Curtin University seeks to harness the power of portable devices without overwhelming its wireless network, according to the university’s acting chief information officer, Ian Hill.
Hill has been CIO at the Perth-based university since February and said he expects to continue for another two to three months. His role is to ensure Curtin’s IT services meet the university’s business goals, including teaching, learning and research. Curtin IT Services — comprising “a number of teams” specialising in hardware, software, network, security and other areas — supports about 4000 staff and 45,000 students.
As part of a series of articles from CIO Australia on IT in tertiary education, we spoke with Hill about current IT projects he is working on at the university.
Read about IT projects and challenges at the University of Technology, Sydney in our interview with deputy vice-chancellor of corporate services, Anne Dwyer.
Approach to IT
“The future for us is not in operating as an old-fashioned IT shop, but rather looking at our services and simplifying them so that we can ascertain the best ways to deliver such commodity services,” Hill said.
“For example, we have pushed out student and staff email to the Microsoft Cloud,” with students on Microsoft Live and staff email on Office 365. “That simplifies much of our activity and enables us to focus on more important things.
“Often, it’s not necessarily cheaper, but you end up with a service that is qualitatively better. For example, it might have longer supported hours.”
Investment in IT
Curtin’s IT investment “has essentially been flat in the last couple years”. Hill said the budget has grown but so have the costs.
Curtin has been undergoing a “university-wide and very significant ICT planning process over the last few months”, he said. “That’s building a picture of where significant work needs to be invested." The plan is for the next seven years, “but the reality in IT is that years five, six and seven are probably fairly fuzzy”.
IT can be seen as a way to cut costs, but is more accurately viewed as “an enabler”. Hill said, “It enables you to do things as part of your business activity which you may not otherwise have been able to do.
“One area where see lots of potential gains is in collaboration,” Hill said. “If you can exchange ideas with someone more frequently and more easily, then that’s actually going to cut the cycle time and hopefully increase productivity.”
Supporting an explosion of wireless devices
Bring your own device (BYOD) is typically brought up in the context of managing employees’ devices, but Hill said for Curtin BYOD means 45,000 students connecting their own equipment. “There’s a quantum difference between 4000 staff having wireless-equipped devices and 45,000 people with a random number of wireless-equipped devices.” He said it’s “very difficult to predict usage”.
“The development of devices that use wireless is outstripping the technology that is set up for them to connect to,” he said. More and more students are coming onto campus with a mobile phone, laptop or tablet, he said. In March, soon after the start of the semester, the university had a week when it had "over 5000 wireless devices attempting to connect to our network”.
To support the influx of new devices, Curtin is replacing low-density wireless access points with high-density [ones] in key spaces across the university, Hill said. Besides replacing the access points, the move sometimes requires re-cabling and a change in switch gear “to ensure there’s no bottleneck in the networks to which the access point is connected”.
Curtin bought Apple iPads two years ago and is eager to trial Windows 8 tablets, Hill said. The university primarily deployed iPads to staff but for students has a “large iPad trial going on in the health sciences area”.
A limitation is that it’s “a little difficult to get documents on and off of” the iPad. “For example, if I get an email with an attached document, at the moment I have to get the document into the iPad via either the email client or Dropbox. I then have to convert the document into an iPad-compatible application.”
Windows 8 tablets might play better with Curtin’s other Microsoft services, he said. “It’s a multiple step process [on the iPad], whereas with Windows 8, if I’ve got Office on my tablet it should just be a matter of double-clicking the email on the tablet and opening the attachment.”
Hill would like to see Curtin trial 10-20 Windows 8 tablets to determine their strengths and shortcomings versus the iPad. The trial likely would last “a couple of months" and the university likely will trial Dell tablets because it has a strategic relationship with that supplier, he said.
Videoconferencing is likely to be a “growth area” for Curtin, Hill said. Curtin “wants to enable students to participate fully in the teaching and learning process wherever they are”.
“Virtual classroom technologies such as Blackboard Collaborate provide a real time learning space that enables students to interact with others."
The technology is likely to increase in use, he said. “We’re really on the cusp of it at the moment.”
Broadband availability and the NBN
Hill said Curtin is not limited by available network infrastructure on campus — the university is connected to AARNet with 10Gbps and 1Gbps services. “Apart from a few older buildings, our campus has quite a well-developed network with a lot of redundancy.”
The National Broadband Network (NBN) won’t affect existing campus buildings, but will be a boon for remote students who are not located on campus, he said. In addition, he said the NBN will improve the university’s connectivity with other organisations.
Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam