With a focus on innovating at a global level, the University of Sydney is pushing new boundaries in digital education delivery.
Every business wrestles with IT management to some degree, but few deal with it to the extent of academic institutions. Technology impacts almost every part of university life, from enhancing the student experience and fostering an online campus, to maximising opportunities in research and development and developing curriculum.
Mike Day, who has been Chief Information Officer at the University of Sydney since January 2016, says he and his team are fully aware of the depth of opportunities and challenges underfoot. Yet, he believes one of the University’s biggest challenges – its labyrinth of moving parts – is also its biggest strength.
“The CIO role here is so interesting because it’s so diverse and complex. For instance, there aren’t many companies with 57,000 customers who are essentially allowed behind their firewall ¬– but we’ve got that in our student cohort,” he explains.
Currently ranked in the top 1% of universities across the world, the University of Sydney has strategically worked to develop its reputation for innovation.
Its goal is to cultivate an environment where the community not only “embrace best practices, but push boundaries through experimenting and collaborating closely on cross-sector innovation”.
“We have on-board lots of exceptional people, involved in real global innovation, so our work is massively diverse from that point of view,” he says.
Day oversees the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) department of more than 300 full time staff and around 70 contractors, and for their efforts, they monitor and manage a staggering number of projects and portfolios.
They are always looking to answer the question of how they can do things differently, more efficiently and with better outcomes, both within the university, and when preparing students for the real world.
“Working with our colleagues in the Education Portfolio, we investigate how we can use technology to support different ways of learning and teaching. We’re also looking at how we can use tech to support the career development of our students, and give them the right skills to move onto workplaces of the future when they graduate,” Day explains.
“We always have to consider, not only how does technology works best within our business as a university, but also, what is the best digital practice in each of the disciplines we teach? Our academics are succeeding in teaching and guiding graduates who are at the forefront of their discipline and this in itself is a huge feat. Consider, for example, law – digitalisation has impacts across a number of domains. How does digitalisation affect the law? How does it affect the practice of law? The teaching of law? And also the research of law?”
This is a revolutionary approach to the traditional model of higher education process, which assumes one teacher presents to a large group of students.
Day says the University of Sydney is trying to flip the traditional classroom experience on its head by giving students the work before class.
They then come into the lecture for a more collaborative approach, where they work in groups and problem-solve as a team, making better use of both the academics’ and the students’ time. The opportunities that tech innovations afford the higher education industry are “enormous” according to Day.
“We seek to blend on-line and on-campus learning, which creates all kinds of opportunities. For instance, as a matter of routine now, we record all of our lectures. This helps students who miss a lecture due to illness get back up to speed on their coursework,” he says.
“There is quite a lot of evidence, both from Australia and overseas, that when you record lectures it can improve overall attendance, which I think comes down to the fact that in the past, it was all too easy to get behind and stay behind. Now, it’s easy to remain on track with coursework, as blended learning models mean you’re not constrained by your campus attendance.”
Improving the student experience through the University’s web portal, online campus and technology innovations is a huge initiative for the University, with certain advances available now that were almost impossible to imagine a decade or two ago.
They also take advantage of tools such as videoconferencing to allow guest lecturers to connect virtually from across the country and overseas to deliver presentations in real-time.
This gives students access to experts in a specific field, which “mirrors and marries with what happens in the real world in professional practice,” says Day.
“What we’re doing with educational delivery is designed to mimic what our students will go on to experience in the real world. So in medicine, let’s say, specialists in a particular area of diagnosis can videoconference in for a second opinion, in real time,” Day says.
“Obviously this type of technology also removes the challenges of distance, which is a particular challenge in Australia. It also means that world-leading universities like ours, where we have experts in subjects that are very specialized, can easily share expertise with others from around the world.”
Innovative educational tools further allow for learning to be delivered to remote areas, such as the University of Sydney’s One Tree Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef. The site spans four hectares of the reef and has had very little human disruption or influence; here, the University of Sydney’s pioneering research has helped facilitate breakthroughs in climate change, geology and marine observation.
All of this, and Day still believes we’re “really only at the beginning of exploring what technology can do to contribute to industry, the community and government, and to enable our students to be significant contributors locally and globally”.
One of the more interesting spaces to watch develop is social media, he adds. The demographic of students and the unrelenting popularity of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, means these types of communication channels cannot be ignored.
“Social media platforms play a huge role in the everyday life of our students, so we absolutely need to be there as well. It comes down to each teaching practitioner and how they want to bring in and use that technology; whether it’s using social media directly, or leveraging tools and techniques that use the same principals, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it has an impact on how students expect to be engaged with the University,” Day says.
“That said, we also must consider what students want. In one of my previous roles, I asked my students whether they would allow lecturers to engage with them on Facebook, and they said they would welcome it much the same way they would welcome their Dad dancing at their 18th birthday party: reluctantly, but only knowing that it was inevitable!”