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The connected campus

Connecting 280 of the 325 campuses that form part of the country’s 50 public TVET colleges has been no easy feat. Here’s how the TVET College Connection Project team got it right.
Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 27 Jun 2024
Luzango Mfupe, CSIR
Luzango Mfupe, CSIR

Around 40% of business and tech decisionmakers working in the public sector and education institutions say that a lack of budget is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to funding emerging technologies, according to Forrester. In universities and colleges, this reality has a profound impact on teaching and learning, in addition to inhibiting innovation and research.

In 2017, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) launched the TVET College Connection Project (TCCP), which aimed to connect 325 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college campuses to the South African National Research and Education Network (SANReN). SANReN is a high-capacity network for science, research and education and innovation, funded by the Department of Science and Innovation and implemented by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says Michael Acres, TCCP project advisor.

This network is operated by TENET, a non-profit company set up specifically for the benefit of South African universities and associated research institutions. This network differs from commercial service provider networks in that it is optimised for very varied, highly burstable traffic that characterises modern research and education. It provides the connectivity to enable digital learning and create connected campuses. This makes it possible to combine in-class and virtual learning, which is especially relevant as the country’s TVETs look to increase enrolment numbers while also lowering the cost per seat.

“Solid and reliable connectivity is now one of the main contributors to providing quality education to our students.”

Charles Goodwin, Boland College

Armed with R250 million in funding from the National Skills Fund (NSF), the DHET tasked TENET subsidiary, the South African Broadband Education Networks (SABEN), with rolling out the project. Managed by Helga Watkin, programme and portfolio manager at TENET and TCCP project lead, a multidisciplinary team was set up to implement the project and an oversight committee was established by the DHET to provide guidance around how to approach the task. The committee, chaired by Izak Joubert of the department, included departmental IT staff, as well as representatives from the NSF, CSIR, TENET and the South African Public Colleges Organisation.

SABEN GM Garth Scholtz explains the project using this analogy: “Imagine that your laptop or computer is a college campus, and your power cable is the last mile connectivity. The point where your power cable plugs into the wall is what we call a point of presence, or PoP. These PoPs are what connects a campus to the SANReN, which in this example would be the wiring that runs in your wall. The TVET connectivity project was focused on procuring the power cable that plugs into the college campus on the one end and plugs into the SANReN on the other.” The cable is owned by a third party, which leases the capacity to SABEN, which then leases it to college campuses.

The importance of WiFi

Mmaki Jantjies, adjunct academic in information systems at the University of the Western Cape and innovation lead at Telkom, says a robust and high-speed internet connection is crucial for supporting the demands of modern academic programmes. Similarly, the ubiquitous availability of WiFi across campuses empowers students to use their personal digital devices as learning tools. “There’s no doubt that enhanced connectivity, especially when coupled with improved access to new and emerging technologies, can act as a catalyst to transform TVET institutions into hubs of innovation,” she says.

In addition to improving the educator and student experience, these networks increase the efficiency of the operations happening behind the scenes, says Braintree’s MD, Heath Huxtable. When universities and colleges can use connectivity to simplify and streamline student registration processes, you can increase enrolment numbers. With reliable and secure wireless connectivity – which empowers students to check their course requirements or access their financial records without having to consult administrative personnel – levels of efficiency further increase.

Helga Watkin, TENET
Helga Watkin, TENET

What we must not forget as part of this conversation, says Luzango Mfupe, CSIR principal researcher, is that there are countless ways of connecting campuses, which means that what works for a campus in the rural Eastern Cape will be different to what works for a campus in the centre of Johannesburg.

When the project started, some TVETs had no connectivity at all, while others had very limited bandwidth. This was the case at Boland TVET College, which has five campuses (Caledon, Paarl, Stellenbosch, Strand and Worcester) with a maximum capacity of 15Mbps, says Charles Goodwin, Boland College principal. This meant that the network could only accommodate very basic internal needs, like sending and receiving emails and running the institution’s student management system. And while there was WiFi available, it was very limited because the college didn’t have the budget to make it available everywhere.

Bespoke connections

To connect colleges like Boland, dark fibre connections were favoured over managed fibre and microwave connections, for example – and, unlike most government contracts, the directive for the TCCP was not to simply choose the cheapest option. Even when a group of campuses falls under the same college, their individual locations may dictate that they have different broadband connections.

THE IMPORTANCE OF A BACKBONE

A national research and education network (NREN) is a dedicated internet infrastructure and service provider designed to support the needs of the research communities and educational institutions within a country. NRENs operate as the national backbone that connects a country’s higher education establishments and campus networks to each other and to other research and education networks. In addition, NRENs also offer education-specific services and support schools, further education colleges, libraries and other public institutes. NRENs are a vital component of digital learning and research strategies as they bring a common approach to the coordination and deployment of national and international communication networks and services.

In rural areas, for example, which typically lack fibre infrastructure, more bespoke connections are needed. “When we went to the market, the result was a spreadsheet with over 3 800 differently priced items. There were multiple prices for different technologies for a single campus and we had to select the best technology for the best prices to meet a specific campus’ needs,” says the CSIR’s Acres.

The rollout was divided into three parts – providing broadband connections between the SANReN and TVET college campuses, boosting WiFi capability on specific TVET campuses for staff and students, and increasing capacity on the SANReN backbone to accommodate the increase in traffic when the TVET colleges started using the service. Much time was spent figuring out where the different colleges would be connected to SANReN, anticipating the increase in capacity once the colleges were connected and then augmenting the backbone infrastructure to cater for the increased traffic, says Ajay Makan, SANReN’s head of operations.

During the first phase of the project, it was critical to get the timing right so that the colleges could seamlessly move from their old connections over to the new connection. But because all the colleges worked with different service providers, and some colleges had contracts with several service providers, making the switch happen at the same time – without leaving anyone behind – wasn’t an easy task, says TCCP project manager, Lizanne Penderis. “You can’t go to the college and expect to be able to do the implementation in the middle of exams or during registration. So we had to be mindful about not causing too much disruption and make sure that whatever we did aligned with their schedules.”

The need to prioritise WiFi was evident after a 2019 survey revealed a general lack of WiFi connectivity at TVET colleges. In many cases, students couldn’t access WiFi at all and, where there was connection, it was very poor, says Acres. While it would have been best to boost WiFi across all campuses, budgetary constraints meant that only 140 locations were prioritised. “Where WiFi expansions were possible, we took colleges and campuses that had virtually nothing and put in 10 times as many access points,” he says.

Now, for the first time, every public college in South Africa has connectivity. For some, this means enjoying dramatically improved performance – moving from as little as 2Mbps to 200Mbps [which can be upgraded to 1GB], says TENET’s Watkin. In some instances, the college locations were so remote that the 200Mbps capacity exceeded that which was available in the entire surrounding town. One of government’s higher education objectives is to promote greater cooperation between TVET colleges and universities, says Duncan Greaves, the CEO of TENET, adding that having both TVETs and universities connected to the SANReN will greatly assist in facilitating this.

For Goodwin and the students and educators at Boland College, the results have been significant, making it possible for the college to fully digitise its classrooms and improve the student experience. “Solid and reliable connectivity is now one of the main contributors to providing quality education to our students,” he says. “It also better prepares them for the world of work.”

One cannot overemphasise the importance of connectivity in learning, says the CSIR’s Mfupe. This connectivity allows students to interact with educators and experts online without ever having to be in the same room and they can access virtual science labs and complete highly interactive science experiments even though these facilities aren’t available on their campus. “This opens up incredible potential for us to better utilise the resources and the expertise we have for the benefit of society,” says Mfupe. The project has reached every single corner of the country, says Scholtz. “Even though we still face some challenges in the rural areas – many challenges – this project represents a very real step that has been taken in the right direction.”

Scarce skills

At the start of 2023, Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Blade Nzimande, gave a speech about the education and training sector’s readiness for the academic year. He said that of the projected 208 299 first-time enrolments, 69 069 would be in scarce skills areas, such as:

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* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za