by Mark Chillingworth

Durham University CIO interview – Creating a modern universe

Jun 08, 2015
GovernmentIT Strategy

The physical presence of a university can also represent the structure of information and technology in an academic organisation. Typically, a university is made up of faculties, each representing an academic speciality, whether humanities, sciences, law or business. Those with experience of academia know that this manifests itself in a series of fiefdoms and a disparate IT estate that doesn’t integrate or offer the organisation opportunities to improve its efficiency, spending power or ability to protect itself from risk. Pulling that environment together into a single efficient organisation that will meet the fast-changing needs of students and academics, in a historic and highly reputed university is no mean feat, but one that Carolyn Brown CIO of Durham University has been succeeding at in recent years.

Back in 1998, the Labour government introduced university tuition fees and in 2004 at the beginning of its second term in office, it raised the fees to £3,000. The Conservative-led coalition government of 2010 to 2015 raised tuition fees again to a maximum of £9,000. As with any sector, a change in the revenue model is significant.

“Because of the changes in funding there is more emphasis on the students,” explains CIO of Durham University since November 2012 and twice-recognised CIO 100 member Carolyn Brown. CIO UK meets Brown in one of the ultra-modern shared learning spaces of its law faculty. Like the law firms the students will join post-education, the department is a blend of tradition, masses of natural light, quiet and collaborative working zones and walls featuring challenging and beautiful art. Brown’s own department is at the top of a steep hill that’s affectionately known as ‘heart attack hill’.

“If they are paying £9,000 they have expectations. As well as the education, they expect the infrastructure such as Wi-Fi everywhere, and that includes in the castle,” Brown says of the students’ demands in a campus, which includes the iconic castle at the heart of the city in the North East of England.

“For the academics that are teaching, that means leading them to know what a 17-year-old expects, such as Twitter interaction, for example. There’s also lecture flipping, where you provide the information before the lecture so students can read and prepare. They have come up through schools that are strong on technology, so we have to have a virtual learning environment. There are also experiments with using video as a form of lecture feedback,” Brown says.

“The digital disruption is on campus. In the first week of term 40,000 devices logged on to our network, that’s three per students, most were iPhones. I find it hard to comprehend that many devices,” she questions.

Durham University dates back to 1832 when it was founded by an Act of Parliament, and claims to be the third oldest university in England. Durham is often considered one of the leading alternatives to the overhyped Cambridge and Oxford universities, dubbed Oxbridge.

“It’s a very archaic organisation, with over 17,000 students, from 130 nations and 8,000 staff, so there are a lot of people merrily doing their own thing,” Brown says. Compared to Cambridge and Oxford it is a small institution.

“Being small means a challenge, we are competing with Oxbridge. We do have the beautiful environment, the collegiate atmosphere, the heritage and the teaching.

“A lot of my role is looking at what technology is available and how they might be used and to inspire the institution. It is exciting looking at how we can use technology to help teaching and collaboration,” she enthuses. As a result, Brown has transformed her team to include a resource that provides technical support and training to the institution.

“Durham is cautious and it sees the real value in face-to-face and they don’t want to dilute that,” but the CIO and the organisation realise there are changing demands. “Durham needs to grow judicially and invest, and it is doing that with a new CFO.”

Brown is halfway through a four-year transformation programme that not only sets out to modernise the technology in use, but also has a major focus on people and processes to ensure a partnership between students, academics and administrator,” Brown says. Titled the New World Programme, Durham is investing £40 million into the strategy she has drawn up and is leading.

That partnership aspect to the programme goes beyond the campus, too. Durham has secured £10 million in funding from its local enterprise partnership, which has created 28 jobs already and will create more.

“The infrastructure was close to failure when I came here. The lack of investment was a risk. Now we are building three data centres,” she reveals.

Prior to Brown joining Durham, the university in effect, had IT departments per faculty. Now it has a centralised services model ensuring the most effective technology and efficiencies are available to the entire institution and teams per faculty that understand the needs of that particular field of study.

Learning Technology Teams sit in each faculty. “We used to have one person in engineering, now we have six and we have resilience,” she says of improvements to the departments. In a University, much as they dislike centralisation, you shouldn’t have researchers managing the Linux desktop environment where engineering students are writing their own software. A lot of the security risks is shadow IT.

“To transform a service organisation involved transforming how our customers see us and engage with us. Our customers are particularly diverse and independent, with most academics seeing themselves as largely autonomous of the University and resenting any central ‘interference’,” Brown explains. Putting the service desk in the library and increasing the hours of availability has been one popular culture change.

“We have shown the departments how much easier it is if we run their servers, for example. We have an ongoing programme of technology simplification across the University, reducing the complexity innate in the old IT ‘fiefdom’ in each academic department.” Brown’s team has cut the number of active directories, platforms, email systems. There will be one email system and three new data centres will replace 24.

“We have designed and are tendering for three data centres, one of them is for High Performance Computing. This included a substantial increase in the University’s power supply involving £1.6 million in investment. Extensive analysis and debate went into whether we could buy cloud services rather than host our own data centre – but the uniqueness of our HPC services, the cost impact of our obligation to pay VAT and the lack of appropriately-equipped local providers made outsourcing infeasible.”

The new data centres will have two petabytes of storage available through dynamic management that will move data further and further away, according to the usage ratio.

Durham has chosen to build the data centres itself because of its unique needs for high performance computing to serve the academics and pupils of data tech hungry students in science and engineering (and sometimes in the humanities). Brown says: “Very few outsourced services provide this, and none is as energy efficient as what Durham University can build in the Northeast.”

Digital students

Brown describes the learning teams and the change to the staffing culture as the “biggest deliverable” to Durham, but believes organisations beyond academia need to look at how they could simplify their models.

“Take service catalogues, as IT people we’ve made it too complicated. She has focused on communicating within IT and across the organisation with newsletters of weekly achievements, Town Hall meetings and briefings.

As ever, the CIO has to deliver not only a culture change, but also improve the technology available. Wi-Fi access across the Durham campus has gone from 5% to 96%, the CIO says.

PhD students increasingly study at different institutions during their degree and are funded directly by the government. Durham has six Doctoral Training Centres for research and teaching, which it shares with other Universities and industrial partners. Again, a funding model change meant the CIO had to rethink the way the organisation had to serve its customer base. Brown explains that her department was asked to equip a new Doctoral Training Centre with desktop computers: “I proposed instead that we consider how students actually work and want to work. This led to a completely different plan – the IT team licensed and deployed the necessary technology and won agreement on the governance needed to deliver cloud?based shared workspaces for Doctoral Training Centres, setting a standard that is in most cases being adopted by our partner institutions.”

Mobility will continue to be Brown’s focus as her team extends mobile access to virtual learning environments that the students use. “We are engaging closely with students and academics to build on this develop the best, modern means of learning that we can.”

Students in multiple campuses, or PhD pupils working across institutions, research projects involving multiple and occasionally rival commercial organisations means data security has always been a complex and critical demand for technology leaders in academia. As already stated, students of all types are increasing their use of mobile devices, so Brown and her team need to ensure strong security, so the Durham University CIO formed a response team.

“Information governance is vital, as different commercial organisations, including two pharmaceutical companies have PhD students working on the same research programme; and it is vital that sensitive data not be visible inappropriately. The University also needs to protect its own intellectual property and ensure there is no inadvertent ‘publication’ of patentable material,” Brown explains.

She joined Durham University having been CIO of building materials wholesalers and DIY retail organisation Travis Perkins, where she had been Group CIO for two years.

Brown has also been an academic – she was the tenured lecturer in computer science at the University of Sussex for over two years and a visiting professor at Stanford, and did five years in academia following her PhD, which she says helps in her role as an academia CIO.

“It does help and it gives credibility,” but she’s very clear and on the constant need to listen as the world of academia changes into a very new and different model to the one we recall from our student days.

A strong sense of customer awareness comes across in the interview, especially as her role and organisation has a diverse range of customers, whether students or research partners.

“Most IT people do care about the customer, they are just not very good at the context and remembering when communicating to simplify,” she says; and it is clear that this is where Brown sees the CIO role, leading, communicating and enabling.

Away from the University, Brown loves the outdoors, especially gardening.