Intelligent investment in higher education

Can proactive purchasing help reduce the TCO of edtech without sacrificing quality of services to staff and students, asks Larry Day

The desire to reduce costs at universities is far from a new phenomenon – saving a few bob here and there has always been welcome! – but the need for the tightening of purse-strings has come into sharper focus in recent years with fee-paying students wanting more from their chosen institutions. And ‘more’ invariably means draining the coffers – but technology is becoming more and more vital for a variety of reasons beyond the obvious classroom usage.

“In a recent study, 74% of IT leaders say that with tuition fees at their highest, students are at their most demanding when it comes to technology expectations,” Alan Garratt, Senior National Account Manager at Casio UK, told us: “Eighty-five per cent of those surveyed agreed that technology plays a key role in competing against other universities and driving league table ratings.”

Keeping up with the herd – or even ahead of it – is a big deal, but state-of-the-art tech can be a pricey investment. How can a university continue providing top-quality edtech for its students and staff and stay within a sensible budget? It’s not as pie-in-the-sky as you might first think; if you keep an eye on a few crucial areas, you can minimise expenditure in the long run while still providing exceptional services.

Tony Leedham, Director of meeting and collaboration space experts Ashton Bentley, said that a low TCO (total cost of ownership) is key, but to be aware of unreliable hardware: “Equipment and facilities should be easier for students and staff to use and have lower downtime. Downtime has a cost. It could be someone’s paid time (a lecturer, perhaps) or it could be that equipment just doesn’t get used. This means a wasted investment and raised demand on those systems that do work.”

As well as something that can withstand constant daily usage, edtech with a degree of flexibility can come in very handy indeed. “The convergence of AV and IT has borne unexpected fruit,” said Spiros Andreou, service delivery manager at AV solutions company CDEC.

“With a range of cloud-based services that deliver scalable and agile technologies to learning spaces at a lower price point than hardware intensive approaches. This allows a university to scale up and down, move license entitlements across their estate and share with partner institutions and campuses without the cost and risk of hardware ownership,” Andreou added.

And Casio’s Garratt pointed out that those vertigo-inducing energy bills (and a university’s carbon footprint) can be shrunk with the right equipment: “With lamp-free projection technology, not only is the need for replacement bulbs totally eliminated; there are also lower electricity costs as the alternative LED and Laser hybrid light source demands less power.”

While the need for the ‘traditional’ items – such as the aforementioned projectors – remains, recent years have seen giant leaps into new realms, adding yet another dimension to the edtech dilemma. VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) are becoming more common in higher eduction settings, and these are especially helpful for students studying something such as medicine. Garratt explained: “It uses detailed 3D images to totally immerse viewers in real-life scenarios, enabling them to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of the human body and prepare them for life in the operating theatre. At Stanford University, VR headsets are being used to see inside beating hearts to explore defects and manipulate and observe how these impact normal functions of the organ.”

More generally, students are looking for technology that is connected, mobile, and reliable. The concept of BYOD (bring your own devices) is one which ties many loose ends together: students know how to use the devices already, the initial outlay is drastically minimised, and the devices are already mobile and connectible.

“In recent tenders,” said Andreou, “the Solstice Pod from Mersive is proving a useful tool, providing BYOD connectivity to any client device, enabling an unlimited number of users to collaborate by simultaneously sharing content, desktops, and application windows. It is this kind of ease of use that students demand while the collaboration it enables has repeatedly been shown to make the lesson more engaging while enabling all students in the room to participate, some of whom may not in a traditional teaching space.”

All of this adds up, and even the cost-minimising shortcuts require a certain level of investment; if you’re keeping apace with the frontier of edtech then you’ll be spending considerably more. Additionally, social shifts have raised the whole bar.

“Students will expect a higher level of learning environment, given that most students will be coming from a home environment and school who will be using mobile technology, it will already be playing a major part in their modern-day lives,” noted Brad Chuck of leading edtech suppliers Academia.

“There is an assumed increased cost associated with refreshing technology on a regular basis, however, when you strip down the true cost we believe this to be a myth,” continued Chuck. “Firstly the support and maintenance costs of technology increases with age, by refreshing technology regularly and taking out extended warranty provisions, universities can reduce their support overheads.”

One of the services Academia offer is specially designed to assist the refresh process. Their IT Lifecycle management service helps universities switch out older tech for newer hardware – and reduce TCO in the process. Chuck explained: “By adopting a more regular refresh cycle the residual value of the replaced technology helps universities funds a larger portion of the new technology, in turn reducing the total cost of ownership.”

While repeatedly investing in significant upgrades or overhauls might seem unnecessary, simply recycling older equipment and performing ‘quick fixes’ can often prove detrimental in more ways than one.

“[Regular investment] is crucial,” Garratt affirmed. “Not only when it comes to remaining competitive within the higher education sector, but also for students who are much more immersed in the world of the latest and most innovative technologies. Seventy-seven per cent say they need to move with the times to resonate with these students, who are more accustomed to interactive, visual experiences.”

Chuck added: “We have seen students choose one course over another based on the technology available to them. Universities now recognise this and we are seeing a shift towards more regular investments in technology as part of their recruitment drive.”

Fortunately, many suppliers are beginning to shift away from standard purchases and towards lease-type models. Daniel Maloney, technical marketing manager at digital video solutions company Matrox, told us that this is good for universities looking to keep up with the rampant pace of advances.

“Capital expenditure tends to front-load the cost of any new technology initiative,” Maloney explained. “As such, many manufacturers started reducing the upfront deployment costs by offering renewable yearly services contracts. If a technology project, like lecture capture for example, can be evaluated on a multi-year horizon, it may become advantageous to look for scalable solutions that minimise the yearly service contract fees and allow the school to incrementally purchase hardware as the budget allows.”

So with renewal plans, BYOD schemes, and intelligent investment, you can reduce the TCO without sacrificing quality of services to staff and students. Careful, considered choices will help universities to improve the level of technology they offer while also lightening the financial load – and where it seems that a constant influx of state-of-the-art tech is now the norm in an ultra-competitive higher education marketplace, this news is very welcome indeed.