Essential questions schools should ask their ICT service partners

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A blogpost by Nick Madhavji, Managing Director of Joskos Solutions and member of the Naace Board of Management

Why outsource your ICT support?

Working with an outsourced ICT service provider is a considered investment that can free up resources within schools, enabling in-house teams to switch from reactive trouble-shooting to proactive ICT strategy and planning. Ultimately leading to a positive impact on teaching and learning.

A good/outstanding outsourced support partner will provide a scalable range of services that are tailored to a school’s specific needs, and will adapt over time. Additionally, schools will have access to a wide pool of staff with specialist knowledge, industry certifications and the ability to trouble-shoot with vendors at the highest level via their chosen IT partner.

Before committing to a relationship with an outside support partner, school leaders should always ensure that they clearly articulate their immediate concerns and longer term aspirations for how they want to develop the use of ICT within their school.  This will enable them to ensure that they sign-up to an appropriate support contract that fully meets their needs, with clear key performance indicators (KPIs) and obligations for both parties.

When considering a new support partner, or when reviewing a current support contract, school leaders should ask the following questions to ensure that they are getting the most appropriate service:

What is the company’s experience in the education sector?

The education sector has some very specific requirements. An education-focussed ICT support provider brings with it a team of staff who are used to working in schools, along with expertise in online safety and safeguarding requirements. They also understand the unique challenges facing school leaders and how to tackle them. For example, planning and implementing strategies to ensure that equipment remains up-to-date in a climate of funding cuts.  Corporate IT service providers or companies that don’t employ an educational ethos operate in a very different way, for example what we as educators might deem as a key teaching tool e.g. an interactive screen, non-education specific providers may see it as a low priority item.  A good question to ask is “does your company employ educationalists?”

Innovation is also a constant feature of educational ICT within schools, and it is vital that your support partner is aware of the latest technologies and how to implement them effectively.  Companies that are members of organisations such as BESA and Naace have access to the latest policy thinking, training and knowledge sharing that can be disseminated to clients to help them make informed decisions about future investments.

In addition, companies on the ICT Services for Education Framework, managed by the Crown Commercial Service, have demonstrated their ability to meet a range of stringent criteria that ensures schools get excellent service and maximum value.

What about Online Safety?

Introducing ICT and especially the internet into classrooms gives access to a wealth of learning and communication opportunities. However, without considering the online safety implications of ICT use both within and outside school, dangers such as bullying online, exposure to inappropriate content and the new threat of grooming for extremism can be a big concern for both schools and parents. This is why an understanding of online safety and the ability to help schools to implement effective policies and processes should be a top priority when choosing an ICT partner.

Online safety not only applies to students’ online behaviour but ensuring that sensitive data is secure. Schools should be aware of where data is stored, how it is protected and what measures are in place for back up and/or retrieval. The ability of your managed service provider to remotely monitor and back-up your network 24/7 could greatly reduce the chances of data being compromised or lost.

How flexible is the service that they can provide – and for what cost?

School requirements are never static, so the support service that you receive shouldn’t be either.  As the number of devices in schools grows, particularly if a Bring Your Own Device strategy is implemented, the level of support that you receive will also need to flex. An inflexible support contract will cause frustrations, so it is important to ensure that your support provider has the appropriate level of information about user device numbers and users so that they can tailor their support accordingly.  We always prefer and always suggest ‘no surprises’ contracts which provide our supported schools with a fixed-fee support agreement and the comfort that they won’t be billed for a callout if and when they need us the most.  This also helps with budgeting and places the onus on the support provider to carryout important proactive and pre-emptive maintenance so that costly callouts that negatively impact learning time are averted.

How do I know I’m receiving value for money?

Value for money covers many aspects of ICT support and shouldn’t simply be about the cost. Bursars, Business Managers and school leaders will want to know what they are getting for their money, but more importantly what added benefit this provides to the school. Your chosen supplier should have a depth of knowledge that enables schools to take advantage of educational discounts, bulk-purchases, the correct warranties and the appropriate software licensing. In addition, KPIs should provide comfort that support issues will be dealt with quickly, efficiently and transparently. By outsourcing trouble-shooting and issue resolution, the school’s in-house IT Team, for schools that have a team, can provide far more value to the school by taking a more proactive and strategic development role.

The right level of support and track record

Any educational ICT support partner worth their salt will have a list of supported schools that are happy to share their experience with other schools – we always suggest schools ask about a prospective ICT partner’s track record.  It is always advisable to ask about their longest standing school and whether you can contact them as well as any local schools you can visit and/or speak to. The responses you get should give you an insight into what it will be like to work with that company.  

All schools are unique as are the support options you have open to you. There is genuinely no one-size-fits-all when it comes to support, therefore it’s always wise to ask about what the right level of support is for you and how your potential new partner decides that.
For example, we have schools with a fully outsourced ICT team engineers onsite, through to schools which have a more remote approach and only utilise our remote support capabilities – each option ranging in value, impact and return on investment.  

The ideal partner for your school will both support you in meeting your immediate requirements and assist in defining your ICT vision if that is required. In today’s world of education technology, a short sighted, single-minded view from an ICT support provider doesn’t cut it. Your partner should be able to advise you on your entire infrastructure not just hardware or support, for example, your wireless needs, mobile device strategy, curriculum software requirements and teaching tools all need to form part of your strategic ICT discussions.  

These are just a few important questions that your school should ask prospective or even present ICT service providers to ensure your choice best suits your school’s requirements.

Comment below and share your questions for prospective ICT partners and why you believe them to be important!

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