New College is a college of Further and Higher Education, with a student population of around 3000 16-19 year-olds and 10,000 adults in full-time and evening courses. Located within walking distance of the town of Swindon, in rural Wiltshire, New College has been focusing on making its wireless infrastructure robust enough to handle anything. Let’s be realistic: a wired infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive, so there was no real choice in that sense.
Describing the college as being “definitely digital and possibly early networked”*, Phil Quinn, ICT Manager gives a snapshot of device usage in the college at one point in a pretty typical day: 1,634 unique devices, with 623 concurrent users.
The college takes ICT seriously. Every room has a computer and a projector, which staff not only use, but use well. Students often work from home, taking advantage of the college’s VLE, and using the Microsoft Live @ Edu software provided.
Quinn’s approach is based on the acknowledgement that you can’t tell (adult) students what kind of device they’re allowed to bring in. After all, in an area with the usual range of affluence, some people might wish to bring in something that is six years old which therefore has outdated wireless technology, while others are equipped with the latest smartphone. Consequently, the infrastructure has to be able to cope with any device.
This was no mean task. As well as the technicalities involved, there is also the negative Word of Mouth factor. Many people will immediately blame the wireless set-up when anything goes wrong, and that can have a deleterious effect on people’s willingness to use the facilities. So, as well as implementing a strong solution from Xirrus Wireless, Quinn took the bold step of setting up a wireless-only annexe – without telling anyone it was wireless! Only once it had been running for several months without a hitch did he inform people what they’d been using. So any negative “press” was prevented.
So why has the college gone down the Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) route? An obvious factor is cost: look at those student numbers again and this becomes obvious. But there’s also another, less prosaic reason: the recognition that if students and staff are to use technology, they need to feel as comfortable as possible with it. And for those who do not have a personal device, there are 80 computers belonging to the college. Remarkably, given the numbers, they are sufficient. There is also a college hardship fund for those who would like to bring in their own device but cannot afford to.
The college has had to ensure that there are appropriate policies and filtering in place, but Facebook isn’t blocked because it’s a very good way for the college to communicate with students.
Interestingly, the biggest challenge faced by Quinn and his colleagues was not technical; it was not even persuading anyone that a BYOT policy was a good idea. It was that people expect wi-fi to fail. Make sure people have confidence in the set-up, and you’re halfway there.
Further details of the college and its work may be found at: http://www.newcollege.ac.uk/contact-us/getting-to-new-college.html and http://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Case-study-New-College-Swindon-replaces-fixed-Ethernet-network-with-Wi-Fi
* “Digital” is where all the teaching staff have normalised the use of the digital in their everyday teaching, but the school is still operating as a discrete, ‘stand alone’ entity primarily within the traditional school walls; “early networked” is where the staff has normalised the use of the digital in their everyday teaching and are beginning to use the networks to operate outside the school walls and the normal school hours and starting to ‘teach’ more collaboratively with the students and their homes – educationally and/or administratively – and the wider networked community.