Supporting students’ devices is increasingly a top priority at the University of Sydney, according to the school’s CIO, Bruce Meikle.
Meikle said his principal role as CIO is “managing the investment the university has in technology” to support students and researchers. Meeting students’ demand for the latest technology keeps Meikle and his team busy, he said. “You’re always scrambling to keep up. There’s always something new.”
As part of a series of articles from CIO Australia on IT in tertiary education, we spoke with Meikle about current IT projects he is working on at the university.
Investment in IT
CIOs need to always be watchful over their budgets and face the challenge of doing “more with less”, Meikle said. But the university still continues to invest, he said, with one in-progress and two planned “major construction projects”. One of the projects is a “multidisciplinary centre for cardiac diabetes,” he said. “They all have quite serious technology budgets.”
He said online technology hasn’t reduced the costs of serving students, but has enriched the “teaching experience”, and IT has also enabled more collaborative research at less expense.
“We’ve just installed a whole lot of new learning centres for students and there’s some quite interesting technology involved in that,” Meikle said. The centres provide a place for a student or group of students to interact with digital whiteboards, using a computer in the centre or their own wireless devices. The university opened several new centres in March, he said.
Students who use university computers can log into their own personalised virtual desktops, including a university app store with nearly 300 academic software titles, Meikle said. The virtual desktop is currently accessible only on the school’s PCs, but could be expanded to support student devices, he said. “But we haven’t done that because we still have to solve licensing and volume issues.”
“Our goal would be for the student to access [university] software on any device, anywhere,” he said. It’s not clear how quickly the university can achieve that goal because with 300 pieces of software, “you’re dealing with a lot of software vendors [and] a lot of different licensing models.”
The university also seeks to enhance its wireless capacity, Meikle said. “In a uni like ours, we can never have enough wireless.” Bandwidth usage on the school’s network grows 60 per cent per year, he said. “Bring your own device does put that service under stress.”
The school has been upgrading its wireless network in a “relatively low-key way,” Meikle said. “We’re sort of at a point where we need to determine whether the uni wants to afford doing a larger program” of upgrades.
For students off campus, the university provides Web streaming of lectures, as well as access to quizzes and lecture notes. More than 30,000 students access that facility daily, he said. The university has also just launched a mobile app for smartphones and tablets that is used by 11,000 per day, he said.
“We record about 100 lectures a day and stream those out to students,” he said. “We get about a million uploads a year.”
The university employs videoconferencing for remote teaching. For example, medical students at a remote hospital can use the technology for lectures or to watch procedures, he said. Researchers also use video to communicate with colleagues at other institutions.
Limits and the NBN
“The student’s connectivity at home is probably the biggest limiting factor” to accessing remote learning capabilities, Meikle said.
The National Broadband Network (NBN) won’t affect connections into the university, because the school already has high-speed broadband through the AARNet, he said. However, “NBN will be great from the remote point of view,” he said. “The student working from home will have a much better streaming or download experience.”
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