The Digitisation of Higher Education

Companies like Netflix, Symphony, Hive and Airbnb have all created new business models that have disrupted entire industries in front of our eyes. All around us, the rules of success are changing, and if the sector in which you operate hasn't yet had its "disruptive moment", it won't be far off.

The world of higher education, where I work, is of course no different. It sounds cliché, but in this sector, change really is the only constant. Disruptive technologies, new ways of learning, demographic change and political imperatives have all helped to shape significant changes in how Kingston University functions.

Of course I am biased in my role as CIO, but I have always taken the view that technological change should be embraced rather than feared. This explains why, just last year, we undertook an enormous transformation of our IT. Taking inspiration from the digital disruptors that I introduced this story with, I approached the university board with an ambitious technology strategy that would eventually see us rebuild our technology and IT organisation from the bottom up. So that we too, like could change the way we deliver services to our customers - students, academics, researchers and administration staff. It was a mammoth task costing over £27 million but allowed us to future-proof our establishment and transform the way we deliver services to all members of the university. Every journey towards change is unique, but ours consisted of three major steps:

1. Shifting the ownership of IT

When I joined the university in 2014, less than two-thirds of IT ownership and management fell to the IT department, with the rest distributed across various academic and administrative departments. The separate ownership of both IT and budgets made it very difficult to get a big picture view so it was something that we needed to change fast. This part of our journey was less about technology and more people, skills and process. It involved earning the trust of different departmental heads and teams, to help consolidate everything under one roof. This required a strong belief in our vision and lots of careful communication to really bring all parts of the organization along on the journey.

2. Getting under the skin of students

Before embarking on any journey of change, it is first important to understand your end goal. We spent a lot of time talking to our students to understand exactly what they needed to work as effectively as possible at Kingston University. Our conversations revealed some interesting findings, with remote working, uninterrupted access to Wi-Fi and access to digital learning materials all high in demand. VMware was key in helping us to ask the right questions, to define the vision and to then formulate the plan.

To deliver what they needed, we installed a resilient network with over 3,500 wireless access points, replaced all of the compute and end point hardware and created a user composable desktop with access to data and applications from anywhere. This was essential for the simple reason that by the time students reach higher education, technology is so deeply engrained into almost every aspect of life that is comes right up there in a student's hierarchy of needs - second only to food and shelter.

This phase required a good imagination as to what students really need on and off campus both today and tomorrow. VMware helped us to better understand the role technology will play in the future of higher education, and this allowed us to build an infrastructure that will adapt and scale.

3. Creating a truly mobile learning environment

Disruptive companies like Netflix and Airbnb have taught the world the value of a global platform that can be accessed anywhere and at any time. Our challenge was actually quite similar to theirs, as we were creating a platform for students, academics, researchers and administrators, that they could access from anywhere; a university without walls. We worked with VMware to build a virtual desktop infrastructure allowing us to fully embrace 'Bring Your Own Device' and provide our students and all faculty members with next generation learning tools. They can access everything from 3D applications to virtual learning environments specific to their course or job from any device and any location, which means they can study or work at a time and place that suits them.

Since completing the programme, the feedback we have had from our students and academics has been very positive. I'm confident it has made us a more attractive university for both UK and international students and staff. Perhaps more importantly than that though, this journey of change has been part of a wider mission to raise the bar of expectation in the world of education. There is common perception that universities remain very traditional in their approach and that as an industry we are resistant to change, but in actuality, this couldn't be further away from the truth.

All universities after all have an important role to play in shaping the wider society. Not only does education provide improved life chances for the individual but it also helps in making the world a smarter, more innovative and interesting place to be. When you think about it, it is the desire for constant change that has shaped, and is continuing to shape, the world around us for the greater good. And as CIO, it is my responsibility to help Kingston University look ahead into the future, and then to create, communicate and deliver a clear strategy helping everyone achieve their potential.

Simon Harrison is Kingston University CIO


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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