High school confidential

GEMS made headlines when it declared that it would invest $5.4 million in IT for schools. ACN talks exclusively to Mukund Patel, chief officer for educational infrastructure at the group, about the plans to allocate these funds

Tags: Global Education Management SystemsUnited Arab Emirates
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High school confidential PATEL: I think a lot of teachers are enthusiastic about new technology, it’s just a case of skilling them up to use it.
By  Imthishan Giado Published  April 11, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

What would you say was the main driver behind an IT investment of this magnitude?
As the biggest provider of education from independent schools in the world, we want to be at the cutting edge. We want to maintain our lead position and so we are investing in IT very heavily to ensure that our pupils and teachers get the most benefit from it.

In which areas will this investment be allocated?
What the present credit crunch will do is highlight that when we come out of all this, the world is going to be a very different place. Those who are best able to exploit the situation through a skilled workforce are going to benefit. We want our pupils to be ready for that. We're giving laptops to all our teachers. We're putting hardware into schools in the form of projectors, interactive whiteboards and wireless networks. We are investing very heavily in software, as well as developing our own virtual learning environment (VLE), the Global Education Management Systems (GEMS) Learning Gateway.

A lot of the hardware systems were rolled out last year. All our schools have wireless now, most have projectors and screens and the laptop programme was implemented for teachers last year.

Will you provide notebook computers for your students?
Last year, we struck a very good deal with a local computer supplier, Acer, so that we were able to offer laptops to pupils and the parents who wanted them. The offer was only open for a six-week period. Over that period, 18,000 pupils took up the offer. There is no profit in it for us - whatever we charge went straight to Acer.

What functionality will your VLE provide to students?
Once the VLE is implemented, all our students, teachers and parents will have their own password and will be able to access it, as well as their own homepage. From that, they will be able to access lot of curriculum material, reference materials, they will be able to work on projects together. Our schools and pupils will be able to create web pages on any projects. The collaboration between GEMS schools worldwide will really grow exponentially. Eventually we hope to be doing podcasting and to build up a library of videos on it.

Does the VLE fall within the initial $5.4 million investment?
It is a part of it but I think we will need to inject more capital into it as we acquire more software and more curriculum material. That was the original figure but I see that the costs are going to grow.

Do you have a figure for the cost of the VLE development?
I don't have a figure offhand. You would also have to count in our time as well - we have put in a lot of time, including senior level time. The biggest cost is training the teachers. They have got to learn to work with it. Otherwise if they don't, it's not going to achieve its original aims. We are going to train up 15 teachers who will be the mentors in each school. They will then train other teachers - so it's far better than just bringing in somebody from outside.

How do you sell an investment of this scale to senior decision makers and stakeholders?
We sold it to the GEMS board on the basis that this is absolutely going to be the future of education, it is integral to teaching and learning and that in two or three years time, this is the way the world is going to be going. People can see it from where they are in the existing office environment
as well.

These days, most of us will Google things, look up websites. Children are very relaxed with technology - they are the digital natives, whereas it is people like me who struggle with technology. The sooner we make it available to them, the better. Come back in a year's time and see what the children are doing with the VLE.

For example, we want to have a book club. We'll ask one of the senior classes to manage it but everytime you read a book, you can put your reviews in - you can build a dialogue and we think the kids will love that sort of thing. There'll be a lot of things that will take off which we haven't thought of.

What safeguards have you put in place to prevent inappropriate material being uploaded onto the VLE?
The GEMS Learning Gateway is a closed environment. You can only get access in if you have a password. The materials that go in will be controlled by various groups. Take the jokes page, for instance - if you make a year 10 student in charge of it for younger children, then we will expect them to exercise responsibility. You've got to trust the senior students to do the right thing.

Did you incorporate feedback from students into the design of the new systems?
When we do the pilots initially, we discuss it with teachers and with students. The VLE at the moment has not been exposed yet, although we have had some input from people. The final version in the beta test - that's when we start getting the feedback.

Which levels of students will be exposed to it?
Our initial discussion has been with the senior pupils. Once the pages for the junior and elementary schools are ready, then we will want to get their reaction as well. But I think we have done the easy bits first - it's very difficult to do a VLE environment for a very young pupil.

You want it to be fun and you want it to be very educational at the same time. You don't want it to be too heavily educational because that will put them off and they won't use it.

Do you encounter resistance from teachers to the use of technology to supplement them in the traditional teaching environment?
It's not resistance. It's a new set of skills. To teach with an interactive whiteboard is very different to the chalk-and-talk type of teaching. I think a lot of them are ready to go and are enthusiastic - it's just a case of "skilling them up" and letting them see what the best practices are so they can learn from the people who are using it very effectively.

Does an investment of this magnitude still make sense in a world gripped by an economic crisis - and will it be affected?
The investment has already been planned, the finances are there - I don't think it will affect our IT plans. What the present credit crunch will do is highlight that when we come out of all this, the world is going to be a very different place.

As a privately funded organisation, do you think you are better placed in terms of budget than publicly funded institutions to weather the credit crisis?
I would like to think so. A lot of the government funding is going to dry up. In the region, there might be some governments who have got a lot of sovereign wealth funds but even they would be cautious because they would have been hit quite hard and a lot of the value of the investment would have reduced substantially.

Do you see schools transitioning into IT companies, much the way that banks have?
I don't know. Let's do it one step at a time. Our advisor, Professor Stephen Heppell, has a very bold vision of the future of learning. Once the VLE is implemented, then it's learning anywhere, anytime. You could be on the other side of the world and still access your homework.

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