Interview: London Grid for Learning CEO on putting technology to work in schools

John Jackson, CEO of the London Grid for Learning, discusses how the organisation supports technology adoption in schools

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Technology is slowly proliferating in the education system. In January 2019, it was found that technology was more likely to be present in UK schools than in schools in some other European countries.

But technology adoption is not always easy for schools, as it can be held back by gaps in funding, a lack of knowledge about what technology should be adopted, and not having the appropriate infrastructure already in place to add new technology to.

To address these issues, the education secretary has previously urged the technology industry to intervene to help schools choose the right tech at the right price.

Set up in 2001 as a charitable trust, the London Grid for Learning (LGfL) has been working for the past 17 years to make technology adoption cheaper and easier for schools.

Servicing around 3,000 schools across 80 local authorities in the UK, CEO of LGfL, and former CIO of the London Borough of Camden, John Jackson, says: “We’re really focused on the fundamental transformation of teaching and learning in the UK. We’ve been thinking very carefully about how we can do that.”

He points out that while there are some outstanding examples of technology adoption in schools, others are failing to grasp the opportunity to use technology to enhance children’s education while also saving money.

“It is the historic focus on the adoption and purchasing of technology in schools, as opposed to the absorption of technology into the education system, that is the biggest challenge and problem bedevilling IT in schools today,” says Jackson.

Subscriptions buy bulk benefits

To make it easier for schools to adopt technology, the organisation offers a service called Smart Buy, whereby LGfL acts as a procurement body to buy large subscriptions of software on behalf of thousands of schools, which can then use it as part of their LGfL package.

“We save billions of pounds every year because we buy on a massive scale and re-invest that in education,” says Jackson.

An LGfL subscription gives schools access to different groups of technologies under a variety of labels. These include CyberCloud, which gives schools access to services such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection; a site licence for email filtering and ransomware protection from Malwarebytes; DigiSafe, which is aimed at keeping children safe on the internet through precautions such as checking URLs or creating standard policies and content; and SuperCloud, which provides services such as staff email, web hosting and user provisioning for Google Suite and Microsoft Office 365.

Under each of these different labels is a selection of technologies from third parties which are procured by LGfL and offered to schools through an LGfL subscription.

All of this comes under the organisation’s Let’s Get Digital campaign, which aims to encourage schools to be more forward-thinking in their deployment of digital technology.

Whether or not LGfL decides to buy up and then sell particular technologies as part of these services is based partly on demand and partly on prediction.

For example, Jackson says in the near future schools will be looking to move towards cloud, as well as increasingly adopting technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), all of which will require a sudden increase in bandwidth.

The organisation’s SuperCharge group of technologies tries to address this future bandwidth issue by offering access to the Janet network, a free school-based router and superfast 10Gbps fibre to schools, as Jackson expects schools will eventually end up needing between 500Mbps and 1Gbps of bandwidth.

He says that would raise network capacity in schools, enabling them to harness cloud applications, make those big platform plays, and use AR and VR.

Giving schools what they want

“We’re a listening organisation. I think any organisation that’s going to be successful with its customers, in our case schools, has to listen to what they want. And schools have shaped what LGfL purchases,” says Jackson.

The brand’s newly established partnership with Adobe, to make the Adobe Creative Cloud part of the LGfL subscription, is another example of this – something schools have been asking for.

While currently Adobe software would cost schools £300 a year, as part of an LGfL subscription secondary schools can get up to 100 licences for free, and primary schools will have access to at least 10.

“It’s a platform that’s known worldwide for inspiring creativity, and suddenly Adobe’s got potentially coverage of thousands of schools across the UK. Creative Cloud offers huge opportunities to be really different. You can do cool stuff not only for teachers, but for kids,” says Jackson.

“In fact, we’re seeing this as putting the most creative toolkit in the hands of the most creative nation in the world, and we think this is going to revolutionise teaching and learning. So that’s why we’re backing it.”

“Adobe Creative Cloud offers huge opportunities for teachers and kids. We see this as putting the most creative toolkit in the hands of the most creative nation in the world, and we think this is going to revolutionise teaching and learning”

John Jackson, London Grid for Learning

With the increase of automation across all industries, creativity is becoming an important skill to have, and an emphasis on the need for creativity is already being seen in the technology industry.

Jackson says part of LGfL’s partnership with Adobe is to fuel creative and innovative thinking.

“The UK has a long tradition of innovation, pioneering and world firsts. We have a tradition of leading the world in engineering, manufacturing, film making, fashion and technology. The UK is a creative nation, and it’s so important that our education system imbues and incubates our unique and incredible culture of innovation,” he says.

Digital support for teachers

But as in business, adopting new technology in education isn’t always necessarily about buying and setting up devices or software, but also assimilating it into the culture of an organisation – what Jackson calls the “hard part” of technology adoption.

Teachers often feel the brunt of this – not only can it be tough for them to integrate new technology into classrooms and lessons, they often lack the support and resources that could make the process easier.

“In very successful organisations there’s a low delta between adoption and absorption, but in most schools there’s a high delta between adoption and absorption – there’s a big gap,” says Jackson.

To ensure teachers have the support they need, LGfL also has a Let’s Get Digital team, dubbed Energise, which includes a special educational needs (Send) specialist, a mental health lead, curriculum leads and official Office 365 support for schools.

These teams are made up of different experts, such as ex-head teachers, ex-deputy head teachers, schools leaders and curriculum leaders – the TechSquad.

“In very successful organisations there’s a low delta between adoption and absorption, but in most schools there’s a high delta between adoption and absorption – there’s a big gap”
John Jackson, London Grid for Learning

Schools are visited regularly by these specialists, and its annual conferences are attended by around 600 schools from across the UK.

LGfL also gives teachers and schools access to content and resources to help not only with technology adoption, but also issues such as child bereavement or special educational needs.

Social media storm

More recently, the organisation has been using social media to push out its content and interact with different technology providers and schools – something that fuelled the partnership with Adobe which allowed the deployment of the Adobe Creative Cloud as part of an LGfL subscription.

When schools began requesting the software, Jackson said there was a bit of a “Twitter storm” between himself, schools and Adobe as they discussed the possibility of making the software available.

“We use social media a lot,” says Jackson. “We’ve got special networks that we’ve created for things like Send, we’ve got more than 1,000 special needs coordinators in our social network that share things like news bulletins, best practices, what’s going on. We do the same now with mental health, and we’ve got a safeguarding network.”

LGfL also has a video channel featuring case studies where schools share their best practice, as well as blogs.

Collaboration is the way forward

Many believe technology adoption in education will only be successful if education providers gain help from both government and industry as part of a collaboration effort.

Part of LGfL’s offering is supported by partnerships with technology providers. For example, the organisation partnered with Advantis to make AR and VR technology available as part of LGfL membership. It also announced 50 Google Cloud Champion schools at its annual conference to give them the opportunity to develop and share best practice for adoption with other schools.

But Jackson claims “breakthrough innovation” is rarely “delivered in silos” and says collaboration between industry, government and education providers is the way forward.

This doesn’t necessarily mean change should be “technology led”, says Jackson, as this can often lead to technology being put ahead of actual education, using up funding and putting teachers under pressure.

Making sure technology is properly adopted is a different story – as the old adage says, just because you can does not mean you should.

This is where partnerships between education systems, government and industry should come into play, according to Jackson.

“Absorption means alignment of technology funding with government policy, it means funding and developing the digital leadership skills in educational leaders so they can harness digital innovation, and it is about making technology affordable so that schools aren’t sacrificing front-line teaching capacity to fund kit and platforms,” Jackson surmises.

“Now, more than ever, the edtech [education technology] community, government, policy-makers and influencers need to collaborate together to deliver a systemic change to UK education. Only then will we inspire our children and teachers to be the very best they can be.”

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