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Becoming a world-class powerhouse

We interview Dr Paul Feldman, Chief Executive of Jisc, as he sheds some light on using edtech innovations to transform research

Posted by Hannah Oakman | April 15, 2016 | Business

Q. Jisc has changed considerably in recent years, where do you plan to take it from here? 

We have already started to take the next steps. Although, we are under no illusions that we have more work to do to meet our customers’ expectations. 

Through our customer services team we are working closer with colleges and universities to deliver against their needs, but I think we need to do much more to really understand our customers and stakeholders, and become an extension of their teams. We need to be more accessible to them and ensure that we are providing the services and support that allow them to do what they need to.

It is our endeavour to be a world-class powerhouse of digital support and transformation to the further, higher education and research communities. Over the coming years I believe the technology that supports our work and our day-to-day lives will become more important. Most governments around the world are now promoting digital first and we want to become a digital partner for our customers, helping them to gain the benefits of a digital approach. 

When universities and colleges are able  to unlock the benefits of digital technologies they put themselves in the best position to meet and exceed the expectations of students and staff, create a fertile research environment and keep the UK competitive. Our objective in the year ahead is to help colleges and universities do just that.

Q. How do you think Jisc’s role in helping UK HE and FE will change in the future?

It is clear that the way education is funded by central government is changing and this means we must change too, realigning our service offerings to areas that add the best value. This doesn’t necessarily mean creating new services or support, but often just ensuring that we are offering the best possible solution. For example, the Janet network is vital in supporting the use of technology to improve teaching, learning and research, and join up students from across the UK and around the world. We’ll continue to invest in the network so that organisations are able to unlock these benefits, as well as adding capacity to the network if it is required as needs evolve and develop.

Due to the changes happening in further and higher education, supporting the adoption of blended learning will be an increasing focus for us in the future. 

We believe a blended approach is on the cusp of happening widespread around the country. Jisc aim to be here to provide advice and best practice, linking colleges and universities to infrastructure, pointing them to content and breaking down the barriers that slow down adoption. This will also mean encouraging digital leadership within providers and supporting the training of digital experts who can share their knowledge with colleagues.

We need to have a range of value added services that institutions are prepared to pay for, in addition to our core funded services

Regarding new services, we will be looking to build on the value and benefits offered through shared services, such as the southern shared data centre. 

This year we will be launching a northern data centre, and looking further at what our customers would need to move fully to shared data centres and the cloud.

The development of additional services won’t necessarily be ‘manufactured’ by us directly. 

We are exploring alternative models, such as joint ventures, or consortia where the partners get free/low-cost access, or, for example commercialisation arrangements which allow colleges and universities to get payback on great teaching and research solutions they may have developed. 

Q. You come from a strong commercial background, how will you use your skills and experience in your new role?

We have a very clear mission to enable people in higher education, further education and skills in the UK to perform at the forefront of international practice by exploiting fully the possibilities of modern digital empowerment, content and connectivity. This is our prime focus and will continue to be so.

When universities and colleges are able to unlock the benefits of digital technologies they put themselves in the best position to meet and exceed the expectations of students and staff

I see my commercial background adding value to the delivery of this mission due to changes which we will need to make if we are to keep delivering for customers. With squeezed government funding, they are not only asking the sector, but also asking us to be more efficient. We will need to have a range of value-added services that institutions are prepared to pay for, in addition to our core funded services. In addition, to ensure we have a sustainable business, branching out from this we need to look at the value our services can offer in other sectors, outside education. Working in this way can help fund our core mission and ensure we can keep delivering the best digital services and solutions for UK education and research to keep our sector world-leading.

Q. Are there any particular challenges you are looking forward to tackling? 

The funding cuts facing both FE and HE mean that colleges and universities will need to work more efficiently in the future, something I know we can support them to do. Although I believe the key challenge around funding cuts goes deeper than this. Student experience and teaching quality need to remain high. This is more complex, but still something the use of technology can support, be it through a blended approach to learning, shared digital resources and services. 

Our conversations with practitioners tell us there are many who are ready to transform the way they teach – we want to give them the tools and support they need to do this so that a blended learning approach, supported by digital services becomes the norm when it is a suitable solution.

Q. Jisc has evolved in recent years to better meet the changing needs in UK universities and colleges, how do you think the next academic year will shape the sector? 

I think the next academic year will make the sector stronger, facing challenges which we know can be overcome can only improve what we have to offer as a nation. 

Firstly, over the next year the impact of the Green Paper and Nurse Review will become clear for higher education. This could well set the tone for the next few years. Getting this right is obviously key to the sector’s future success. We’ll be working hard with other organisations to make sure that everyone is able to capitalise on digital technologies.

The coming transformation of further education in England through the area review process, with the requirement for colleges to become more agile and cost efficient, is another consideration. We will be supporting colleges through the process, helping them through the technology aspects of mergers and consolidations, increasing their success and also providing advice and tools that will allow them to still be student focused. We will be building on our experience from working with other UK nations who have already gone through a similar process and will share technology solutions that are developed in England, with Wales, Scotland and NI. 

For universities the changing open access (OA) landscape is an ongoing challenge – they are adopting systems and processes which have not yet been fully defined and are still evolving. For many research-intensive universities OA requires them to adapt and change at pace to meet funder and researcher needs. At Jisc we are working in consultation with ARMA, RLUK, SCONUL and UKCoRR, to ensure that we offer universities the world’s best OA support service.

And to finish, here is something I see as a positive technology-led opportunity over the next 12 months.

In today’s climate universities and colleges need to act more like commercial businesses. The way they monitor students’ performance and respond to needs are key aspects in how they perform as a business. I believe learner analytics has a role to play here. We’re piloting a national scheme that allows tutors to monitor information about their students, step in when they need help and also allow students themselves to compare their performance against fellow classmates. This approach supports the development of learning that meets the needs of the student and can add value both at colleges and universities. I think it will become widely used in the near future. 

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