For David Swayne, CIO at London South Bank University (LSBU), this year’s long summer vacation will be busier than ever.
With most students and academic staff away from the university’s campus for the months of July, August and September, summer is always the best time for Swayne and his team to get a bunch of projects out of the way.
But this year, they’re dealing with an extra-long ‘To Do’ list, following LSBU’s hefty £14.8 million (almost $25m) investment in a cloud-based platform from IBM, which the university hopes will transform the ‘student experience’.
The student experience is increasingly vital to the success of any institution in higher education. At a time when universities must compete on an international stage for both domestic and overseas students, low retention rates reflect badly, but are a sector-wide problem.
In the US, almost half of all four-year college students fail to earn a degree within five years; in the UK, around one in five do not complete their studies; and in Australia, about 20 percent quit in their first year.
As a result, the market for IT in higher education has coalesced around three big themes, all of which have a role to play in tackling student retention.
- First, universities are extending the learning experience beyond the lecture hall or seminar room, so that students can learn virtually and more flexibly.
- Second, they’re giving ‘millennial generation’ students access to the kinds of social collaboration tools that they’ve grown up with, in order that they can communicate with their peers and with academic staff members.
- Third, they’re putting data-analysis tools in the hands of university staff, so that they can track students’ progress and identify any potential drop-outs at the very first signs of trouble.
The LSBU projects covers all of these areas. Once it’s completed, says Swayne, each student will have access to their own personalised portal, available online, through which they can access learning materials, curriculum details for their course and social collaboration tools. This is referred to as a ‘virtual learning environment’, or VLE.Academic staff, meanwhile, will get tools that help them monitor their students’ progress, based on grades, attendance and use of the VLE and physical resources, such as the university library.
“We already have all the data we need to do this today, but it takes us a long time to process it,” Swayne explains. “So by the time a student is in trouble, they’re in more trouble than they would have been in we’d been able to pick up the warning signs earlier.”
An early intervention by academic staff, by contrast, can make all the difference to a student struggling to keep on track with their studies.
After school work
But there’s an awful lot for Swayne and his team to do before LSBU has all of these pieces in place. From July until the end of the 2014 calendar year, they’ll be moving all their virtualised applications from an on-campus data center to an IBM data center.
“That will reduce the size of one of our own data centers by two-thirds - and that’s space that can then be given over to teaching and learning,” says Swayne.
The cost and environmental benefits of this migration will be substantial, too: central London real estate costs are sky-high, he points out, and the price of powering and cooling systems located in a purpose-built data center will be far lower than it is in their current location of a general-purpose academic building.
The personalised portals must be in place for the start of the coming 2014/15 academic year, complete with customisation and configuration to reflect the LSBU brand and the way it delivers courses to its students.
Social collaboration tools, meanwhile, will be piloted from next February and, following feedback from students and staff, will be delivered in time for the 2015/16 academic year. In fact, by October 2015, the whole platform should be up and running its in entirety, says Swayne.
“We’re operating in a highly competitive market and we need to be conscious of this. Students expect to be able to consume things online, including their educational experience, and that’s what we have to deliver in order to compete,” he says.
Students also expect to be able to consume things across a vast array of different computing devices, with many of them carrying two or three devices at any one time - so the IT team at LSBU is just coming to the end of a project that aims to beef up network connectivity, so that around 30,000 devices can be simultaneously logged onto the university’s on-campus Wi-Fi network.
“What I like about working in higher education is that it’s quite challenging in the way technology is used,” says Swayne. “But I also like the fact that the primary motivation for this use of technology is to deliver real value to students at the start of their working lives - that’s very important to me.
"In the commercial sector, there’s a lot said about customer experience but, really, it’s ultimately about profit," he concludes. "Here, the motivation - a great student experience and a great outcome at the end of their studies - is very different. It’s refreshing.”