CIO Profile: OU's David Matthewman on learning technologies

See also: CIO Profile: The Open University's David Matthewman on the business of education
- CIO Profile: OU's David Matthewman pioneered home banking

The Open University, the UK's centre for flexible higher education, is at a crossroads, as 18-24 year-olds look for less costly ways to prepare for their careers.

It has a head-start, compared to many traditional universities because it already embraced digital communications with its students and digitised learning materials for them to study remotely.

Based in Milton Keynes, arguably the UK's newest city, the OU head office looks more like an IT campus than a seat of learning and it relies heavily on powerful systems that form the hub of the business.

OU CIO David Matthewman was brought in last year to upgrade these systems so that they could cope with the changes in the UK education market. Although he operates now in a public sector environment, his background is in the commercial sector and he can't help but see the challenges presented to the OU at the moment in terms of a business addressing a market.

As with many CIOs of businesses emerging from a recession, the first task is to manage costs. Core to this is deciding whether to continue to run the university's systems on the home-grown technology that has supported it up to now, or to invest in standardised IT provided by established suppliers

He says: "It's all about controlling business-as-usual spend. Through that we'll be looking to commoditise as much as possible. We'll be challenging the notion of whether running systems, in-house is the right thing to do here and there. We want to squeeze the commodity in the business as much as possible.

Matthewman has to build flexibility into the systems he runs, because it's not clear yet what the education market will look like in the years to come.

His vision is to put the financial levers in the hands of his internal business partners, so that as their specific part of the OU changes, they can throw those levers with as little recourse back to IT as possible, and they can get on and run their part of the business.

This leaves the IT department free to focus on developing the differentiating parts of the OU.

Matthewman's team isn't big as a proportion of OU staff and the 250 people within it have to support 5,000 staff at the headquarters and another 7,000 associate lecturers who deliver the learning to its students all over the country.

Most of the desktop estate is Microsoft based, with 700 Macs.

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