech has two distinct definitions.  One being EdTech as an academic discipline, where people study and solve problems related to teaching, learning and social organizations from a technological perspective.  The other is looking at Edtech as a practice, or the form of teaching or learning with the use of technology [2]. These definitions have helped shape the current digital landscape in schools and begin a conversation about the presence of technology in the classroom.  While these conversations are important to have, it is crucial to also understand what goes on behind the scenes. Not just with students, their parents and their teachers but the actual networks and cables supporting these futuristic visions. It begins with the network engineer, so how are their districts faring with the move ahead into the digital age?

Pain Points

Shrinking Budgets: School districts face an uphill battle when it comes to budgeting. Districts in the United States spend an average of $400 per student on IT alone [3.] Many are extremely limited in terms of funding, so costly IT projects can become difficult if not impossible.  It is because of these budget constraints that districts must get creative with their spending. Many districts have outdated equipment and homegrown solutions that limit the performance of their network, creating other problems that can be costly to fix. What makes this industry unique from others is the severe budgetary restraints, causing them to need enterprise solutions, but without having to pay the enterprise solution price tag.  

Content Filtering:  In order to protect students from harmful online content, school IT departments implement content filtering.  This prevents harmful content or harmful websites from being seen by students in school. This makes the EdTech industry unique because the customers are the students and the teachers using the web.  Internet filtering for a school is conducted by a three-tier system: Blacklists, category filters, and keyword filters. Blacklists are lists of websites that are known to be harmful and users are prevented from accessing these websites at all times.  Category filters operate in a similar way, where users are prevented from accessing specific categories online. When these categories need to be more filtered then keyword filters are used [4]. Failure to filter harmful content is not acceptable and can result in PR nightmares seeing that the students and the teachers are the district’s customers.  The American Association of School Librarians states that approximately 98% of schools in the US control the content that is filtered through their software [5]. Protecting students from harmful content is not the only benefit from content filtering software. Network Administrators also have the ability to track where any unauthorized network traffic is coming from, to provide more data into the harmful content being filtered.

Insufficient Internet Access: Only 28% of school districts in the US have enough bandwidth for EdTech every day.  That’s 2.3 million students who do not have adequate access to the internet [6]. The standard for school districts is to have 1 Mbps per student.  The need for increased access can be attributed to 3 factors according to EdSurge; One is the widespread support for internet access for all schools by state legislators, another being the overall cost of k-12 internet access declining by 85% since 2013, and lastly, the prices of broadband services have dropped 85% [6].  

Unreliable IT Infrastructures:  The network enables a school system to participate digitally. Students must be able to rely on their district’s network in order to better their education.  When connections are unreliable, they hinder student learning and success. It’s important to keep in mind that EdTech is a new principle and that the current IT infrastructures were never built to withstand this demand.  IT professionals working at school districts often have to make do with outdated and unreliable IT infrastructure. Updating a network is a huge project and can be incredibly costly.

Class Schedules:  Classrooms are much different from offices, making EdTech a unique industry.  Students come and go from class to class quickly, and teachers must change lessons and scripts frequently.  Teachers have a limited amount of time with students in each class, making the need for fast connections more relevant than ever.  Minutes spent logging on into software cannot be taken back, so it is imperative that it works. Teachers plan out their lessons in advance, meaning unpredicted network downtime can cause serious scheduling problems.  The school’s bandwidth also must be able to withstand areas of high user volume such as libraries, sporting gyms or assemblies. Finals schedules will call for more bandwidth needed in study locations. This means is that the network must be able to quickly adjust bandwidth requirements all while keeping network service performance at high levels to support the entire educational community.

BYOD:  The popularity of bringing your own device has grown among school districts in an effort to reduce hardware costs.  In fact, 30% of UK Secondary schools have asked their pupils to bring their own mobile devices to class [7]. While this saves the school district money in one area, it creates problems in other areas.  The increase in BYOD models places the strain on outdated network infrastructures. Andrew Ferguson, the founder of broadband news site ThinkBroadband, identifies bandwidth as one of the primary challenges schools face. He explains:

 “A class of 30 pupils doing media-rich research can easily fill a 100 Mbps connection and without sufficient management of the connection, it is possible for one pupil to use all the available bandwidth” [7].

 

What Is the Solution?

School districts are expected to educate students and prepare them for their future.  When the future started looking at digital, school districts reacted. The answer was EdTech.  More and more computer science classes have been implemented, schools have expanded their network infrastructure and 3rd graders have iPads.  But what happens when schools are expected to make these technological changes on a tight budget or unreliable internet access? These tech initiatives fail.  There are two simple solutions to these problems. One is outsourcing their IT team to a managed service provider, and the other is outsourcing to a managed service provider.   

Outsourcing An IT Team: School districts don’t need enterprise solutions, they need managed service providers with enterprise solutions. School districts should outsource their IT needs to managed IT service companies, whose job it will be to ensure the technical needs of the school are met.  In the past years, services that have normally been performed by school districts in-house. Now in the changing landscape schools are outsourcing services such as custodial and facilities management, transportation and food services. This change comes at a time when educational leaders are more focused on the educational outcome or the value they provide to their student customers.  The responsibilities of deliveries from non-educational specialist services no longer lie with the educational structure as a district as it once did, but rather specialist services.

Outsourcing an IT project: If a school district finds that it has a successful IT team that is experienced and working effectively, they might not feel the need to outsource their team to a third party.   However, if they want expertise, or have limited time to complete a project, then they should consider outsourcing a project or two to a third party. There a third party will be largely responsible for the completion of the project.  The district’s IT team can then focus on other tasks or projects. This strategy is perfect for short-term projects that need to be done quickly.

 

The Benefits

Savings in Cost:  According to a recent Computer Economics study, outsourcing IT can save a school as much as 40% [8].  The average cost of one in-house IT technician will cost a school district on average $70k USD a year [9].  When a school district has its own IT team, they are paying more for salaried expertise along with expenses for healthcare insurance, pensions, etc.,  School districts also run the risk of losing expertise if a team member decides to leave. When a school signs a contract with a managed service provider, they are agreeing to fixed services and fixed costs.  This ensures that all costs are predictable and nothing should take the district by surprise.

Expertise: When schools outsource their IT departments to MSPs, they are putting their technology services in the hands of experts.  An MSP will examine school districts needs and find the right people with the right expertise for the job. MSPs can run a historical analysis of the district’s previous traffic patterns in an effort for more predictive baselines in the future. They can also run flow visualizations and end-to-end diagnostics to ensure any issues are solved as quickly as possible. When a school district hires IT professionals, they are often experts in one particular field, ie. Network Architects, Programmers, and Admins.  However, when a district outsources their IT department, they are getting far broader expertise for a fraction of the cost.

Support: Support is a fundamental necessity in IT.  Network downtime is not an option, especially when there are a limited amount of hours in a class.  When IT is outsourced, the organization can count on support specialized for the school district. MSPs deal with support issues on a daily basis, and ones specializing in EdTech are familiar with working with teachers, staff, and administrators.  This gives a school district, regardless of the size, the highest level of technical support. Service providers create teams with a variety of skills to troubleshoot problems and provide input on best practices, current trends and projects [10].

Infrastructure that Enables Rapid Network-Wide Configuration: Network engineers that work for school districts usually have to develop and design their infrastructure themselves.  When IT operations are outsourced, the managed service provider takes over this role. One of the pain points that has already been discussed in this article is the unreliability of some dated infrastructures.  They are often unable to keep up with the demand of EdTech. An MSP can analyze the districts current infrastructure and have expert fixes for the issues that arise.

Efficiency: When school districts outsource their IT, the district’s overall efficiency is increased because the MSP uses global data for managing networks.  The MSP can apply global data aggregated from its data collection points at customers across the world to ensure greater analytics accuracy. This gives the school district and it’s managed service provider data on the performance of their networks.  The school district’s efficiency is also increased because long periods of research, development, and implementation of projects are handled outside the district. This can lower costs and speed up operational inefficiencies.

Security: As mentioned previously in this blog, security, particularly content filtering is a major IT pain point for school districts.  Students are essentially the customers of the school district, and their online safety is a major priority. Outsourcing IT departments ensure that there are IT experts ready to handle threats constantly.  The MSP can remotely monitor and back up the district’s IT system to ensure complete connectivity, even in disaster situations.

Why do companies outsource their support services? They do it in order to focus on their core activity.  A school district’s core activity is to foster learning among its students. The EdTech boom’s core focus is to ensure technology is taught and accessible to everyone.  If the demand for more internet bandwidth is higher, or the need for more content filters goes up then it should be up to the experts to have it fixed. These experts understand the EdTech industry, and their   Schools should not view this as taking away their IT department, but see it rather as an expert extension of the district IT department that can deliver the critical IT services for today’s contemporary school system.
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