Educational institutions that had rushed to adopt or expand cloud-based remote learning tools in the early months of the pandemic now have time, and in some cases budget, to more systematically deploy technology.
That's the view of channel partners working in the education technology market. K-12 schools, colleges and universities had to scramble when students abruptly left campuses for weeks or months and needed off-site support. But 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools now aim to solidify hybrid learning models, boost networking infrastructure and strengthen security.
"During the 2020 push to emergency remote learning, the focus was mostly on making existing remote learning systems scale as quickly as they could," said David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte Consulting LLP, based in New York.
The unexpected move involved a nearly total shift to instructor-led learning through personal video conferencing platforms, Linthicum said. It also required a significant increase in the use of cloud-based learning management systems (LMS). An LMS lets teachers create and deliver course content and track student performance.
Many schools' early- pandemic efforts, by necessity, had a stop-gap quality and short-range focus. "It was hard to have any vision," said Darin Craven, director of business development at OneTel Security, an MSP based in North Salt Lake, Utah.
But schools, with the initial emergency behind them, have become more thoughtful as they evaluate permanent technology deployments rather than temporary measures. "Their approach is much more about the long term," Craven said.
Reassessing for hybrid learning
This longer-term thinking took hold during the 2021 summer break, as schools prepared for faculty, students and administrators to return to campus. A hybrid model for learning became a key theme and called for a different direction.
"This meant a more methodical and enterprisewide approach for the deployment of classroom collaboration technologies," said Cole Clark, managing director at Deloitte. Most schools aim for a hybrid learning environment in which students and faculty can readily shift between the virtual and the physical, he added.
The systematic philosophy is apparent in LMS. While nearly every institution has an LMS -- and, in many cases, several such systems -- faculty use and engagement have been uneven at best, Clark said.
"There has been a renewed focus on developing an enterprise approach to the LMS," he said.
Schools have increased emphasis on more consistent adoption of LMS and standardization on a single platform across the academic enterprise. The schools most successful in boosting LMS adoption are those in which the chief academic officer, or provost, plays a pivotal role in leading the change, Clark noted.
Chris WoodinVice president of cloud business unit, Softchoice
Schools pausing to reevaluate learning and collaboration tools consider both widely used cloud platforms and education-specific offerings. "One of the first areas that we see educational institutions revisiting is their remote access strategies in collaboration and productivity tools," said Chris Woodin, vice president of cloud business unit at Softchoice, an MSP based in Toronto.
Platforms that provide such tools, including Microsoft 365, Cisco Webex and Google Workspace, "have evolved immensely in the last 18 months," Woodin said. Google Workspace, for example, got an education market overhaul earlier in 2021.
Educators now think creatively about the broad functionality available in learning and collaboration tools. They aim to use the tools to offer a more immersive, inclusive and secure environment for students, Woodin said.
At the same time, cloud offerings from ISVs that focus on student experiences have emerged as a major trend in the education technology market, he said. The education-specific cloud platforms offer immediate scale, performance and secure availability, he added.
For example, Softchoice works with Itopia and Google Cloud, combining Itopia's student experience offering with the cloud provider's platform. The alliance involves Itopia Labs, which lets students spin up virtual labs from a browser.
Jeff Dillon, founder of EdTech Connect, an education technology hub, and a former IT manager in higher education, welcomes the arrival of education-specific ventures. The EdTech Connect website lets higher education staff list and rate the software they use.
"We need these companies that are building their products for us and with us in mind," Dillon said. He cited Hannon Hill, a CMS vendor, as an example of a software company specializing in the education market.
More than 85% of the offerings listed on the EdTech Connect site are cloud based. However, while schools like the cloud's on-demand nature and pay-as-you-go economics, they still have reservations, said Kent Christensen, virtualization practice director for Cloud and data center transformation at Insight, based Tempe, Ariz. Schools want to adopt the Opex model but worry about securing student information, he said.
Institutions with public cloud concerns may prefer to work with infrastructure providers that can host sensitive applications and data privately, Christensen noted. Such organizations will end up in a hybrid model. "They will use SaaS applications and collaboration tools but may have some other things that are running more proprietary," he said.
Clark noted a tension in higher education between adopting "leading practices" from SaaS providers versus developing bespoke systems. Like Christensen, he pointed to student information as cloud-resistant area.
"The last frontier ... is the student information system," Clark said. "While a few institutions have adopted SaaS solutions in this area, most are taking a wait-and-see approach." A student information system handles functions such as registering students for courses and maintaining their transcripts.
Remote learning has special significance in Canada's Nunavut territory, an area that stretches from the northern reaches of Hudson Bay to the Arctic. Fewer than 40,000 people live in 25 communities, most of which are only accessible by plane or boat.
In September 2021, Softchoice and Canadian charity TakingITGlobal partnered to bring technology support to schools in indigenous communities in Northern Canada, including those in Nunavut. Softchoice contributes managed services to TakingITGlobal's Connected North program, which provides remote learning services through Cisco Webex.
"In the past we've been limited by bandwidth and satellite connectivity as to the number of simultaneous sessions that can be delivered," said Michael Furdyk, TakingITGlobal's co-founder and director of technology.
The number of sessions grows year to year, however. Over the last year, Connected North provided 4,200 interactive learning sessions to partner schools in Yukon and Northwest Territories, as well as Nunavut.
Shoring up security
Now that schools have more time and budget, they also seek to bolster their cybersecurity posture. Districts have plenty of incentive to do so given the rise of ransomware attacks threatening schools, but they often lacked funding for security projects. Securing the student base, however, has graduated from "unfunded mandate" status due to pandemic-related dollars, OneTel's Craven said.
Specifically, the federal economic stimulus acts have created a source of more stable funding for education IT projects, including security, Craven said. Those programs provided three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, the latest of which emerged in the March 2021 American Rescue Plan.
Against that backdrop, OneTel has bundled LogMeIn's LastPass password management product with communications projects for the education market. LastPass, for example, is part of a cloud private branch exchange rollout that OneTel manages for the San Francisco Unified School District, Craven said.
The initial rollout for LastPass Enterprise involves 10,000 licenses for teachers and administrative staff, a LogMeIn spokesperson said. The school district may eventually add a student licensure program, the spokesperson added.
Deloitte's Clark also noted a sharper focus on security and privacy in education. One upshot of this trend: a faster move to the cloud. The vulnerability of on-premises systems, generally higher than the systems that cloud providers manage and maintain, encourages many institutions to accelerate their shift to cloud services, he said.
"This has also put pressure on many institutions to reexamine the decentralized nature of IT, which can play a role in increased vulnerability to cyber attacks," Clark added.
D&H Distributing, a distributor based in Harrisburg, Pa., ranks security among the top trends it sees in education, the company's leading vertical market. "We have seen huge growth in security -- as have our partners," said Peter DiMarco, vice president of VAR sales at D&H.
Schools' security purchases include antivirus products for devices, mailbox security and application security. DeMarco identified next-generation firewalls as a "big opportunity for growth."
Upgrading network infrastructure
Growing remote user populations and increased use of cloud applications drives demand for network infrastructure, DiMarco noted. That work includes upgrading wireless access points, he said. He noted that D&H's Cisco Meraki business is growing in the double digits.
In addition, districts are upgrading on-premises routers and switches inside of schools or in central data centers that support schools, DiMarco said. This technology refreshment phase will let schools consider software-based networking gear. Schools can update the software and firmware on such cloud-ready platforms, without having to purchase new hardware.
"The solutions will become more application- and less hardware-focused, which means a greater mix of providers and vendors overall," DiMarco said.
Schools already pursue network infrastructure upgrades, but DiMarco said the next school year starting in September 2022 could prove even busier. Schools will become more accessible with less stringent COVID-19 protocols, permitting on-site work.
"Come this time next year, we expect a massive amount of upgraded networking gear," DiMarco said.