Warrington's Pounds 2m transfer

November 14, 1997

Halton College students are set to enjoy multimedia education on a super-fast network, Nick Farrell reports

Halton College principal Martin Jenkins has just spent Pounds 2 million building a network which allows 350 students to enjoy the multimedia capabilities of asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), making it one of the largest ATM-to-the-desktop networks in the United Kingdom. It became operational last month and Jenkins' vision of multimedia-based education is slowly taking shape.

"Educationalists and the government think too small when it comes to using technology. They are too busy thinking about getting connections to the Internet and less how it can change the way we teach," Jenkins says. He believes that information technology can provide education tailored to the individual rather than the group.

In Jenkins' vision students from all disciplines, from hairdressers to engineers, would use multimedia packages and the Internet to teach themselves. Teachers become "coordinators", helping students find the sort of information they need rather than presenting the material. He believes that this will produce better students with skills that they need in a modern society.

Students are being assessed before they take courses. Teachers draw up a learning plan based on the student's strengths, taking into account any weaknesses. For Jenkins this is one of the key uses of IT. "This work is incredibly important as I see more than 80 per cent of a college's work as being assessment and content design," he says.

After this assessment work is carried out, learning proceeds at the student's own pace. According to Jenkins, there is little point in a teacher providing facts for a student to follow: "We have to give students some form of responsibility in life. The focus of the current education system makes people too reliant on the teacher so that they do not think for themselves. IT gives us the opportunity of a different way of working. Teachers should be skills consultants rather than imparters of knowledge."

Learning can be done via the Internet at home or at work. Jenkins would like to see more than 80 per cent of the college's students working outside its doors. "I want to move away from the concept of teachers having to deal with a group of people," he says. "There are always different abilities in a group and it is better for the individual to be trained to their own level. Distance learning over the Internet provides that opportunity."

There are some courses that will remain in-house because they use specialised equipment. Halton's engineering students are using virtual reality spectacles and computer-aided design programs to design machines and see them working before manufacture. Technologically, the 1980s further education college in depressed Warrington was light years behind the sophisticated set-up Jenkins wanted. Being more the visionary than the technician, Jenkins could only give a limited amount of guidance to information manager Maureen Lomas. But he knew his big idea required multimedia facilities, including video streaming and the ability to open several video conferencing screens at once. "He wanted to be able to cope with any future expansion. We never wanted to say we could not provide an education package because our system could not take it," Lomas recalls.

She says many of the suppliers were so surprised at the level of technology the college wanted that they offered cheaper solutions: Bull Information Systems was selected to build the new network. The design was based around a 640Mbps ATM backbone providing 155Mbps to the desktop. This made the project one of the largest to-the-desktop ATM networks in the country. The college was able to avoid a huge up-front payment for the network thanks to a five-year leasing deal with Bull.

The college network is connected to the Internet via a 2Mbps leased line. The network operating system is Windows NT - the college wants to standardise its software around Microsoft products. Content is delivered intranet-style, with most course materials in Web format. There are 400 PCs with ATM network connections. Another 350 PCs are connected with ordinary Ethernet; they are used for administration and to teach subjects like word processing where high bandwidth is not needed.

The college also had Apple Macs that were crucial for multimedia and design courses. These posed a challenge for Bull's sales manager Roy Duncan, who worked closely with Lomas on the network's design. "Apple Macs may be good at high-demand, graphic-oriented multimedia packages," he says, "but when it comes to an ATM environment they do not provide the same networking power as a PC." The Macs were given a local area network of their own, controlled by an Apple server.

Another installation issue was that the ATM cards significantly slowed the performance of the PCs and some programs would not run. This meant that the processors on each PC had to be upgraded.

However Jenkins' dream is hitting a snag when it comes to rapid implementation. Teachers have been slow to provide multimedia learning materials for their students. Lomas says that teachers have seen the equipment installed and started to get very enthusiastic about writing their material in HTML. Video conferencing links are being used: the hairdressing and language departments have been particularly keen on link ups with other colleges. The college has formed its own multimedia teaching package company to develop material for local use and for sale to other colleges.

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