Tuesday, 27 October 2009

How Sustainable is ICT in Further Education?

A question I am often asked what difference in terms of environmental impact can we make when designing our ICT solution. This is something to consider for refurbishments as well as new builds. It is estimated that Further and Higher education has approximately 1.5 million laptops and PCs, 250,000 printers and about the same number of servers. Along with the couple of bob that costs for leasing/ purchasing comes an electricity bill estimated at over £100 million per annum.

Most Principals I talk to have an expectation that ICT will grow – and why shouldn’t they? After all, a well designed ICT system has the potential to deliver real gains and efficiencies for learners. With many future FE learners already enjoying the benefits of BSF investment in ICT, expectations are rising daily and FE is a prime area for augmenting learning and delivering flexible programmes through the use of online learning packages.

With these imperatives we may be expecting (or investing in) a level of growth that is unsustainable (both environmentally and economically). So how might this be mitigated? To some extent we can look to improvements in the technology over time but more importantly we need to make the right choices in system design and utilisation. This, however, assumes that a College is capable and engaged with taking a medium to long term view in implementing their ICT strategy. History teaches us this is has not always been the case, with systems developed using sporadic bursts of funding. The BCF programme offered a real chance to for a College to take a strategic view and design an ICT solution from first principles. Yes, I know ‘strategic’ is one of the most over used words in ‘management speak’, but how many colleges look to five years ahead and identify the goal and put together the plan/ steps/ funding stages to achieve that goal? The following are key areas for consideration:

* Conduct an audit of computing needs for each department
* Establish a percentage of needs that could be met by energy efficient thin client applications (which are rapidly gaining in efficiency and effectiveness and can significantly reduce the refresh cycle)
* Review storage requirements, both current and projected, and consider alternatives to high energy ‘always on and spinning’ in-house storage (a space saving measure that may lead to regaining floor space)
* Assume some servers need to remain on site but move also towards virtualisation of servers
* Prepare to blend these with Cloud-computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) hosting.
* Consider ways to automatically ‘turn off’ the ICT infrastructure when not in use
* Be rigorous in monitoring energy use and balance this with system capacity
* Reduce printing by moving to strategically placed high efficiency multi function printers and print release tracking systems
* Move further to paperless systems using document handling systems that effectively copy and file existing paper documents (and consider how much floor space that would release!)
* Make an informed estimate that within very few years, all learners will bring a WiFi enabled device to college for personal use, and build a system that will allow them access to learning materials whilst protecting your systems
* Make another informed decision that learners like to access materials remotely and at time that suit them. 24/7 learning offers colleges real opportunities.
* Save petrol. Explore the role of Skype-style video for small group tutorials. Lecturers can deliver this from college or home. Also a great support for distance learning and extended hours.

So if that is some of the meat in the sandwich (there is more and much can be done without buying lots of kit) then how would it be achieved?

Well, it’s not news that it has to be a top down and bottom up approach. Whilst that sounds just like the posture one might have to adopt to connect a device to the back on your PC, it really means that there is often an imbalance between the management agenda and that of other staff. An ICT strategy has to be shared and owned by all before implementation. It is relatively simple to set this up but it requires a targeted effort that includes all staff and particularly departmental champions.

Ultimately all parties need to accept that ICT is ‘mission critical’. There can be no 21st Century education without ICT. If this premise is accepted then management, departments and individuals can begin to fully engage in driving that agenda in positive and sustainable steps that all parties can buy into.

Stephen Norris

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Why do some educationalists not recognise the benefits of ICT?

I don’t for one minute believe I can answer this question in a few short sentences and I will not set out to. I do hope to illustrate some benefits recognised by those outside education yet supporting it.
Who wants to sit at a computer all day? Certainly not me!
Who wants to take longer than necessary to do a task or activity? Certainly not me!
Who wants to expose themselves to physical danger through a lack of knowledge or preparation? Certainly not me!

Although it is unpleasant to sit at a computer all day it has to be recognised in life, in business and in education that sitting at the computer is not only necessary to communicate but it is necessary for the production of many business outcomes. It is also necessary to improve the speed of production and the quality of these business outcomes. Very often the nature of the outcome is vastly enhanced too by the use of the computer.

At one time the computer associated with my work was a luxury for doing critical path analysis in new product development instead of working on paper. The computer beautifully and automatically identified key moments in development to make sure the right thing was being done to enable the new product to hit the market smoothly.
The computer then became an important device to support me at the end of the day whilst processing my evidence from classroom observations and interviews whilst inspecting schools.

It has now become an integrated part of my working life with ongoing connectivity for communication throughout the day for discussion and document sharing, a way into online documentation and national guidance, a tool for creating documents and presentations, a tool for capturing the views of staff and youngsters in schools and a storage device for the many agendas and meeting minutes.

There are some within education that do not value the contribution that the computer can bring; why is that? Do these people have a good understanding of the computer’s capability? Do these people appreciate the importance of the individual to effectively integrate with a computer when they leave school or college to operate productively in a business, scientific, technological or other employed or self employed environment?

If a student is not fully exposed to the wide range of functionalities of the computer they will not be ready and they will be disadvantaged. Students need to be able to engage effectively with the computer environment and in some cases be comfortable to learn using the technology in self motivated and self directed way. This doesn’t happen on its own!

Developments are ongoing to improve the technology available and also to improve the way technology is used. Within the last 10 years we have seen an incredible shift from the point where complex modelling software needed to run on a local PC, to the point where modelling can quite happily take place on the internet with real time cause and effect displayed well.

The Royal Society of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Company Pfizer have teamed up to create the ‘Discover Chemistry Programme’. They are concerned about the future of the chemical industry and wish to promote skills in this area. One area of focus in this respect is an initiative linked to Bristol University to distribute Labskills software. This software allows students to experiment ‘virtually’ in the first instance and become familiar with the experimental environment and safety issues. The idea being that students are more confident when they enter the lab, and engage with the chemistry in a more meaningful and safe way.

Some in education would think it a surprise that the Royal Society of Chemistry would promote such virtual working. However, the educational environment is not ideal for all students and time constraints can inhibit the effective progress of many. It is seen very much as a supplement to real practical work.

I hope those in education that fail to see the benefit of ICT will recognise the benefits seen by the Royal Society of Chemistry and also be thankful to the commercial organisation Pfizer for their investment and similarly thankful to Bristol University for recognising the need and developing a virtual environment to make this happen.

I hope that the software is used in the spirit for which it is intended, is used appropriately and supplements the ‘real’ practical work of students. It would be a shame for students not to be able to use the software; it would be a disaster if it replaced real experiments through financial or curriculum constraints.

To read more about the Discover Chemistry Programme visit;


Brendan Geoghegan

Monday, 12 October 2009

Naace's Autumn conference 2009

This year's Autumn Naace conference took place last Friday and Saturday and, as it was my first experience of this, I thought I'd share a couple of things I learned.

1. The Home Access programme, for all its potential pitfalls and doubtless negative future press ("Barmy Becta's mobile devices sold for glue" etc) looks like it could be a truly transformational initiative, making a real difference to disadvantaged families. This is, after all, what central government should be all about. Becta's Steve Goodman gave details of the offer (device + support + connectivity + software + assistive kit if required), who was eligible (Free School Meals families, essentially, starting with those in KS2 + 3) and the news that they plan to get 270,000 households safely across the Digital Divide by late 2011, regardless of the looming spectre of Gove et al. My opinion is that if these devices are to most effective (most will be mobile), they need to integrate successfully with any Managed Service being offered by BSF projects. This is partly a challenge for MSPs but it would be reassuring to know that Becta had thought about it too (perhaps through a basic set of standards all devices would comply with?). In summary though; looks exciting!

2. Vital Skills (a DCSF-funded regionally-delivered project from eSkills UK and the OU) is positioning itself as the antidote to NOF, which is good because I'm still suffering recurrent symptoms. I was hoping to leave this session with a clear understanding of what Vital's concrete offering would be, but I'm still a little hazy about this. Here's what I hope will be the cornerstones; school-based, colleague-led, practice-driven initiatives which go far beyond 'training'. Debbie Forster and Peter Twining raised this very interesting question however; why we as teachers spend so long developing brilliant practice for helping others learn, but revert to the simplest and least effective of didactic methods when engaging in professional development ourselves...

3. Twitter at conferences; It's a good thing if contributions are evenly spread across a diverse audience. I liked Chris Gerry's suggestion that people offer live criticism of his section, so that he could rebut it there and then!

4. New Line Learning. I already know a fair bit about this project (these two Kent Academies are clients of Novatia) but I was blown away by the clarity and scope of Dr. Chris Gerry's vision for how ICT should be impacting on students' lives. The Business Intelligence model he described (essentially getting to grips with as much knowledge about learners as is possible, from a range of sources, and using similar historical data to see which interventions work best with these groups of young people) has the potential to fundamentally change how the education sector uses data; honestly, it's an information revolution in the making. Talking to a fellow delegate on the way out, we wondered why the big MIS players hadn't addressed this before and concluded that it must have been down to the market's appetite for such a product. But if New Line Learning can get it to work as described on the tin, I can't think of a school in the world that wouldn't want to buy it, such is the ability to intervene and change lives it will afford.

Congratulations to Naace and all the contributors for two very illuminating days.

Dominic Norrish