Case Study: East London homeless get e-Learning boost

Anchor House, the hostel and life skills centre for homeless people has used IT and communications provider Foehn to deploy IT for e-learning, IP-based communications and back-office systems.

Based in east London, the charity provides accommodation for 180 homeless people each year and offers training and development for over 1,000 people. Many of its residents have experienced varying levels of social exclusion.

In terms of training, Anchor House provides IT, literacy and numeracy training. It is a CSCS (Construction Skills Certifications Scheme) testing station for safety certification in the construction industry and it offers 50 e-learning modules, including basic Microsoft training.

Anchor House has gone through a £9m renovation programme since Keith Fernett joined as its director in 2004. Fernett, who had previously managed large, complex local and central government projects, said the charity was facing closure before he joined. “We had £2.5m of financial liability. We developed a master plan for each aspect of the organisation, the building, the services and the technology.”

He says the master plan still holds true today: “We have been able to systematically expand our services and the use of technology because we had taken a holistic approach to everything we have done.”

In terms of the IT, he says that Anchor House was effectively a greenfield site. Previous planning was achieved using a large whiteboard.

“There was not much computing power here when I joined. I did not want to hire someone who was computer savvy as an IT manager.” 

Instead, he decided outsourcing the whole of IT.

“I wanted to outsource, with one contractual arrangement that could offer the scalability to deal with our growth potential,” he says 

Finding the right fit

Choosing the right supplier was not an easy task. “A lot of companies did not meet our objectives because the approach of selling one size for everyone did not fit with us.” 

In the end, he chose Foehn to provide all IT and on-going IT support for the charity.

Fernett decided to standardise on the Microsoft suite and Sage for accounts in the back office. He also wanted to offer e-learning, which involved building and equipping a computer room.

His overall vision was to offer a “Holiday-Inn like" experience, in that residents would access their rooms, switch on electricity and use computer terminals with a smartcard. 

The IT elements to support these users needed to be separate from the business systems. “I wanted the ability to run services remotely and ensure our business systems were completely separate from our service users’ IT,” Fernett says.

“For the residents, we wanted to provide a system that is very similar to a hotel, with in-room messaging, data services and video content,” explains James Passingham, technical services director.

Foehn implemented a core IP backbone to provide networking for the video displays and the computer terminals. Many of the systems at Anchor House are based on open source technologies. Along with the obvious cost savings, Passingham says open source offered Foehn open standards for the IT integration it undertook as part of the project.

Foehn deployed an IP network using HP networking equipment. This is used to run the Asterisk, open source, IP telephony system, which provides a ring-fenced PBX, allowing residents, Anchor House staff and external training providers, to share the same system. 

The company also implemented the open source VideoLan video server, which provides multi-casting to broadcast FreeView to residents’ rooms. Each room is equipped with a set top box from Amino Technologies which runs a web browser and provides a Linux desktop, delivered using PC over IP. The browser connects to an Apache server, which provides users with access to the  virtual Linux, e-learning and FreeView.

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