In the last few years the CIO’s role in education has evolved from traditional to transformational as it has become clear that digitalization, including remote learning and business-process automation, opens the door to new opportunities for teachers, students, and schools. The transformation of a sector is a slow process, however, and scepticism about introducing digital tools in educational organizations can put the brakes on the adoption of emerging technology.
The challenge for CIOs in education is not so much technological as it is about methodology — figuring out how best to introduce new tools and show their relevance, says George Akhras, CIO at Academia Management Solutions International. AMSI is a school management company that provides services including school design and construction, curriculum planning, and academic-related related IT services; it counts 6,000 graduates among the schools it works with.
“The CIO in education is nowadays responsible for digital transformation and integrating IT in the school or university development strategy — introducing and deploying new disruptive technologies to mainstream teaching and learning to preserve the institution’s competitive edge in providing top-notch but cost-effective education to students without compromising the profit, to guarantee continuity and improvement,” Akhras says.
In the last few years AMSI has launched a blockchain-based records-management system and enhanced its learning management system (LMS) to offer a virtual classroom experience for students.
“Change is difficult and in some cases resisted; the most effective way is to start from the top. When the management and senior leadership teams subscribe to the new systems and accept the change all other staff will follow,” Akhras says.
Blockchain optimizes record keeping, security
AMSI’s experience with blockchain shows what role the distributed ledger technology can play in the world of education. It can automate record-keeping and distribution of degrees and exams while securing against fraud, such as plagiarism and unauthorized changes in grades.
All AMSI school certificates and transcripts have been published on a blockchain system since May 2019. AMSI started exploring the technology at the end of 2017 and by mid-2018 some high school diplomas were digitized and published on the blockchain. Every student in the graduating class of 2019 received an e-diploma during the graduation ceremony.
This academic year, all students from K-12 at AMSI schools are going to receive digital copies of all their school documents on the blockchain. For its blockchain implementation, AMSI uses Hyperledger — the Linux Foundation’s blockchain project — and deployed it with blockchain partner Educhain.
According to AMSI, its graduates will be fully in control of the academic records they request and receive and the complexity of the related administrative processes will be decreased. Records may be requested online, released in real time, and shared as deemed necessary, instantly without any third party’s involvement. Meanwhile, other schools, universities or companies are able to verify the authenticity of the credentials in AMSI’s verification portal.
“All AMSI schools’ student records are digitized. This data is securely stored on our private cloud which is hosted on many servers in our campuses and with providers in and outside of the UAE,” Akhras says.
COVID accelerates remote learning
In 2020, meanwhile, with all schools shut down because of the pandemic, distance learning was the only solution for continuing education. Time was of the essence and many steps had to be taken to provide a working, sustainable online system, Akhras says.
“We integrated a virtual classroom plug-in to our existing learning management system with many features including but not limited to: an interactive calendar, coursework and content, virtual classroom plug-in, homework and projects, dynamic quizzes and many question types, discussion boards, polls, surveys and a lot more,” Akhras says.
The system serves more than 8,000 users, students, teachers and staff. The technical part of the initiative included renting and deploying more than 25 servers behind several load balancers to provide fast and reliable service, and expanding backup and storage capacity.
The technical part of the job, though, was easier than the training, outreach, and support aspect, Akhras says. The IT team had to remotely train the teachers and staff; communicate with parents and explain the new system; solve technical problems for teachers and parents; and provide equipment to those who needed.
“In our situation, innovation and digital transformation were key to our survival and success during those troubled times,” Akhras says. “We were the only team [IT] that grew in number and most definitely in skills and capacity.”