Case Studies

Partnerships for Schools

At a glance

Project’s purpose:

To support PfS in providing high quality and easily accessible information about Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and the programme to deliver new Academy schools.

hands paint children school classroom

Main objectives:

To amalgamate two existing websites and a portal into a single site that engages users, is easy to update in-house and able to expand as the BSF and Academies programmes evolve; and to lower the high legacy cost of software ownership.

Project scope:

A dynamic ‘web 2.0’ site, with blogs, polls, videos and collaborative areas.

Core audiences:

Local authorities, private sector partners, school governing bodies, local communities, pupils, parents, head teachers and school workers.

Project length:

Six months (Sept 07–March 08).

Ixxus’ role:

Initial consultancy; software procurement and bespoke development; website architecture, design and build; training of in-house editors; and ongoing support.

Solution:

Alfresco (open source enterprise content management): www.alfresco.com

Why?:

The flexibility to develop the site as and when needed, while meeting quality standards and service levels of a public sector body. Also, with no initial licence cost (capex) to pay, only the standard annual support and maintenance charges, PfS was able to invest its budget on getting exactly the right functionality for its site.


 

In sixty seconds

Partnerships for Schools (PfS) is the government agency responsible for the delivery of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme to rebuild and refurbish secondary schools across England. PfS is also responsible for delivering the programme to build new Academy schools. Together, these programmes will transform education by creating inspiring learning environments that better serve not just pupils and teachers, but the local community too. Such an unprecedented program (with an annual investment of £2.5 –£3 billion over 15–20 years) needs many things to make it a success, including a dynamic website to engage, inform, stimulate, update and share valuable knowledge and information with its audiences – from local authorities and private sector partners to governing bodies, head teachers, pupils, parents and the local community. In short, stakeholders for every state secondary school in England.

Ixxus worked closely with PfS to deliver a single site solution that engaged users, could be updated easily by in-house editors and offered the flexibility to be expanded as the BSF and Academies programmes evolve. What’s more, the solution was open source, which meant that, with no upfront licence cost for proprietary software (just the standard annual support and maintenance charges); PfS was able to invest its budget in developing exactly the right site functionality.

Special emphasis was placed on building a collaborative area, a ‘Facebook for BSF’ (Tim Byles, Chief Executive, PfS), where stakeholders could set up and self-administer their own groups, using everyday social interaction tools in a simple folders’ structure, which included useful features such as shared calendars.


 

In ten minutes

The challenges

There were four main ones.

  1. Make the static dynamic

    PfS had two brochure-ware websites (one for PfS and the other for the BSF programme), which could only be updated by the web-master because it required HTML coding expertise, costing time and money. This bottleneck meant that the sites remained largely static, with some duplicated content, while the BSF programme moved on at a pace. What PfS needed was to give its editors the freedom to better support its different audiences – to update not just documents and other content but also navigational buttons. PfS also wanted to introduce ‘web 2.0’ features, including blogs, polls, calendars and video, to engage its visitors. It was important that this type of content was easy to manage too.

  2. Create secure collaborative spaces that could be self-administered

    In addition, PfS also managed a BSF portal, built using Autonomy proprietary software, which enabled some documents to be shared between registered external users. Although this software offered a good search facility to find documents, it provided little more than a repository of basic, general information, at a high annual cost. A solution was needed that would actively encourage a culture of collaboration and interaction so that, for example, a local authority could share experiences and best practice or make the most of a tried-and-tested list of specialist suppliers and advisors, from construction firms to legal teams. PfS also wanted the site to provide information and support on key themes relevant to the programmes, such as sustainability and ICT, stimulating wider discussion, as well as provide the processes needed to deliver the programmes’ aims. There was another key factor: every group that set up project collaborative space also needed to have the freedom to manage it themselves – to tap into the resources as each saw fit.To make that leap forward, some of the challenging features of the existing system had to be addressed, including controlling access rights between and within the various collaborative project groups.

  3. Accommodate tomorrow

    PfS’s existing proprietary system was inflexible, preventing the site’s features and functionality moving forward without significant investment. Given that the site needed to support a 15–20 year long programme, which would generate a wealth of valuable content, it demanded a totally flexible solution – an open road that could lead in many new directions rather than a cul-de-sac.

  4. Keep it economical

    As a public body PfS was, of course, mindful of delivering value for money. That meant consolidating the two existing websites and portal into one site (reflecting a wider government web rationalising programme) and avoiding the high-legacy cost of a proprietary software licence, enabling money to be better invested in developing exactly the right website functionality to help the programme succeed. This had to be achieved at the same time as meeting all the government website and document-handling standards.

 

The functional requirements

The key requirements were:

  • a redesigned website that made it easy for non-technical editors to manage and update site content, including web 2.0 features, and navigation buttons
  • tight control of editorial access by in-house editors
  • change-control management through versioning and roll-back
  • optionally enforce content-review workflows
  • apply embargo dates for content release, including expiry dates
  • collaborative, self-administered project areas for external users to communicate through polls,blogs and discussions and audience-contributed documents – in fact, the ability to share any kind of digital asset with access-rights controlled by a nominated project-group administrator
  • introduce an internal Document Management (DM) system that allowed users to find internally-produced documents quickly and the creation of documents that adhered to internally-defined records management standards.

The design requirements

PfS needed a fresher, cleaner and more user-friendly site than its existing version. The site also had to engage and meet the needs of a range of different audiences, from head teachers and pupils to the managers of construction companies or members of the local community and, because it represented a government agency, content had to be extremely accessible. New features included Flash videos that could be streamlined and played immediately (previously this type of content had to be downloaded first and watched using a standard player) and a broader screen to better manage the ever-growing content (1024 pixels wide for display as opposed to 800 before).

The site is now live at www.partnershipsforschools.org.uk

What Ixxus did

Ixxus worked with the PfS team closely, from the initial software evaluation through to project hand-over and training. Ixxus:

  • contributed to the compilation of the business case, facilitating the procurement of a software solution (Alfresco) that met all public sector body requirements, quality standards and service levels
  • helped to define the project scope and set clear priorities, including quick wins such as getting PfS’s internal document management system up-and-running in a matter of weeks
  • developed and defined the project structure, which included running internal workshops to gather thinking
  • created storyboards of the site’s design (sketches on paper) to cost-effectively get stakeholder buy-in and generate enthusiasm for the project at an early stage of the project
  • built the website to agreed priorities
  • managed the delivery of the solution
  • created software user guides and trained in-house editors to update content

Ixxus continues to provide ongoing technical support to PfS, as an annual operational support service.

Why open source?

For PfS, it was more a question of why not? For a start, the organisation wanted to move away from a costly proprietary solution, which offered PfS little room to expand its site as the BSF and Academies programmes took shape to one that offered value for money and substantial flexibility. Open source software gave PfS complete freedom to develop its site and peace of mind because the software code was not proprietary (PfS could, in fact, commission a completely new supplier in future to develop its site). Moreover, open source software was fit for purpose. It presented PfS with a solution that matched its needs – the ability to manage web content, manage internally-produced documents and enable external users to collaborate online – without the need for significant upfront investment for a proprietary software licence. That fact delivered enormous benefits to PfS. With only the standard ongoing support and maintenance charge to budget for, the organisation was able to invest its money in getting exactly the right features and functionality for its users.

“Open source offers us a flexible, tailored solution which allowed us to spend the budget where it matters most, providing functionality on the product rather than on licence fees.” Karl Hoods, Head of Information Systems, PfS

Why PfS chose Alfresco

With Alfresco, PfS found an open source solution that matched the functionality of the leading proprietary systems, while being more cost effective and offering complete flexibility to evolve its site as and when needed.

Alfresco is the leading provider of open source enterprise content management solutions. It provides its software in a way that meets all the rigorous requirements, quality standards and service levels demanded by a public sector body. In addition, the company has excellent credentials, being established by industry ‘veterans’ and backed by a range of financial giants. Alfresco also employs a large and highly experienced team and has enjoyed exponential growth, with many household names on its client list and numerous awards to its name.

Another important factor is that user communities drive the development of open source software and Alfresco’s community is one of the largest. As a consequence, PfS could be confident that, wherever the market was going, Alfresco would be there or even a step ahead. Finally, Alfresco’s business model is dependent on customers renewing their support and maintenance subscriptions so a regular new release programme and high standards of support are of the highest priority within the company. This means that enterprise clients continually get Alfresco’s best efforts in supporting their use of the Alfresco software because all of the company’s future revenue depends on maintaining happy, satisfied clients.

The technical solution

Here’s how the internal and external solutions work – and work together.

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Notes:

Internal

1. A base Alfresco installation, with workflows customised by Ixxus, met PfS’s internal document management needs, sitting on the open source database MySQL.

2. The Alfresco web content management package enabled the manipulation, staging and authoring of online content internally, which could then be rapidly deployed externally at the press of a button to the public web server (5). All PfS’s assets are stored here, in a simple folders’ structure, including HTML, Java script and image files and Flash videos.

3. There are lots of ways that users can interact with Alfresco. PfS simply uses Windows File Share so nothing special has to be installed (users don’t even need to go through a web browser).

Public/External

4. Ixxus customised the interface for the collaborative environment of the site, including adding blogs, calendars and polls. Here, user groups can update, version, catalogue and search for content and self-administer their own area. Users are invited to join a group, rather like Facebook.

5. The website content is generated internally by PfS staff in the safety of their own user/preview ‘sandboxed’ environments. Approved content is held within a staging sandbox from which any content snapshot can be deployed out onto the live website, in an incremental ‘changes-only’ fashion.

6. Published content is also replicated into the public collaboration repository, so that Alfresco content services, such as full-text search, may be exploited.

An interesting observation

Alfresco’s approach to web content management ‘de-couples’ the delivery of a site, which can be built using technologies that are familiar to the designers because the site is published out to a waiting destination server and let go. The website itself does not execute on Alfresco. So rather than hoping to integrate every possible website feature into the web content management services, Alfresco focuses on high-class management time features such as content-control, versioning, business process management, incremental deployment, presentational templates and content separation. This reduces vendor lock-in and the need to base entire website architectural strategies on a single product.

Realising the design

The website design was initially presented as a selection of storyboards, which once approved, were taken and dissected by an HTML developer into individual XHTML templates. A number of Alfresco Web-Forms were then written using standard eXtensible Schema Definitions (XSD), describing the changeable content attributes of a page. Each Web-Form can represent a content business entity, as it appears on the website (for example, press release pages, external news pages, templates and content).

Creating a collaborative environment

One of the major achievements of this project has been the creation of a social networking, collaborative environment for all of the PfS partners and stakeholders. This ‘Facebook’ style application will facilitate the sharing of knowledge and information about specific subjects within the Building Schools for the Future programme.

A collaborative area has been added to the website so that PfS staff can create subject specific project workspaces on request, to which relevant stakeholders can then subscribe. An external project owner administers each workspace, controlling group content and deciding who has access – significantly reducing the level of central administration required. Each area can contain a shared calendar, blogs, polls, forums and a document library.

Besides saving PfS administrative time, another important benefit is that a group workspace captures all the discussion, interaction and documentation around a project, showing the decision-making process clearly. The collaborative environment has also enabled PfS to publish a BSF event space, where coming events can be viewed to help stakeholders plan their bid strategies and avoid diary clashes.


 

The end results

The site currently averages around 17,000 visits a month, with 62% of those visitors returning (raw statistics: 16,760 visits; 109,189 page views; 62% return visits).

Comments from PfS on the project…

“PfS chose Ixxus because of its thorough understanding of the information arena and product sets, and its objective view. We were impressed by the calibre of the technical people and their ability to question and challenge us, in a positive, mature way that wasn’t abrupt. Ixxus’ deep understanding of where we were and where we needed to be made a huge difference to the project. Ixxus was also one of Alfresco’s first partners in the UK, so we knew it had the technical knowledge and access to the right levels within Alfresco to get things sorted.” Karl Hoods, Head of Information Systems, PfS

“I want to encourage anyone with an interest in Building Schools for the Future (BSF) and educational transformation to not just look at our new site, but become actively engaged with it and with us. Ultimately I hope that our collaborative working areas will become a kind of Facebook for BSF, with stimulating and relevant online discussions.” Tim Byles, Chief Executive of PfS.

See the site for yourself at: www.partnershipsforschools.org.uk

Any feedback? Please send this to info@partnershipsforschools.org.uk Thanks.

What next?

The Alfresco open source solution delivered by Ixxus has given PfS the platform – and springboard – to evolve its site as the BSF programme gains momentum. A second phase of development is planned once all the local authorities in England are engaged in the programme. In the meantime, Ixxus continues to provide technical support to PfS, as and when needed.

Date Published : 23rd of October 2014