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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