The University of Nottingham innovates with wireless

The University of Nottingham's IT director and project manager tell Computer Weekly how partnering with BT for its wireless network has opened up even more opportunities for students and staff

The University of Nottingham is famed for its academic prowess, research capabilities and an interesting gig by The Clash in the 1970s that led to the punk outfit being banned from student unions for many years.

But despite boasting alumni ranging from D H Lawrence to the founder of Wetherspoons, the university is all about looking forward rather than back – and its IT department is no exception.

Alison Clarke, IT director and deputy CIO at the university, has been working with her team for eight years to bring the technology at the institution up to scratch. We met on a sunny summer afternoon in July on the main campus, a short distance from the city centre and adjacent to the Queen’s Medical Centre hospital, where much of the university's research takes place.

“Many say the time to get work done at universities is now, because of the holidays,” she says. “But we don’t have a window, because universities do so much the whole year round – summer schools, re-sits, MSc students. The undergraduates might go, but there is still quite a lot to deal with.”

We are joined by Tony Wheatman, project manager for information services, who nods in agreement as his mind clearly lists the different tasks he has mounting up on his "to do" list.

“So much is changing all the time, which is what is great about this field,” he says. “It is also what makes it difficult sometimes, but I think it is great that it’s not just about the technology – it's about the people using it and what it means for them.”

Wireless network supports mobile learning

Although the pair have a number of projects on the go, we are here to discuss the latest success of the IT department – the roll-out of a new wireless network to support students own devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

“Thinking of the students in particular, they have such expectations now, even more so with the fees,” says Clarke. “They want to do whatever they want with their IT, in the same way they can do in their social lives and what they did at school. We need to make sure we are either matching or doing better than that when they come to university.

“When students are learning, they don’t always do it in the classroom situation. Also, they don’t do it on their own. They need to learn with their friends, with their colleagues; they need to be able to do it in the cafes, in the outside spaces, as well as in the classroom, through whatever device they want to use.”

Wheatman says the need for this flexibility has really taken hold at the university over the past three years. “That collaborative way of working – students using their own devices as opposed to things they were given to work with – is a clear change,” he says.

But it was not just the students' desire for wireless that made them embark on the project. The academic staff, although perhaps more hesitant, have begun to see how a wireless network can help make lessons more interactive too.

“In a classroom setting, students are able to use their mobile devices whilst they are in a lecture and interact with their lecturer,” says Clarke. “An example could be voting, so we have some academics who will ask their students to vote on what they think the right answer is. Also, it can enable them to look at material whilst they are listening, so whilst they are in a lecture theatre they are able to look things up.

“Once upon a time, a student sitting in a lecture theatre with a device was seen as the technology getting in the way and them not listening to the lecturer. Now it is all part of that experience – they are online at the same time and can interact whilst doing it.”

Students need to learn with their friends and colleagues, in cafes, outside spaces and in the classroom, through whatever device they want to use

Tony Wheatman, University of Nottingham

Some buildings at the university already had some Wi-Fi capabilities, but this led to more desire from other faculties and a need for a new strategy to address the bigger picture, rather than a piecemeal roll-out for individual requests.

“We didn’t have it across the whole campus,” says Clarke. “We had little pockets, but we wanted to give that experience everywhere, particularly halls of residence. We always had fixed points in halls, but the year before last people were turning up with tablets and fixed point was of no use. So anywhere the students would be, we wanted to make sure they had access to the network.”

Partnering with BT for Wi-Fi services

In January 2012, the University of Nottingham started talking with BT iNet – the IT services arm of BT Business – to look at how the large campus could get connected, bringing benefits to both students and staff.

“We'd had discussions with that type of old-style company before, which come across sometimes as a bit arrogant, but when BT came to us to talk about this, we didn’t get that feeling,” says Clarke. "We really felt we were working in partnership with a business that could help us deliver what we wanted, to tight deadlines, and would work well with us.”

Both Clarke and Wheatman believe the partnership nature of the project was key to its success.

“We had really tough deadlines with all the students coming back, and it was very fraught at times, but because we had such a good understanding of each other, we were working together and able to get the job done,” says Wheatman.

“BT was very engaged. When we came up with different things and asked whether we could do this, do that, can you tie it in with what we already have got, it had an answer for everything. It wasn’t just a technical answer, it fully explained what we could get out of it.”

BT won the tender for the £1.3m contract in the summer and deployment began in July, with key priority areas, such as the halls of residence, given a tight deadline of September to ensure the network was up and running for the start of term.

Clarke admits there were a few hiccups along the way, with other partners responsible for cabling and delivery of equipment, but the initial targets were hit and the roll-out was fully completed in December 2012.

Management tools feed back user data

Wheatman says very few adjustments have been needed since the project's completion, despite the challenge of managing 2,500 wireless access points across the campus.

The monitoring tools enable the IT team to analyse any potential black spots, and if coverage needs to be tweaked the antennas can be moved.

“The monitoring tools provide heat maps so we can see how far it reaches, and if something is towards the edge, we can see if there is a gap and move things closer together," he says. "We have also dialled down all the power on the access points so they run at about 50% power. If we need to, we can ramp that out to make the signal better.

“It is a testament to the management tools really, because we never had that before. This gives rise to a lot more management information, which we are hoping to tap into.”

Through these tools, the IT team can garner how many users and the number of devices there are on the network at any time, and even the type of devices being used, such as smartphone, laptop, tablet; BlackBerry, Apple, Windows Phone.

For example, in April alone there were more than 11,000 concurrent users connected each day, with the busiest access points in the Trent building and 36% of devices used being made by Apple.

You know what it is like in IT – if you don’t hear anything, it is a good thing

Alison Clarke, University of Nottingham

“It has been really interesting to see what devices students are bringing, the whole range of them, and to get all that information helps us think about other things as well,” says Clarke. “When we are developing services and solutions for the students, we know what sort of devices they are using on the network and how many of them there seem to be. We can also see the key places where they are using them.”

Developing mobile apps

One area the university is considering putting this information to use is around the development of mobile applications.  

“We have a Nottingham University app which provides basic information – bus timetables, whether PCs are free in different rooms, etc,” says Clarke. 

The IT team plans to create more mobile apps, and sees the development of these apps as an opportunity to involve the students.

“We have been working with a student who had an idea and wrote an app that went onto iTunes and got downloaded a lot, so we thought we would talk to him about working with us. The students know what they want, what sort of things they will find interesting, so [we want to] tap into that. Many of them have the skills to do it, but even more have the ideas.”

Interconnected campus

So, how has the reaction been to having the fully fledged wireless network across campus?

“I hate to say it, but you know what it is like in IT – if you don’t hear anything, it is a good thing and it means it is working,” says Clarke. “What it has done is make people think what they can use it for because the capacity is there. All the different ideas about what they want to use it for makes it a great place to be.

“Nottingham has a fantastic campus setting. Now it is about bringing that technology together with the outside spaces. It is not just about the buildings and the lecture theatres, but all spaces, so students and staff can make the best use of them.”

Tips for similar wireless projects

The IT team has begun sharing its experiences with other universities which are exploring whether a wireless network is something they need for staff and to attract students.

“I have been talking to [other universities] which have been asking how long it took us to do procurement, the deployment, any gotchas along the way, so we have had quite a few conference calls to share our experience and help others along the way,” says Wheatman.

Clarke adds: “We are very collaborative with other institutions. Although we are in competition for the best students, we do work together to share experiences, so a good experience is quite interesting – although even if it had been bad that would have been shared as well.”

With another academic year looming, we say goodbye to Clarke and Wheatman to let them get back to work and prepare for a the coming deluge of undergraduates wanting that always-on, always-connected feeling only their department can provide.

Now the two look forward to seeing what further innovations can be born from having a reliable and speedy network.  

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