Interview: Inside one further education college’s virtual desktop revolution

As it moves to a new £53m flagship campus, Ayrshire College has removed the distinction between IT and general-purpose classrooms. Sam Trendall meets ICT manager Brad Johnstone to hear more

“Ten years ago this would not have worked – students would have kicked off and said: ‘I want a PC, a monitor, and a mouse.’ But now it is part of the norm. They haven’t batted an eyelid.”

So says Brad Johnstone, ICT manager at Ayrshire College, of the client computing makeover he recently masterminded. The further education college’s flagship Kilmarnock campus – which is home to about 5,500 of its 13,000 students, and one in three of its 1,000 staff – moved into a new £53m facility in the town late last year. Johnstone and his fellow IT professionals were intrinsically involved in the planning and design stages of the project.

“We were heavily supported, and the budget for IT was one of the biggest in the campus. They made a real investment in this,” he tells PublicTechnology. “We were able to be in discussions about the fabric of the building; we have got a comms room with all the latest and greatest [kit], such as UPS [uninterruptible power supply] that can run for two days, and a generator. There are so many things in this building to support our vision.”

The key facet of the college’s IT revamp was a move away from traditional desktops to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) model built on software from Citrix and IGEL. The campus now has 12 classrooms and a learning resource centre fitted out with desktop thin-client terminals. Additionally, a further 18 have become “IT-enabled” classrooms, each of which has been allotted with 20 laptops that can be used to log onto the college’s system, but can be easily stored away when not needed. What is more, the stripped-down operating system means that a fully charged machine can be used all day, if required.

“You cannot create spaces that can only be used for one thing,” Johnstone says. “You can very easily turn these into an IT room, but you can also have paper-and-pen learning. It breaks down the barriers of it [simply] being a general-purpose classroom. It’s a real game-changer. [Previously], if someone asked us for a networked class, we would have to make sure there was power, networking, the right type of table. These are not just IT labs – it is really down to who is using it.”

Bring your own device
Students wishing to access the thin client system will be presented with four possible software login options: a generalist system containing standard programs; one specialised for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) students, containing additional computer-added design and other tools; one geared for media-focused students, featuring software such as games design and video editing; and one catered to a small subset of students taking highly specialised subjects.

In addition to the college-owned desktops and laptop technology, students can also log onto the system using their personal devices, although Johnstone says that this functionality is still under review by both staff and student bodies. 

“I’m not a big believer in BYOD as a learning and teaching model,” he said. “If we built our curriculum around students bringing their devices in, what happens if they break it, or lose it? For me, we have to provide all the equipment they need to learn. But, if they want to log on with their own device, then we have to provide the ability to do that. The technology is there, and it works – but we have to do a bit more due diligence and spend some time with the Student Association.”

In addition to the Kilmarnock campus, Ayshire College has two other sites, in Ayr and Kilwinning. The plan, over the next three years, is to implement the virtual desktop environment – which can be managed from the Kilmarnock location – in each of these. When asked if such investments in technology might help determine whether potential students decide to pursue a course of study at the college, Johnstone says “I would like to think so”.

“One thing is just getting the message out there; IT people can be very bad at self-promotion,” he adds. “This was about making sure that the students that come here are happy… Whether it differentiates us – that wasn’t the focus. But could it be a factor why people choose us? Absolutely.” 

Sam Trendall

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