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Delivering a digital education

University of Sunderland has an ambition to become a truly digital first university. They’re taking staff and students on a journey to develop their digital skills, putting technology at the heart of what they do.

David Conway

David Conway, head of IT services, says:

“When you know how much you’re spending, where your staff skills are, and what your infrastructure looks like, you get a picture of your business and the role IT plays in that,”

We first worked with David in 2016, to carry out a financial x-ray. At that time, the university’s IT services were devolved, and they didn’t have a clear view of where money was being spent.

“The financial x-ray was incredibly useful in pointing out some areas where we were not investing and possibly should be, and some areas where we were spending more than we would like to.”

Understanding the non-staffing and staffing resources

Taking all the devolved budgets for IT from across the business and putting them into one pot, meant they had a better handle on how the money was being spent.  Setting up a new department called ‘technical services’ and moving all staff delivering IT into one place.

“Allowed us to understand the non-staffing and staffing resources which enabled us to manage them better.”

Not all these changes were welcomed, as some departments previously had autonomy over the purchases they were making.

“It’s quite a tense time because those people know they have to change, it’s just that initial resistance but once we get through that we’ll start to see the benefits.”

Rationalise expenditure

With a lot of their IT equipment coming to end of life, they needed to spend some money to refresh and renew their data services. A service plan based on a five-year projection highlighted that they would have to spend in the region of £3.5m (realistically £5m).

“I wanted to avoid that cost because I thought there was a better way to provide IT services.”

Carrying out an infrastructure and applications review helped to form the basis of a plan to move to cloud. Enabling them to put in place a data centre zero strategy, so by 2021/2022 they’ll have no traditional data centres on campus.

“All the information I’ve got from the review is leading me to understand better how we can get into the cloud rapidly. It’s also allowing me to work directly with the business and concentrate on areas where we can rationalise our expenditure.”

Not everything has been plain sailing. According to David “we’ve had some challenges around connectivity and recently worked with Lisa (relationship manager) and colleagues in Jisc to ensure we’ve got the relevant connectivity in place to move us forward over the next few years.”

Being transformational

Getting that senior management buy-in has been key to their success. With information gathered through the reviews, David wrote a proposition for the executive team, highlighting where money was being spent on IT. With the majority being spent on ‘underpinning’ such as finance and HR (the systems that make you a business), and ‘qualifying’ such as a VLE (the systems that make you a university).

Ultimately, they want to be ‘transformational’ to give them that competitive edge. David was able to show that they needed to refocus their expenditure.

“As an IT services department, we want to put our effort into being transformational, to help the university to get that competitive edge.”

Embracing digital change

And so, the ‘digital first’ initiative was born. Made up of a set of programmes promoting how they’ll move forward as a digital university by 2021. It includes a range of projects from online assessment and marking, going paperless to creating collaborative working spaces for staff.

“After some initial resistance to change, people are seeing more and more of what we can present through digital first and what we can deliver through the various platforms that we’re building such as Microsoft 365. They are embracing digital change far more rapidly and probably quicker than we can manage at the minute.”

The initiative backed by the vice-chancellor, is being used as the vehicle to drive the digital first campaign. Delivered at an operational level by the ‘digital first group’, it’s led by the chief operating officer and is made up of ‘champions’ from across the business which includes students and staff from a range of roles.

Supporting staff to build their digital skills

Taking all their staff on a journey and reskilling them is essential.  Working with Jisc and Microsoft to look at solutions such as LinkedIn Learning so that resources can be linked back to the digital skills framework, gaps identified, and suitable development plans put in place.  

“The key for us moving forward will be how we’re supporting staff to build their digital skills. We know we’ve got some areas of real strength in the delivery of digital education so we’re using the champions network to make sure where possible we’re upskilling other staff.”

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