The Digital Economy
Dr Malcolm Read, JISC Executive Secretary, considers the state of higher education and IT and looks at ways in which universities are supporting the digital economy
With the UK higher education sector expecting significant changes following the government’s recent suggestion that universities face being “starved of funding” for the foreseeable future, many institutions will be asking how they can maintain their leading global position while rising to the growing problem of smaller budgets and greater expectations. This funding challenge, together with the unprecedented developments in technology and the changing expectations and demands of students and researchers, means universities now need to cut costs without cutting services or opportunities.
But without sustained investment how can institutions hope to enable students, researchers and teachers to thrive and excel in a digitally enabled world, as well as equipping the sector with new ways of working faster and better than the competition? JISC recently launched its three-year strategy 2010-2012 which aims to help higher education institutions answer these questions.
This strategy emphasises activities designed to bring benefits to the education sector in the short-term, for example helping to improve efficiency and effectiveness to reduce costs through green Information Communications Technology (ICT). At the same time it also aims to maintain investment in those projects with mid and long-term benefits, in particular programmes or services that will enhance the competitiveness of education and research through collaborative and open digital technologies.
The UK government has set a target for universities and colleges to reduce their carbon levels by 30 per cent by 2020. It is clear that reducing the environmental impact of ICT provision, while also exploiting ICT as an enabler to make energy and cost savings through the intelligent use of technology, should be a priority for these organisations looking to manage their costs. While the potential of cloud computing to deliver meaningful efficiencies is still to be proved, other shared services and greater use of outsourcing may play a part in reducing the carbon footprint of technology within higher education.
According to a recent JISC survey, a quarter of IT and network services managers in UK colleges and universities are aware of cloud computing being used for outsourcing. To help build greater levels of awareness within institutions, JISC has recently launched two invitations to tender to investigate the potential of the cloud and its limitations. In addition, a number of projects are making use of cloud technologies to open up new opportunities for universities and colleges.
Cloud computing does not only provide an opportunity for reducing an institution’s carbon footprint, it and other shared services like it are also delivering against the demand for more sophisticated digital technologies to enable staff and students to be open and flexible in the way they work. Indeed, many people are already using the cloud without even realising it and have found their own ways of integrating useful cloud-based services into every day tasks.
Internet calendars, instant chat, webmail and sharing documents through the web, via applications such as Google Docs, all make use of the cloud. But this is only scratching the surface of what universities and colleges could do to revolutionise the facilities available to learners, teachers and researchers without fundamentally increasing investment in new equipment. Indeed, cloud computing has the potential to become the dominant model for how information-based services are delivered for years to come. Organisations in both the public and private sectors should be asking how they can leverage the opportunities opened up by this new delivery model.
Green ICT can also enable institutions to reduce fuel bills and in some cases enable them to generate their own power. And there are, of course, other green measures that can help universities and colleges reduce costs along with their environmental impact. These include improving the energy efficiency of desktop computing through automated powerdown, reducing the energy demands in data centres, developing more intelligent buildings, and enabling new ways of working for staff and students, both in the workplace and at home.
Mobile computing (and mobile users) is also important. Laptops and small devices are increasingly used by researchers, students and staff who in turn require access to the internet on the move and at remote sites. Supporting and exploiting mobile computing requires sophisticated access and identity management tools, as well as applications designed to provide information on less powerful and smaller devices using lower bandwidth than is normally the case in an office environment.
In summary, with students now expecting a fully functioning technology-enhanced learning environment with content and resources available online 24 hours a day, together with a growing community of part-time and overseas students, lifelong learners and professionals, all crying out for flexible learning, it is a rich technology-enhanced learning culture that will help make UK colleges and universities more attractive in the domestic and global markets.
JISC intends to enhance the skills and capabilities of those people within education and research who are using or are responsible for ICT to enable these demands to be met. From hands-on staff to strategic decision-makers, JISC aims to work more closely at a local and national level to support large-scale changes to systems and processes within universities and colleges.
Enhancing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of management information systems is among JISC’s highest priorities for 2010–2012. As I have discussed, above, cost control while improving the student experience is a way of enhancing the UK’s competitiveness.
Technology can, of course, help with many of these changes. A good infrastructure is essential, but the real challenge for universities is to exploit their existing services more effectively than their competitors (both national and international) and for students, researchers and teachers to thrive and excel in a digitally-enabled world.
Education and research is entering a period of great change. Post-compulsory education will change due to increased competition, more demanding students, the need to support progression for non-traditional students and lifelong learners, the outcomes of the student fees reviews, and other national policy developments such as quality issues and increased engagement with business and the wider community. Innovative ICT can help in
all these areas.
Indeed, continued innovation is essential to ensure that the sector remains fit for purpose, can meet new requirements from year to year, and is sustainable in the longer term. By so doing, JISC will ensure that the UK will stay at the forefront of technological change and maintain its place as a world leader in education.
But change for change’s sake is no use to anyone. JISC’s role is to champion the use of technology where it adds value and builds efficiencies, and provides expertise, skills, knowledge and a competitive edge. The long and successful track record of JISC and its ability to facilitate and support change, and seed capacity growth in the sector, will be invaluable in helping and supporting the community benefit from and exploit these changes. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, the environment for higher education in five years will be very different from today. UB