Children of the revolution

Channel players that learn the right lessons frok the Federal Government's digital education revolution could score top marks.

Many in the channel have been rubbing their hands with anticipation at news of what the Rudd Government has dubbed a Digital Education Revolution. Neat slogans aside, new funding of $1.2 billion over five years is being earmarked for technology in education to target a growing need and desire for IT coming from the institutions themselves as well as from the business and wider worlds.

Some of the ready on offer sounds rather tempting.

According to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), a national secondary school computer fund (NSSCF) will grant up to $1 million per school for new ICT in Years 9-12 and up to $100 million for fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband connections to schools in the Fibre Connections to Schools (FCS) plan.

There’s also $32.6 million up for grabs over two years to supply students and teachers with online resources that support the national curriculum, as well as conferencing facilities for certain subjects, and $10 million over three years to support NSSCF deployments. Teachers will also be guaranteed access to IT training.

The aim, according to DEEWR, is to make changes that will ensure students are as well prepared as possible for “living in a digital world”.

The big picture

Canberra-based Gartner research director, Steve Bittinger, works with various Federal Government agencies, some of which work on IT strategy and planning in education. He’s been getting feedback around the consumerisation of IT, which is happening in education as it has been in the corporate sector.

Students – and staff – are already bringing iPods, mobile phones, Web cams, digital cameras and the like to school and expecting them to work with the institution’s network, forcing IT managers to expand their thinking to support such technologies and grapple with resultant problems in keeping the school network safe, secure and functioning.

“What are [educational and technical] staff doing in order to be comfortable with what the students are doing?” Bittinger asked.

He said that you only need add all that to the trend in outsourcing of IT support and services to open a great many cans of rather wriggly worms.

“For example, Macquarie University and NSW Education have gone to Google and said ‘you handle our student email’. That’s a major shift in the balance of power, when outside interests are managing something like email at a university,” Bittinger said.

On top of the usual outsourcing challenges, universities and their service providers need to worry about compatibility, reliability and integration on top of the usual concerns about confidentiality and security.

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Where will the servers actually be? If a datacentre handling student information is overseas, for example, foreign legislation about information security may come into play.

“Not only is it about whether you’re easy to work with, but is it easy to integrate your services in with those of other service providers?” Bittinger said. “And those issues around integrating the security elements are those that might include the identity management and issues around integrating the end-to-end delivery itself.”

IT providers and their customers struggle with integration and change management. So channel players with strengths and highly-skilled staff in those sorts of complex areas could be onto a hot revenue stream in the not-so-distant future, Bittinger suggested.

Getting deals will either be about the winner being a player with a very clearly defined contract that irons out all the curly bits or the parties will have decided instead to form a more strategic, longterm relationship that changes with the client’s needs, Bittinger predicted.

Contracts must be teased out, followed through in all layers to their natural conclusions, and finally, dealt with coherently.

“If the client can access the tool, can other service providers access the tool? And if they need access to each others’ tools that can be a problem,” Bittinger said. “And if you end the relationship, can the client take away the tool?”

School experiences

Schools’ IT managers confirmed the educational benefits of smart technological adoption.

At Ballarat and Clarendon College in Victoria, 800 of a total 1180 students have been participating in a 1:1 technology program since 2007. Pupils in Years 5-10 now bring their notebooks or tablet PCs to the two senior campuses of the school each day.

Victoria-based education specialist, Computelec, won the deal, which includes service and training to the college’s IT staff and ongoing support including maintenance and break-fix. At the start of each year, about 200 tablet PCs are distributed to new students, under the national solution provider’s watchful eye.

Basic training from Computelec offers pupils advice on how to look after their PCs, connect to the school network, and set them up ergonomically. According to the solution provider, 85 per cent of all repairs are done during the school day and 95 per cent within 24 hours.

Pupils can’t afford to be without their computers – and those who come back with the same mishaps again and again are taken aside for additional training.

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Ballarat and Clarendon College IT manager, Andrew Stewart, said mobile computers gave students opportunities for independent learning anywhere, any time and helped make the curriculum more relevant to their likely future needs and roles. But teachers gain from having their own machines, too.

“Teachers don’t waste valuable class time moving to and from the computer lab. It’s simply a matter of opening the notebook and getting on with it,” Stewart said.

Over the years, the college’s relationship with Computelec has expanded to include dynamic VLAN and professional development for teachers.

Frankston High School in Victoria also works with Computelec. In 1995, it became the first government school to have an in-classroom laptop program. The school has four computer labs, several ‘pods’ containing 8-10 desktops and about 600 notebooks.

Years 8-10 do notebook classes and some 150 Year 7 students have been assigned Toshiba Portégé tablet PCs.

Frankston’s director of computing, Travis Smith, said the tablet PCs help teachers alter their methods in ways that encourage higher engagement, better attention in class and therefore better learning. Heulab virtual software on the tablets is used for creative writing exercises that can now include computer-generated illustrations or animations.

Maths pupils use Microsoft OneNote to organise information and solve problems. Japanese-language students can practise their Kanji script on screen. Smith also believes the students are learning useful life skills.

“Through our tablet PC program, students are effectively and efficiently learning the survival skills required of employees of the future,” he said. “Every notebook student and all teachers have wireless Internet access as well as a dedicated email address.

“We also offer instant messaging during specific classes. Two separate classrooms can communicate with each other on projects without being in the same room.

“We have created more information in the last 20 years than has been generated over the last 2000 years. We prepare our students to deal with change and how to filter information in this dynamic environment.”

Smith said success in school IT is about using technology to engage interactively with the curriculum.

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“Anyone can put a CD-ROM into a computer and say: ‘Watch this animation, kids.’ But when students have their own laptops, you need a different strategy.” The school has developed interactive curricula using products such as OneNote 2007, Office, Encarta and Solutions IT’s Scholaris Learning Gateway, which is based on SharePoint.

The school has classrooms equipped with roof-mounted data projectors and every room has wireless access. Long term, Frankston would like students to even sit Year 12 exams on computer rather than by hand, Smith said.

Frankston High School principal, John Albiston, pointed out that students entering high school now will probably start their first full-time jobs around 2015.

“Some will be working in jobs that do not exist currently,” he said. “Many will work from home or for employers in different countries. The whole scenario of work will change dramatically and the application of technology will certainly be paramount.”

Integrator, Dimension Data, this year completed a server consolidation and virtualisation project using Microsoft’s Hyper-V technology at the University of Canberra. According to the University’s Windows systems team leader, Tom Townsend, server management needs have been halved for the 9000-student, 2000-desktop university as a result.

“The network was vulnerable to student’s personal laptops on site. Someone could pull the network cable from the desktop and put it into the back of their machine. If there was a virus or worm on the machine, it would get straight onto our network,” Townsend said.

He said it had been taking too much time to get new servers into production due to the extensive re-configuration of ports and the like needed for security purposes. Students work much of the time in computer labs so they can receive teaching material directly to their machines.

Dimension Data deployed Windows Server 2008, which has Active Directory Domain Services expected to ease security issues at the university and improved server configuration features. It also has Hyper-V functionality that meant the server environment could be further virtualised and centralised.

Previously the university had different group policies for different purposes, but this was unwieldy and inflexible. “We just needed a more manageable server environment. We spent all our time fighting fires and fixing problems,” Townsend said. “Right now, I am ordering two new Hyper-V servers to replace 13 production servers. And I will still have slack.”

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Partner experiences

Partners can do everything themselves or, like Victoria-based Computelec, team up to get the scope and scale that’s needed. Today it has a team of 85 staff, some of whom come from the education sector themselves originally.

National sales and marketing manager, Darren Elsby, pointed out that while additional education funding will help make more sales and move the sector ahead technologically, it’s less of a Digital Education Revolution than a natural evolution.

“We, for example, started doing notebook programs back in 1990, one laptop per pupil deployments,” he said. “But what’s happening is a transformation of the performance of IT in schools. This has impact on school curricula and so on.”

Security needs are important but not really that different from those of a business, according to Elsby.

Over the last three years, this has meant a lot more hardware that supports collaboration and rich media has proven appealing to schools.

“In the last three years, almost 100 per cent of our fleet has been tablet PCs,” he said.

That’s the greatest need in schools – technology that ties back into the curriculum taught to students. “You can put as many boxes in as you like, but how they’re used is clearly a whole different ball game,” Elsby said. “Our focus is that tech is a battery charger, a catalyst for teachers.”

It all must be done, furthermore, alongside professional development programs, adequate education of teachers and other staff as well as technical pre- and post-sales support. The main earner for Computelec is services, unsurprisingly, in these times of minuscule hardware margins.

And all that can be best done by channel partners on the ground to ensure that schools get the support they need in a timely manner, Elsby said.

Public sector business director at integrator, SMS Management & Technology, Paul Cooper, has been focused on contracts with departments of education across Australia. For SMS, education is an embryonic target, sealed at press-time by the aforementioned Google hosted services deal alongside Telstra with NSW’s Department of Education and Training (DET).

“It’s not the usual gmail; it’s a closed user group,” Cooper said. “And you don’t get all the ads.”

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The DET deal involves service delivery to 1.3 million students and the previous service provider did it for some $33 million over five years. Cooper said SMS can do it for $9.5 million, using Google solutions, although exact contract details – for example, in terms of who is liable for what – are still being nutted out.

Innovative solutions

Departments across Australia are ready to consider innovative solutions even from new players in the education space, especially if there are quantifiable benefits such as cost savings. SMS is also pursuing similar opportunities in other states, he added.

“In general, opportunities like with DET can include things based around software-as-a-service (SaaS),” Cooper said. “The Department was open to offerings based on alternatives to the more traditional Microsoft Exchange-type solution. The gmail solution is secure and scaleable.”

He said “appropriate broadband” will be key for departments as well as for individual institutions, but said that a number of trends are appearing in the education sector driving multi-stranded ICT sales. It’s not just about collaboration using stuff like social networking and Web 2.0 but includes the whole gamut of solutions and needs – just as in the business sector.

There’s so much innovation and valuable intellectual capital in the Australian IT community, particularly in ISVs and solutions, that many valuable partnerships are possible and SMS plans to seek them out, Cooper said.

“And it’s as easy to sell into the US or UK as it is to batter your head against the departments in Australia,” he said.

Green IT is important as well – as might be expected when education deployments are so large.

So is this the beginning of something for SMS? “We think so,” Cooper said.

NSW-based Also Technology general manager, Ming Ho, said her view from tier-two distribution is that the education market has been somewhat up and down in recent years. Now, though, things are definitely looking up, with the advent of Rudd’s additional funding.

It can be tricky, she said, to convince schools – or parents – to spend money. But Ho is seeing demand for diverse hardware – for low-cost machines at primary school or entry-level, right up to more advanced machines at university level.

The sweet spot for sales, she claims, is around $1000 for laptops. “But not always. [For instance] some universities have money,” Ho said. “They often want to buy more sophisticated hardware, such as 15-inch to 22-inch touchscreen PCs ... for CAD, graphics, arts and design.”

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Ho noted that special deals can sometimes be worked out with manufacturers by mentioning that the gear is for a school contract.

She’s also a big believer in trying to convince schools to consider lesser-known but often better-priced brands when all other things are equal – which, she implied, is more often than sometimes realised.

In the education market as in others one important way into potential buyers’ hearts and wallets is solution selling. Education customers don’t want to have to deal with too many different companies, so it’s critical so build a one-stop shop – at least in the customers’ eyes, Ho said.

If partners can develop that trust with customers – even if that means recommending one vendor partner over another for that customer’s specific purpose – they have a much higher probability of return custom.

“So, sometimes you make a loss,” Ho said. “It’s about long-term thinking.”

Vendor Opportunities

HP PSG commercial product marketing manager, Rob Kingston, said it plans to win a share of the likely increase in education opportunities with the help of channel partners. More partners could be signed up to do consulting work, long-term onsite support and integration services. “We can’t possibly deal with each school individually,” he said.

Management of school IT solutions represents the best opportunities for the channel, he suggested, as educational institutions increasingly embrace the 21st century. “There’s probably a mix between infrastructure and client device [opportunities] such as UMPCs,” Kingston said.

HP’s education attack also includes partnerships with other relevant vendors including VMware and Citrix as, increasingly, hot corporate solutions such as virtualisation are going back to school. HP itself, on top of the usual partner support, makes videos for TeacherTube – a YouTube clone for the education sector – that talk up technology and what it can do.

HP StorageWorks product marketing manager, Mark Nielsen, goes over the growing potential in deploying and managing storage solutions for educational institutions. All this digitising makes for a lot of data that needs to be safely and securely archived, backed up and stored. “We’re seeing 30-40 per cent growth year-on-year in storage capacity [in education],” Nielsen said.

HP gear went into Central Queensland University, which has 24,000 students of which about half study online – meaning more storage infrastructure is required. HP SAN and Modular Storage Arrays (MSAs) are gradually replacing old Direct Attached Storage, giving benefits in networking and efficient information retrieval, Nielsen said.

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“People selling into education facilities need to be mindful of [institutions’] budget constraints, but [new tech] is really helping such facilities,” he said. “Talk to them about ROI and TCO – education facilities are becoming more and more like businesses.”

It seems it’s all about knowing your market and its pattern of fragmentation. A sales team approaching a university today will often be greeted by experienced CIOs and a team that previously hail from the corporate sector, and can pitch accordingly. This is all to the good for skilled partners seeking to expand into the education market, Nielsen said.

Cisco channels director, Jeff Sheard, said the communications giant has always had an oar in education but certainly opportunities are growing and institutions are aiming to adopt more sophisticated, big-ticket, communications tools.

Staying Competitive

He sees the big push towards funding more tech in education as partly about competing with nations such as the ‘tiger’ economies of Asia that have kicked off massive economic gains in the wake of rapid investment in enabling technologies. Australians can’t afford to be left behind.

“It’s about a greater level of connection, collaboration and communication,” Sheard said.

Resellers that target solutions in education that will create those effects are best placed to succeed, not just because consumer tech is increasingly infiltrating the schools where ‘digital natives’ learn and play but because those solutions are more important in a globalised, more agile world and will help Australia overcome the tyranny of distance.

“A student in Griffith can collaborate with professors at the likes of [prestigious overseas universities] MIT and Oxford,” Sheard said. “I think, for resellers, that the opportunities now are in upgrading networks [to support these changes]. [Schools] really need to have a robust, high-bandwidth, secure network capable of shifting rich media around.”

Microsoft education industry manager, Jason Trump, said investment may appear in areas previously ignored but competition will be hot.

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“There are the partners that focus on technology, such as OEMs and system integrators, and – this is the exciting end – those that are helping to transform education, with transformation initiatives, special developments that re-envisage the digital classroom,” Trump said.

It’s not just about being able to connect anywhere any time but also looking at how teaching and other resources as well as educational content can be supplied to those laptops and shared among students, staff and parents, for example.

“You can look at textbooks. They can start to look at partnering with content providers to move away from paper-based textbooks to some extent,” Trump said. “We’ve got some partners doing just that.”

“We’d like to grow the number of partners that have deeper educational expertise. The idea of just leading on price and technology is really dated. Now we’re looking for local partners, particularly in regional parts of Australia, to support schools at the whole state level right through to the smaller independent schools.”

This suggested even more demand for high-level, sophisticated skills sometimes thought the domain of top-level government or the multinational corporate sector.

Trump agreed that ultimately students want to do a lot more with their computers than send email and browse the Web.

“Students do really want rich multimedia experiences. They want to play games. So for that reason schools are moving up a little bit further in the market,” he said.

Another ignored area is accessories. Bags, mice, fl ash drives, stands and so on are often needed and could be supplied as part of whole-solution packages – and they too may need to be connected, secured and managed, he said.

How to sell it all becomes an issue. “It’s often the little things. When you’re talking about technology, people go up and say ‘we’ve got this P generation WXYZ with 1234 and 5678 wireless that can do 6574 megaflops’ or something, and that’s just not relevant to teachers,” Trump said.

Partners must de-jargonise their sell, instead of restating what the technology can do in terms of, say, actual learning outcomes. And they need to do it in correct Australian English. Educational professionals especially tend not to trust vendors with failings in their written expression, Trump said.

Microsoft works with the Council of Australian University Directors of Information Technology (CAUDIT), which Trump said repeatedly calls for more predictability in technology deals. “[Schools] want no surprises. As a partner or vendor, you need to give plenty of warning of any changes.”

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Some higher education institutions complain, also, they are too often either treated as businesses, which isn’t in fact quite how they operate, or the same as schools.

Ten years ago, higher education was focused on administrative computing, then collaboration platforms. Now they’re really focusing on e-research infrastructure – and you don’t have a lot of partners that are targeting it, he said.

E-research tends to be about helping universities – which each tend to host small groups of specialists in different areas – access different pools of researchers. “It’s a hot topic at the moment,” Trump said. “I think it’s a medium to long-term opportunity.”

Further research

A recent Gartner Dataquest research note found multinationals targeting the global education market have often focused on developing specific programs in partnership with institutions worldwide that promote their technology in schools. Dell, HP, Lenovo and Apple have all played this hand well.

Local players aren’t excluded. Selling into education means a good understanding of local issues and the needs of schools and teachers on top of supplying product at the best possible price. Local, right-time support and ongoing training is essential – and for this reason the channel won’t easily be cut out of the field.

Change is also happening more rapidly as the price of laptops has come down enough for students to buy their own – meaning universities, for example, are gradually doing away with shared computer rooms, the research note found.

The channel may eventually even come up against schools themselves. Places like Singapore have started their own short-lists of PC vendors with models, specs and prices and vendors that offer credit for students to purchase PCs. Some schools subsidise PCs for students that buy them via credit from a third-party company, Dataquest noted.

“The education segment could also be targeted by companies that don’t traditionally play to the education market, such as media, telecommunications companies and ISVs,” the research note said.

“Companies such as ISPs and ASPs could be more involved by selling PCs bundled with support and services.”