Schools take the wireless challenge

They were out-of-bounds to most of us, those two colossal BBC computers that were kept in one of the science labs during my last years at high school in the late 1980s. But they were mighty impressive. Only a handful of students were ever allowed to touch these weird and wonderful machines because the teachers, who had little or no idea how to use them, were terrified that someone would break them. These fears would probably have been justified if we had ever been allowed to get our grubby little paws on them.

Things have changed a lot since then and many schools are now doing everything in their power to get ever younger students up-to-speed with the latest and greatest technologies.

Education IT managers are concerning themselves with pressing issues like maintaining security levels on wireless networks and managing spikes in bandwidth demand while PDAs and notebooks are being used for ongoing coursework dialogue between children and teachers.

IT is becoming more and more of a learning tool and is now rarely regarded as a subject matter in its own right. Many resellers are tuning in to the ever-growing and increasingly advanced education market but some are still unaware of the level of opportunities that exist.

ARN spoke to some leading education resellers to get a snapshot of the market.

A director of Fed IT, Steve Bowtell, said the education sector embraced leading edge technologies a lot faster than corporate groups and pointed to wireless as the killer app of the moment.

“Many schools are doing it [wireless] in stages, putting wireless in science labs where students are on the move but plugging in PCs for more fixed environments,” he said. “It is quite scary when you go to some schools and see the sophistication students have in using technology compared to the corporate environment.”

Bowtell also predicted tablet PCs would start to make inroads into the market because handwriting packages have become more sophisticated.

Computerlec director, Bruce Dixon, said that government initiatives to give laptops to teachers had started a trend of children getting personal machines to compliment or replace PCs.

“Education has been working on the computer lab model for 20 years and it doesn’t work,” he said. “When many children are still getting an hour or less a week in front of a computer we are not getting there,” he said. “However, continued developments towards lighter and smaller machines, together with improvements in software, are making laptops a serious economic consideration for more and more families.”

Dixon estimated that 90 per cent of Computerlec machines shipped into education this year would be wireless-ready, compared to less than 60 per cent last year.

“It is a great untold story that schools are adopting technology well ahead of the corporate sector,” he said. “Executives tend to be sat at a desk all day but students, particularly in secondary education, are on the move and need campus-wide access.”

Microbits senior account manager, Carol Phillips, described the skills shown by primary school students as extraordinary.

“They have tremendous discovery, research and digital video skills, the ability to work collaboratively and the confidence to see IT as a curriculum instrument rather than a separate subject matter,” she said.

All four education specialists agreed that support levels, trust and the personal touch are the most important factors in achieving market success.

“It [support] has to be way and above what the corporate sector would expect,” Dixon said. “Schools expect a 24 or 48-hour turnaround on all repairs and they are not prepared to pay a premium for that level of service. To build a model that is profitable is a challenge for the reseller. Only companies focusing all their energies have been successful.”

Phillips stressed the importance of developing personal relationships.

“A lot of schools don’t like box dropping. They want to know their account manager and trust is very important,” she said.

“You need to think of it as providing a solution rather than simply selling a product and have knowledge of how schools operate,” Phillips said. “There is no point updating technology if curriculum outcomes are not qualitatively better.”