Data infrastructures … are schools being sold short?

Even when things  seem to be working smoothly on the surface, the data systems of every school are invariably in a precarious state. Our conversations with IT staff are beginning to highlight the vast amounts of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that sustain schools’ data use. This is generally described as an ongoing – if not thankless – task: “We spend a lot of time just firefighting and responding to incidents and things that come up … let alone maintenance” (Director of IT, Brookdale High School).

Much of this work stems from the fact that schools’ data systems (as with any form of IT infrastructure) do not function in a wholly controllable or predictable manner. While much of this is due to the frailties of wires, servers and other materialities of digital technology, there are a number of other problems relating to ways in which data systems are bought and sold.

For example, IT staff in all three schools described having to constantly ‘tinker’ and ‘tweak’ data platforms given the tradition in education to continually alter and amend IT systems. For example, Northland College had a tradition of steadily ‘churning’ its systems, including a major renewal of the central ‘Learning Management System’ every five or so years. As Northland technicians explained, the addition of each new system raised the considerable challenge of “trying to get all that data that exists in the other platforms and stick it back into [the new LMS]”.

As a result of the school management’s pursuit of ‘innovation’, technicians in Brookdale also faced continual system changes: “we’ve had a lot of change in a really short amount of time and a lot of [IT] staff are in change fatigue” (Director of IT). Elsewhere, Weston’s systems were in a similar state of flux – as one information specialist in the school reflected: “There’s an ad-hocness to it all”.

Tellingly, most technical staff in schools are fairly accepting of such challenges. Above all, it was suggested that there was little that could be done to alter the generally haphazard nature of the school IT market. In short, schools will always be looking to spend as little as possible on products that are often not up to scratch. Brookdale’s director of IT witheringly contrasted EdTech market against his previous time working for a multinational consultancy firm:

“If you were in [working in the] corporate [sector] and buy a [central data] system, you’d probably spend half a million dollars every year, something ridiculous in your licence fees for this main package that does all your core stuff.  We don’t spend anywhere near that. So a lot of these education vendors try and release a product which can fit in the education pricing model, but nobody really does it super well. They have small teams, their support is stretched … but the problem is we end up latching onto them because they give us a solution for 10 to 15 grand a year.  We can buy into their product which has a nice interface which shows the parents ‘Hey look how great we are we’ve got this lovely usable interface’ … but then …”