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Delivering college IT services remotely

When lockdown kicked in, Luminate Education Group provided a quick, seamless transition for its large group of colleges and schools around the Leeds area so that staff and students could continue to work and study from home. Graham Eland, group IT director, explains how.

Graham Eland

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed all Luminate sites our IT systems faced a serious test.

All institutions will have felt the same. Suddenly having to cope with every learner and almost every member of staff working from home is a huge change but we felt well prepared.

As we’re a group of institutions we’ve always had people working across several locations and we had already implemented systems that allow staff to log in remotely to access business systems. We had also deployed Google G Suite to support teaching and learning. Staff and learners have continued to use Google Meet to continue teaching and learning. Over the last four years we have issued more than 4,000 mobile devices including Chromebooks and laptops for students to study at home.

Obviously, when the COVID-19 crisis started, our priority was to make sure learners could keep learning. Our ITSS service desk plays a pivotal role in this. The service is cloud-based and we were able to give everyone a seamless transition to home working, using the familiar ways when they want to contact the service desk for help.

The service desk team use a number of tools to keep their customers working efficiently, including Bomgar (now part of BeyondTrust) to take control of a person’s PC, tablet or phone if that’s needed to troubleshoot, diagnose and resolve problems.

We have a number of business-critical IT management systems and these have allowed us to make sure our services are performing well. SolarWinds lets us remotely monitor (from any device) how the IT network is performing, how many connections are being made and if we need to increase capacity. There is no need to visit our building data centres to check how the IT network is performing. We also carry out predictive analysis so we can see if hardware on one of our sites is about to fail, so we can respond and deal with the problem before it has an impact.

We need robust connectivity, and we get that with Jisc. Luminate has five Jisc-provided internet connections and we rely on these to make sure we can keep our business operations on track and manage key processes like finance, human resources and student records, and make sure staff can reach the resources and support they need.

We’ve also invested in critical services protection, which builds on the distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection provided with our Jisc membership, to monitor critical services like email, web and telephony, and deliver fast 24/7 mitigation if there’s a cyber-attack. It gives us confidence that we’re doing everything we can to stay operational if our systems come under threat.

We only had two weeks to prepare for the lockdown but our testing proved the systems were already in place, and they had the resilience to cope.

Over the first eight weeks of lockdown we saw more than 40,000 individual connections being made, with staff working remotely and accessing business systems such as HR, finance, IT and estates using a variety of tools such as SIMS. They are finding solutions that overcome some of the difficulties they faced when they started working from home. One example is using an online post box where letters are uploaded to the cloud, printed and posted to our learners’ homes, so there is no need for the post to be collected onsite.

We have also seen more than 60,000 individual learner connections logging into G Suite, to stay on track with their studies. Our learners at Leeds East Academy, Leeds West Academy and Leeds East Academy (White Rose Academy Trust) have continued to learn from home with subject-specific cloud resources and Microsoft 365.

Our higher education learners at Leeds College of Music continue to use Microsoft 365 to support their learning. We made arrangements to provide Sibelius music notation software so they can continue writing and performing music at home.

Having staff with a can-do attitude and having the right tools in place have been key to our success. Over the past five years we’ve embraced a hybrid approach of on-premise and cloud technologies from Microsoft, Adobe, Apple and Google to keep our staff and students working and studying.  The speed at which we had to implement wholescale remote working was unprecedented but we’ve proved over recent years that we can deliver learning remotely just as efficiently as we can on site.

Colleges and schools in Luminate Education Group include Leeds City College, University Centre, Harrogate College, Keighley College, Leeds Sixth Form College and Leeds College of Music – with around 25,000 learners. It also operates the three secondary schools in the White Rose Academies Trust.