The education sector is behind the commercial world in some technology areas, but experience serving thousands of students per university has given it the edge on Bring Your Own Device, according to Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) CIO, Brian Clark.
Clark has been CIO at RMIT since January 2011. Previously, he managed ANZ’s technology group for the Asia-Pacific region. “This is my first role in a university, so it’s been an interesting learning curve,” said Clark. When he arrived, the CIO was surprised to find “antiquated” technology and immediately got to writing the ICT component of the university’s five-year strategic plan for 2011 to 2015.
As part of a series of articles from CIO Australia on IT in tertiary education, we spoke with Clark about current IT projects he is working on at the university.
“There’s a shift toward more investment in IT at the university,” Clark said. Before, the university’s IT efforts focused on administration, but Clark and the university seeks to expand investment in the school’s “core” businesses: learning, teaching and research.
RMIT had been “a little bit further behind in some of its technologies, particularly with infrastructure,” due to a lack of investment, Clark said.
Clark’s ICT plan is “effectively an enabling plan for the university’s strategic plan,” he said. The goals were to use IT to increase the university’s international presence and to grow its research capabilities, he said. Clark is also looking at how to reduce costs by “reinvest[ing] in higher value activities,” he said. For example, many administrative processes can be automated, generating cost savings that can be reinvested in other projects, he said.
The school had been running Windows XP and Novell GroupWise, email software that Clark said is “seriously like 1990s technology.” The university is rolling out Windows 7 and has already replaced GroupWise with Google Apps, he said.
Beyond the basic email and calendar functionality, apps like Google Docs and chat are “fantastic collaboration technology,” Clark said. The university has plans to integrate the school’s VoIP infrastructure with Google Apps, he said.
RMIT is “rolling out a very large [virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)] environment for our students to augment and expand our [computer] lab capability,” Clark said.
RMIT currently has about 7,000 PCs available to students across the university in labs, “but with 74,000 students, that’s not particularly a great ratio.” Virtualising desktops lets the school take advantage of the fact that most students bring their own laptops and other devices, he said. “If we can give them a virtual lab experience where they can get access to the apps they need from their own computing environment, then that’s going to expand the number of people we can reach with those apps.”
Serving offshore students is a “core growth area,” and RMIT plans to invest in videoconference facilities, Clark said. “A number of our academics teach classes in Singapore and Vietnam, and using technology rather than having those people travel a great deal to do on-site teaching is certainly an area we’re intending to invest in.”
Next year, RMIT plans to refresh its admissions system with a particular emphasis on streamlining international admissions, Clark said.
Bring Your Own Device is one area where Clark said the education sector is ahead. “Commercial industry is just getting its head around BYOD, but the universities have had to deal with it for quite a long time.”
“We’re strategically forecasting from a volume standpoint three devices per student,” Clark said. “We need to plan for them coming with a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop.” Even staff are bringing two to three devices, he said. “We’re doing a lot of work now to” get devices on its network, make them trusted and give the student access to a lot more services beyond just basic Internet functionality.”
Reflecting the abundance of devices, the school is adding 400 wireless access points to a new building currently under construction, he said. Upgrades are also planned across the rest of campus, he said.
RMIT plans to upgrade network equipment and the overall network infrastructure with the goal of building a more open architecture, Clark said.
“We’re changing our network design” so it’s “open by default and closed by exception,” Clark said. When he started, the university’s “default position” was to “lock everything down,” he said. “That sometimes inhibits the productivity of the university, particularly in the research space where we do a fair bit of collaboration with other universities and organisations.”
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