Case Studies

unified

Unified communications revolutionise learning at Bolton College

Teaching and learning are being revolutionised at Bolton College’s new £70m campus following the installation of cutting edge communication technologies by Pennine.

The state-of-the-art 20,000sq.m site opened last September and staff and students are now taking advantage of the massive flexibility offered by the telecom, network and wireless systems. In a project valued at over £1m Pennine has installed an eco-friendly Extreme network infrastructure which supports an Avaya ACM unified communications telephone system and a Meru wireless network which also hosts hundreds of Avaya softphones for staff.

The physical design of the building coupled with the liberating impact of the technologies has transformed how staff can teach and students learn. It has also created longer term opportunities for the college to extend its reach beyond Bolton.

“It gives the flexibility for a student or a staff member to teach a lesson, to learn a lesson, to do their work from anywhere they want and speak to anyone they need to,” explains Bolton College’s IT Operations Manager Railton Knott. He adds that by making use of webcams installed in a number of classrooms the college can increase access to learning resources via its Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). “Students can then just click on the lecture that’s relevant to them and using the wireless network benefit from personalised learning, doing whatever is relevant to them. What’s more they can learn in one of the many break-out areas we have across campus, one of our libraries, our cafe, or wherever suits them.”

“Not only does it give them that freedom but it means we don’t have to pigeonhole 30 students to be at the same level, they can learn more at their own pace. If a hair and beauty student has already learned how to trim a moustache they can move straight on to, say, doing a perm. Also if for any reason they miss a lecture they can catch up with it online.”

Mr. Knott is enthusiastic about Pennine’s contribution after the company, working in partnership with an OGC Catalyst partner, won a competitive tender against more than 10 other national suppliers to secure the prestigious contract. Firstly, the difficulties of marrying up shifting construction timetables with installation were swiftly eliminated. “Pennine had to come in two months later than anticipated but were really responsive and in the end the core system was installed in a lot less time than we originally anticipated. It was incredible really,” he reports.

He’s equally delighted about the cost savings Pennine’s recommendation of the Extreme network brought. “Extreme offered us a few benefits over the network solution other bidders were pushing plus it was about 70% of the cost and when you’re talking a million pound project that saved us a massive sum of money.” Listen to Mr Knott, students,lecturers to see how Bolton College are utlising the technology now available to them, click on the link to view the Bolton College video.

The choice of Meru was led by the college and supported by Pennine. “The key thing with Meru was the single cell architecture,” explains Mr. Knott of a system design which enables scalability through simple addition of wireless access points. “We’ve got some really concentrated classrooms, for example, three classrooms adjacent to each other each holding 48 students. It was really important to us that we could support 150 students battering the wireless network on their laptops within 100 yards of each other. Meru provided us with a proof of concept that nobody else could match.”

In fact there are effectively four wi-fi networks operating, one each for, staff, management, guests and students. The latter enables students to access the VLE – based around the popular and free open source Moodle system – via a web browser, using one of 1200 Toshiba laptop available for loan across the college, or their own devices. “They can log in and connect to all their course materials and work through a secure gateway,” notes Mr. Knott, “whilst the staff networks are permanent connections with different filter permissions. “

The wi-fi service is also enabling the college to promote use of Avaya softphones which staff can use on their laptops anywhere on site through wired or Bluetooth headsets. These greatly enhance communication access. “Every member of staff can now have their own ‘phone number whereas before they’d be two numbers for a staffroom serving 20-30 staff, so it was difficult to get hold of people. We’ve gone from about 200 numbers to 1,000, but without a five-fold increase in cost. The software licensing is significantly cheaper than the cost of handsets.”

Video conferencing is also set to transform college communications. “A key benefit will be the ability to communicate between centres,” explains Mr. Knott. “We have six sites within a 12 mile radius of our main building so currently everyone either travels or makes ‘phone calls. Each site also has a receptionist who finishes at four whilst college stays open until nine, so for five hours every night there’s no reception service. It would be very easy for us to install a camera and have a receptionist at the main building serving everywhere.” Installation of Avaya Aura Presence Services, a sophisticated, real-time unified communications application, will also allow users to identify who is available to accept calls and messages, and when. This greatly eases the scheduling of conference calls and the efficiency of wider communications.

The move to the new building and the introduction of new technologies represents a massive culture change and so the full benefits may not be realised for a while. There’s certainly no shortage of ambition though as Mr. Knott makes clear: “The long term vision is we won’t be confined to having students just from this area. You could sit in Australia and be a student of Bolton College as all the teaching materials are online.”