Ian Tebbett, CIO of Monash University, has taken a business approach to managing IT for research and education.
Tebbett has an engineering background with 20 years in the commercial sector. Before coming to Monash, he managed IT for major US corporation Halliburton. Tebbett said he has tried to bridge the gap between IT and business strategy, “transforming the IT away from a technology-focused function to a service and business strategy enabling function.
“I suspect most people underestimate what is involved in IT in the higher education sector,” Tebbett said. Monash has 600 IT staff supporting 62,500 active students and 23,000 staff at 50 teaching locations in seven countries. “The scale that we have here at Monash and the drivers of that are as big as many large corporations.”
As part of a series of articles from CIO Australia on IT in tertiary education, we spoke with Tebbett about IT challenges faced by the university.
Read about the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the University of Technology, Sydney, Curtin University and the University of Sydney.
Monash is “certainly not shy to invest in IT,” Tebbett said. “We are well provided for” but “what we are doing is challenging ourselves to try to reduce our operating costs so that we can spend more of the money on strategic investment.” In 2010 when Tebbett started, 7 per cent of the University’s IT budget went to strategic investment. This year, it’s 18 per cent, he said.
“We use IT as a multi-faceted weapon” to improve services or cut costs, he said. “We are investing in improved functionality to deliver better services in HR, in finance, [and] we’re looking at improving our research administration.”
When Tebbett came to Monash, he found fragmented IT delivery. “I joined in mid-2010, and at that stage there were 55 separate groups we could identify that were delivering IT to different parts of the University. There was no overarching view of architecture or admin systems.”
That created problems “sometimes even at the basic level,” he said. “How many Windows 7 desktop configurations do we actually need? It would have been 55 unless we had intervened.”
Tebbett has also worked to improve customer service, he said. “Customer service at the individual level was not really being invested in and the appreciation… of the soft skills that need to go with a successful IT department weren’t really there.”
Current IT projects
Monash is currently rolling out an open-source learning management system called Moodle, Tebbett said.
One capability of the new system lets lecturers quiz students over their devices during a lecture, giving the teacher real-time feedback on how well students are absorbing the lecture. “If the lecturer’s making a point, they can then ask a question through a quiz with tablets in the lecture theatre” and get instant information on how many students understood, Tebbett said. That lets the presenter “make an instant judgement as to whether they need to go back to the point, say it in a different way,” or “move on.”
Monash chose an open-source product simply because “that was the product that came to the top of the pile,” Tebbett said.
“We’re a computing intensive university, so we have more servers in the data centre delivering high-performance computing” than likely any other university and “certainly far more than in the corporate computing world.”
Monash is “part of various state- and federal-funded infrastructure projects,” and is a node in the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources (NeCTAR), Tebbett said. “We’re building a Cloud platform here essentially for researchers for their specialist analytical works,” he said. “We’re probably the Australian leaders… in the eResearch world.”
The NeCTAR-funded Cloud project is ongoing, he said. “It’s a few weeks away from going live.”
On the first day of the semester in March 2012 at the Clayton location, “63,000 new wireless devices walked onto campus with 25,000 students,” Tebbett said. “We calculate now that the average student has 2.5 devices with them all the time.”
“We knew wireless demand was going to grow, but it has really gone through the roof in the last 12 to 18 months,” he said. “What drives it going higher now is not so much more devices, but we have observed a lot of the applications on the devices are separately interacting with the network,” he said. Students are transmitting more data and “they’re downloading more apps that are real-time data getters.”
Monash does its best to keep its wireless network in shape to manage the load, Tebbett said. “Quite a lot of our investment will be going into wireless in the classroom” to hand both course-related activities and “random traffic” coming from having 300 students in one lecture room, he said. The network must be high-density to support so many students connecting at the same time, he said.
NBN and Remote Learning
Monash is well-served with fast broadband infrastructure as part of the AARNet, Tebbett said. However, the NBN “presents a tremendous opportunity to explore delivering education differently,” he said. “The breakthrough will be when all of our students have broadband in the home, because that allows them real-time access to essentially the same performance levels and data download speeds that they would have in the classroom.”
Students “don’t just learn in the lectures they go to in a day,” he said. “They learn in the spaces between them, they learn in the library, they learn by talking to each other coffee and they learn at home.”
Monash is “experimenting with the notion that the content is something that can be delivered in lots of different ways, and we’re encouraging the students to move towards absorbing that content in their own time and through their own approaches.”
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