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Ensuring young people have access to the educational resources they need to fulfil their potential and lead healthy, happy lives is one of the core mission statements of the YMCA youth charity.
Every year the organisation, which was founded in 1844, helps about 68,000 disadvantaged young people access a range of education and training programmes across England and Wales, from undergraduate degree courses to apprenticeship schemes and life skills.
Speaking to Computer Weekly, John Hotham, head of information technology and systems at the Central YMCA Group, said the delivery of its education and training courses is largely paper-based at the moment, but that could be about to change.
Since joining the organisation in October 2016, Hotham has been overseeing efforts to digitise its training resources as it works towards creating a virtual training academy, from where the applications and services its learners need can be accessed.
Building the learning environment is one thing, but it also needs to provide students with computers to access these resources, while keeping procurement costs to a minimum.
“The centres we sell to can be anything from one-man-bands that go out and provision training to centres that have cohorts of students across the UK that don’t have any fixed abode,” said Hotham.
“So investing in training is either quite costly, as they have to have masses of physical devices, or they just can’t afford it.”
Expecting students to fork out for their own devices is also a non-starter, given the backgrounds many of them come from.
“While we can develop an app, if it needs a £1,000 laptop to run on, what is the point?” he said. “We don’t have the funds to cover that procurement or delivery of devices like that.”
“Investing in training is either quite costly, as they have to have masses of physical devices, or they just can’t afford it.”
John Hotham, YMCA
Apart from cost, the YMCA also needed the system to take into account the fact that always-on internet connectivity is not something its students have guaranteed access to.
“While we can offer someone a physical piece of hardware to use, if they’re not in our centres, we cannot guarantee they have connectivity, and this is where the need for the semi-connected devices comes in,” said Hotham.
Therefore, the virtual learning environment the YMCA had in mind would need to work on low-cost hardware, and remain accessible to students when network connectivity is restricted or completely unavailable. “The problem we had was there wasn’t really anything on the market that could cover it,” he added.
The organisation assessed a number of product suites, including stacks built on Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Dynamics, but they just did not quite fit the bill, said Hotham.
“I’ve got a couple of Dynamics developers and architects in-house, and we were looking at building the virtual learning academy around that using the automation that was possible between that and Sharepoint to generate a self-service portal,” he said.
“And it just didn’t do what we wanted it to do, because it was the semi-connected functionality that was so important to us.”
Deciding on Droplet
The YMCA then set about kicking the tyres of Droplet Computing’s patent pending application container technology, which is designed so that enterprises can run any application on any device, and it does not need to be connected to the internet.
The technology allows IT administrators to decouple new current and legacy applications from the underlying operation system and chipset, paving the way for them to run on any device of their choosing.
For the YMCA, this meant it could run the applications in its virtual training environment on any device, including lower-cost, custom-built PCs or tablets created by the OEM community.
“That is where we are at the moment,” said Hotham. “It’s very much in concept within the organisation itself, and we’ve been testing it on devices, and it’s proving to be very resilient and is working well.
“Our calculations suggest that the highest-spec device we will put out is still lower [in cost] than the charity edition of Windows 10, and we’re looking to run this across Ubuntu, so – from an operating system perspective – it’s very small in structure, footprint and cost.”
While Droplet Computing officially launched at the start of April 2018, Hotham had been keeping tabs on the development of its technology through his long-standing working relationship with Droplet’s chief business development officer, Barry Daniels.
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For this reason, Hotham had few (if any) reservations about getting involved with a supplier whose technology is still patent pending.
“They weren’t even on the market when we started talking to them, and were still in the design concept stage with most of their stuff,” he said.
“When we were talking about the development and planning and roadmap for this product, everything was getting a tick in the box for what our requirements were.
“We’ve known about it for quite a while and we’ve seen its various evolutions, and there were no major concerns for me as I’ve developed on things that were even newer in the past.”
The YMCA is working towards a staged deployment over two years that will eventually see about 40,000 devices handed out to students, but Hotham anticipates the technology could also be put to use in other areas of its business.
“Our tutors, for instance, do not all have the luxury of working out of one of our sites where there is internet connectivity, so there is also the potential for us to provision a virtual learning academy for our tutors as well, so they have all the assessment and curriculum resources they need,” he said.
Hotham has also been talking to other charities about how Droplet’s technology, coupled with lower-cost OEM hardware, could change the way they operate, too.
“If you have a self-funded organisation that does a lot of field work, and putting Panasonic Toughbooks in because they need durable devices because they’re getting through five to six laptops a year per person, swap them out for a device that costs £50 a year and, even if they get through 50 of them a year, so what?” he said.