One of the biggest education infrastructure projects happening at the moment in the UK is the £90 million creation of a new ‘shopping mall’ style campus in Doncaster in South Yorkshire. CIO UK took a quick look at this investment and how IT underpins the infrastructure back in October; now the college has had its doors open for a term it seemed a good time to see how things are faring.

Doncaster College is one element in the whole Doncaster Education City (DEC) project, being constructed on the waterfront in the centre of the city. The new campus will provide post-16 education in a range of areas, from traditional skills such as plumbing and hairdressing to postgraduate degrees in technology and the arts. All in all some 1,100 courses are currently offered. The structure links in turn to 200 learning gateways and e-learning facilities across the rest of the conurbation and Yorkshire generally. Doncaster plans to get its own full university by 2012.

Encouraging education

As a whole, the borough suffers from one of the lowest participation rates for adult learners in the UK. So one of the focuses of the project is promotion of lifelong learning via an innovative and accessible learning environment, where IT is going to play a big part, according to Graeme Tizard, director of IT in the corporate services team at Doncaster College. “We had a requirement for a cost-effective, upgradeable, state-of-the-art network infrastructure to complement our futuristic building and support our progressive educational vision,” he says.

"There’s a lot going for a job in IT in this sector – there are challenges but as there is less IT expertise around you get asked to do a great deal beyond your formal job role"

Graeme Tizard, IT director, corporate services team, Doncaster College

Leading edge technology is at the heart of the new site, dubbed The Hub: an environment full of plasma screens updating students with the latest news in and around the college, dedicated computer zones, a media room, laptop bars and seminar rooms making up the city’s learning resource centre.

Harmonious environment

With an emphasis on harmony with the environment, the new building has been developed with an eye on its impact on the surroundings. The design has focused on the creation of a compact and efficient space constructed from sustainable materials as well as a range of green innovations: rainwater is collected and then used for flushing toilets and the computer rooms are also water cooled.

So if you have a nice new building being built around you, the last thing you want is a clunky piece of networking or cables heaped all around the students. Tizard spent quite a bit of time making sure he got the structured cabling part of the project right. This was based on a number of considerations: utility, longevity and security. The final choice was a converged network that integrates data, VoIP, streamed video and multimedia applications. The network also acts as the major artery for all the campus’ building management services, digital IP-based CCTV security framework and access controls: there are over 600 remote controlled access doors, for example, as well as systems that mean a student can enrol and literally walk over and borrow a book from the library.

Multiple use

Tizard needed to find a technology that was cost-effective, multi-purpose and could last a long time. “For example, we wanted to see if any of the ceiling network points could not just do that but also support a video camera, act as a wireless access point or a temperature regulator.”

Tizard expects – like any good public sector IT manager – to sweat this new asset as fully as possible over the 20-year lifetime of the network’s warranty. As a result, he looked to ensure all necessary upgrades – adding or replacing servers or switches – could be done as simply as possible.

Having such an open access arena as a college can be a security nightmare for students – which is where the IP-based CCTV comes in. The network is based on a relatively new low-voltage based approach called power over ethernet, which means electricity is pumped along that wire not necessarily out of a point in the wall.

This is not only achieves another tick for the green agenda but also acts as an easy way for Tizard to extend the network’s features and functions: “We can put in IP telephones, video cameras or other network devices that have power needs at any one of the 8,000 network points around the building without needing co-located power sockets,” he says.
In sheer technology terms, for those in the know, Tizard evaluated a number of cabling approaches, ranging from standards like Cat 5e and Cat 6 to other options. In the end, he opted for a copper-based ethernet product that delivers 10Gb a second data capacity.

Student priorities

But the college’s network users probably are not that bothered with arguments around cabling standards and the use of brown fibre. What they are probably more interested in is capacity and performance. A case in point is Doncaster’s recent use of the network to broadcast to students a special gig by Radio One DJ Chris Moyles. “We recently live streamed that performance from the College website and it was a great success,” says Tizard, not perhaps a great listener to the abrasive disk jockey’s breakfast show but a fan of the way it highlighted the institution’s use of technology.

Such milestones underline Tizard’s own enthusiasm and commitment to the job of looking after IT in the education sector.

“I came to this job after 10 years at Sheffield College, having previously worked in industry. The Sheffield job was a very big engagement: we helped put together a lot of local colleges and institutions to create Sheffield, which was very hard work but gave me lots of experience, useful in this role. There’s a lot going for a job in IT in this sector – there are challenges but as there is less IT expertise around you get asked to do a great deal beyond your formal job role.”

Ready for the future

Tizard sees lots of opportunities with the new network. “What we have got here now is a real digital knowledge exchange that tees us up for lots of next generation technology,” he says.

“We can easily start deploying video on-demand and high quality video streaming; we can push messages to VoIP phones so they are not just sitting there showing blank displays; and we are seriously looking at how RFID technology could help here.

“A start would be making all the 10,000 student ID cards RFID tagged, which could open the doors to lots of applications in education we haven’t even thought about yet.”
At a time when controversies about private finance initiative and other ways to rebuild the UK’s education infrastructure are in full pelt, it is good to see at least one organisation that has committed so firmly to IT as a solid basis for delivering results.
After all, as Tizard points out: “Now students are paying for their education they have become our customers – and they’re going to want state of the art facilities for their money or they will go elsewhere.”

Doncaster’s new infrastructure

  • The Doncaster College high capacity copper network supports the latest in educational approaches including interactive whiteboards, video streaming from central servers and real time broadcasts from visiting lecturers, plus applications like electronic teaching systems.
  • The new network has 8,500 outlets, links 3,000 computers and desktops and delivers technology into all the college’s classrooms.
  • The network is also now key to the smooth running of the new Doncaster high-tech building on the campus, providing everything from video security to regulating the temperature and opening doors.
  • The project represents an investment of £1.5m on 50km of network.
  • For more information on the college see www.don.ac.uk