Setting the pace

The region’s education sector must not only use ICT to cut costs and improve efficiency, but also help shape the employees of the future; business applications, cloud, BYOD, collaboration and advanced analytics all figure highly on the education agenda

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Setting the pace
By  David Ingham Published  May 29, 2016

Educational institutions in the Middle East are amongst some of the region’s pace setters in terms of their use of IT. That’s perhaps not surprising given governments’ increasing focus on educational investments, particularly at the higher level. “There is a huge focus on education in the Middle East, with governments – especially in the GCC countries – investing heavily in education initiatives and innovative education practices aimed at supporting their drive towards diversification and becoming knowledge-based economies,” says Ala’a Al-Bawab, regional manager for public sector and oil & gas, Cisco UAE.

Demographic change, in the form of growing numbers of students, and changing demands, as populations become ever more connected, is challenging IT systems.
Educational establishments are facing greater competition than ever before and need to find new and innovative ways to attract and retain technologically savvy staff and students, and differentiate themselves from their peers.

While technology can help enhance the way education is delivered, technology in education does create a bigger workload for ICT staff and faculty. Today’s student population, however, has grown up with technology and demands it.

“Today’s students are also increasingly used to being able to experience technology outside the classroom, on their smartphones and other devices, and consequently they expect to be able to have such access wherever they are,” says Al Bawab. “Perhaps above all, greater usage of technology can help educational establishments to deliver a better quality learning experience, and help students acquire the right skills they need for the jobs and workforce of the future.”

It’s not just the goal of better student outcomes driving investment, however. Education also has the same goal as any other sector: to run more efficiently. In their drive for greater efficiency, educational institutions have embraced ERP software on the backend in areas such as accounting, finance and records, says Ali Hyder, Group CEO, Focus Softnet.

Other vendors have gone further and developed customised ERP modules, or even entire branded application suites. One such offering is Focus Softnet’s own software for academia called Focus AIM and Ellucian’s Quercus student administration application.

Amongst the unique requirements addressed by these packages are record keeping, of both paper and electronic documents. “Without standardised processes, it is not uncommon for academic records management practices to differ between departments, campuses, and even faculty within institutions,” says Hyder. “They also need to address compliance mandates. In order to process work efficiently, these institutes need to be able to manage student, administrative and back-office records efficiently.”

Establishing such a system requires system and processes, of course, which is where an ERP platform that can offer standardisation can be of enormous benefit. Other unique requirements in the education sector, which ERP can also address, are registration and scheduling, including time-tabling. This, Hyder adds, can be the “most complex” of the modules as no two educational institutions will follow the same parameters for scheduling.

Whatever system is chosen, he cautions that it must be robust and easy to use. “As the system is used by students online for their application, registration of courses and examination results, it becomes very important that any system deployed has to be fully secured and robust,” Hyder says. “It should give relevant information to the students while ensuring that the system is accessible from multiple interfaces to be able to make it widely accepted among the student community.”

The sector has not, so far, been a large adopter of public cloud services. This is in large part because of its semi-government status and local laws on data sovereignty that forbid data being stored offshore.

Application providers see the sector as ideal for cloud, however, because of the number of students and parents wanting to interact with academic information. Add to that the concept of elasticity, whereby peaks in demand can be dealt with by an external cloud provider rather than the institution having to leave servers idle in anticipation of these peaks.

Human Logic, a Microsoft Authorised Education Partner, has developed a cloud-based solution for the sector hosted on the Microsoft Azure Cloud Marketplace. The offering includes eMada student information system, Moodle learning management system, Office 365 and Dynamics ERP, all hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

“Higher education is the most suitable candidate for adopting cloud technologies, resulting in improved efficiencies, higher quality of service and significant cost benefits,” says Somaroy Gabbita, the company’s general manager. “Cloud platforms offer high flexibility and maximise returns for education institutions since the peak usage loads are experienced for only 60 to 70 days in an academic year.”

One regional institution that has opted to take the cloud route is University College of Bahrain (UCB). The 500-student institution has opted to phase out its in-house Oracle platforms and move to the Ellucian platform hosted on Amazon Web Services.

“This system solves the problems that we were facing; first of all it is much more affordable… and it is more efficient and more cost effective. We want to concentrate on teaching and learning, not managing IT,” explains Sheikh Abdulla Al-Khalifa, executive director, technology & innovation, University College Bahrain. He adds that there is a possibility of hosting backups in Bahrain because of those laws on data sovereignty.

Talk of public cloud can also overlook the possibility of academia opting to build its own private clouds. This may be particularly attractive given the policy and compliance laws that state data must remain in GCC countries. “Private clouds offer an ideal way to solve some of the biggest business and technology challenges for educational institutes,” says Cisco’s Al-Bawab.

“A private cloud can deliver IT as a service. This helps reduce costs, raise efficiency, and introduce innovative new business models to make educational institutes more agile and efficient while simplifying operations and infrastructure.”

If educational institutions are looking for ways to increase student access and transform outcomes, that may explain why the sector embraced BYOD before the term was even invented. It’s not only students in their dorm rooms who are driving the demand to ‘log on’.

Teachers and staff are also being drawn from all around the world and expect to be able to use their own devices as well. Mobile apps allow students to ‘log on’ after hours, engage with supplemental educational content, carry out research and maintain social networks with other students.

“Today, many educational institutions are shifting their focus from prohibiting the use of mobile devices on campus, to embracing BYOD as a way to enhance teaching and learning, improve student engagement, improve operational efficiencies, boost staff productivity, expand collaboration, and expand the capabilities of existing technology infrastructures,” says Cisco’s  Al-Bawab.

Embracing BYOD, however, does raise numerous challenges. Security, control, training, network capability and network resiliency are all critical issues that must be addressed. Institutions must create and implement access policies and deploy the appropriate supporting technology, while keeping costs under control. The right BYOD solution enables educational institutes to open academic resources up to the right people, while maintaining data integrity and overall network stability.

“The rapid increase in the number of devices connecting to networks in (BYOD) environments, guest access, video surveillance and the Internet of Things (IoT) adds a lot to the bandwidth demands that IT is trying to address,” continues Al-Bawab.

“As a result, application bandwidth at remote sites has become a major topic. Factors include application performance as newer applications consume more bandwidth, as well as escalating carrier costs as educational institutes are forced to purchase additional connections.”

The needs for robustness on the network goes beyond BYOD, of course. Any move to adopt cloud solutions will necessitate more resiliency on networks. Remote learning, where students dial in from off campus to watch or listen to lectures, will place further demands on bandwidth. Students based on campus may be watching lectures conducted by a guest lecturer in another country. Then, of course, there is the increasing assumption that Wi-Fi should be available on campus and free.

One of the most-hyped areas in ICT right now is ‘big data’ and there is a growing debate about the role of analytics in education. According to Julie Mercer, partner, global industry lead, education consulting, Deloitte, large scale analytics is being looked at as a means to provide insight, benchmark the performance of schools and universities, and better predict the needs of the job market.

“The Gulf is investing heavily in education, in really understanding how they can encourage nationals to continue in education, to study, to stay in the region; and that means that the universities and the schools need to be high performing,” she explains.

“One of the ways that we believe that they can respond to that is to use data and information and the power of analytics to really understand the student body, what motivates them, how they can develop programs and create an aura around going to university that is attractive and means something in the local context.”

Analytics could help governments to understand current performance levels and adjust any shortfalls, and to develop programs that align students with the fast-paced requirements of the changing digital economy. In this area, analytics is being deployed to create education programs that match skills, and also attitudes and behaviours, with the needs of the workplace.

In Saudi Arabia, Deloitte is working with the government and Ingeus, a company that is specialised in helping people to find employment instead of taking social welfare, as part of Saudi’s TAQAT programme. “It is helping them to make the links between the skills that they will need for the economy of the future and how that translates into programs and opportunities. I think there is a big opportunity there,” Mercer said.

The region’s education sector faces the dual challenge of using ICT to cut costs and improve efficiency, as well as help shape the employees of the future. Business applications, cloud, BYOD, collaboration and advanced analytics are all helping it to achieve those goals. For more information on the use of education technolgy see next month’s Education Roundtable report.

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