Driving digital strategy in schools

Technology is a key resource in education and can enhance teaching and learning within our classrooms – where we apply it right. We caught up with Rachel Matthews, director of international communications at Canvas, to learn more

A simple question to start; can you tell me, briefly, why a digital strategy is so important for schools?
We see a requirement for digital strategy in two places.
Firstly on an institutional level: schools must buy technology to fulfil concrete pedagogical objectives, otherwise the tech won’t be used and initiatives will fail. Institutional strategies should not dictate the amount of equipment needed, but should clearly show how technology can be used to improve teaching and learning.
The second need for strategy is at a broader level: from government. At the moment, there is a lack of coherent UK-wide digital strategy for educators. Guidance is fragmented, and teachers often report a lack of independent information to help them when procuring classroom technology. A coherent digital strategy from government will help educators make informed decisions in technology purchasing and, post-implementation, can help them ensure ROI on their investment.
A more uniform approach to technology use will provide a better student experience which increases the value of education provision and prioritises a pathway to employment, the development of adaptable and practical learning skills and a focus on learning gain and better measurement. Furthermore, it will promote a collaborative learning experience which sees the UK as a leader in inclusive and open teaching practices.
When it comes to effectively implementing technology in schools, what would you say are the main obstacles?
Last summer, as part of Canvas’ Driving Digital Strategy campaign, we spoke to educators, thought leaders and policymakers – and they all, without exception, asserted the urgent need for help and guidance from government to make sure that tech really delivers for their teachers, learners and schools.
Our report detailed the biggest barriers to successful tech adoption in education:
Many of the testimonials we see from schools and colleges are that the procurement process is muddled, inefficient and even frightening. The rapid growth of academies has denuded the power of most local authorities to support consortium purchasing, which has affected many primary schools in particular as they don’t have enough staff to spend time working on a protected procurement process. Therefore, purchasing is difficult to achieve, and streamlining the procurement process is key to ensuring investment in technology is maintained.
Closely related to procurement is the requirement for educators to be properly trained in using technology to the fullest extent. In November last year, our education customers reported that almost four in 10 (38%) believe their school isn’t providing sufficient training to either teachers or students in how to employ mobile and other technology in the classroom. Government help to support training initiatives is vital.
Dealing with legacy equipment and services
Respondents in our study told us that there is a perception in the education industry that new schools are leapfrogging state schools because they don’t have to deal with issues surrounding the replacement of legacy equipment. Government strategy can help interoperability and support schools in a difficult process of retiring outdated legacy systems.
Ofsted and accreditation
There is no current requirement for technology provision in the Ofsted framework—and no encouragement for schools to use tech and allocate resources and funding accordingly. According to Ofsted, technology should be seen as facilitator to academic success, but respondents our consultations confirmed that a hands-off approach can leave schools adrift and doesn’t reflect the crucial position of technology in ensuring teaching and learning success.
Mirroring the increasing use of data analytics in the commercial world, many educators are turning to technology to help measure outcomes and track results. However, there is a call to fundamentally reevaluate the way that progress in education is measured. Instead of standardised tests which assess the ability to absorb and regurgitate rote materials, many call for ongoing measurement to appraise research skills, applied knowledge and practical ability—vital in paving the way for employment and beyond.
Procurement is identified as one of the key components of a digital strategy. The procurement process isn’t always an easy one, do you have any advice that you can share on it to ensure that it’s a streamlined, efficient and sustainable process?
Caution is needed when it comes to inflexible or prescriptive approaches to procurement. Technology is bought, but not used, by institutions when a “top down” approach has been applied—when tech is not selected by the staff who will be using equipment or programmes, but by governors or managers. Put simply, a more democratic approach to procurement is required to ensure adoption.
On a broader level, the UK can take lessons from other territories, and indeed other areas of education. In Scotland, the Advanced Procurement for Universities and Colleges (APUC) combines a balance of technical and commercial award criteria and means that institutions are able to choose the technology which best fits their needs, from a roster of rigorously vetted suppliers.
We believe that there are lessons to be learned from these territories and that elements of these initiatives can be successfully applied to the UK education sector, while remaining mindful of the importance of choice and freedom in purchasing decisions.

One of the first steps, I’ve been told, is to have the right infrastructure in terms of networks, cloud capacity and connectivity. Would you agree?

Absolutely. The success of any technology is reliant on its reliability, flexibility and performance. And in the education sector, where IT resources are often limited, cloud services allow institutions to focus on what they do best—teaching and learning—rather than on managing their IT.
For us, the benefits of the cloud go well beyond the data centre, and well beyond technology. Canvas is a cloud-native VLE, which means that it is built for the cloud, as opposed to a managed service which is simply hosted in the cloud.
The big draws of being cloud-native include auto-provisioning: automatically provisioning environments as your needs grow, auto-scaling: tracking the various components of your application and releasing and pulling resources automatically where appropriate – and auto-redundancy. Cloud-native apps and services are also inherently resilient to failure. In the event of an issue, app processing instantly moves to another server or data center automatically and seamlessly.
Another key benefit to cloud-native solutions lies in agility. For one constant price, our customers get quicker access to new capabilities  – and customers can easily expand usage to other users, groups and organisations. Another benefit of a public cloud is “high availability,” – with no single point of failure. In a managed services or an in-house, on-premise model, you would need to duplicate – at a minimum – every feature of your infrastructure to achieve high availability. For all but the biggest organisations, this simply isn’t possible. In addition, a public cloud environment will include data management technology that is far beyond the average school’s budget, but which can be provided cost-effectively in a public cloud.
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