The education technology market seeks stability in the hybrid model

Educational institutions that rushed to adopt or expand cloud-based distance learning tools in the early months of the pandemic have the time, and in some cases the budget, to deploy the technology more systematically.

This is the view of channel partners operating in the education technology marketplace. K-12 schools, colleges, and universities have had to crowd out when students suddenly leave campus for weeks or months and need off-site support. But 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are now aiming to embed hybrid learning models, strengthen networking infrastructure, and enhance security.

“During the 2020 Distance Learning in Emergencies campaign, the focus has been mostly on scaling existing distance learning systems as quickly as possible,” said David Linthicum, Chief Cloud Strategy Officer at Deloitte Consulting LLP, based in New York.

David Linthicum

Linthicum said the unexpected move included a near-complete shift to teacher-led learning through in-person video conferencing platforms. It also required a significant increase in the use of cloud-based learning management systems (LMS). A Learning Management System (LMS) allows educators to create and deliver course content and track student performance.

Many schools’ early efforts to confront the pandemic had, of necessity, a temporary quality and a short-term focus. “It was hard to have any vision,” said Darren Craven, director of business development for OneTel Security, an MSP based in North Salt Lake, Utah.

But schools, with the initial emergency behind them, are becoming more thoughtful as they are evaluating permanent technology deployments rather than temporary measures. “Their approach is more about the long term,” Craven said.

Reassessment of hybrid learning

This long-term thinking took hold during the summer vacation of 2021, as schools prepared for faculty, students and administrators to return to campus. The hybrid model of learning became a major theme and called for a different direction.

“This means a more systematic and enterprise-wide approach to deploying collaboration technologies in the classroom,” said Cole Clark, managing director at Deloitte. He added that most schools aim for a hybrid learning environment in which students and faculty can easily transition between the virtual and the physical.

The methodological philosophy is evident in the LMS. While nearly every institution has LMS—and in many cases, many of these systems—faculty use and participation has been uneven at best, Clark said.

“There has been a renewed focus on developing an enterprise approach to a learning management system,” he said.

Schools have increased their focus on more consistent adoption of the Learning Management System (LMS) and standardization on a single platform across the academic institution. Clark noted that the schools most successful in fostering LMS adoption are those in which the chief academic officer or dean plays a pivotal role in driving change.

One of the first areas we see educational institutions reconsider is remote access strategies in collaboration and productivity tools.

Chris and DeanVice President of Cloud Business Unit, Softchoice

Schools pausing to reassess learning and collaboration tools consider widely used cloud platforms and education offerings. “One of the first areas we’re seeing educational institutions reconsider is remote access strategies in collaboration and productivity tools,” said Chris Woden, Vice President of Cloud Business Unit at Toronto-based Softchoice, MSP.

Waden said the platforms that provide such tools, including Microsoft 365, Cisco Webex and Google Workspace, “have evolved significantly in the past 18 months.” Google Workspace, for example, got an overhaul of the education market earlier in 2021.

Educators are now thinking creatively about the broad functionality available in learning and collaboration tools. Woden said they aim to use the tools to provide a more inclusive and safe environment for students.

At the same time, cloud offerings from independent software vendors (ISVs) that focus on student experiences have emerged as a major trend in the education technology market, he said. He added that education cloud platforms provide instant scale, performance and secure availability.

For example, Softchoice works with Itopia and Google Cloud, combining Itopia’s student experience delivery with the cloud provider platform. The alliance includes Itopia Labs, which allows students to create virtual labs from a browser.

Jeff Dillon, Founder of EdTech ConnectJeff Dillon

Jeff Dillon, founder of EdTech Connect, an education technology hub, and former Director of IT in Higher Education, welcomes the arrival of projects for education. EdTech Connect provides higher education personnel with a list and evaluation of the programs they use.

“We need these companies that make their products for us and with us in mind,” Dillon said. He cited Bhannon Hill, a CMS vendor, as an example of a software company that specializes in the education market.

More than 85% of the offerings listed on EdTech Connect are cloud-based. However, while schools love the on-demand nature of cloud and the economics of pay-as-you-go, they still have reservations, said Kent Christensen, director of cloud virtualization and data center transformation practices at Insight, based in Tempe, Arizona. He adopted the Opex model but was concerned about securing student information, he said.

Christensen noted that organizations with public cloud interests may prefer to work with infrastructure providers that can host applications and privately sensitive data. Such organizations will end up in a hybrid model. “They will use SaaS applications and collaboration tools but they may have some other things that work more proprietary,” he said.

Clark noted that there is a tension in higher education between adopting “leading practices” from SaaS providers versus developing customized systems. Like Christensen, he referred to student information as a pull-up resistance zone.

“The last frontier…is the Student Information System,” Clark said. “While a few organizations have embraced SaaS solutions in this space, most are taking a wait-and-see approach.” The Student Information System handles functions such as enrolling students in courses and maintaining their transcripts.

strengthen security

Now that schools have more time and budget, they are also seeking to strengthen their stance on cybersecurity. Districts have a lot of incentive to do this given the increase in ransomware attacks that threaten schools, but they often lack funding for security projects. OneTel’s Craven said that securing the student base has come out of a state of “unfunded mandate” due to the dollars associated with the pandemic.

Specifically, federal economic stimulus measures have created a source of more stable funding for educational IT projects, including security, Craven said. These programs provided three rounds of emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools, the last of which appeared in the US bailout in March 2021.

Against this background, OneTel has bundled LogMeIn’s LastPass password management product with communications projects for the education market. Craven said LastPass, for example, is part of a cloud private branch exchange rollout that OneTel runs for the San Francisco Federated Area.

A LogMeIn spokesperson said the initial launch of LastPass Enterprise includes 10,000 licenses for educators and administrative staff. A spokesperson added the school district may eventually add a student licensing program.

Clark of Deloitte also noted the heavy emphasis on security and privacy in education. As a result of this trend: move faster to the cloud. He said that the vulnerability of on-premises systems, which is generally higher than those managed and maintained by cloud providers, encourages many organizations to accelerate their transition to cloud services.

Peter DeMarco, Vice President, VAR Sales, D&H DistributionPeter DeMarco

“This has also put pressure on many organizations to re-examine the decentralized nature of IT, which can play a role in increasing vulnerability to cyberattacks,” Clark added.

D&H Distributing, a distribution company based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ranks security among the top trends you see in education, the company’s leading vertical market. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in security — as have our partners,” said Peter DeMarco, Vice President of VAR Sales at D&H.

School security purchases include hardware antivirus, mailbox security, and app security. DeMarco identified next-generation firewalls as a “huge opportunity for growth.”

Network infrastructure upgrade

DeMarco noted that the increasing number of remote users and the increase in the use of cloud applications is driving up the demand for network infrastructure. This work includes upgrading wireless access points, he said. He noted that D&H’s Cisco Meraki business is growing in double digits.

In addition, districts are upgrading routers and internal switches within schools or in central data centers that support schools, DiMarco said. This technology refreshment phase will allow schools to consider software-based network equipment. Schools can update software and firmware on such cloud-ready platforms, without having to purchase new hardware.

“Solutions will become more application focused and less hardware focused, which means a greater mix of providers and vendors in general,” DiMarco said.

Schools are already scrambling to develop network infrastructure, but DiMarco said the next school year, which begins in September 2022, could be even busier. Schools will be made more accessible with less stringent COVID-19 protocols, allowing on-site work.

“Come in this time next year, we’re expecting a huge amount of networking equipment that has been upgraded,” DeMarco said.

Leave a Comment