One of the major challenges when trying to get innovations off the ground in the education sector is meeting the expectations of diverse stakeholders, says The University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) chief information officer, Christine Burns.
UTS’ students have typically grown up using technology in ways that most enterprise-level solutions simply have not kept pace with. Industry partners in the innovation precinct in which the university is located need an array of fluid collaborations across porous boundaries, Burns says.
“And our academics often seek a level of autonomy and individual preference that can be difficult to cater to at scale.”
Still, technology is at the heart of everything that the of Technology (UTS) Sydney does, Burns says.
The university is internationally recognised for the way it combines innovation and creativity with technical leadership – it’s a fundamental part of our DNA, she says.
UTS is also part of a higher education sector that is undergoing rapid technology-led change. New technologies allow the university to pose fundamentally new research questions as well as reimagine the way research is conducted.
“In teaching, the affordances of technology support a richer learner experience and, as technology continually shapes the jobs of the future, there is a growing demand for continuous learning throughout the students’ lives.
“This means that the ability to harness technology to innovate is going to be a critical success factor for incumbent providers of higher education if they are to succeed in a landscape of new business models and new competitors.”
Burns has introduced several new initiatives over the past two years that have transformed how IT is viewed and engaged at the university. The tech team, under Burns’ leadership, has moved from being a traditional IT shop to one that uses agile approaches with a well-developed UX capability and product line approach for managing tech investments.
Burns has shifted IT infrastructure from UTS’ premises to an external tier III data centre with almost all new services leveraging public cloud capabilities. The IT group has also moved from being an ‘order taker’ to a business partner. Burns and her staff are now intimately involved in strategic planning and facilitating strategic discussions within the university about where they can support strategy.
One of Christine’s latest innovations is a virtual student lab which aims to improve the student’s learning experience by providing more flexible access to sophisticated software independent of time and place. The lab also frees the university’s fixed assets such as traditional computer labs for more efficient uses. The university needs to be able to accommodate heavy CAD and engineering apps, Burns says.
“One of the purposes of the lab was to provide access to high-end software that undergraduate students would not otherwise have access to for their learning which requires multi-threaded highly computational loads, GPU rendering of complex graphics such as finite element analysis, solid modelling and simulation, she says.
Technology tools used by UTS’ researchers are diverse and it was previously difficult to ascertain and access available software, storage and computing.
Burns commissioned UTS’ eResearch support team to develop a coherent framework, dubbed ‘provisioner’ for managing research data in a way that minimised administration effort, provided provenance and facilitated data re-use across research disciplines.
The framework enables staff to access research applications using a service catalogue integrated with the UTS research data catalogue. It provides linked metadata connecting research datasets with data management plans and funding sources – automating these tasks wherever possible.
“Research metadata is then managed using the concept of a workspace, which represents an online site of research activity with an IT owner and usually with a project,” says Burns.
The provisioner orchestrator automatically adds human and machine-readable formats, allowing datasets in the workspaces to be linked to their creators and funding sources while providing a provenance history for datasets which have been processed in multiple research applications.
“Provisioner can perform back-office tasks, create data management plans for workspaces automatically; setup a series of workspaces for a cohort of research students or lab staff; automatically archive data after project completion and assist with research data audits,” she says.
Burns and her team also introduced a student AI assistant, selecting the student administration unit for a pilot. This unit had business challenges around responding to common student questions at peak times (in areas such as enrolments).
“Previously they had been queried and responded to by email,” says Burns. “The chatbot was an innovative way to deal with basic queries which would reduce the load on staff and enable them to be allocated more complex tasks to improve the student experience.
Burns says the tool is unique for UTS because natural language processing and AI is a new technology that it hasn’t used before. The implementation enables support staff to attend to more challenging tasks while providing a consistent user experience and a measurable indication of operations, she says.
Finally, marketing automation was introduced to streamline marketing operations. The objective was to solve two business challenges: firstly, having a single view of prospective students and needing to communicate with them in a coordinated a timely way. Secondly, existing communications mechanisms did not provide insight into how students interacted with the university’s communications.
“We needed to be able to provide a journey for these customers which provided them with the information they were seeking at the point at which they were seeking it,” Burns says.
Greater sophistication in experience
Burns believes tech chiefs don’t need to worry about being replaced by robots but the impact of technology on most roles across many industries is going to be greater than most people expect and happen sooner than we realise.
“This will result in even greater sophistication in each senior manager’s experience with, and understanding of, technology and some of what CIOs do today will no longer be required,” she says.
Still, there are several dimensions to the CIO role that will relevant, Burns says.
Many organisations are still struggling to define what being digital will mean for their industry in the future. The CIO, with their organisation-wide perspective, is well placed to facilitate this type of strategic thinking and to help executives envisage fundamentally different business models, she says.
“One of the capabilities that a seasoned IT professional develops is the ability to move beyond identifying emerging technology that might potentially be helpful to assessing whether it is likely to be successful in a particular organisation and what the conditions for success are,” says Burns.
“CIOs will continue to add value through the strategic application of their deeply practical experience with technology to advise c-level peers.”
Burns adds that CIOs have a unique systems perspective on how the various moving parts of an organisation interact – strategy, the political environment, customer and staff experience, change effort, technology architecture, data and so forth.
“They will play an increasingly important role in aligning technology investment and implementation across the organisation and bringing a whole-of-organisation perspective,” she says.