Disruption can be good for schools if it comes from the right source – and technology is a big part of that.
John Jackson is enthusiastic about the potential. As chief executive of LGfL, the not-for-profit technology provider for the education sector, he can see a great potential for new technologies to raise standards in schools, and says it is changing the nature of the organisation he leads – to the extent that he describes its role as “a massive disruptor”.
This comes to the fore when he talks about its recent deal with Adobe for member schools to have access to its Creative Cloud suite.
“A lot of the tools in there, like Illustrator, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, InDesign and Animator give kids amazing scope to play with it,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll have a few Hollywood directors come out of this at some point.”
Then there are other technologies with great potential, some already available, others on the horizon.
“There’s a platform named Hegarty Maths, created by a top teacher who proved able to inspire the kids and took it to a new level with tech. It provides a lot of interesting tests and allows the teacher to monitor when they are logging on, if they are doing their homework on time. It’s using the tech to engage them and using the data to change behaviour.
“Another is virtual reality. As the cost of headsets is falling our schools are getting the bandwidth to operate VR point scans. If you can do headsets for £30 or less then schools are taking it up.
“Augmented reality is taking in more resources. It brings complex concepts to life for kids; they can interact with them and within a few minutes learn something.”
Jackson also points to a number of more established offerings for which there has been a surge in demand, or at least a strong growth in interest, for specific technologies. On a more basic level there has been an increase in the use of Chromebook computers in schools, which he attributes to the relatively cost and ease of use.
There has also been a growing interest to use analytics in school management, providing head teachers and administrators with insights on issues such as resource allocation, pupil behaviour and attainment.
“Machine learning is at its early stages, but we’re beginning to see it, in combination with data analytics, begin to have a fundamental effect on attainment,” he says.
It reflects the prime purpose of LGfL in helping schools deal with their major problem in getting hold of new technology.
“One of the big problems for UK schools is that there isn’t any money,” he says. Going into the market alone they struggle to acquire tech solutions that are creating new learning opportunities for pupils.
It is where the organisation, which currently has nearly 3,000 schools as members, steps in with the buying at scale and management of the procurement to place the solutions within reach.
It has a series of strategic deals with suppliers. The Adobe deal followed agreements last year for Neverware’s CloudReady operating system – which can extend the life of old hardware and complement Google Chromebooks – and Malwarebytes for its anti-malware software.
There are established services for cloud offerings such as Office 365 and G-Suite, storage and back-up; and a wide range of educational content services to support classroom learning. There is also non-curriculum content such as packages to support schools in supporting bereaved children and mental health training for teachers.
“If schools had to purchase these things it would cost them thousands, and we’re saying ‘As part of your subscription we’ll lay on these products and services’,” Jackson says.
He makes a couple of points about LGfL’s position in the market. One is that it tries to take the lead from schools in seeking out the new technology options. It runs advisory groups that sound out what the schools are looking for and engages with them through social media to assess the priorities.
The other is that it provides a bridge between suppliers and schools when the buying side has become much less centralised. Local authorities are responsible for fewer schools and have less clout individually, while the growth in the number of academies is making the outlook more “atomised”.
Sharpening the act
“Fortunately, because we have the direct links with schools the change in their control has not been as visible as might have been expected,” he says. “And we have had to sharpen up our act in terms of making sure what we are providing is relevant and value for money in a very transparent way.
“It does mean for us we’ve had to rethink how we present ourselves and engage with schools. It has led to a change in how LGfL presents itself, as an agent for digital transformation as opposed to a grid for learning, and we have appointed a lot of educational people to key roles. For example, we have a safeguarding lead, a special educational need leads, focusing on the educational rather than the technology.”
It is also intensified its efforts to provide a strong digital infrastructure for schools. One element of this is Cyber Cloud, which Jackson describes as “strength in depth” that involves filtered internet access, clustered firewalls around its core network, and large scale implementations of Malwarebytes, Meraki for mobile device management and Sophos for antivirus, client firewalls and application controls.
It also works with high education’s Janet network, through which it provides its internet services, to prevent distributed denial of service attacks, and has plans to deploy next generation firewalls and create a new monitoring service in the cloud.
Just this week it announced plans to assess the cyber security capabilities of schools in an exercise, run with the National Cyber Security Centre, to audit their arrangements. It plans to announce the results during the summer.
Jackson also makes much of the connectivity capabilities that LGfL is building up. It has expanded the core capacity of its LGfL 2 network through an upgrade to LGfL 2.5, and plans to go further with a new network that will provide a minimum bandwidth of 100Mbps for primary schools and 500Mbps for secondaries, with the capacity to go up to the gigabit mark. It should also support software defined networking and make it possible to virtualise firewalls.
Bandwidth and transformation
“We see there will be a massive change in bandwidth consumption and schools will transform using more mobile devices and technologies such as virtual and augmented reality,” he says. “We can give it to them on a scale bigger than anyone else in the UK and one of the biggest in the world.”
The new network is currently being tested and is scheduled to go live within the next 12-20 months.
The plan is tied to another ambition for LGfL – to begin offering its services overseas. Jackson insists that this is a realistic aspiration.
“Some of the groups we serve have schools in places like Brazil, Chile, Thailand, Vietnam and India, and they have seen what we are offering to schools in the UK and saying they want to consume our products,” he says. “It ties in with the trend to academies, some of which are in international groups.
“As long as they have a point of access to the internet we can provision virtual routers and virtual firewalls to support their services. We haven’t done that yet, but the idea of bundling the software we provide to UK schools is within our grasp.”
Along with this are other priorities, including a big procurement of online services for safeguarding and monitoring, accelerating the use of virtual and augmented reality in schools, and launching a new website to enable schools to list contacts for different functions such as safeguarding, technical, customer services and finance. Jacksons says this will be named LGfL At Your Service and should be up and running by May or June.
All of this amounts to LGfL evolving into a different type of organisation. It took the step of extending its geographic reach some time ago, followed by a change in its branding away from the original title of London Grid for Learning.
Jackson says there is now more brand management to do, which could reflect the fact that it has extended its focus into those areas of positive disruption.
“In the past we’ve been more limited in ambition, thinking about content and a bit of connectivity and not so much about fundamental transformation in the world of education. But we’re really going for it now.”
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