Back to school - how the data centre is powering a new approach to learning

Written by Kelly Scott, Client Director (Education & Research), VIRTUS Published 2019-03-11 14:54:29

When we think about data centres, a number of issues might spring to mind. We might first think of IT directors’ pain points; their challenges around security, uptime and budget, and how it’s a company’s underlying infrastructure that will ultimately support their growth ambitions. Or, our attention may turn to the capacity challenges that come with big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It’s unlikely though, that our first thoughts will be on what happens in the classroom - and how data centres are a crucial part of our lives, right from the start of our schooling.

But it’s true. Data centres are everywhere, enhancing all aspects of our lives, even if we don’t know it. Importantly, they’re the power behind modern teaching methods.

Let’s take a step back. It’s universally agreed that technology is fundamentally reshaping the learning experience - that it’s no longer a luxury, but an all-important necessity. Technology can help institutions change pedagogy and deliver a flexible, progressive and student-centred learning approach which focuses on meeting the demands of a digitally literate student base. Smart classrooms foster opportunities for better teaching by integrating technology such as computers, specialised software, audience response technology and audio/visual capabilities, into lessons.

And smart technology is moving quickly, progressing in line with the infrastructure that supports it. Where interactive whiteboards were once the hot technology in learning, we’ve now moved on to a whole new level of technology innovation.

Harnessing data is a fundamental part of this progression. Teachers can now use apps such as Visible Classroom to record their lessons, using iPads or smartphones to capture a session, helping them to review their performance and improve aspects of their teaching accordingly. This type of app feeds data into the data centre, where it is processed and sent back as useful information to be analysed. Teachers can see how often they’re talking (and for how long), review the engagement rate of their class - even see how many questions are asked or answered in a single session. This enables staff to look closely at their effectiveness, what’s working and what could be improved - empowering them to develop a teaching style which they know will meet the requirements of their students.

Data doesn’t stop there. Mirroring the use of data in the commercial world, we now see more sophisticated adoption of performance analytics in education. Used in the correct way, data can help educators understand students’ learning behaviours and where they’re excelling or struggling. Harnessing data allows teachers to personalise learning journeys and demonstrate added value.

For universities, supercomputing and deep learning is powering a new wave of research capabilities. For example, machine learning is helping researchers take significant steps forward in drug development. Traditionally, the development process requires scientists to sift through vast amounts of research data, searching for patterns or connections which suggest a productive research direction. Keeping up with the rate at which new scientific knowledge is produced is almost impossible, but supercomputing speeds this process up exponentially, automating data collection, providing processing power and speed that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Being able to store data effectively, and being able to access and interpret it as meaningful actionable information, is vitally important to educators across the board, from early learning years to university researchers, and will give huge advantages to the institutions that do it well. On the flip side, the implications of not getting it right are significant. Failures in the network could result in school systems being shut down, and huge disruption to students and teachers alike.

It’s absolutely crucial that schools have the right infrastructure in place to support the demands of technology powered education. Lots of connectivity, storage and computing power is required - and all of this is facilitated by the data centre.

Changes to the UK’s school system sees this issue becoming more important than ever. More and more schools are becoming multi academy trusts (MATs), and seeking to capitalise on one of the well-publicised benefits of this move: economies of scale in their IT infrastructure. An immediate reduction in staff resource is promised. Infrastructure can be standardised and used across all schools, with centrally managed security policies. Even if individual schools have different requirements, virtualized servers can provide the platform across which these separate needs are met, reducing the amount of equipment required and the support time needed.

Indeed, the move to becoming part of a MAT is an ideal time for schools to consider how they operate and what equipment and connectivity they need. For many, it might also be the right time to bring data centre colocation into the mix.

Data centres are at the heart of the technology powered education model - and are becoming increasingly important as the school system changes and develops. The schools and multi school groups (MSGs) that get it right will be able to provide a better, more engaging, more effective and more measurable education than those that do not.

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