Robert Stoneman looks at lessons from Bett 2017 on the possible roles for VR and cloud technology, alongside more traditional computing solutions, to help drive change in a tighter fiscal environment
By Robert Stoneman
Cloud and virtual reality technology (along with unnecessarily large interactive screens) were both hot topics at this year's education technology expo, Bett 2017, among a sea of more traditional edtech solutions. Yet this year, vendors had to be clear about how schools, colleges and universities could continue to use technology to drive change in a tighter fiscal environment, and how it could in fact deliver significant savings alongside educational impact.
Buoyed by a high churn rate in recent years, Capita made several announcements relating to SIMS, their market leading management information system (used by over 80% of the schools market). Firstly, they introduced SIMS Parent and SIMS Student, apps which allow schools to share information directly from SIMS and communicate with parents and students. Multi-academy trusts (MATs) will also be interested in the announcement of SIMS SchoolView, a data dashboard which collates attendance and achievement data across multiple schools to determine where best practice is being implemented and where improvement is required.
Capita are aware that fiscal pressures are pushing MATs towards consolidating the use of MIS within their schools, something which offers an opportunity to gain business from several schools in one go. Plans were also hinted at for a soft launch of a cloud-based version of SIMS in March ahead of a full launch early next year. Although some schools have expressed concerns over the security of personal data stored off site, Capita stressed its cloud-based solution offers greater security than an onsite server and, due to reduced onsite staff, fewer costs. Despite all this, Capita know their leading place in the market will only be sustained by continued innovation. Rival vendors will need to show they can innovate while offering the same depth, as returning schools cited this as the main reason for readopting SIMS.
VR devices were also commonplace on the show floor as vendors attempt to grow a promising trend into something more concrete in 2017. On the cheaper end, Google freely distributed their low-cost Google Glass as an affordable and low risk way for schools to explore free educational content available online using existing smartphones.
On the pricier end, Microsoft demonstrated HoloLens, arguably the world's first commercial mixed reality device. With the development edition now available in the UK, Microsoft hope universities will be attracted by the ability to explore and interact with holograms embedded into real spaces.
Pearson, a leading provider of textbooks, online resources and higher education services, is now exploring the potential use of HoloLens. Microsoft meanwhile seems to understand the general message at Bett that, in order to enable this and other VR technology to reach its full potential, vendors must ensure there is academically rigorous, yet impactful, content which complements existing teaching methods.
Among the new and exciting tech on offer at Bett, the number of vendors offering more traditional computing solutions just goes to show how schools, colleges and universities remain reliant on desktops, laptops and interactive whiteboards as their IT staples. Yet the way these technologies are utilised is changing. Several manufacturers' including Dell, Acer and Asus unveiled new Chromebooks, which eschew the traditional clamshell format in favour of a hybrid-tablet design that is more versatile in a classroom environment. What will also worry the traditional big players such as Apple and Microsoft is that these low-cost devices can now run a wide variety of android apps hosted on the Google Play store in additional to traditional e-mail and office programs via Google's G Suite.
Even specialist software providers such as Adobe are getting in on the act as they are developing a line of creative applications (such as Photoshop) for use on Chrome OS. The result of all this is that ever more schools will be tempted by the potential savings thin client architecture can provide, especially considering the potential £3bn black hole in school funding expected by 2020.