Schools need a long-term digital communications strategy

Comment by MATT DYKES, COO, Abzorb

It is estimated that between 9% and 11% of state school pupils with up to 876,000 children did not attend school during the end of November 2020 for Covid-19 related reasons. This includes children having to self- isolate if they have been in contact with a child or teacher that has COVID-19 or if they have it themselves. Daily disruption in schools will sadly be the reality for the foreseeable

future and education will be delivered by a hybrid approach of remote/digital learning and face to face in the classroom. So, it is vital that schools have a digital communications and learning strategy in place, and that collectively we all attempt to close the digital divide that has been prevalent in 2020.

It’s all in the prep At the start of the COVID 19 pandemic schools were not prepared for what was to come and IT managers and Head teachers were faced with grappling at technology they had in place or having to deploy new or interim solutions to enable voice and digital communications and online learning solutions. Now, we are nearly a year into this crisis and all children inclusively will need to continue to access remote communications and learning solutions from home if they are self- isolating. Schools need to be prepared and ensure they have an effective unified communications solution to enable staff, children and parents to communicate and access learning platforms.

Solid foundations The first step is to ensure they have a robust and reliant communications infrastructure that can handle the devices and broadband required. It is recommended that they work with a Solutions Provider who can guide and advise them on how to leverage their existing technology to protect their investment, understand what objectives the school has and recommend the suitable technology they require.

Get flexible with the cloud By hosting your communications in the cloud, it is more cost-effective, robust and secure. It also provides you with the flexibility to add on applications and technology when required which is essential today. You don’t need to ‘rip and replace’ and move to the cloud completely,

you can adopt a hybrid deployment with the option of migrating at your own pace in order to protect your investment and legacy technology.

Hybrid learning For the past year schools have been using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classrooms to teach and communicate during lockdown number 1 and now with large numbers of classes or sometimes an entire class self-isolating. For the foreseeable future it looks like hybrid learning will continue but if doesn’t come without its challenges. A recent study from Microsoft and YouGov reported that 71% of teachers want to ensure that students get adequate and fair access to technology and data, 65% stated that lack of face-to-face time was an issue, 53% stated that student welfare, social and development was under threat and 51% stated it effected the ability to teach. However, this is going to continue for the next few months and from

a technology point of view it is integral that these unified communication solutions are integrated with existing systems, technology and mobiles to have a single unified communications solution for ease, effectiveness and simplicity.

Growth of the digital divide Unfortunately, not every student has access to broadband or a device to access remote communications and learning solutions from home. Office National Statistics survey data published in 2019 reports that 60,000 kids 11-18 do not have internet connectivity and 70,000 a computer, laptop,


tablet or iPad at home. The COVID pandemic has highlighted this

year more than ever before the extent of the digital divide and how the disadvantaged children have suffered greatly and missed out on education during the first lockdown and will continue to do so during this disruptive time. This is why it is imperative that this divide is addressed so these children are not severely disadvantaged and miss out.

Governmental support In April the government announced they would give laptops and routers to the pupils that needed these resources, this included the Year 10s, care leavers and pupils with social workers. Abzorb supplied the SIM cards that go into MiFi devices enabling Wi-Fi to ensure that children could access online learning from their schools while at home. As the children were based in different areas of the UK, some areas had stronger network coverage than others who had weak coverage. These SIM cards can access all the networks instantly and ascertain what network coverage is the strongest in the area and then use that one to access the internet. However, despite the government’s efforts apparently, nationally only a

third of school trusts received fewer than ten laptops for their eligible year 10 while 27 Trusts received only one. Though 540,000 pupils were eligible for the scheme only 200,000 laptops were delivered to schools by August, so it is critical to close this digital divide as soon as we can.

Flexibility is key In a forever changing world having flexibility is key and flexibility is what all schools need, whether to scale up and scale down, to add new technology and applications when required and to increase or decrease data on SIM cards.

Keeping it safe When children are learning from home it is of course imperative that they only view sites on the internet that are secure and meet the governmental standards to protect them from viewing harmful content. Schools can ensure that all traffic on the SIM card passes through a cloud filtering platform ensuring the safeguarding of the children. When a child accesses a website, this request is analysed in milli seconds to decide if it is an approved site.. Both the teachers and the Local Authorities can also have visibility of the traffic and view reports enabling them to set policies of what sites were and were not allowed.

Training and skilling Up Schools and teachers have never faced such disruption and this year may have changed the face of education forever. New technologies, new methods of working and teaching, communicating and learning have greeted teachers. Many have had to skill up on the technology so they can use it and share knowledge with students. If there has previously been a digital skills gap in education, then now is time to close that gap with schools and technology suppliers to ensure they receive training and skilling up.

Now is the time Now is the time, to implement a long-term digital communications and learning strategy that will transform your communications and processes and provide you with the opportunity to build on it for the future. Hybrid learning is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and we have no choice but to close the digital divide, so we need to harness what we have learnt over the past year, look to evolve and carry-on testing what works and doesn’t work to improve communications in schools and teaching to the advantage of the staff, students and parents. The students are the next generation, and it is up to us to provide them with the tools they require for education.

January 2021

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