Guest post: Gerald Haigh on saving money with technology at schools


The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.


A blog from Sammamish High School, near Seattle, posted by the Microsoft OneNote Team, includes this quite dramatic line,

‘On the second day of school we distributed laptops with digital ink capacity to all of our students. Within a few weeks we cancelled all orders of paper for the copy machines.’

My first thought, perhaps yours too, was, ‘That’ll save a few bob!’ (OK, bucks, but you get the point.)

Obviously the leaders at Sammanish were not exclusively motivated by money – the title of the blog is ‘Six Months of OneNote Class Notebooks’ – and it describes a boldly innovative cultural change of classroom environment.

All the same, I’m sure the prospect of eliminating the paper and print budget must have gone down well with decision makers.

Over the years I’ve written extensively, on this blog and elsewhere, about schools and colleges saving precious budget money with technology. The message generally is that although decisions on technology are invariably and rightly guided by the impact on teaching and learning, the prospect of collateral budget benefit weighs significantly in the balance –and I’ve found that some of the most visible (though not always the biggest) gains have come from reducing the cost of paper and printing. Often, sadly, there was plenty of slack to be taken up — costs spiralling into the stratosphere, driven by excessive printing of documents, newsletters and assignments, and profligate class-set photocopying of resources. What typically happens is that eventually someone on the top corridor looks at a spreadsheet and rushes out uttering oaths and threats, before doing the right thing, which is carry out a determined audit, based not only on invoices and payments, but including first hand observation of what’s actually going on. One average-sized secondary school I studied discovered, rather to their surprise, that they were using a million sheets of plain paper a year. The paper itself, bought in bulk, was cheap enough. Putting it through copy and print departments, though, pushed the bill towards £40,000. Another, very much smaller, secondary, confirmed the trend when it estimated its total paper and print bill at £20,000.

What to do? Experience shows that exhortations, red warning notices, a notebook and pencil on a string for honest users to record copies are all largely in vain. The most effective starting point is to apply fool proof methods such as replacing multiple small, virtually open-access copiers and printers with fewer, more sophisticated devices linked to the network. These can more than pay for themselves by recording use and allocating costs to departmental budgets. It’s usually worth reviewing copier lease arrangements, too; up to quite recently, this was an area rife with bad practice.

All that, though, is preliminary tidying up the old principle of ‘simplify before you computerise’. After that, the real savings then come from ‘minimum-paper’ policies using applications such as SharePoint, Office 365 and OneNote Class Notebook for handling notes, assignments, resources. Do this properly and gradually the huge unwieldy paper files and exercise books you see dragged to and fro by students and teachers begin to disappear.

Where else to save?

Another common area for saving, I found, is the server room. Measures starting with on-site server virtualisation, progressing to hybrid Cloud or full Cloud migration have all brought to many institutions big savings of capital expenditure, and in maintenance and energy bills.

There are overlooked costs, too, under a general heading that, for want of a better term, I’ll call ‘letting things slide.’ One example of this is found when a school soldiers on with an old, much extended wifi infrastructure that causes frustration and blocks innovation. Another is the big, multi-site, institution paying annually for items of software that are rarely used or completely redundant, or whose function is duplicated by an already existing application. Some years ago I found a college that saved £14000 a year in revenue by rigorously rationalizing its software licences.

But in the end, although all of that tips, examples, the allure of big savings – is useful in its way, none of it becomes effective unless the people involved are ready for what often amounts to a cultural change. For example, moving a whole staff to a platform such as Office365 involves them in a different kind of pedagogy. Bringing about change calls for time, commitment and exemplary skills of management and leadership.

Similarly, if the server room shrinks or becomes empty, the roles of technical support staff change; what should be new opportunities may be seen as threatening. Mindsets may need to move in other ways, too – the concept of having your technology provided over the internet ‘as a service’, paid for out of revenue, for instance, has sometimes troubled those who instinctively feel more comfortable if they actually own the functions they need.

Key Positions

All of that causes me to think that, yes, leadership is a really important factor when it comes to actually achieving the potential gains for learning and value for money from educational technology. But I’d say that in all the examples I’ve used here, the senior leader needs to be supported by three key colleagues, with specialist skills and shared aims. (Job titles and divisions of responsibilities can vary, but the three elements surely have to be present.)

The first of these is a very IT-savvy, in the sense of having adequate technical knowledge and a clear vision the role of technology in education. He or she will be a senior team member who also has a teaching commitment and excellent relationships with the staff.

Then there’s the IT manager, or digital leader, whatever title is in vogue. This person is not a teacher but is both responsive and forward-thinking so as to ensure that the IT environment can meet the immediate and emerging needs of the school. He or she must also maintain and lead a sustainable high quality technical team. Most of all, the IT manager must understand and buy in to the learning vision. That ‘buy in’ can occasionally be difficult when the IT team is so focused on providing a faultless service today, that they become cautious of anything new, but I have great memories of a cautious, reluctant IT manager who was patiently won over to become a messianic evangelist.

The third key person, of equal status to the others, is the school business manager—again the actual title might vary. SBMs are still relatively new in UK schools and sometimes overlooked as administrators, but prudence demands that the SBM be fully involved, with equal seniority, in the kind of decisions we’ve discussed here. Technology policy begs a host of questions about, for example, true total cost of ownership, balance of revenue versus capital expenditure, the need to protect future options, implications for staffing status and costs, all of which need to be pinned down more precisely than they sometimes have been. The SBM may not have all the answers to hand, but will certainly know what questions to ask, of whom. This person, too, has to be in tune with the school leadership – and maintaining that, of course, as with all three of these gurus, is a task for the senior leader.

Finally, then, three key points. Readers will undoubtedly find more.

  • Schools probably don’t use technology primarily to save money, but measurable savings are important and, if achieved, will provide confidence, and perhaps resources, for further innovation.
  • Knowledge is vital. ‘How much do we spend already, when everything’s included?’ ‘Have we actually explored all the options?’ ‘When, in what circumstances will we see the benefit?’ ‘Is there a workable solution already achievable with our existing suite of software?’ ‘Will the costs unexpectedly rise at any point?’ The list endless, and the questions too often neither properly asked nor answered.
  • High quality decisive leadership is clearly essential, but the style ought to be distributed and listening. Single minded drivers of change, ‘Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth’, may bring quick wins, but risk leading institutions into trouble as basic errors, omissions and failures of trust begin to surface.
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