Jul 01 2020

The IT Investment Priorities Shaping Today’s School Districts

Education stakeholders have plenty to consider as they assess technology spending amid budget constraints.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced school leaders to navigate a new normal in education defined by remote learning, hybrid classes and physically distanced classrooms.

For many, the changes have either introduced new technology challenges or shined a spotlight on existing ones, from the digital divide to weak cybersecurity training. But as schools have re-evaluated their technology environments and planned investments, they have faced another hurdle: massive cuts in public education funding triggered by statewide economic decline.

To find the path forward, education stakeholders will have to work together to identify solutions that meet their school districts’ specific needs. Because increasing transparency around technology spending enables smarter decisions, it’s important for school leadership to also understand current investment priorities and where they are heading.

Earlier this year, CDW partnered with IDG to conduct a survey on just that — how IT and business leaders in K–12 and higher education are balancing investments in four essential areas: security, workplace productivity, infrastructure modernization and transformative technologies for students.

Here are key findings IT and education leaders should take note of, especially as they face an uncertain future.

Increased Staff Training, Risk Visibility Are Top Security Priorities

It’s no surprise that cybersecurity is still a pressing concern among IT leaders. Cyberattackers increasingly threaten school districts because of the troves of sensitive data they hold.

The unexpected shift to remote learning has also left many districts vulnerable to cybersecurity risks in different ways. For example, educators may be using unvetted digital tools for online teaching or accessing student data on their personal devices as they work from home.

That’s why educating users is so important, says Amy McLaughlin, cybersecurity project director for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). There needs to be ongoing training throughout the year that makes cybersecurity a part of the school culture, she says.

CDW and IDG survey findings also reflect that importance: 43 percent of education leaders said they’re investing in security awareness and staff training, making it the top security issue they’re trying to solve over the next two years, followed by deploying preventive or detection systems (40 percent) and integrating security into software development processes (38 percent).

Additionally, respondents from K–12 schools were more likely to cite redefining risk management-related roles and responsibilities as an action they are prioritizing over the next two years (43 percent), compared with those in higher education (26 percent). This reveals that there’s still work to be done on the K–12 side in taking an organizational approach to risk management.

Building a cybersecurity program that enables IT teams to rapidly detect and mitigate threats is also crucial, and that involves improving visibility to pinpoint existing and potential gaps in their security approach.

To do so, 37 percent of education respondents said they’re considering investing in security assessments using external consultants. They’re also looking to adopt web security (35 percent) and cloud-based identity management solutions (35 percent) to enhance their district’s risk posture, which will also help protect today’s virtual classrooms.

43%

The percentage of K–12 school leaders who say redefining risk management-related roles and responsibilities is a top priority over the next two years.

Source: IDG, “2020 Insights: Technology Investment Priorities,” February 2020

A Simplified Workflow Is Essential to Remote Teaching

In an era of remote and blended classrooms, school districts continue to look for technology solutions that not only engage students in online learning but also simplify workflow for teachers.

According to CDW and IDG survey findings, the top three technology solutions IT leaders in K–12 and higher education are considering to improve workplace productivity, flexibility and engagement are collaboration (53 percent), storage (41 percent) and file-sharing (39 percent) tools. For example, adopting enterprise-grade collaboration software such as G Suite Enterprise for Education or Microsoft Office 365 Education enables teachers to organize class materials and work together in real time, even from a distance.

However, implementing these types of solutions also comes with challenges, from cost to lack of employee training. Fortunately, survey respondents understand those hurdles.

To overcome them over the next two years, most plan to identify opportunities for performance improvements and cost savings (38 percent) and develop an organizationwide vision or strategy (38 percent). Also, 35 percent of IT and education leaders said developing strategies for technology deployments and integration is necessary.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to make the case for security spending.

Cloud Computing Paves the Way for School Innovation

K–12 education continues to evolve to better serve an ever-expanding, diverse group of students. For instance, over the past few years, school districts nationwide have introduced new technologies into the classroom, including artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Supporting and sustaining that kind of innovation requires modernized infrastructure. That’s why many districts have migrated to the cloud or embraced hybrid cloud solutions that allow IT teams to easily manage, scale and protect necessary devices and networks. They’re also able to save on infrastructure costs that come with maintaining legacy systems.

Case in point: Cloud monitoring and IT cost management tied for top priority, with 43 percent of K–12 and higher education respondents to the CDW and IDG survey citing them as essential to modernizing infrastructure, followed by integrating legacy systems with new applications (32 percent).

Respondents also expect to continue investing in cloud computing services. They project that two years from now, the percentage of their districts’ total IT environment leveraging cloud services will be 29 percent Software as a Service, 25 percent Infrastructure as a Service and 25 percent Platform as a Service. Meanwhile, they envision a noncloud model only making up 20 percent of that environment.

It’s also important to note that respondents from K–12 schools were more likely to report they are least well-positioned to meet business goals in modernizing infrastructure (30 percent), compared with those in higher education (10 percent), which shows that barriers such as limited budget, staff resources and lack of executive support are still very present.

READ MORE: Find the right cloud solution for your district's needs.

Investing in Data-Driven Education Comes with Benefits

Technology has the potential to enhance students’ learning experiences, improve student outcomes and close achievement gaps, especially when used in the classroom.

CDW and IDG survey findings reveal that IT and education leaders understand that potential, allocating the largest portion of their budgets (31 percent) to transforming the student experience, compared with modernizing the technology backbone (27 percent), improving workplace productivity (24 percent) and mitigating risk (20 percent).

But what sort of technology are they looking to adopt the most? Data or analytics tools came first, with 47 percent of respondents saying they plan on investing in them over the next two years. Internet of Things came second, at 37 percent, tied with artificial intelligence, also at 37 percent.

These technologies are particularly important today, as they can help districts address potential learning slides caused by extended school closures last spring. For example, data analytics tools can help teachers identify where students are struggling and adapt their instruction to best accommodate them.

However, using these technologies is easier said than done. It’s no surprise then that respondents in K–12 and higher education said they are prioritizing staff training (43 percent), identifying opportunities for performance and experience improvements (36 percent) and implementing an organizationwide strategy (36 percent) when rolling out new tools to transform the student experience.

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