by Byron Connolly

Sharing the stories of the CIO50 2017: #8 Kerry Holling, Western Sydney University

Feb 26, 2018
Education Industry

You can’t estimate the power of goodwill when it comes to achieving your objectives. This is one of the biggest lessons long-serving CIO Kerry Holling has learnt over his career.

“That goodwill can be important whether it comes from the most senior executives, through to those you engage with on a day-to-day basis,” Holling says.

“Take the time to develop good relationships with everyone you come into contact with and at some point, you’ll find that it will be returned back to you many fold. For example, there have been multiple occasions when being on a first name basis with everyone from my own staff through to the on-site security personnel has been of tremendous value because when a crisis strikes, you never know what help you might need.”

As the current chief information and digital officer at Western Sydney University, Holling has two roles which sometimes conflict: one as the leader of the IT department ensuring that the group delivers on its commitments and the other is as the ‘chief digital officer.’

In the latter role, Holling needs to ensure that technology is being deployed to maximum advantage for the university as a whole, irrespective of whether it’s rolled out by his own team or from elsewhere in the organisation.

“It would be a mistake to presume that innovation was only going to come from within the IT department and so CIOs need to position themselves as a collaborative partner to bring ideas into the mainstream irrespective of their genesis,” he says.

A departure from traditional education delivery

In January, Western Sydney University opened a 14-storey building in the Parramatta CBD, the Peter Shergold Building, which Holling describes as a complete departure from traditional education delivery.

The university wanted to enable emerging pedagogies and drive collaborative learning and support time poor students seeking greater flexibility.

“The results have been excellent. Staff are expanding their teaching practice and students are embracing the opportunities of new technology – learning studios are used by students outside of scheduled teaching for group work and informal collaboration including remote connection,” says Holling.

A technology masterplan for the building delivered several digital innovations including electronic signage, queue management, campus navigation, room booking, video collaboration, and the most sophisticated use teaching technology in the 24 learning studios, he says.

“The use of prototyping and design thinking helped deliver fast results in a very ‘un-university like’ way that has set a benchmark in teaching space design and shifted the dial from hardware-centric to a software-defined teaching environment.”

Evidence so far shows sustained attendance, greater engagement, and improved attainment, he says.

“Connectivity enhances relevance with guest lecturers dropping into the classroom virtually from anywhere, while team-based learning replicates contemporary work contexts.”

Behaviours have changed with the ‘open-all-hours’ space emerging as one of the most popular after hours learning locations for coursework and research students alike. Tech vendors are using the campus as a case study of innovation and the representatives from other universities often tour the building.

Virtual reality drives innovation

The use of mixed reality (AR and VR) technologies has some of the most profound implications, says Holling. They provide a compelling learning experience for students but also prepares them for some of the capabilities they can increasingly expect to see in the workplace, says Holling.

“While the university sector is competitive, it is also collaborative especially given the nature of research and so the real advantage needs to be seen through the lens of graduate employment outcomes. By exposing students to the most contemporary of technologies their learning is enhanced and they’re equipped with the skills to improve their competitiveness for future employers,” Holling says.

Western Sydney University has been recognised as a sector leader in the use of mixed reality. The university has delivered a 360 degree virtual reality space for its paramedicine course that also explores augmented reality (AR).

Microsoft’s Hololens technology is used to improve the quality of life for people suffering a range of health concerns. For instance, dementia sufferers or those suffering from a brain injury following a stroke could by “supported by augmented instructions overlaid on the real world once headsets become more lightweight and less cumbersome,” according to a Microsoft case study on the implementation

Holling says that it’s still early days for these immersive technologies but the university is experimenting as much as it can with them.

“We really want to provoke people’s thinking about what the opportunities in this space might actually be. Within this immersive space we want to put [paramedicine students] in a physical environment where they are surrounded by the imagery through video and the sound that they would actually confront if they were at the scene of perhaps a major incident. So you really start to get all of their senses firing in terms of not just dealing in the classroom with a dummy on the floor but having to do it in a very stressful environment where you are surrounded by what can be a very realistic scenario,” says Holling.

This immersive technology project was not without its challenges. According to Holling, a primary issue at the beginning of paramedicine immersive space design was the bespoke nature of what was proposed. While it met the needs of this particular discipline, IT has a broader role to look at the capabilities that can be leveraged across the university, says Holling.

“We worked with the technical staff in the faculty to design a solution that not only met their needs but the costs manageable and could be utilised in other contexts,” he says.

The end result is that a second immersive facility is being on the Parramatta campus for Social Sciences and Psychology that can take advantage of the designs and economies of scale provided by the initial paramedicine facility. This has reduced costs by 35 per cent, says Holling.

“Universities are a hotbed of innovation and experimentation and so there is naturally an appetite for the use of mixed reality and immersive spaces,” he says.