Brokenhurst College, in the New Forest in Hampshire, serves a wide area, covering seven local authorities. Its main activity is providing exam courses at post-sixteen level. There are also some vocational courses for school leavers and a significant amount of adult education. Ofsted rates the college at its highest level of “Outstanding” in all categories, and in the cause of maintaining this, the monitoring and guidance of students has a very high priority. It’s clear that the IT team’s role in this is seen as one of giving support and not getting in the way. For example, they have their own highly practical take on what constitutes an effective Virtual Learning Experience (VLE).
Using SharePoint 2010, teachers over time have built curriculum sites of varying styles and levels of complexity. There’s a log in portal for students and staff known as “My Brock” and one for parents.
“If that makes it a VLE, we never thought of it like that. It’s a framework where we can pull everything together. The attractiveness of SharePoint is that it allows you to embed the best of breed.”
Head of Information and Systems Development Dr Robin Gadd
The same independence of spirit has led to the College’s in-house Managed Learning Environment (“Emily”) with Microsoft SQL Server 2008 at its heart and a .NET application, which brings together data and systems including student records, attendance, targets, enabling staff to monitor and support students.
Although this in-house approach is not cost free, especially at the development stage, Robin’s take on this, though, is that there are benefits in the longer term.
“You don’t always get the response you need from external suppliers. We have to adopt their way of working.”
An often-raised problem of how to sustain any in-house system is what happens when key developers leave? Robin’s answer really is to be aware of the problem and plan for it.
“It’s risk management, with careful documentation, with source codes, and resilient back ups.”
At the same time, the focus on in-house solutions has its limits. In common with many universities and colleges, Robin and his team were, discovering four or five years ago, that their in-house email system was no longer fit for purpose. Inboxes and file storage were limited to 200MB, and the consequent proliferation of memory sticks was causing all the obvious problems of loss and failure. Unsurprisingly, students were turning away from using the system. The answer was to move to the cloud, and to Microsoft Live@Edu which both provides a hugely improved experience for students. With 10GB inboxes, 25GB storage, reliable uptime, built in anti-virus and anti-spam all made the choice for Robin, “A no brainer”. The very real icing on the cake, of course, is the saving in costs to the college which, over a period of four years from the adoption of Live@edu will add up to approx. £73,000.
Saving on Capital Expenditure
Server Hardware £2,500
AV & Antispam £1,250
Saving on Operating Costs
Admin (5 hrs/wk) £9,100
(admin, helpdesk, end users) £2,000
Total saving each year for 4 years, £18,225
Arguably, the real savings from the kind of work being done at Brockenhurst is the extensive use of SharePoint, the development of an in-house MLE for example, and the move to Live@edu. With improved efficiency, which has direct impact on student experience and student success will then leads to improved student recruitment and retention, which do have visible cost benefits.
The chosen target for assessing saving was the College’s innovative electronic Self Assessment Reports (eSAR) system which enables staff to contribute, online, to what becomes the whole college Self Assessment Report, using Ofsted criteria.
The full description of the cost saving analysis is lengthy and detailed, but it’s estimated that eSAR at Brockenhurst will, over an eight year lifespan from 2006 to 2014 have saved the College £127,323. More than half of this comes from streamlining management processes by removing duplication of meetings and documentation. Just over a quarter comes from administration and just less than that from teaching staff time saving. On top of that there’s a saving on the printing of 2,700 sheets of paper each year!
Are efficiency savings cashable?
It’s not difficult to point to efficiency savings. Actually seeing any or even most them come to life as money in the budget is, of course another issue. The short term cutting back of jobs, for example, in anything other than the most pressing of circumstances, isn’t part of any educational institution’s culture – not just for humanitarian reasons but because of factors such as the loss of expertise, and effects on the continuity of courses and services. Students join with the expectation of planned progress over several years.
That said, it’s possible to envisage, in any institution, that quantified efficiency savings could be realised at least in part over a period of time as courses and administrative systems change and also as individuals move on. For that reason, an exercise such as the one undertaken at Brockenhurst is very worthwhile as a benchmark setter.