“Over the past 50 years, education hasn’t really changed,” says Jamie Smith, the director of strategy and infrastructure at South Staffordshire College. “The only thing is dust. We’ve taken away the chalkboard and replaced it with a digital whiteboard.”
Smith believes the education sector has been very slow to see the benefits of incorporating technology: “We need a revolution in education, not an organic transformation.”
“The education sector has been very slow to adopt, partly because there’s a dominant culture of compliance.
"But I say, 'To hell with that'. In education, I want to unlock the potential of people. The best way of doing that is adopting some of these technologies,” says Smith.
Business, technology and innovation
After 11 months of building work, the new Cannock campus is due to open in January 2014, with a focus on business, technology and innovation.
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One of seven campuses serving 25,000 students, the college went “back to the drawing board” when designing the Cannock campus. It wanted to be platform agnostic, bring your own device (BYOD) ready, and enable virtual learning environments for the students.
“We let our imaginations go wild,” says Smith, who joined the college in June 2013 to promote technology and innovation, and to create an infrastructure for a 21st century digital campus.
Students become aware of technology the moment they arrive at the new campus, says Smith, as the college's chief executive welcomes students through a video triggered by augment reality (AR) at the entrance to the building.
The campus also features an immersive learning room, where a range of advanced 4D laser projections and surround sound systems will project video straight from a smartphone app. The software can configure the lighting, sound and projector, so the teacher will need no training, and can immediately transport students to an immersive learning environment.
Please DO use your mobile device
A far leap away from traditional school rules, the campus encourages its students to bring mobile phones into school through a BYOD scheme.
“I would be devastated if a teacher said ‘put your phone away’,” says Smith. “Why on earth would we tell young people not to use these fantastic technologies? To ignore it is insane.”
In education, I want to unlock the potential of people. The best way of doing that is adopting [the latest] technologies
The college teaches students of all ages, but predominantly 16-18 year olds. “These are digital natives,” says Smith. “We have young people immersed in tech from the moment they're born – it requires a radical rethink.”
Smith encourages the use of social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Skype to allow students to collaborate and meet online.
A learning resources centre replaces the traditional library, and it too is revolutionised with technology. “Why would someone under the age of 25 seek a hard copy dictionary when they can go online?” he asks.
He says libraries have been caught napping and they have failed to reinvent themselves, which is why no one visits them any more. He says we need digital libraries, but insists the world will still be a place for books.
Using all-in-one touchscreen PCs and the latest technologies, students are encouraged to go online to research, collaborate and take part in web meetings. The next step is to introduce virtual desktops, which Smith says are currently undergoing trials.
Along with the flashy technologies such as AR and 4D, the campus will also house a business innovation space.
This space will be an area for students and young startups to pitch for business. It will be free for business people to use, and will be a place where companies can bring their business contacts and connect with the students.
Smith’s background in business has encouraged him to create an ecosystem for business growth. “We want to raise students' aspirations,” he says. “We want to create not employees of tomorrow, but employers of tomorrow.”
He hopes the business innovation space will allow a young person to walk onto campus, find an account, register with Companies House, and find business resources and money, all in one afternoon.
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South Staffordshire College's strategic partner, IBM, has been massively important to the project, says Smith. The company has not just enabled the college’s technology visualisation, it has also offered up its business expertise.
Forty students were recently invited to IBM’s headquarters to learn about smarter planet challenges. “It’s an inspiration,” he says. “It's value that stays with them long after the event, and the students bring it back to the place of learning.”
Cannock campus and beyond
But it is not just the Cannock campus that is witnessing a technology transformation. Smith’s energy and passion for creating a digital infrastructure has spread across the whole college.
When he began his new role earlier this year, Smith set a challenge to reengineer the student application process to become the fastest in the industry. Students can now complete the online application in less than 25 seconds using only the basic information – name, email, Twitter ID and course interests.
The college continues to focus on its “digital by default” curriculum model, which is crucial for the future of the college. Smith says the retail sector and especially the high street should have had a similar model a couple of years ago to deal with technology challenges. “Education is not immune from this, but it’s a brilliant opportunity,” he adds.
But a technology revolution does not happen without some challenges.
Funding is the first issue. While the government provided a £6.6m grant, the remaining several million has been publicly funded. The college also has an active commercial side, hiring out areas for corporate events and the beautiful Rodbaston Hall campus as a wedding venue.
But Smith says it has been challenging, as the UK education sector is “spectacularly underfunded”.
The second, more technological challenge has been around security. Smith says there is a lot of fear around cloud and data security, but he believes “most of the fear is perceived rather than real”.
“I’d happily shove my entire world into the cloud,” he says.
But with the predominant age of students being under 18, the college has a legal responsibility to provide a safe and secure digital environment.