by James Henderson

How a modernising NUS is innovating in the classroom

Sep 23, 2020
Education IndustryIT Leadership

As chief IT officer, Tommy Hor is laying the groundwork for modern-day learning across Singapore, underpinned by emerging technologies and digital transformation.

tommy hor nus
Credit: NUS

As the country’s flagship educational institution, National University of Singapore’s (NUS) reputation spans the world, built on a heritage of innovation and lifelong learning since 1905, consistently acknowledged as one of the leading universities in the world; NUS was ranked 25th globally in 2020. NUS houses more than 50,000 faculty members, staff and students across campuses in Kent Ridge, Bukit Timah and Outram, in addition to four graduate schools, 13 undergraduate schools and 30 university-level research institutes and centres.

Reputation comes with heightened responsibility, however, and a commitment to use emerging technologies to reinvent learning in the modern-day. Achieving such towering —and ever-changing—expectations comes with an acceptance that innovation starts with the user, bringing real-life scenarios to life through transformative solutions.

“Many technology innovations happened in classrooms,” recalls Tommy Hor, chief IT officer at NUS. “For instance, to be in the shoes of the patient and to feel and see what they experience has proved challenging to the psychiatry students at the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies [NUS Nursing]. We overcame such constraints by developing an innovative application to complement the learning experience through the use of augmented and virtual reality technology. This allowed nursing students to undergo the experience patients go through when they have hallucinations, whether auditory, visual or tactile.”

NUS’s digital modernisation effort

With NUS Nursing as a recent example—and driven by a shared mission in education and research—Hor and his team are also tasked with delivering technology initiatives for enabling a lifelong learning program in Singapore.

Central to such efforts is upgrading the “pivotal” student record system to ensure one record exists per student, created at the point of joining NUS and accompanying each user throughout the entire education life cycle:

This fosters relationship management and makes it easier for students and alumni to access continuing education programs and sign up for campus events.

The university has a whole cosmos of expertise in a myriad of subjects like computer science, business studies, chemistry, communications and data science, in addition to engineering, industrial design, law, medicine, music and public health among others.

The greatest challenge is to overcome idiosyncrasies in our bid to architect common IT platforms and solutions to meet the diverse needs of the campus.

To achieve common goals aligned to facilitating innovation and lifelong learning, Hor says the organisation is pursuing infrastructure modernisation at pace to ensure the digital foundations are laid for ongoing student success.

At NUS, infrastructure provisioning is all about capacity, capability and security. A traditional firewall protecting incoming and outgoing traffic for our network is inadequate while network segmentation for control and inspection of traffic from server to server is just too complex and laborious to implement and maintain.

With more than 50,000 users and 250,000 networked devices on campus, we have a major undertaking in 2020 around automating policy-based network provisioning across all network domains, as well as segregation constructs to build secure boundaries for users and equipment.

“Significant investments” are also being made to overhaul ageing human resources and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, with the aim of harmonising business practices, integrating disparate processes and modernising user experience with mobile access—“from any device, anytime and anywhere”, Hor says.

This also includes a suite of self-help services and a rich set of management dashboards and reports generated out of the box.

With operations outsourced, storage leased and selective platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) adoption, Hor says NUS is “pretty asset-light”, which allows the organisation to respond faster to changing demands and technology advancements. “We purpose build microservices such as user authentication and data service to conceal business logic from the applications. The microservices will continue to deliver enhanced functions without having major changes to the leaky applications consuming them.”

Facilitating remote learning during COVID-19

After the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of laying digital foundations at NUS was on display through shifting 50,000 faculty, staff and students to enable 100% remote working, teaching and learning, two weeks into Singapore’s circuit breaker response.

“It’s often not feasible to overcater for infrastructure and system resources, yet there is no way anyone could have anticipated the profound impact of COVID-19,” Hor says. “Overall, our IT emerged more than unscathed with our perennial effort in enabling capacity-on-demand paying off handsomely.”

For example, all major events such as Open House, Career Fest and Home Coming quickly transitioned into a virtual mode, despite an extremely short lead time to ramp up capacity, Hor says.

These e-events were well-attended and ran efficiently and reliably with no technology glitch. Our success is attributed to a myriad of technical capabilities we have consistently constructed over the years in virtualisation, consumption-based modelling and auto-scaling in cloud. A crisis is no longer one when it is changed into an opportunity to do even better.

Knowing that the new corporate normal will be predominately shaped by a modern workforce with no fixed working hours, places and devices, investments on end-point security protection, capabilities that cope with mobile threats and virtual desktops for accessing corporate applications and software remotely and securely can no longer be discretionary.

Moreover, technology has amplified the need for a culture that embraces change, is resilient and adaptable as the unpredictable continues to disrupt our daily routine.”

New tech on the horizon

From a technology standpoint, Hor cited artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing as holding the potential to change a range of professions in the future, with a sizeable impact also forecast in the education sector.

In the university, we are taught by the professors, we brainstorm ideas with classmates, we learn through hands-on in workshops and reflection in role play and field trips. Learning is multi-dimensional, from teachers in formal classrooms and peers in group discussion.

Coupled with a trove of information available via the internet at our fingertips, it will be less of teaching but more of learning that we want to enable.

For Hor, the most effective use of AI would be the creation of a personal and customised tutor for every student, which NUS classifies as ‘personalised learning’.

There is no shortage of virtual assistants today, be it Alexa, Google, Siri or our own in the form of Alca,” he says. “However, many bots we see today give canned responses, hatch on a search engine at the back-end or at best match pre-defined keywords to sense your sentiment. The bots do not learn and grow intellectually in real-time by listening into conversation or like a student striking a discussion with his or her mentor.

There is acute demand on AI, machine learning and data analytics expertise with limited supply today. Moving into the future, it’s the cross-disciplinary skills that I anticipate will be most difficult to hire. For example, looking for experienced hires to apply machine learning in cyber security threat hunting or data analytics for predicting learning efficacy will be challenging.

Hor’s journey in IT leadership

In drawing on more than 20 years’ experience in the education sector, Hor holds responsibility for spearheading campus-wide infrastructure development, spanning enterprise applications, research computing and cybersecurity.

Motivated by a desire to support teaching, learning, research and administration, Hor is also tasked with overseeing IT governance, strategic planning and resources management, alongside enterprise architecture considerations and future investment priorities.

“I used to be a teaching assistant when I pursued my higher degree,” he recalls. “I find it fascinating to know how technology works from the basic electronics to coding and solving business problems and how people thousands of miles away can be connected—it’s fulfilling when I see people mastering new knowledge.”

In rising through the ranks to become chief IT officer of NUS—shaped by specialist expertise in computer network, system architecture and design—Hor acknowledged that success as a modern-day technology executive can be attributed to three core attributes; “be resilient, positive and adaptive”.

A successful CIO is all about trust,. My advice for aspiring IT leaders is to model yourself on devops, which is to ‘continue to deliver’ with speed and ‘continue to integrate’ people and processes in order to become a trusted advisor to the stakeholders and leaders within your teams.

Devops is spreading like wildfire throughout the entire IT community. One of the frameworks advocated in devops is continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) for IT agility.