Monday, 24 May 2010

Why Becta's demise is a disaster for learning with ICT

The new ConLib government today announced that Becta, the lead agency for ICT in education, is to be scrapped, perhaps as early as November.

I first blogged about this last August, when the sabre-rattling began. What follows is an update to that content:

First up, let me declare an interest; I've worked with several people from Becta on new build school projects and have even freelanced on some research for Becta back in the mists of time when I was an ICT teacher. However, this is offered in the spirit of common sense.

The job of  Becta is/ was to develop the use of technology in schools and colleges and through things like their Self Review Framework, ICT Mark and the targets set for the take up of Learning Platforms, things are (slowly) changing. The pace of this change is the basis for many criticisms of Becta. Schools must bear some of the weight of responsibility to engage in these processes too, though. It is recognised by all the teachers I know that to meet the needs of the '21st Century learner' schools' offerings need to be much more engaging and relevant. ICT is a powerful tool to achieve this, and Becta is doing a pretty good job of pushing schools on this front. It's not fashionable to say it, but I am sure that there are some schools who will take their foot off the gas without this external pressure. The head of steam which has gradually been building will dissipate and progress will stall.

Similarly, working in an industry where it is pretty evident that other organisations are very keen to do things 'their way' (especially if there's a 'saving' to be made), Becta have made themselves fairly unpopular by insisting on a level of standardisation, both technically and in terms of approach. Their guidance on developing visions, for example, ensures that schools think about the full gamut of local and national priorities. Their work on establishing a common framework for MIS data (SIF-UK) will make data transfer between providers effective and timely. Becta's Technical and Functional Specifications have formed the basis for the evolution of many schools' systems. Unless these and similar functions are transferred elsewhere, what we will very quickly see in the Educational ICT Landscape is a return to the 'islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity' situation, as excellent schools continue to excel and those in different circumstances are left to flounder.

Another criticism always levelled at Becta is that despite all their work, little effect on exam results due to better use of technology is evident. Despite this being not (quite) true (see here), this argument is akin to criticising Usain Bolt for not winning gold in the mixed Dressage - effective use of ICT is only ever going to have a tiny impact on something as structured as the formal summative assessment of what 16 year olds can remember about the Agricultural Revolution... If our assessment system measured creativity, problem solving, the ability to work with others, or working to a deadline and to high standards, I imagine Becta's work would be seen in quite another light. Curiously enough, these kind of 'soft skills' are exactly the type of thing most employers value over a C in GCSE History. And this is the nub of the issue; the incumbent government value the latter and barely acknowledge the former.

Stephen Heppell (@stephenheppell) has rightly and pragmatically declared this an opportunity for the "many wise and helpful bloggers and podders and tweeters that are already providing a mass of inspiration and effective practice for others – a bottom-up army of authentic practitioners" to take up the baton. Let's hope their efforts can be shaped effectively by some kind of structure (Naace perhaps?) and pointed towards the Greater Good, rather than personal hobby horses. Most importantly, any ground-up, crowd-sourced approach has to be adequately separated from the distracting attentions of suppliers and other commercially interested organisations... You know who you are!

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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Is there any more of that BSF left?

Following on from my wild pre-election speculation about the future of BSF under a Conservative Government, the events of the last few days have led to Michael Gove becoming the Secretary of State for Education.

It is my opinion that Building Schools for the Future is a Good Thing. I'm sure things about it could be improved, but it's pretty hard to argue against the fundamental tenets of the programme (it's all in the title really). However, it wasn't the Conservatives' idea and apparently in politics this can be a problem.

If you are in any way involved in a BSF project, you may wonder what this means for you. Well wonder no longer, as I have put together a brief, equally speculative and definitely light-hearted


Take the quiz, find out what you could have won!

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 3)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...


This week, dear reader, it’s the ever-enthralling topic of… integrating legacy stuff! Hang on in there though, as this is every bit as important as the shiny new kit.

Legacy Hardware

As the majority of new build schools are replacing a predecessor (and sometimes one whose buildings which will be providing interim facilities), it is probable, and a financially attractive proposition, that a proportion of the technology in use in the old school will require integration into the ICT solution in the new building.


The first thing to realise is that legacy kit may not necessarily translate into savings - there are always costs associated with the the integration of legacy into a new ICT solution (and its maintenance thereafter).

Legacy equipment and services;
•    may not be under warranty;
•    carry an increased risk of failure;
•    will require integration with new systems, which will have associated costs;
•    may not represent the best product currently available.

This isn’t to say that everything the school is currently using needs to be junked, just that schools should develop a sensible legacy protocol to sort existing kit based on the level of risk it represents;

•    Establish basic standards for devices which will connect to the network (e.g. 10/100 Networking)
•    Set a minimum specification for staff and student computers to be retained (e.g. meeting Windows 7 requirements)
•    Decide an age limit for each device type at which equipment might reasonably be judged too high a risk for inclusion within the solution
•    Identify legacy kit which can be used with minimal risk until it fails (e.g. peripherals such as voting devices, digital signage screens)
•    Ascertain if any legacy equipment not suitable for live deployment might provide cold spares during repairs (e.g. laptops) and redundancy for single points of failure within the system (e.g. switches), or even have a future with new owner, via eBay or similar

The worst thing that can happen is for capital savings to be made (e.g. buying less stuff and making use of inappropriate legacy) which end up costing the school more in the long run and impacting on what they can do with their revenue funding.

Legacy Software

Integration of legacy software can also carry hidden costs if the predecessor school was under-licensed or cannot, um, evidence its licenses, as the ICT integrator has a legal responsibility to only install licensed products. Put simply, if you can’t prove you own it, the supplier won’t touch it.

Up-licensing can be very expensive, especially if you ask teachers which legacy software is essential: the only answer I’ve ever heard is that it’s all essential. Use of an intelligent discovery agent programme to audit actual software use is recommended, to rationalise/ validate the requests of staff for the integration of legacy software. Often it’s a simple financial argument which moves thinking forward: choose between spending £10k virtualising that ‘must-have’ piece of 16-bit times table software, or spend £2k licensing something produced last year which will actually engage the students and do a much better job…It is often the case that the functionality of a valued legacy programme has been matched or surpassed, for a lower cost.

Some new build schools (such as Academies) open as a ‘new business’, meaning that many of their software licenses will become invalid and require repurchasing. This is of particular relevance in the area of Management Information Systems (MIS). If you’re being legally forced to spend £30-50k on a ‘new’ MIS, why plump for the one you’ve always had, just because you’ve always had it, with no further thought? This is an opportunity seldom given schools – the chance to really consider what you want your MIS to do and to pick one which delivers, freed from the ties that bind. Of course, the market-leader didn’t get there by accident and in this era of 14-19, the decision won’t only be about the needs of a single institution, but schools really should think about their requirements in this area just as they would for any other element of their ICT provision.

So, lots of things to think about in relation to legacy but if I had to boil it down to a single sentence of advice, it would be this: consider legacy kit and software just as carefully as you will the shiny new boxes (with blue neon blinking LEDs, naturally) which glitter so alluringly from the pages of suppliers’ catalogues…

Dominic Norrish
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