"I want to hear teachers saying get your mobiles out, not put them away"

By Danny Palmer
21 May 2014 View Comments
jamie-smith

While schools are protected from funding cuts and universities can charge fees, some further education institutions, like South Staffordshire College, find themselves in the unenviable position of being asked to provide better learning experiences with fewer resources.

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"Like any organisation, especially one in the public sector, we're facing increasing headwinds in terms of financial constraints from traditional funding streams," Jamie Smith, South Staffordshire College director of strategy and infrastructure, told Computing.

"Further education especially has been hit harder than others, because universities can charge £9,000 a year [and] schools are protected from cuts, but colleges have no protection whatsoever and they continue to have funding streams capped.

"For us that means looking for a return on investment for every pound that we spend, maximising that and ensuring we get the best possible deal."

The college, which has over 20,000 students and 850 staff across several campuses throughout Staffordshire, turned to KnowledgeBus IT from Mercato Solutions, a cloud-based business intelligence platform designed for making savings while procuring equipment. It's something Smith said has "transformed" the procurement process for the college, even if he was initially sceptical of what it could offer.

"From what I'd heard about it, it sounded too good to be true, so I went into the meeting quite cynically. But within a short period of time I ended up thinking it was an awesome piece of technology," he said, before going onto explain how the solution has enabled huge savings.

"The amount we were paying above cost price was going up to 500 per cent. But when you know what the channel price is for an item, and you know what distributors pay for it, it's a game changer in negotiations and being able to drive down costs. We were able to achieve less than three per cent above cost buying immediately," he explained.

"The solution has paid for itself within weeks," said Smith, who also told Computing that he was impressed by the support offered by Mercato, describing the firm as "like part of the family".

"I can pick up the phone and get straight through to them should I ever need to, not that I do often because the product is awesome. But if I do need help, they're a highly responsive organisation that feels like they're part of the team," he said.

But just because South Staffordshire College has to adapt to the mantra of doing more with less, it doesn't mean that technological innovation has been abandoned. Indeed, its Cannock Campus is designed in such a way that the use of technology is catered for and students are encouraged to use mobiles, tablets, laptops and more.

"The new campus has been designed for the digital age from the ground up, everything we've done has been designed with the digital student in mind," Smith explained.

Whether it's the café area where the seats have chargers built in and it's all Wi-Fi enabled and BYOD ready, or the 4D immersive laboratory, it's a teaching space designed to be the most immersive environment going," he said before describing how the 4D lab has screens covering every surface, allowing students to feel as if they're in the environment they're being taught about, be it World War II or natural history.

"It's a bit like the holodeck off Star Trek," Smith added.

The rest of the campus is designed with the intention of enabling BYOD as much as possible, because the college subscribes to the view that students would rather use their own laptops, tablets or smartphones in open, collaborative spaces than have to log-in to a desktop computer stuffed in a lab.

"It's quite a clean; you won't see offices or classrooms rammed with computers in the conventional sense because that's not what young people want. They want to bring their own device into the learning space, use their mobiles interactively," said Smith, who described how peripheral tools in the classroom have been designed specifically to cater to this.

"So, for example, you can wirelessly connect your mobile straight to the projector and upload content in seconds. You don't need any training. If you can download an app that's as complicated as it gets," he said, describing it as "a pretty inspirational space" which the staff and students enjoy being in.

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