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