Schools rely heavily on their IT services for teaching and learning, staff communication, lesson planning, administration and more.
A functional system is essential for things to run smoothly, and a glitch in that system is enough to derail more than just one lesson.
Nathan Hutchings, Director of Information and eLearning Technologies at Melbourne’s Genazzano FCJ College, knows all too well the perils of poor performing IT services.
He says the school decided to outsource its IT services eight years ago, when the internal system was found to be “grossly dysfunctional”.
“... the internet wasn’t on as much as it should have been, email was poor, it was up and down etc.
“There was a great difficulty in getting things repaired on time.
“So it was just generally quite inefficient,” Hutchings recalls, based on what colleagues have told him about the days prior to his appointment.
Genazzano FCJ College is an independent Catholic girls’ school with a history dating back over 125 years.
With approximately 1150 students from P to 12, a separate Year 9 campus and a co-educational early learning centre, the school places high demands on its IT.
So with this in mind, school leaders decided outsourcing its IT was the way to go, and appointed Hutchings, in the new role of Director of Information and eLearning Technologies in 2013.
“The decision was made because it was felt that we needed someone to drive the strategy and the implementation of IT systems in a school environment, who had a teaching background, and brought an educational perspective to the mix,” Hutchings says of his appointment.
With qualiﬁcations in electronic commerce, and previous roles working in IT research in Scandanavia and data matching and fraud prevention and detection with Centrelink, it was decided Hutchings could move the school’s technology in the right direction.
“I’ve got a commercial and also an IT background, as well as I’m a teacher ... so when I’m thinking about how to utilise technology effectively in the school, I’m always thinking about it from a teacher’s point of view, and the girls’,” Hutchings explains.
“Whereas it’s quite difﬁcult for general IT managers and staff, to really put the teacher hat on ... the principal felt that it was integral to have someone in a role that could view IT as an enabler, to improve teaching and learning, not only directly in the classroom, but as a way to provide services to other areas of the school that could support the overall human capital and infrastructure that goes into providing services to our girls.”
Following Hutchings’ appointment, Genazzano FJC decided to launch a tender process, in search of the best provider to suit its needs.
The school launched a closed tender, meaning they approached approximately 16 companies, as well as hiring an external consultant, a move Hutchings highly recommends.
“If [schools] can afford it, it’s always good to engage an external IT consultant, which is what we did.
“It may initially seem, I guess, frivolous or expensive, but what they can bring to the mix is a deﬁned process that you can go through to measure up all of the other people who want to tender for the process, because if you put out a tender and you try and manage it yourself, it can just be huge.”
Hutchings warns of vast piles of paperwork, endless amounts of email spam and misleading sales tactics.
“It’s really good to get that other person who’s outside of the school to give you a balanced and experienced view of what these people are telling you, because during the tender process, everyone’s always going to put their best foot forward.
“But really, you have to think about, ‘well what’s it going to be like when they’re actually working with us?’
Once all of the salesmen have left and the technicians and the engineers come in, ‘are they going to be able to be a good ﬁt for our organisation?’”
Genazzano FJC School hired a consultant from Deloitte, who worked closely with Hutchings and the business manager.
“...I met with him every fortnight and he read through all of the submitted tender documents, as well as myself, and I would say to Paul, ‘I’m not sure about this sort of response here, what are they trying to say?’ and he would then go back to the tender ... he was like the communication port to make sure that it was at hand’s length.
“And the reason that we needed to do that at Genazzano, is we had an incumbent who was also part of the tender process as well, who ultimately won the tender, but we needed to be very careful to make sure that we had a free and fair process for the other people involved as well,” he says.
As the external consultant is a pivotal part of the tender process, Hutchings says it’s important to choose the right person.
“Don’t choose a salesman,” he laughs.
“...It’s really important that you get someone who understands schools because IT services in schools is very different from IT services in small to medium enterprises.
“I would actually say that the demands that we put on an IT service is much higher in a school...”
Aside from the sheer number of people involved in a school, the demands on IT services include more than just the standard internet access, ﬁle services and email that many organisations require.
“They’re also assisting us with training, with robotics, with 3D printing, with various types of printers of different formats,” Hutchings explains.
He says they need to work with people the school already has established business agreements with, in Genazzano’s case, Xerox, who manages their large format printers, as well as ﬁrewall technologies they have outsourced to another company.
“So there’s quite a lot of dynamics which come into play, and if there’s a problem, one of the unenviable positions I am in is I have to stop a blame game,” Hutchings says.
“And so, people’s perceptions of IT at school as being rather simple, is actually quite inaccurate ... in a large K-12 school of over 1200 students, it can get quite complicated.
“And because we’re also a BYOD school, we have Macintosh and Windows computers coming in, connecting to our network, and they have various complications.
“Our IT providers need to be able to deal with that as well.
“And we’ve got teachers coming in using iPads and laptops and Macs and phones, so, it’s pretty varied work.”
Genazzano FJC School began its tender process almost two years ago.
Hutchings says the school has noticed many advantages since making the change, including more power being in the hands of those striving for better learning outcomes for their students.
“[Our IT providers] have had to adjust really quickly to the changes that we’ve demanded of them, for example, a combination of BYOD and teacher-provided devices, and also they’ve had to deal with using Mac and Windows in the same environment.”
“If you just had a non-outsourced IT faculty, you’d most likely ﬁnd that they’d be quite reticent to change.
“The advantage of having an outsourced provider is that we at the school can drive the change, and, with my knowledge I can say that, ‘right, we need to pursue this path’.
“And they can bleat and complain as much as they like, but I’ve just said ‘no, we are going to use BYOD and we’re going to provide options for students to be using multiple platforms, to ensure that we can meet the needs of different types of families’.”
Hutchings says this is a real advantage, whereas many schools ﬁnd themselves having to conform to one brand of device.
“And that’s often because they’re driven by, either the vendor that provides that hardware to the school, usually for a tidy proﬁt mind you, or they’re driven by the incumbent IT department’s fear of change.”
Based on his own school’s experience, Hutchings says outsourcing IT services is a no-brainer in most school environments.
The one exception, he suggests, is smaller schools with limited funds.
“I’d say [internal IT might be better in] very small schools, because IT’s genuinely expensive,” he says.
“You can run a hybrid model where you might have one full-time IT person, and then buy in services, like engineering and data management services. But in medium to large schools, I really think [outsourcing] is just the way to go.”
Hutchings shared these views with delegates at this year’s EduTECH event in Brisbane, and has had a number of schools contact him for advice, seeking to outsource their own IT, but says many remain cautious.
“I would say, many schools are in the mode of having in-sourced IT, and then seeking external providers for big projects.”
“That’s a model that my previous school [had], and I guess it worked for them because they had a really, really good team,” he says.
“But I think that was more the exception than the rule. It can come down to cost.
“Good IT is not cheap, you know. But poor IT, in the long term, is quite expensive.”