Cost saving stories are being heard more and more throughout the schools of the UK, however it doesn’t stop there. We are now hearing dramatic cost saving stories from further education as Gerald Haigh, independent writer to Microsoft explains how ICT has benefited Walsall College.

At the 12,000 student Walsall College, the introduction of SharePoint has brought cost savings claimed to be around £50,000 a year – and that, I’d guess, is probably a cautious estimate. A careful audit of efficiency savings would probably unearth a much bigger figure.

It all started with the college’s move, in 2009, to a brand new £64 million building. In the run up to the move, Director of Learning Technologies, Jayne Holt, and her team were determined to see that the student and staff online environment would be as exciting and efficient as the new physical surroundings.

“We didn’t just want to transfer the old systems and practices,” says Jayne. So the first step, ahead of the move, was to find a more dynamic and interactive replacement for the existing static open-source management system. The aim was to provide every student with a live individual learning plan, and a real-time flow of personally targeted data about their timetable, attendance, punctuality and achievements. There’d be effective staff-student communication, and hugely improved monitoring of student progress. Meetings would be informed by real time information, and communication and collaboration across the whole college would be transformed.

But how to achieve all that? The answer, as so often, SharePoint.

As Jayne explains, “We looked at a variety of systems, commercial and open source, but it was clear that SharePoint would enable us to achieve everything we wanted. The key feature is the ability of SharePoint to present specific information to a defined group audience or to an individual. That’s what matters. It’s not necessarily about technology. It’s about people.”

It was a bold vision, but two years on, it’s largely been achieved, due to effective and enthusiastic college leadership, with adoption across the whole institution by curriculum, business support areas and students. Supporting all of this is the technical capability of SharePoint 2007.

The impact of the new system, on learning, collaboration, communication and management systems, has been huge. Meanwhile, it’s worth singling out here the effects on the college budget. Some specific areas to look at;

Student surveys

Student voice, collected by regular surveys, is an important driver of planning. Three such surveys are carried out each year. As Jayne Holt says, though,

“It’s not so much capturing the data, it’s the sophisticated analysis that makes it useful. We used to have it done by an external provider, but now, with the survey presented to students through SharePoint, we don’t need the provider. And because it’s easier for students to do it the level of response has gone up.”

Saving, from the cost of outsourcing – £20,000 per year.

Managing Staff CPD

Staff development at Walsall College goes on all day, every day. Before SharePoint was used, it was a time-consuming and frustrating paper-based business of negotiating staff and course tutor availability, individual needs and the timetable of continued personal development (CPD) offerings. “Just to arrange one session for a time when everyone could attend might take hours,” says Jayne.

Now, with SharePoint, staff can see what sessions are available, whether there are spaces, and then book their own attendance.

Saving, on efficiency and time – £20,000 per year.

Paperless meetings

Meetings, instead of being serviced by packs of paper, are now informed by real time online information, graphically presented.

Saving paper is conservatively estimated at £2,000 per year, however it’s clear that the real benefit here is measured in terms of efficiency and the availability of accurate, up to date information, open to analysis and comparison.

Attendance and Retention

Tutors are highly approving of the ease of use of the new system and of its interactivity, giving them easier access to students and more control over their learning.

At the same time, monitoring and tracking of students – groups and individuals – has been made hugely easier and more efficient.

All this is reflected in improved attendance and reduced drop-out from courses. Across the College, attendance is up by 4% to 93%, and retention up by 3% to 93% with achievement at 85%

Resulting efficiency savings in monitoring and tracking are conservatively estimated at £5000 a year

Total of these figures –  savings of £47,000 a year

Our experience with other cost saving stories suggests that this is likely to be a safe, conservative estimate. Increased efficiency permeates into the far corners of an institution, speeding things, up, making life easier, saving time in all sorts of ways. So our headline figure of £50,000 a year saved with ICT at Walsall College is still likely to be an underestimate. And as the SharePoint learning system matures, improves and importantly migrates to SharePoint 2010, the story can only get better.