A campus built around the learning experience
Re-imagining IT for a re-imagined university
The University of Northampton moved to a new purpose-built campus in September 2018, the successful conclusion of a demanding project. Everyone involved was asked to “re-imagine” the university as a place where every student could benefit from the most effective learning experiences – a campus built from the ground-up for the 21st century. But how do you re-imagine the AV and IT needed for a re-imagined university?
We put this and other questions to Andrew Taylor, Digital Services Manager and AV lead for the project.
What triggered the project?
Previously the university was located on two separate sites, with high running costs and a lack of facilities and services. Re-location had been discussed for a few years, but it was the arrival of a new Vice Chancellor that kick-started the project. A key decision was made right at the start to build a new university that delivered the best learning experiences rather than the cheapest. Practically this meant a commitment to active blended learning.
How do you re-imagine AV & IT for a re-imagined university?
The opportunity to start from a clean sheet is rare in Higher Education and it has to be seized. We started with the experience. We worked out how to solve the issues with the existing experience of using totally inconsistent equipment and how to deliver the active blended learning experience we were aiming for.
Research, requirements, tendering and design were then followed by implementation.
A core AV team of 5-6 people and a wider IT team of 12 people were formed, with experts and key stakeholders from the University, the implementation partner and the main suppliers. Each team worked extensively with an extended group of representatives from across the campus. Months of long hours, setbacks and successes followed.
Expert input was provided by learning technologists and others. And as a millennial himself, Andrew used his experience as a quick guide to what would be acceptable for today’s cohort of students.
Thanks to a fantastic team effort, everything was delivered and operational before the fixed deadline of the new academic year (September 2018), including:
- 116 fixed teaching spaces
- 24 collaboration rooms
- 25 mobile multi-use displays
- 1 lecture theatre
The University of Northampton Waterside campus – built for active blended learning
What lessons have you learned?
Many lessons were learned, but the following stand out:
- If you are delivering flexible solutions you have to be flexible yourself (the proof of concept was very poorly received, we had to accept that we had it wrong and had to go back to looking for other solutions)
- Success depends on constant collaboration, constant reviewing and constant re-evaluation
- Close, productive relationships drive the project forward whether it is with learning technologists, staff development, learning designers or suppliers
- Formal meetings and informal social events help build and maintain these relationships
- Circumstances change, particularly when projects run for years, e.g. the “Waterside” project saw the UK vote for Brexit and a dramatic drop in the value of the pound (this had a major impact on budgets as many of the contracts were priced in Euros)
What impact has the project had?
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Student applications are up and the new campus is a major factor behind the rise.
From an IT perspective, the new network and AV equipment have made huge improvements to uptime and reporting as well as increasing standardization and flexibility. We spend far more time in our offices now, proactively fixing issues or configuring software. Before the project we were always on site with our customers and never at our desks.
There has been a positive impact on our customer relationships. People talk more, our IT team is getting involved in new initiatives and academics and students are more pro-active in approaching us.
What are your top tips for others?
- Find someone you can run-through your ideas with – for Andrew it was his project coordinator and the two groups he belongs to (LTSMG and SCHOMS)
- Talk to your customers (teachers and students) constantly
- Annoy your suppliers, “if you don’t ask, you don’t get anything”, so constantly ask your suppliers for more
What does the future hold?
The university has now got a great infrastructure, where we can develop and get better at what we do. We are going to carry on down this route and do more with technology.
This might not be true of our sector as a whole. The University of Northampton is a modern university, where we have transformed everything on a grand scale, others are likely to make more modest changes and this gives us an advantage.
What was it like working on the project?
Andrew has very mixed emotions about the project. From great highs to deep lows. The user feedback to the proof of concept was certainly a low point, but the recovery (even though it necessitated a lot of re-design and other work) was a definite high point.
Serendipity played a part as well. After the initial proof of concept, we were struggling to find an alternative collaboration product that would meet our needs more closely. Andrew made a last-minute decision to attend a meeting of the Learning Technology Space Meeting Group (LTSMG) where a sales representative showed him Barco weConnect. Impressed, Andrew included it in a product shoot out and it was selected. This proved to be a pivotal moment and a key factor in the success of the project.
Change on this scale is not for the faint-hearted, but it has proved to be a great success and put the University of Northampton in an excellent position for many years to come.The University of Northampton is a Barco case study.
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