In November 2012, we published a blog post based on the work being done at South Tyneside College on virtualisation with Hyper-V. At the end, the post mentions some of the future plans which Head of ICT Services Craig Scott had told me about. These included moving mail accounts from Google, to Office 365, and using the cloud for disaster recovery. Craig said at the time,
‘We’ve got some funding from the Association of Colleges to look into cloud based disaster recovery solutions, and will evaluate Azure as a possible option.’
This July, then I decided to catch up with Craig and see how these plans had developed and I found that, sure enough, all staff and student email accounts are now working well on Office 365 and also, says Craig,
‘We’re using Azure to provide offsite disaster recovery facilities for our critical systems; we’ve just refreshed that recently but the original implementation was just after we talked in 2012.’
One thing that we didn’t talk about then, though that’s not to say Craig wasn’t thinking about it, was the extensive move from desktop PCs to Windows tablets, which will be rolled out in September 2015.
Behind that decision was a problem common to many further and higher education institutions, which is how to give each of their many and diverse members of staff on-demand access to a PC both in their workplace (classroom, workshop, laboratory) and in a staffroom for private preparation, assessment and administration. Some places use a hot desking system, which, as Craig points out, can still lead to bottlenecks, and to irritations where one user changes preferences which confuse the next person to come along. The solution at South Tyneside was to provide enough PCs for everyone, which led to the College having a total of 500 available to staff, with all that’s implied in terms of maintenance, management, licensing, and budgeting for replacement.
The better answer, clearly, was to give each staff member a portable device, but until viable and affordable tablets came along that was easier said than done, as Craig explains
‘We tried laptops. That was fine as a concept, but there were practical problems – battery life was limited for example, and they were heavy to carry around.’
The advent of inexpensive Windows tablets – in this case the Linx range – now appears to be the total solution.
‘They’re lightweight, with seven or eight hours of battery life, and they’re ready within seconds of pressing the power button. It gets round all the issues.’
A number of staff members have been trying out Linx ten-inch tablets this academic year, he says.
‘They’re quite happy using them. They do pretty much everything that they need – Microsoft Office, including PowerPoint, and a couple of bits of our admin software. It’s all well within the device’s capabilities. Just 15 or so specialist staff will be given laptops because they want rather more functions – multimedia, video editing and so on.’
Each of the staffrooms will have docking stations for the Linx devices, so now, where staff had to look for a PC, dividing time and work between devices in different places, they will now have a tablet that stays with them, ready for use, fully capable. The savings in efficiency, time and quality of working life are going to be considerable. Importantly, too, there’s a significant cost saving. Craig estimates that whereas the cost of replacing the current PCs over the next three years will be about £202,000, he expects the outlay on the tablets, cases and items for the docking stations, and the small number of laptops for specialist users, to add up to less than £66,000.
South Tyneside College, then, by using Windows devices and Microsoft technologies, will, in this coming academic year, take a significant step forward in efficiency while, at the same time, saving a very useful £136,000.