This article was written by David Braue based on interviews primarily with me, but with supporting material from other members of Whitley College.

The article appeared in The Age newspaper in Melbourne and can be viewed here:

The students who kicked out the consultants

When residential students arrive next month to live at the University of Melbourne's Whitley College, they will enter a place where 10Mbps Internet access is the norm and students - not expensive consultants - handle all aspects of IT from server administration to intranet development and desktop support.

Student involvement in the college's IT infrastructure has become so well-established that Whitley dismissed its outside IT help in 1998, after students participating in the loosely formed IT committee brought college administrators a business case they couldn't refuse. Let the students take over IT within the college, they argued, and use money that would have gone to outside consultants to upgrade infrastructure; cut costs by moving many key administrative services online; and turn Whitley into a haven for tech-savvy students.

By that point, students were already doing most of the hard work, led in large part by Ben Fon, who moved into the college in 1997 to pursue a bachelor of computer science degree at RMIT. Within a short time, Fon helped formalise the IT committee and worked with Whitley administration to kick-start the college's IT initiative and help it keep up with competitors such as Trinity and Ormond colleges.

Dr Philip Mosely, dean of the college from 1995 until last year, was initially sceptical about the practicality of shelling out for fibre-optic cable to residential rooms. However, discussions with students and other colleges quickly won him over when he realised that the Internet was fast becoming a way of life for the latest generation of students.

"Today in 2001, students we've had through the uni have had almost their full educational process wrapped up in computers," he says. "In 1996 it was a major thing to get the college council to spend $100,000 on cabling, and I initially said what do we get? But (soon) the council was happy to provide such means because it was determined to become a college of excellence, and saw the IT way as a marvellous way of catching up. It became an excellent tool for students and they were making full use of it."

Armed with the financial support and blessing of Whitley's administration, the IT committee has grown from four to about a dozen students. Members combine hectic academic schedules with around-the-clock room calls to fix residents' misbehaving computers, maintain the college's eight-computer lab and configure college FreeBSD and Windows NT servers.

Keeping such an infrastructure running is anything but a trivial exercise, and has taught IT committee members some lessons in the demands of corporate networking. This is particularly the case when it comes to broadband Internet access, which has been restrained through bans on Napster and "please explains" issued to anyone regularly downloading more than 150Mb in a day.

With more than 90 of the college's 130 students connected to its intranet last year, providing support has become so time-consuming that a formalised help desk hierarchy has been set up to ensure students get the help they need without draining committee members' time.

"One of the things we always joked about is that we had all the major problems of an ISP or corporate without the resources or manpower," Fon says. "Melbourne Uni now has students enrol online, get their tutorials and results online, students don't really have a choice but to be online. In many ways, that made our work more challenging and exciting, in that IT facilities have become more of a necessity than a luxury."

Facing the graduation of many core members last year, the IT committee formally documented key network administration procedures so that future students can benefit from their experience.

Having total control over an IT infrastructure worthy of many small businesses has provided a fertile playground for students to act out their wildest imaginations. Online scripts, for example, automatically pull down schedules for the tram that runs nearest to the college, while last year Whitley's front-door security camera was hooked to a Web cam that continually broadcasts its video on the intranet.

Paperwork for things such as late meal requests, room inspections and equipment repairs have all been moved online and students are encouraged to implement anything they think will be useful to the college. "It's the development side of it that takes the time just coming up with the idea, going on the Web and reading up on it," says IT committee chairman Tim Burgess, a third-year student pursuing degrees in physics and computer engineering.

Burgess is working 10-hour days preparing the college network for the coming semester and in his spare time is pursuing pet projects such as finding a way to put washing machine wait times online. "The thing is, if you had to pay (a consultant) for them, none of these cool things happen; it would be simple Web access and e-mail," he says.

"But students' time is cheap, and there are a few of us who've had enough experience and have the inclination to learn and put in the time, and we hopefully benefit everyone else as well."

Not that all this tinkering is just for fun. Graduating IT committee members have found themselves hot property in a jobs market screaming out for the combination of IT skills and demonstrated creativity.

In recent years, Whitley IT committee members have secured IT-related positions at organisations such as the ANZ Bank, Bendigo Bank and the University of Melbourne. Fon now works as a system administrator at IBM Global Services, while Burgess is a consultant with GE Information Services.

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