Strategically Planning your ICT Infrastructure

Part 1 – Strategically Planning your ICT Infrastructure

This article outlines some of the things you might consider when planning your school’s ICT infrastructure and ensuring it is fit for purpose over the next decade. The article does not endorse any particular brand and is intended as ‘food for thought’. I share my current thoughts on where school leaders might spend their school’s ever decreasing funds, highlight some specific areas that might warrant development in schools, explain and unpick some of the basic network design concepts for those leaders who are not technology savvy and suggest a four point plan for your future network development.

Planning Strategically

Technology isn’t predictable. The designers of mobile texting technology cannot have envisaged the success of this technology with today’s array of messaging systems marrying up phone, email and social media sites and spawning an entirely new language of emoticons and text language. Nor could the designers of Google glass have foreseen the rather sad uptake of its futuristic interactive glasses.

Whilst schools lack a crystal ball to see the future what they don’t lack is the capacity to lead on the strategic use of technology, learn from history and make sensible measured guesses about the future.

Why invest at all?

There are five reasons you should invest in technology. Most obviously is the impact of technology on:

  1. Learning outcomes and coupled to this,
  2. Teaching

But there are three other areas that technology can play an important role.

  1. Improving the systems which a school operates on; which in turn can lead to
  2. Savings on day to day processes.

Finally, alongside the increased focus by OFSTED on pupil safety and wellbeing, and given the very significant risks posed to young people, technology can also play a significant role in:

  1. Improving the safety of pupils.

A Four Point Strategic Plan to Modernise Your Network

Step 1 Develop A Vision

A good starting point might be a ‘Vision Document – or Day in the life’ outlining what your school’s technology might look like in the future for different people. Engaging with the widest number of stakeholders is key to ensuring that the broadest consideration is given to the potential impact of technology. Suggested areas for discussion would include:

  • Personalisation of learning and curriculum
  • Inclusion and SEN
  • Transition between phases
  • Children’s Services
  • Management and Administration
  • CPD and Change Management
  • Community Access and use of ICT resources
  • ICT and the Physical Environment
  • Contribution of the existing services and hardware.
  • Staff wellbeing and work-life balance

It might also be advisable to get an external professional audit of your current network if you do not have the expertise in-house. This will ensure you know which parts of your current infrastructure still have serviceable life and which are ready for recycling.

Step 2 Put the Right People in Post

Having established a vision the next step is to audit the strengths of the technical team and technology users. The outcome might result in the need to appoint new staff, or train and develop existing staff.

I am particularly interested in the development of technical teams that do not fit into the stereotypical mould of unapproachable technology intellects. Too many schools allow Network Managers to build systems that are overly complicated, are only fathomable to established staff (which is fine till they leave) and often don’t fulfil any of the needs of the end user.

The technical team therefore need to be highly visible leaders in their own right. Do your technology teams carry out learning walks spending time in classes and observing first-hand how technology users interact with it? Do they provide support, train and encourage people to make more effective use of the technology? Are pupils encouraged to gain work experience as part of the curriculum by working alongside your staff so they can see what the job entails.

Remember though that the range of expertise involved in setting up a school network means it is often better to buy in expertise for initial set up leaving the school’s technical team to become competent in the day to day use and oversight of operations.

You should also consider how teachers and support staff will access on-going support and training. This will require some careful consideration of how your CPD and induction procedure marry up with the technology in place.

Step 3 Planning and Implementation

The starting point for any project planning does of course boil down to finance. It is difficult to plan a decade ahead given how much technology changes so I personally plan ahead financially for three years with fourth and fifth year plans normally left as a rough guide. There has been much debate about how much schools should spend per pupil and in my experience schools nationally spend about 6% of their per pupil funding on ICT. There are strong arguments to suggest that schools might be better off spending closer to 10% but the bottom line is that you need to set a budget.

Having established a minimum funding agreement your next step is to map out expected spending both for on-going commitments and investments in changes to bring about an infrastructure fit for the next decade.  It is best to focus initially on the core functions of the network including cabling and primary servers (such as Domain Controllers, SANs, Switches etc.). A lot of this investment goes unnoticed by everyday users save for improvements in speed and reliability but is necessary for future expansion and is the foundations on which your state of the art network will be built.

From experience, users’ main complaints about school technology is a lack of access or provision and it is unfortunate that with any programme of modernisation, the laying of foundations does not immediately resolve this issue for users. You should therefore review the availability of your current provisions to try and ensure that resources are used effectively as possible.

Realistic timescales and service level agreements also need to be negotiated and your HR team will need to work with your technical staff to ensure they have flexibility in their job descriptions to allow work to be undertaken during quieter times of the year such as holidays, weekends, evenings and night times. Make sure your projects are well planned with realistic timescales and notify users of any interruption to normal service so they can manage their workloads too.

Step 4 Evaluation

The process of evaluating your use of ICT needs to be on-going, after each phase of a rebuild, after each stage of modernisation, termly, annually etc. You can use a variety of methods for collating data on use including digital records of use, surveys and interviews but make sure that you actually observe practice and see first-hand how your technology is used.

Your evaluation should

  • Lead to clear policies about usage to safeguard all users from inappropriate use.
  • Result in emergency plans which take into account a variety of scenarios and standard operating procedures for staff to follow in the event of an emergency.
  • Identify clear succession plans to take into account sudden losses of staff (death, new job, ill health, suspension etc.…)
  • Inform your CPD and induction programme
  • Identify new and evolving uses of technology.
  • Allow you to update and modify your ICT budget.

Part 2 to follow – a sensible approach to accepting quotes, network structures and areas of interest for headteachers.

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