Tony Parkin finds a new solution for sustainable schools ICT at the NAACE Conference
Imagine a server-free school – no capital equipment procurement headaches, no need to install and upgrade applications, no trailing laptop power leads and virtually no technical support required.
Sounds ideal in theory? Well one English school is currently exploring how this might work in practice, thanks to Google's Chromebooks and cloud computing services..
Steve Moss, strategic director of ICT for Partnership for Schools, excited everyone at this year’s Naace Conference (see "The Naace pulse: computing, cloud and savings") with his account of the 'server-free school'. Tapping into the zeitgeist, and the unofficial conference themes of cloud computing and cost savings, he described a pilot for innovative ICT provision at a former independent school, St Ursula’s, which has been converted by E-ACT into a primary academy. Now two terms into the project, he described the thinking behind it, the learning so far, and described what was working well and where there were issues to resolve.
Financial pressures on schools bring search for sustainable ICT
With a cut in the devolved capital budget to schools of 77 per cent over previous years, and pressure from ministers to bear down on costs, all schools are facing IT sustainability challenges. The Treasury continues to see educational ICT as capital expenditure long after most of the world has recognised that routine day-to-day ICT should really be seen as revenue spend. So the necessary capital funding is no longer available for re-equipping schools in the same old way.
The radical solution tried at St Ursula’s? Converting ICT from being a continuous capital drain to a revenue spend as the school moved to Google Apps for Education and rented Google Chromebooks. Clearly a major shift such as this requires infrastructure to be reviewed and updated, so such a scheme does involve some capital expenditure. In this case a significant spend had to be directed towards networking and connectivity, with a new robust Trapeze wireless network, cloud printing via Hewlett-Packard Laserjets with ePrint, and a 20 Mbps broadband "pipe" – first from the South West Grid for Learning and then from a commercial supplier.
Though this scheme has used Google technologies, Steve Moss pointed out that other products and services are available, and some are already being used elsewhere. For example, the Harris Federation has 13 schools in south London incorporating the "School in a Box" service from Microsoft. No doubt we will be hearing many more reports of alternative cloud-based approaches and cost models in the near future as the market hots up and the battle for hearts and minds (and wallets) begins in earnest.
But in the meantime, what is being learnt from the St Ursula’s pilot? At this stage most of the learning is obviously in the areas of technology and logistics, rather than pedagogy and practice, but this is usually the case when radical new solutions are tested. Steve Moss was keen to say that the key message is that this particular future does work, and there is effective teaching and learning with IT taking place now in a school which had not been excelling in this area in the past.
The Google Chromebooks are only available to education on a £15 per month rental basis, rather than an outright purchase (although anyone can buy them through outlets like Amazon for around £350). Though the media have been somewhat hostile to these devices, in practice they have proved so far to be excellent classroom tools. Log-ons that only take seconds have transformed the start of lessons. And a 10-hour battery life means they can be used throughout the day, then plugged in for charging overnight. (This reminded me of a pilot using Windows CE tablets almost a decade ago by York LA that delighted those involved with instant log-on and day-long batteries).
If a Chromebook goes wrong, it is swapped out rather than repaired, and because there are no local applications installed (everything works through the Chrome browser) the student gets immediate access back to their tools and materials on the new device. The same is true if they log on using someone else’s Chromebook. All updating happens automatically from the cloud via a Google Apps control panel, and if a pupil’s personal desktop is missing an app it can again easily be added from the cloud without the need for specialist technical support.
There are no deal-breaking technical impediments
Looking at the classroom solution, there are no deal-breaking technical impediments. On a recent visit Steve Moss asked both staff and students whether, given the opportunity, they would like to switch back to a full-fat laptop and traditional software solution – no one wanted to take up the offer. However, previously the students and staff had not been particularly highly-demanding and heavy users of ICT, so this might not always be the reaction in all schools.
Unsurprisingly the pilot has identified some practical limitations that still needed to be overcome. High among these was the impact of limited interactivity with the school’s interactive whiteboards. Many boards are dependent on software and drivers that they expect to find installed on the attached computer, but which are missing from the Chromebooks. Though the Chromebook output can be displayed on the whiteboard, some interactivity is lost. Of course there are web-based versions of interactive software that will work well; these are not, however, as sophisticated as the machine-based software.
Another need identified was for a Windows-based laptop to be used during the initial configuration of the printer and networking setup, though once these were all installed and working it was not required further. Further niggles were some issues with certain websites that required Java, though Flash-based sites worked without any problem (unlike for iPads).
Chromebooks are used to manage St Ursula's with 'ScholarPack' software
What about the implications outside the classroom? The Chromebooks are also used by the administrative staff, who like both them and the web-based management information system now used at the school, ScholarPack. The full-time IT manager might have been expected to be concerned and negative about a solution that apparently threatens his role at the school.
A spokeswoman for the school said that the total cost for the ICT equipment was 40 per cent cheaper than using conventional ICT. There are currently 60 Chromebooks in use – a ratio of one machine to every three students. As the school grows they plan to add more machines to maintain the ratio.
After all, as the cliché goes, turkeys wouldn't vote for Christmas. In practice, being relieved of the bulk of technical repairs and glitches, now down to an hour a week, has allowed him to concentrate on more fulfilling work on the management information system and elsewhere. And such is the nature of the remaining technical support requirement it could probably be handled by any competent member of the school's non-teaching staff.
A major benefit of the approach taken at St Ursula’s has been financial sustainability. As the devices are rented, and costs are per device rather than per pupil, heads have much greater control over the level of investment. Technical support costs and associated staffing requirements are massively reduced. The solution also currently means licensing costs are greatly reduced, and the maximum benefit obtained by using free or very low cost applications and online storage. This financial model also means that IT costs at the school are extremely predictable for three years ahead.
E-ACT will run second Chromebook school and try Microsoft's cloud in London
St Ursula's is happy with progress, as E-ACT's director of ICT Chris Meaney explains: "I am delighted with the success of the project at St Ursula's E-ACT Academy. Installing a whole school with new ICT programs and equipment can be extremely complex and create numerous teething problems. Thankfully, since the launch, we've come across very few problems and both the staff and students are thrilled with the new technology.
"Any initial concerns about how the staff would cope with the transition to the new way of teaching, learning and working were answered by the excellent, hands-on training that staff received directly from Google. The simplicity of the Chromebooks meant that staff were able to start using them immediately and we have been amazed by the variety and power of the tools available online via the cloud-based service – many of which are free!
"We have yet to find something that we cannot deliver to a high standard from the cloud. While we have upgraded the Internet connection, the project initially went live and worked well with the academy's existing Internet connection, the same speed used in most people's homes.
"Going forward. I'm pleased to say we will be providing more Chromebooks to St Ursula's and over the summer we are rolling out a second Chromebook project in an E-ACT primary academy. We are also very excited to be working closely with Microsoft to create an offering using their cloud technologies for our new Free School in Haringey, London which opens in September 2012 It ís a very exciting time for ICT in all E-ACT academies!"
It is clear that this Google-based solution makes the most of current cloud pricing models, and that other cloud-based suppliers with alternative funding approaches may not be as inexpensive, or the devices so easily manageable. At a time when schools see capital budgets being slashed, and there are no longer the political drivers to engage in centrally-sponsored procurement programmes, it seems likely that many more schools will look with interest at server-free, cloud based technology solutions.