Tech vs Teach

Nicola Yeeles asks, how can HE IT departments keep the class of 2015 satisfied?

Every student I have spoken to in the last few years has asked me to take this point away – that they don’t want technology to be a substitute for the real people, in the same place, learning together.” So writes consultant Helen Beetham, co-author of technology charity Jisc’s Digital Student report. But according to that report, students also demand robust and ubiquitous wi-fi across campus locations; access to university network and personal/social web services from their own devices, and continued access to institutional devices, especially desktop computers, with relevant software for their use. 

Bimodal IT

So how can university IT departments keep the class of 2015 satisfied, investing in innovative software, hardware and services that enable them to do today’s tasks well, while also meeting the university’s long-term teaching and financial objectives?

Jisc futurist Martin Hamilton said: “I believe the key to this new way of working is something known as bimodal IT. To give you an analogy, most corporate or enterprise IT is a marathon, delivering stable and reliable mission-critical services in a risk-averse way. In bimodal IT we also recognise that it is sometimes necessary to ‘sprint’, and we deliberately make resources including hardware, software and staff available to support this.”

Hamilton acknowledges that this might not be as simple as giving staff different tasks – “marathon runners don’t turn into sprinters overnight” – so institutions may need to recruit new team members or create a specialist innovation group.

An organisation’s approach to sprinting is often interesting. Hamilton poses a challenge: “Imagine that the iPad was released tomorrow. Perhaps you would have welcomed a potentially innovative new technology, bought a few units to trial, then encouraged students and academics to try them and write up their experiences? Or would you have banned its use and refused to support anyone trying to use it?”

ABOVE: At £81 million, the University of Sheffield’s Diamond building is its largest ever investment in teaching and learning

Hamilton’s challenge highlights the rapid changes taking place that impact on universities’ ability to plan IT investments over the long term. How could a universityIT strategy have anticipated five years ago that by now we’d have useable tablets on the market from unlikely sources such as Tesco, and all for a fraction of the price of the iPad in 2010?

He said: “It’s not uncommon for institutions to plan to run a particular piece of equipment like a desktop PC until it simply can’t go on any longer. Further complicating matters are that enterprise software often requires complex integrations with multiple business systems, such as library, virtual learning environment, HR, payroll and finance. Instead, we need to ask ourselves how the IT department can be responsive and agile, and how it should be configured to best support institutional innovation.”

Invest in flexibility

One response is to invest in increasing flexibility. At the University of Wolverhampton, a massive investment of £22 million in a new science facility includes new Dell tablets. University IT consultant Matthew Flower said: “The Rosalind Franklin Science Centre now has the first big implementation of tablets for students across the university. In addition, the innovative way the labs are set up allows flexibility and features movable equipment; unlike traditional labs, it can be easily changed for different lectures and scenarios.”

Another way to prioritise new investments is by looking towards the class of 2015’s future workplaces, and providing the right tech to support them as digital citizens of the future. In autumn 2015 Swansea University will open their Innovation Hub, providing world-class facilities for advanced engineering and manufacturing, conceptual design, computer modelling, simulation and optimisation. That includes high-tech facilities like a new flight simulator with 3D displays and a wind tunnel that can realise speeds of up to 50 metres per second.

‘The Rosalind Franklin Science Centre now has the first big implementation of tablets for students across the university. In addition, the innovative way the labs are set up allows flexibility and features movable equipment; unlike traditional labs, it can be easily changed for different lectures and scenarios.’

Swansea University Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard B. Davies said: “On the Bay Campus, the engineering quarter alone will house two new research institutes, allowing for major research collaborations with Rolls-Royce, Tata Steel and BP in materials testing and energy safety. The integrated academic and industry working at Swansea provides for strength of applied knowledge and tremendous ‘real-world’ experience for our students.”

Technology is also increasingly being used to broaden students’ experiences beyond lecture theatre walls. At the University of Leicester, the 2015 cohort of medical students will be watching live-streamed patient consultations for the first time at the £42 million Centre for Medicine opening this September.

Nick London, Professor of Surgery and Head of the university’s medical school, explained why: “As a doctor, you don’t know which disorder will come through the door next, and this will be the same for this approach, which will provide the students with invaluable experience of thinking on their feet and identifying disorders and appropriate treatments.”

A further reason why it’s difficult to prioritise technology spend is that there may be costs hidden in the university eco-system. Jisc’s Financial X-ray service is designed to illuminate these. Service manager Paul Clayton explained: “Owing to the traditional structures and barriers in universities it has been difficult to find the right information to make the best decisions at a local level. Part of good decision-making is knowing what your existing costs are. Financial X-ray takes a snapshot of the current year’s spending and gives the institution the full picture of the cost of IT service delivery across the organisation, so that they can make better, more informed strategic choices.”

Financial X-ray takes a snapshot of the current year’s spending and gives the institution the full picture of the cost of IT service delivery across the organisation, so that they can make better, more informed strategic choices.”

In the last year, several universities have used the results of the Financial X-ray service to support their case for centralising some services and avoiding duplication. Others have used it to review and assess the impact of strategic change before they go into a reorganisation such as a merger, so that they can ensure they maintain consistency while the changes are taking place. Seeing the true cost of services means some universities have consequently made changes like moving into the Jisc shared data centre at Slough or moving services such as email to the cloud. The X-ray also illuminates any underspend, so a few institutions have increased their spending, for example on network and data centres. Still others have also got rid of obsolete equipment which was supporting their network.

There’s no doubt that improvements behind the scenes can vastly improve the student experience. Take the University of Sheffield’s new Diamond building opening this autumn. A university representative said: “At £81 million, the Diamond is our largest ever investment in teaching and learning. As well as specialised engineering teaching laboratories, including a virtual reality room, the building is an extension of our incredibly successful Information Commons building – which offers high quality IT-enabled study spaces and 24-hour access to student materials. This provision will focus on rich digital collections, including e-books, coupled with an on-demand delivery service for print materials from other sites.”

Getting the back-end services right could be just the thing for the class of 2015. The technology they can’t see may be just what makes the difference. 

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