Implement the right IT solution for schools and other educational institutions

The IT requirements of Schools

The primary focus of schools is to provide good education to children.  In order to provide that teachers needs to be left to teach and therefore there is a huge support network around them.  Caretakers are there providing support for the physical infrastructure, office staff provide administrative function, admissions staff ensure pupils are coming in to the school, the head teacher brings them all together and much more.

All schools have to adhere to the regulations laid down by various regulatory bodies and all have to abide by the GDPR as enforced by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

All staff will require some form of IT with those such as the office staff in touch with their computer and phone for most of the day and those such as the PE teacher touching it as little as possible.

You will need to consider standard email communication, secure communication with parents, emergency communication, working from home, video learning, mobile devices, hot desking, access to parent and pupil information through your Management Information System (MIS) such as SIMS and a whole lot besides.

What are some of the considerations for IT in a School?

You will need to consider where your staff will be working.  It may seem obvious that they will work in school but is there more than one location, will you need to work from home occasionally (at the time of writing this most people are working from home do to the Covid-19 pandemic)?  If so, how are multiple sites going to communicate and share information effectively and securely?

What types of job roles do you need to support? Do you have a dedicated finance department, office manager, teachers, office staff and governors? What types of functions do each undertake?

It is likely that you are going to need infrastructure that can support a Management Information System (such as SIMS), online banking applications, Office applications, photocopying and scanning requirements, Learning systems, Student Progress Tracking systems and many others.

With multiple sites or homeworking to consider, how are parents going to call and get through to the correct person and how are your staff going to have access to the information they need? Do you have a single phone number for the entire school or one for each site? Can calls be easily transferred from one site to another?

How can you continue to make and receive calls when it is not possible to visit the office?

Do schools need a server?

At the time of writing this article I would say the answer is yes but the cloud is fast emerging and it may be that most of schools’ functions may actually be able to be provided by a cloud infrastructure before long.

Due to the volume of data that is going to be kept and called upon your MIS is going to be run in a database such as Microsoft SQL.  Many application providers will layout their requirements when you are considering using their product.  It could be that the application is installed on your own equipment on-premises or it may be that a provider like SIMS can provide an entirely web based platform.

There will be vast numbers of documents that need to be stored and so you may opt for a file server to store those but again many cloud solutions, such as Office 365 OneDrive, SharePoint and GoogleDrive a becoming mainstream for schools, particularly since many are free to use in an academic environment.

When is comes to cost, the difference is clear, if you buy your own equipment and run it on site you have a larger up front cost and likely lower ongoing costs and if you move to the cloud then you have lower up front costs but bigger ongoing charges. To assist you in making a decision it’s important to consider the positives and negatives of both.

The positives and negatives of on-premises IT for Schools

With on-premises solutions you own the equipment and for some people that makes them feel more secure in that the equipment is theirs and no one can take it away from them. Of course that does mean that you need to find the cash for purchasing servers, software (such as Windows Server 2019), UPS (battery backup), back up software and antivirus solutions etc. but this does mean that you do not need to rent it from someone else.

If you own a server then it most likely means that what you have bought is what will stay with you until you replace it, so if you buy Windows Server 2019 now then Windows Server 2019 is what you will still have in five years’ time unless you purchase the new versions.  That principle applies to all of the hardware and software that you purchase.

You will need to consider where to store a server and ideally it won’t just be under a desk somewhere. It should ideally be situated where it will not be knocked, splashed or damaged in some other way and it should really be in a temperature controlled environment and locked away to protect it from theft or tampering.

It is important to specify the correct hardware. This will be where your most important information, as a business, is stored and so it is vital that it is available at all times and quickly. If the hardware and software cannot see you through a disaster (such as a disk failure, power supply failure, power outage, fire etc.) then you could be without access to critical information and services for, at best, a few minutes and at worst never again.

Hardware should be specified to be fault tolerant (e.g. multiple disks storing multiple copies of your data), ensure data is backed up and be built of the right components (processors, memory, storage etc.) to allow applications to retrieve the information you need at high speed. The server operating systems and software should be professionally installed and configured to ensure that the system is stable and secure and it should be maintained with regular updates, monitoring and reboots.

It sounds like a lot to manage and it can be if it is not properly planned but if well thought through an on-premises system can be reliable and secure for many years.

One significant advantage that on premises has over a cloud solution is that unless you have a fail-over Internet connection then with a hosted environment during an Internet outage you will lose access to all of your system during the outage.  With a server onsite you may lose access to email and Internet but you will most likely still have access to your case management, files, printing, dictation etc.

Cloud and hosted pros and cons for Schools

It is just as necessary to have backups, good hardware, fail-over, monitoring, updates etc. when you are in the cloud but the significant difference is that it is managed by the hosting provider.  With a system maintained in a cloud environment you can also take advantage or their significant infrastructure.  Fail-over can be taken that much further with not just fail-over to additional components within a server but entire second servers, generators and even entire fail-over data centres.

You do not own the hardware or software and so with the right provider it is upgraded and updated at regular intervals so even if Windows Server 2019 is installed now, chances are that you will be upgraded to Windows Server 2021 (if and when it’s released).

Should you need more storage you do not buy new disks you simply ask the cloud provider to give you more storage and then pay the extra monthly charges. There are no charges for parts or installation because it is not your equipment and instead you pay to rent it.

Whilst it is possible to support multiple sites using on-premises solutions, cloud solutions are perfect for multi-site organisations. Each site simply connects to the cloud environment over the Internet, so even if you move office, once you have an Internet connection in place you simply connect your computers in the new location and you are good to go.

Email for Schools

With cloud or on-premises you will want to be able to access your mailbox (email, contacts, calendars) using Outlook when at your desktop in the classroom or office, on a laptop when out of the classroom or office, on your mobile when on the go and perhaps via web mail or Outlook Web Access (OWA) as a last resort when you don’t have access to your own devices. To allow you to do this you will want to have a Microsoft Exchange mailbox. That can be in your own on-premises Exchange Server or on a Hosted Exchange server. The pros and cons of both are pretty much the same as outlined previously for general cloud and on-premises solutions.

POP3, IMAP and other technologies for sending and receiving email are old technologies now and should be avoided. A Microsoft Exchange mailbox allows secure exchange of authentication details when you login, syncing of mailbox data in almost real time between devices, such as Android and IOS mobile, laptops and desktops and the full use of clients software like Microsoft Outlook which allows functionality such as Out of Office messages, rules, meeting invitations and room and resource booking.

One serious consideration when using email through any provider is that there is no guarantee of encryption to the recipient and therefore you should assume that it is not encrypted in transit.

Office software for teachers, students and office staff

Microsoft Office (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) are still the preferred choice for schools.

Even if you have an on-premises server you can opt for a subscription/cloud version of Office software giving you a bit of a hybrid solution, called Office 365. This is a subscription to use the Office applications but depending on the package you may also find that it includes web versions of the applications, online storage (OneDrive), shared storage (SharePoint), instant messaging, video conferencing and phone system (Teams).

It is important to get good advice about licensing as only certain licenses are entitled to be used in particular situations (e.g. Enterprise licenses are required to use Office 365 in a remote desktop environment). It is still possible to buy licenses (perpetual licensing) so that you own the software. This means that you do not get the latest version but of course you do not have monthly costs.

One thing to bear in mind here is that even though you own the software you will most likely not want to keep it more than three to five years or you will find yourself unable to easily share documents with other users who have later versions of the software so it may still be as cost effective to subscribe.

You will want to carefully consider how you implement Office 365 as there can be GDPR implications since data can end up being stored and routed outside of the EU in certain situations. When deciding you may wish to take in to account that Office 365 can be subscribed annually or monthly on a per user basis whereas perpetual Office licenses are pay for upfront for each device on which it will be installed.

There are various licensing options for schools.  Office 365 should be entirely free for you but there are still other elements ton consider that are not included in Office 365.  For example you will probably still need some server and Windows Server is not part of Office 365.  Fortunately Microsoft Schools agreements significantly reduce the cost to schools and really simplify what you need to purchase to run a powerful system.  The correct agreement can also allow students and teachers to download the software at home.

Management Information System for Schools

It is not within the scope of this blog to discuss the pros and cons of each Management Information System but we can certainly give a few pointers.

As with everything else in this article there are on-premises and hosted solutions and as mentioned before many of the pros and cons apply here (e.g. hosted solutions are likely to have lower upfront costs but more ongoing costs). Since this is the hub of all that you do, from student management to taking registers it is essential that you select the right solution.

It is highly recommended that you invite several providers to demonstrate their product to you and ideally run a trial so that you can kick the tyres.

Management Information Systems are databases and in a school are likely to be under intense pressure so avoid anything that is not based on SQL as a database provider.

Obviously the features offered are paramount but it is key that the supplier can assist with a good installation, provide a reasonable specification of hardware and software required and can show that they can provide vital help-desk assistance when you need it.

File storage for Schools

Many of your files will be stored within your Management Information System but not everything will be. For those files you will need to consider where to store them.

With an on-premises environment this will probably be a file server.

In a cloud environment it could be a cloud drive (e.g. OneDrive or SharePoint) or in a cloud desktop environment it could be a file server (just provided on cloud hardware).

It will be necessary to be able to create separate drives (on a file server) or sites (in a cloud solution) for different departments where you really would not want data getting mixed up (e.g. payroll data and client data) and it will be essential to apply good permissions so that only the right people can access appropriate files.

Backup and disaster recovery for Schools

Wherever your data is stored you will want to ensure a good backup is in place.  This is to protect you in the event of any disaster.  It could be necessary to recover data due to user error, accidental deletion, software bugs, fire, flood, hardware failure or many other unforeseen situations.

It is essential that you choose a service or software that will allow you to recover entire systems, drives, individual files, single emails or SQL databases.  Some solutions offer self service solutions so if you accidentally delete a file you can recover it yourself without having to contact the help-desk.

In a cloud environment you are unlikely to have control over what backup system is used but in an on-premises situation there are many to choose from.  Choosing a trusted provider is key and to name a couple there are Acronis and Veeam but many more too.

The right product is going to be one that supports the software that you are using so if you run Microsoft Exchange then is will need to be aware of Exchange and if you run SQL it will need to support SQL.  Without an application aware backup you may have to to restore an entire system to recover a single email or database or may find that you are not able to recover at all.

You will want to consider if you have a local or online backup or perhaps both.  Remember that a local backup will provide quicker recovery times but may not cover you in a situation where the local backup is destroyed in the same disaster that obliterated the original data, such as a fire.

Telecoms and phone systems

Email and instant messaging have been extremely important over recent years but some people still want or need to be able to pick up the phone and speak with someone.

There are VOIP solutions such as a Skype but nothing is as easy as picking up a handset and dialling a number and you need your customers to be able to contact in the least restrictive way.

If you are looking for a phone system then you need to be aware that conventional phone lines (analogue, ISDN etc.) are being phased out so an investment in systems based on these technologies is likely to be short lived.  So what’s the alternative?  Well VOIP (voice over IP).  Basically Internet phones.  You may be thinking that I just said nothing is as easy as picking up and dialling and Internet phones don’t do that, do they?  Well they do now.  There are many VOIP solutions which connect to the public switch telephone network (PSTN).

Microsoft Teams is a perfect example.  Teams is an application that is part of many Office 365 subscriptions.  Once subscribed you can download and install Teams on your desktop, laptop or mobile device.  Teams is also built in to many conventional telephone handsets.  This means that you can make and receive calls to and from normal phone numbers from your mobile, computer or desk phone and your office number will be the only number that is seen.

You can be on the train, at home or in the office and the recipient of your call will have no idea of exactly where you are (subject to background noise).

Teams has the added benefit of handling meetings with multiple attendees (a class of students and a teacher for example), video conferencing, desktop sharing, instant messaging, file sharing and much more.  You can even blur your background when in a video call so that no one need know that you are surrounded by toys in your children’s bedroom.

It operates just like a normal phone system allowing you to retrieve voicemail, transfer calls, be a member of a ringing group and so on.

It is ideal for multi-site organisations as one number can be used for all participants even though they may be at sites managed by different telephone exchanges or possibly in different countries!  Calls between users within the same Office 365 organisation do not even incur call charges.

Photocopying, printing and scanning

Well everything is paperless today, right?  No need for photocopying and scanning.  Best leave it there then.

Well not all paper has gone yet.

It’s important that you get a reliable, fast machine that can give you good value for money and give you all the functionality that you need.  To name a few good brands you should consider Konica Minolta, Develop and Ricoh.

The two most likely ways that you will scan is to a folder on your computer or server or directly to a mailbox.

Scanning to a mailbox has the advantage that you can immediately forward it on to whoever needs it or save the attachment to your local computer but you must consider that email has size limits and if you are scanning that 500 page bundle in a reasonable resolution then it might not get passed the 20MB email file size limit.  Also consider that you may not be entirely sure of the route that your message from the scanner may take and so confidentiality is a concern.

Sending your scan to a folder resolves some of these issues but you will want balance that with convenience.  If you scan to a folder via Windows file sharing or FTP it will be possible (although not a given) that it can be setup to transfer data securely to a secure location on your network.  It also does not have the file size restrictions that email has.  The only problem is that setup in this way you are likely to end up with a scanned file called something like “KON1234GD3452” and it will need to be found and rename whereas when you receive an email you can immediately save it with the name you want or forward it with a useful subject.

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