Talking with College Principals

We held a briefing today for a small group of college principals, following on from a focus group meeting we held last year. The aim of the day was to share some of our work and thoughts on how technology could support the learning and business processes of an FE college, and to allow the principals to tell us more about the way that we can support FE colleges.

One of today's issues is that there are commonly islands of separate data - virtual learning environment, student records systems, financial systems, quality management systems - which are not properly joined together. There was broad agreement that this situation has to be addressed in order to move into a different way of supporting learning and running the business of FE. Although there have historically been models of how to do this, broadly shared across the sector, we're still along way away from achieving them.

Phil Allen, one of my technical colleagues, talked about the need to create that common platform, and how we can support that using the Microsoft Learning Gateway framework - which can allow the creation of a portal to bring together your MIS, VLE, email, calendar, collaboration, live communications services, and other applications - and then deliver them to students and staff.

One of the immediate discussion questions was about how it could support flexible access - for example:

  • Access from mobile browser devices, such as mobile phones and the new style of browser-based sub-notebooks like RM's Asus Minibooks (which will be available with Windows soon too)
  • Access from other places, like the workplace.
  • How to support a mix of delivery models for the things which sit inside the portal - whether the service (eg emails) is run by the college internally, or delivered as a service from the outside.

What came out was that there are already examples of other education institutions addressing some of the issues raise. For example, the Shireland Collegiate Academy use the Microsoft Learning Gateway, and are providing mobile phone access for their students, and planning to give their students an O2 phone with free Internet access to the portal. And one of the core principles of the Learning Gateway is that web parts can be used to deliver virtually any information, from any connected system - today there are over 60 UK education software providers who have been building web parts to allow you to bring their system and data into the portal.

But linking those systems together in a portal is step one. The next step is to find ways to link that data together for the users within your college who need a joined up picture.

Nick Umney, who has been working with the NHS to build models of integrated data, demonstrated what can be done (screen shots to follow). The key is that the Business Intelligence features within the Learning Gateway allow you to build data models querying across multiple data sources, including different SQL databases. Nick showed us the "NHS Dashboard" that had been built in conjunction with some NHS Trust leaders, as an example of what's possible.

image It started with a management scorecard - looking at all of the key indices which are used to manage a typical Trust. Starting with the scorecard, you can dig deeper into the data. In the example that Nick used, he kept going down from "Patient Services", to see which departments are missing targets, to dig further to see which Consultants are responsible for the most data outliers (ie "If I want to intervene, who do I target?")

image Another example linked in geospatial data, plotting infection data on a hospital site map to find out where actions need taking to reduce infections and manage risk.

One of the attractive features of what Nick showed us was that it seamlessly moved between browsing information on a web portal, to digging down into the data using Excel and other Office applications - so that users are using the systems that are familiar to them, rather than having to learn a new system.

This stimulated a further discussion about whether this involved additional expense. Does trying to link the data together bring additional cost? Do the systems needed to deliver this cost more? And what does it cost to create a single view of the data across multiple systems?

There was a 'less good news', and a 'good news' answer, to these questions:

  • Firstly, the less good news - the real cost of joining your data together is time (and sometimes sweat and tears) - firstly to get the different people who "own" the data to recognise the value of joining it up, and then getting them to put the effort in to see how it can be joined up - which might mean some individuals losing a little control over 'their' data (eg who's system is the single point of truth of a student's address, or name, or class list).
  • And now, the good news - you've probably already got the licences you need to cover most of the components we used in our demonstration - most colleges license their software from us using the Campus Agreement, which covers the majority of things you need - like SharePoint (and most of the other elements of the Learning Gateway).

The slides used are available below.

You can read more about general Business Insight strategy on our main website.

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