by Byron Connolly

Mike Day: Charting a new tech course for Sydney University’s reform

Apr 21, 2016
Education IndustryIT Leadership

UK-born Mike Day’s very first job was as an assayer testing gold and silver for hallmarking.

“It was during that time that we accidentally laundered £22 million worth of gold that someone put through the asset office disguised as jewellery scrap,” Day tells CIO Australia. “So I am on the run, that’s why I am here [in Australia],” he jokes.

Day arrived in Sydney in January to undertake the role of CIO at Sydney University, replacing Bruce Meikle, who became director – enabling technologies at the organisation after spending around nine years in the CIO position.

“Bruce made an enormous amount of progress over his time here and has produced a team which is stable and everything is working fine. The next step is to build on that and look at how we innovate on top of that,” he says.

Day and his team of 300 IT staff are managing around 700 systems across the university. These systems are used by 57,000 students and 7,000 staff. Each day, a whopping 100,000 devices are connected to the university’s WiFi network.

Day’s charter is to help the university deliver on its 2016-2020 Strategic Plan – launched earlier this month – to transform its undergraduate offering, triple its annual research investment, and build stronger ties with industry and the community.

The university is introducing a new Bachelor of Advanced Studies which – combined with existing bachelor degrees in arts, science, and commerce – will better prepare students for workplaces of the future.

This significant curriculum review gives students more options across all of the courses, says Day.

“One of the things we will do is simplify the curriculum so those who want a more specialist track to be qualified in a profession can have that. Those students who want to stick to a more traditional liberal arts type curriculum can do that too,” he says.

Day and his IT team will also support the university’s focus on research by making sure researchers are supported by systems that ensure they spend more time on their projects and less on administration.

“This is not quite the case now in the sector generally. These kinds of systems tend to be developed and deployed from an institutional perspective.

“I know from previous experience that if you give the researchers and teachers the tools they need, and they are simple and straightforward, you collect all the information you need at an institutional level anyway,” he says.

Another piece of the strategic plan is developing a culture oriented around driving simplification, Day says.

“Complex things really can’t be efficient – if people don’t understand how to navigate their way through our admin systems, or curriculum or campus – it’s hampering before you even start. But there’s a real sense and expectation that all of our staff and students will engage.

“Wrapped around that are the university’s values, which include things like pairing courage with creativity. I like that because it really gives us a sense of being able to stand up and be counted, to do some innovative things, take some risks, be creative and to say ‘this is why I did that’.”

This is unlike typical universities, Day says, which tend to be risk-averse, taking a ‘wait and see’ approach in everything they do and very rarely driving for a ‘first mover’ advantage.

“It’s quite the opposite here. So almost that cultural piece provides a blueprint for my team to engage with the rest of the university and it’s incumbent on me and my team to bring that technical vision into play. In other words, ‘what can technology do to support both research and education?’”

What people won’t find in the university’s plan is a technical digital strategy, says Day.

“The reason is that we will deliver that by digitally-enabling the rest of the strategy so in other words, everything that we do will be business-led.”

A former pilot

Following his early role as an assayer, Day spent 17 years between 1985 and 2002 in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF). He began his career training to be a pilot flying the BAC Jet Provost, a British jet powered training aircraft used from 1955 to 1993.

Day didn’t complete his training course, admitting that he could fly the planes but operating them was an entirely different proposition.

“My instructor used to say things to me like, ‘you’d better do something now or we are going to die’. I never knew what to do so that’s why I am not a pilot any more,” he says.

“When you are flying an aeroplane around the local area on a sunny day, it’s straightforward, you know where you are going and no-one is going to shoot at you. When you are operating a fast jet, you are travelling at seven miles per minute at 250 feet above the ground – people might be shooting at you, you might be running out of fuel – the weather can change, anything can happen.”

Day flew for 18 months before deciding to move into the education sector. Armed with a science degree, majoring in chemistry, from the University of Nottingham, Day did his first tour at the Joint School of Photography at the RAF in Cosford, UK. During this time, he was involved in testing and rolling out a new student records management system at the institution.

He then spent the next 14 years in the Air Force in combined IT, leadership, and education roles.

“Like everybody else in my generation – I think I got into IT by accident, nobody really did it on purpose. It was an opportunity that came up – I was good at it – computing wasn’t really an option when I went to university.”

Day’s last tour in the air force was as a computer specialist in a post-graduate course, which gave him the opportunity to travel through Israel, South Africa, the US, and through Europe.

In 2002, Day moved into higher education, taking on the head of business systems role at the University of Lincoln in the UK. After a two-year stint as data manager at the National College for School Leadership between 2006 and 2008, Day went back to the University of Lincoln as head of IT.

He then spent almost four-and-a-half years as director of information systems at Nottingham Trent University.

Day says this university had a strong mission around getting people from poorer social economic backgrounds and “first in family” – like himself – going to university.

“That was what made this role important – that’s why it mattered to me. We did an awful lot of innovation there – projects like our super lab, which was a 200-seat laboratory where you could teach up to eight sessions in parallel. I found out that the former lab here [at Sydney University] was modelled our on super lab.”

Encouraging talent from all backgrounds

Much like Nottingham Trent, the University of Sydney is focused on attracting the widest population of students to the university. For instance, the university has a strategy to attract indigenous students and it’s important to recognise the cultural challenges that may be a barrier to education for this group, Day says.

‘Learner analytics’ is a good way to identify how these students engage, and therefore how the university can support them effectively. The university can drive better student outcomes by using technology cleverly against a business problem rather than simply following the hype around big data, he says.

“We can use the same technology and techniques to drive attainment through all of our student population. By looking at one business problem, you can start to create value for all of our students using the same technology, because we can understand how it works, what you can do with it and how you engage people in using that technology,” Day says.

For example, architecture students at the university need to be able to program a robotic arm that they work with.

“Previously, that meant about 200 hours’ worth of reading to learn to program that robot arm, which they are never going to do again. My team have developed a visual ‘drag and drop’ programming mechanism which means they don’t have to learn the language. They can do everything that they need to do by moving pieces of code around.”

Technology infrastructure also needs to be spot on inside the university’s specialist centres. On April 20, the university unveiled a $150 million facility for nano-science.

According to Day, when scientists do nano-scale experiments, they need to be incredibly accurate, and mistakes can result in hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of dollars being wasted.

“They need to be able to consult with the best in the world around whether the equipment is set up right, and using technology to do that in real-time is important,” he said.

Getting educators on board

Day believes that universities haven’t quite had their “digital moment” and there’s a huge amount of potential for technology to transform the sector.

He says getting educators on board with new innovations starts with “playing to the willing”, those who are prepared to stand in the queue for the latest iPhone.

“They are the people you need to get at rather than trying to engage with the entire academic population in one go – you concentrate on those innovators in the first instance,” he says.

Those people will bring along a set of other early adopters. They will know people who aren’t willing to queue for an iPhone but they will be standing there on the first Saturday in the shop when the crowd has died down.

“They will probably be asking one of those innovators ‘how do I use this?’ and once you get to that point, you have around 20 per cent of the population who are willing to have a go.”

Academics are good at ‘sharing practice’, so they will adopt technologies that are helpful.

“The best way to explain to one academic why this is helpful is to have an academic champion saying that – rather than an IT team,” he says.

Passions outside of the role

Day is keen on volunteer work and for his 50th birthday in mid-2013, he travelled to Cambodia with his wife and son to join a marine conservation research project on a small island that is home to only 200 people.

“The bay was an internationally-designated marine conservation area and the survey that we were doing there was to assess the impact of illegal fishing.

“It was supposed to be small-scale sustainable fishing by the local population, but it was being trawled mainly because there were seahorses which they could sell for medicine,” he says.

Day joined a team that would dive during the day and complete seahorse surveys to determine the damage being down by trawling.

“Out in the bay, it was mostly sea grass where seahorses tether themselves. You would go out one day and it would be very lush and you would count a number of different types of sea horses in a 100 metre survey area in any one dive.

“You’d go out the next day to the same place and it would be like the moon because the trawlers had gone through and taken everything.”

Day has also been involved in The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, an achievement award for young people aged between 14 and 24.

“I was supervising expeditions in the UK for kids who were going through what was my daughter’s school, but I did it long after she left. That was a fabulous experience because you get kids who haven’t thought about going out into the countryside – you’d go through an early training exercise and they would hate it.

“They would take their “onesies” and hair straighteners but would drop all that by the time they did a practice expedition. You would then see them getting to grips with navigation and starting to enjoy it.

“Then they would go through the real expedition. By then they had honed everything down and could do the navigation pretty much on their own and all the way around. They would complain, but when they got to the end, it was a massively positive experience for them.”

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