by Rodney Fletcher

CIO100 2017 #31-100: Owen Werner, Unitec Institute of Technology

Mar 29, 2017
Education Industry

In the past three years Unitec has made serious moves to rethink the provision of learning spaces across several campuses, in association with significant curriculum rewriting and strategic property change says the institute’s chief digital officer, Owen Werner.

The Information Management Services (IMS) department played a crucial role, working closely with the central academic advisory (Te Puna Ako, TPA) team.

The result has been the ongoing development of collaborative, high-tech, learning spaces and in preparing teachers to work in new spaces with new tools.

“An initial prototype collaborative learning space was opened in the first semester in 2015, after a year of planning with major input from academic advisors,” says Werner.

“The premise of the space is that learning is situated in group activity and collaboration, and the physical layout of the room affords small group interaction supported by collaborative tools. These include whiteboards, computers on wheels and a variety of software that supports the sharing and collaboration of ideas.

“Teaching in this space was a major shift for staff. Many of them had a more traditional lecture-based approach to teaching, often combined with relatively limited IT skills. Training and support prior to and during the use of these spaces was a key element, and required a strong collaboration between the IMS and TPA teams,” he says.

Following the initial prototype space, three more rooms have been built or adapted to purpose over the past 18 months across two campuses (accommodating between 60 to 100 students). Another 10 such spaces are under construction, with more to be built over the next three years.

“The development of each new space has relied heavily on evaluation of the technologies available conducted by IMS, and successful teaching carried out by the TPA team, with feedback from all teachers and students in the space.”

The new teaching spaces were envisaged as part of Unitec’s drive for more active and innovative ways of learning, with students working collaboratively and being supported by appropriate technology. An innovative approach was required to achieve this, in both the combinations of technologies involved and the approach to training and support Werner says.

“Prior to using the new spaces, face to face training was provided to teachers, supported by online training modules and content,” says Werner.

“This training was reinforced by support within the spaces during classes, provided by trained senior students and colourful physical support material, enhanced by augmented reality to provide help to students and teaching staff.”

The use of audio-visual gear required touch screen or regular TVs powered by Windows PCs (CoWs) for each student group. The computing power of these CoWs could be used by the students, or used to share ideas with the group.

“Screen mirroring software called Xest is used across the wired network within the room to allow the teacher to push their screen image out to all CoWs, or pull the screen image from a student CoW to theirs and then send it to all those in the room. Many students bring their own devices such as Windows or Mac laptops, smartphones and tablets.

“Each of these devices can be mirrored to any or all screens over the wireless network, using another software solution called Reflector.

There has been a realignment of the IMS team’s’ capabilities, to provide a portfolio mix of services for operational support, growth initiatives and innovation and transformation projects, Werner says.

“This required a review of the services provided against the value to Unitec. Subsequently, we created a strategy to move as much repeatable and low-value operational processing work to be either automated or to be delivered ‘as a service’.

“After the review, we completed a migration of all server and storage infrastructure to IaaS providers. This has resulted in improved capability to respond to compute resource demand, with less time taken for data centre management and server maintenance.”

However, he says the real benefit has been a 50 per cent increase in the time a skilled engineer can now spend on projects instead of operational activities.

To ensure that the technology strategy is aligned to Unitec’s goals, a co-ordinated strategies forum has been created that includes senior representation from key areas.

This forum meets monthly with the purpose of developing collaborative roadmaps and creating recommendations to take to the Unitec Executive and Council. These recommendations demonstrate the shared and joined strategic objectives and outcomes, says Werner.

“To promote the role of IMS within Unitec we have a focus on improving staff awareness and confidence in how to make the most of our digital capabilities,” says Werner.

This includes IMS providing monthly new staff orientation programme that provides new starters with an overview of IT at Unitec, as well as introductory sessions on key systems for their roles. The feedback from participants on how the orientation assisted their productivity has been overwhelmingly positive he says.

Secondly, as part of an overall Unitec initiative, IMS presents on different technology topics to all staff at the start of the year. Regular assessment via staff surveys has shown increased awareness of how technology is aligned to Unitec’s overall objectives

Third, IMS updates the Unitec intranet with regular notice updates on pending and current projects, with opportunities for staff to register their interest to be part of the project team.

Werner says the IMS team at Unitec is largely made up of permanent staff and augmented with contract resources, when project activity exceeds the internal capacity.

“We try to encourage a mix in the team’s demographics and currently have 26 per cent female staff across IMS. Female representation in the IMS team has increased by 8 per cent year on year (2016 versus 2015).

“Additionally, there is a wide spread of ethnic diversity amongst the staff and that is representative of the Unitec organisation as a whole.

“This year we have focused on developing strong behavioural values, which provide a clear sense of purpose and reflect how we want to operate and work with our partners. The values were developed by the team and are proudly displayed in our office.

“We ensure that we have succession plans in place for key roles within IMS, by identifying suitable staff members that we see as having the right attitude and experience to be able to step up when required. We provide these staff members with the opportunities to be exposed to key management activities and operational situations at management level, whether participating or observing,” he says.

As far as wider Unitec initiatives are concerned, IMS staff can attend Wellness initiatives (cross-fit, boxing, mindfulness sessions and so on), Courageous Conversations About Race and other workshops, or any of the in-house professional development courses such as Treaty Training or Te Reo courses that Unitec offers.

Rodney Fletcher