Stourbridge College, a construction training centre in the West Midlands, has opened an £8.5m advanced technology centre (ATC) and set up a "virtual campus" to enable students and staff to access coursework information, e-mail and other systems remotely.
Both the ATC, which opened last month, and the e-learning initiative are part of the college's drive to move away from a formal training environment based on time spent in the classroom. Stourbridge is no stranger to e-learning, however. Chris Rodgers, the deputy principal, explains that the college has been active in this area for two or three years.
The college is spread over seven sites in the West Midlands and has 2,000 full- and part-time students, about 300 of whom use the ATC on any given day.
As most of the trainees are in full-time employment, providing the ability to access material remotely was particularly important. Students and staff can log on from home or work using a single password at any time. A standard interface provides the college with a corporate identity.
The college has installed "ruggedised" PCs and lap tops in the construction workshops at the ATC so that students can access relevant information and tutor support where they want and when they want it.
Further access is provided by interactive plasma screens and on the top floor there is a fully networked IT lecture theatre with a huge "media screen". The college has also set up an R&D facility, which can be used by the college's partners, lecturers and students.
Stourbridge college spent £1.6m on IT to power its virtual campus. The Internet, intranet and extranet are linked by Novell's e-directory. The college also used the company's Groupwise 6 for its e-mail and diary functions; iChain software for authentication; and NetWare 6 for Internet services. Technology from Volera is used to deliver e-learning material and Web content to users' desktops.
The college hopes to encourage local businesses and organisations in related industries (especially with less than 10 employees) to support e-learning. It also hopes to encourage more students to undergo training to fulfil their potential.
"There is a seamless progression from a bricklayer to an architect," claims Rodgers. "People do not realise this."
As well as providing improved training, Rodgers hopes the ATC will help to boost the image of the construction industry. "I think the way it has been put together is quite unique," he says. "The idea of using IT to support learning is not new but there are few examples that really work. The work that's been done here has been superb."