Monday, 29 March 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 2)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...
In a previous blog in this series we covered integration with design, specifically making sure you have thought through the spaces required to enable ICT to work properly and to be accessed flexibly. This time, it's integration with third parties:

I know what you're thinking, but such are the times we live in, so we may as well make sure it's not a total waste of money...

CCTV is typically provided outside the ICT contract and will be provided and specified between the Mechanical & Electrical people and the Builder. However, value for money as well as environmental and ongoing sustainability can be enhanced if the CCTV system makes use of the ICT structured network, rather than a proprietary cabling system or even (yes, it does happen) a separate IP network.

Liaison between those specifying the CCTV and those specifying the network infrastructure is required as early as possible. This is to identify the location and quantity of the necessary Power over Ethernet (PoE) network points and associated active networking equipment. The joy of PoE is the fact that it removes the need for small power - many CCTV cameras can draw the electricity they require straight down the same network cable they are using to send and receive data. This means that you can stick a PoE device (in this case a CCTV camera) anywhere where there is a PoE cable - and that's pretty handy in terms of future flexibility. The flip side is that switches capable of serving PoE devices cost more and this is bound to be a bone of contention - who should pay for the infrastructure to support CCTV? Should it be allowed to reduce the money available for student equipment? The answer seems stunningly obvious to me, but there is often fun to be had before various budget holders agree on it.

The location of cameras needs discussion, as this obviously has a knock on effect for the number of PoE switches needed. A good compromise, if future requirements cannot be accurately foreseen (imagine that!), is to provision a number of PoE outlets in likely spots or places which no-one can seem to agree on, but not to make them live (i.e. don't buy the switch to plug them into yet). This means there will be some future flexibility without too much initial outlay.

Access control
Electronic access control throughout a school has the potential to provide a token or biometric-based, secure and sustainable access strategy with layers of privileges based on role (e.g. student, 6th former, community user, teacher, site agent) - imagine no keys and a school which intelligently knows who should be able to get into each space. This principle can be extended beyond doors too - Lapsafe offer a pretty cool access-controlled laptop store, and things like the staff car park barrier can also be integrated into the solution. However, access control also has the potential to be prohibitively expensive if not intelligently designed in to the building/ grounds at the planning stage.

Schools are well advised to consider in detail a design which will allow their building to be zoned, permitting the easy and efficient locking down of areas when not in use, sparing the expense of mechanical locks and card/ biometric readers on every door. In a zoned school, only key doors are accessed controlled, reducing costs and enabling the school to focus money ensuring that certain important shared resources (e.g. laptop storage rooms, staff workrooms) are electronically accessed controlled, giving open access to these resources to whoever needs them, rather than who happens to have cajoled a key out of the caretaker. Failing to go through this thinking process this at the design stage an (in my experience) only results in one thing - access control is deemed too expensive and is removed or watered right down (e.g. only the front door or a separate system, not linked to the cards/ biometric tokens being used for other things like cashless catering).

Similarly to CCTV (above), Access Control can utilise of the structured network for cost savings and flexibility. Equally similarly though, the implications of increased PoE switching must not be allowed to detract from the educational impact of the ICT budget.

For both technologies, if the IP network is down or slow, so are the CCTV & Access Control. Who is accountable for designing/ configuring/ testing this aspect of the service and who takes the penalties for poor performance? These matters need to be discussed and understood by all parties.

Next (and last) time: legacy, cabling, M&E and FF&E

Dominic Norrish. Follow me on Twitter

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The future of BSF under a Conservative administration?

Whilst recent weeks have seen plenty of speculation on the future of the world's largest school rebuilding programme in the event of a Conservative government, facts have been rather harder to come by.

Nick Gibb (shadow schools' minister) has come closest to letting the cat out of the bag during a couple of relatively low-key events, but the people who actually know the answer (Dave C and Mike G) are keeping their cards closer to their more experienced chests. Bob Harrison's coverage on Merlin John's website of Gibb's statements can be read here and here.

Personally, however, I'm not convinced the Tories will dismantle BSF, for a number of reasons;

  • Firstly, Gibb's statements have the ring of politicking about them - sabre-rattling without actually making any commitments or stating a policy position. I mean, the guy has got to say something, and "our policies are essentially the same as Labour's" doesn't sound that impressive, however accurate. Someone who really ought to know the truth recently told me that Gibb may have been 'off message' on this one. Indeed, one of his statements last week reveals a lot about his role in the decision making process; "I'm not shadow chancellor, and shadow ministers are told on pain of death not to make spending promises".
  • I'm not the shadow chancellor either, but I do know that one of the things even inexperienced administrations don't do in tough economic times is cut spending on public works as it only makes things worse, with unemployment jumping as (in this case) thousands of builders find themselves out of work. Ally this to the somewhat cynical view that the big building companies and core Tory support have, er, aligned interests, and a dramatic slash and burn policy seems even remoter.
  • Michael Gove has been quite clear on some of the targets of his axe - the National Programme for IT in the NHS and quangos such as Becta for example, but no mention has been made of BSF. If the programme was actually on the blacklist, I would have expected far more political capital to have been made from its high-profile 'failures' over recent months. 
What seems much more likely is a reshaping of the programme along Conservative lines. In my opinion, BSF under the Tories might look like this;

  • Sped up - a money saving tactic, which carries the risk of inappropriate/ broken outcomes. In my experience, unfortunately, it's the lack of time which detracts from projects' success even under the current time scales.
  • Slimmed down - in order to achieve the time savings above. The obvious way of doing this is to shorten the procurement process, and one route might be to remove choice and variety - school designs could be standardised and the 'architectural vanity projects' which seem to be the real focus of much of BSF would disappear. Expect many more refurbs and reuse of commercial properties, with far, far fewer new buildings.
  • Regionally delivered - this fits closely with a Conservative philosophy which militates against big government and as Nick Gibb said, the centrally planned nature of the programme "works against the direction we want to go in". PfS don't seem unduly worried right now, so perhaps a reshaped administration is possible?
  • Less emphasis on transformation - the very word implies that something is wrong with the way things are done, which isn't necessarily how Cameron et al see it. The emphasis may well be on, in their own phrase, 'benefits realisation' which roughly translates as 'better not different'. This is obviously worrying to anyone who actually knows anything about education in this country. The Conservative view has historically been backwards looking, which leads me to the final change...
  • Minus the 10% ICT investment - many commentators in the Twitterverse and Blogosphere have noted that the Conservatives don't 'get' the need for education to use technology, much less the fundamental change implied by putting students in control of their learning through ICT. It's a quick win, an easy way to speed up and slim down the process (removing the need for consortia of builders and ICT suppliers) and much less likely to result in lower tax receipts due to unemployment. It's also the only change which would pose a genuine threat to this country's long term economic security. Worryingly short sighted.
These are just my personal opinions; it will be interesting to see how they pan out over the next few months, should the Conservatives manage to rejuvenate their currently shrinking lead, of course...

Dominic Norrish
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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Integrating ICT into a new build school (Part 1)

This series of blogs draws on my experience from various single-school and BSF new build projects in the UK over the past few years, the aggregated lesson of which is that many, if not all problems related to ICT can be easily overcome if identified and planned for at the outset. The inverse of this is sadly equally true - show me a design team which has failed to consider integration issues and I'll show you a 'new old school' which will transform very little about its students' education. There is a reason why on any Risk Register for ICT you will find, right at the top, next to a big red flag, a risk labelled 'Integration with Design'...


Integration of ICT with the Design
Lessons learned from previous new build projects recommend consideration of how ICT will impact on the building at the earliest opportunity to facilitate the accurate capturing of requirements in the architects’ Design Brief.

Unfortunately, I have worked on too many projects where this advice was only brought on board relatively late in the design process, the upshot of which being that decisions and assumptions had been made, many of which were incorrect or did not reflect what the school's staff and students actually wanted to do in the spaces concerned.

Schools' voice in this process is surprisingly small and can be drowned out by those of the 'design professionals' - the architect, builder, mechanical and electrical people - and perhaps we shouldn't be shocked that the Headteacher or Deputy leading the project for their school is guided by these professionals. The thing to remember is that rarely do they have any firm grasp of what a C21st school should be like - this is the main thing school staff must repeatedly and loudly champion in the design process.

A lack of educational thinking becomes a real problem if the build contract is let without considering technology integration. If the builder has provided a price based on a set of requirements, it is understandable that they will robustly resist attempts to add items to the list without the budget rising commensurately, and this is essentially what happens if full consideration of ICT has not taken place prior to the main contract's tender.

An example would be if the builder had priced for every power and network point to be delivered via dado trunking on the walls (a common assumption - it's how it's done in many other sectors), only to be told a couple of months down the line that the school's requirement for flexible learning spaces means power and data needs to be served through floor boxes. In this scenario, only one thing happens, in my experience: the school is forced to curb its ambitions. It's labelled as a compromise. What it actually amounts to is poor project management leading to a constraint on the education of generations of students who will have to use this hobbled building.

So, with that cautionary tale in mind, let's look at three of the key areas to consider:

Server and Hub spaces
The quantity, sizing, construction materials, operational use, location, power supply and air conditioning of spaces to house server and edge network equipment requires specialist technical advice as mistakes or oversights at the design stage can inflict serious and ongoing risks to the school’s ICT service. Get this wrong (and I've seen them placed next to toilets and in damp basements) and a lifetime of network fragility beckons. Cable run lengths are pertinent here too, with 90m being the accepted technical limit for copper network cables. For example, your most distant outpost of the wired network (e.g. an external Wireless Access Point on the building's external wall) must be within 90m of a hub room. Obvious stuff, but often not fully thought through, resulting in genuine questions such as "What did you want wireless coverage outside for anyway?"

Shared technology spaces
The need to design-in open access areas for shared resources is critical. This provision can range from simple breakout spaces for groups, capable of hosting/ storing printers, cameras etc., to full plaza-style technology- heavy rooms with fixed and mobile devices, providing computing services for up to 90 students. The concept remains the same; local, open access to centralised resources reducing the need to duplicate provision in every classroom, promoting sustainability and optimal utilisation. The alternative to not thinking about this? ICT suites with 30 PCs around the periphery...

Without adequate provision for, e.g. a place to site shared printers, the inevitable result will be that users of every separate room will perceive a need for a local device; hardly an affordable or sustainable solution. Essentially, schools need to ask themselves questions about how spaces will be used; What kind of activities using technology might take place here? What happens once 300 students start concurrently using their iPhones in here in 3 years time? How many computers will need a wired connection to the network in this space? The answers to all of these questions (and more) have serious implications, e.g. for the quantity and location of network cables.

Mobile Device storage
School-owned mobile devices of some description are likely to form the core of flexible provision to computing resources in the medium term. These devices will need to be stored securely, especially if parts of the building will be open after hours and used by members of the community. Of equal importance is the need to charge devices without the resultant heat impacting on learning environments. Both requirements suggest the consideration at the design stage of defined charging spaces capable of being securely isolated from general access and mechanically ventilated. The result of not designing such storage in? 'Shared' technologies which actually never leave their host classroom, creating silos of good practice at best.

It's not all doom and gloom, thankfully. Most projects I have worked on have taken the time (or taken on the capacity) to take this step back and ensure that the building is designed around the collective experience of the  leaders, teachers and students who already know what its like to use technology in schools not designed to accommodate it.


Next time; CCTV and Access Control - how to save money and actually get the provision you want

Dominic Norrish
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