A new age for education: digitising our universities

Recent years have been a challenge for higher education institutions, but the right technology can bridge the gap between expectations and reality

John McCabe, executive vice-president and managing director, Damovo: ‘Universities in particular need to identify emerging needs quickly – artificial intelligence, automation, cloud services and advanced data and analytics all have the potential to change the way in which services are delivered.’

Recent reports indicating that Irish university dropout rates remained high in 2020 set alarm bells ringing about what the higher education experience consists of in today’s world.

Academics and administrators find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Students complained of loneliness, anxiety and low mood. Meanwhile, not just in Ireland but right across the West, grumblings from academics indicate that even with in-person classes back on the agenda, some students prefer to attend remotely.

Clearly, getting the balance right on technology is no simple task for universities and other higher education institutions but, at the same time, the forward march of IT cannot be halted.

John McCabe, executive vice-president and managing director of Damovo, said that the post-Covid world was one marked by increased use of technology to deliver teaching and learning, and that this was coming on top of changes driven by technology.

“In addition to the challenges posed by the Covid-enforced hybrid learning environment, the higher education sector is entering a new age – an age in which the effective implementation and use of digital technologies across universities is essential to attracting talent, both local and international, promoting growth and, ultimately, surviving,” he said.

Students, raised on smartphones and tablets, have an expectation that IT will be central to the educational experience, he said – and this was not just the case for those studying computer science.

“Today students bring with them a set of demands and expectations that modern higher education providers must meet, if not exceed where both students and staff need to be able to easily get the information, advice and guidance they need, when they need it,” McCabe said.

Remote teaching, including hybrid, is clearly part of the future of higher education, and creating a more sophisticated and engaging experience is a possibility. Damovo is engaged with several Irish universities to deliver proof of concept solutions, McCabe said, with an expectation of expanding into a wider deployment over the coming months.

This also opens possibilities for internal staff meetings and participation in colloquiums and seminars.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in Teams Rooms. This is where a meeting room can be integrated into the wider Microsoft Teams environment, to bring a consistent and uniform user experience to hybrid meetings and conference calls,” he said.

Beyond the classroom

There is more to universities than teaching, though, and while the virtualisation of the lecture theatre tends to grab the headlines, much of the technology being deployed in universities is there to ease areas from admissions and registration to office work.

One of the first areas that should be addressed, McCabe said, was deploying tech that can reduce staff workloads, particularly around bureaucracy, thus allowing academics to concentrate on the core of their jobs: teaching and research. Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, for instance, can be used to remove the daily drudgery from the lives of both academics and administrators.

“Processes and technology should remove mundane tasks, enabling staff to provide excellent support for students. Universities in particular need to identify emerging needs quickly – artificial intelligence, automation, cloud services and advanced data and analytics all have the potential to change the way in which services are delivered,” he said.

Staying secure

Even further behind the scenes is security, but despite its relative invisibility to the general public, cybersecurity is, in fact, arguably more important than any other area of IT infrastructure and spending.

Certainly, universities make for appealing targets. Indeed, although the 2021 cyber attack on the HSE has dominated the discourse, it is worth remembering that shortly prior to it, two higher education institutes were successfully targeted by cyber criminals with similar ransomware attacks.

McCabe said that this was a clear illustration of the importance of getting cybersecurity right, as shutting down IT networks today amounted to making it close to impossible to continue to deliver education.

“Without a doubt the single biggest issue facing third level institutions in Ireland is cybersecurity. Several Irish universities have experienced high-profile cyber attacks in the last 12 months, resulting in huge disruption to their IT and communications infrastructure. The importance of securing and minimising their attack surface has never been more pertinent,” he said.

The severity of the threat has been noted. HEAnet, a National Education & Research Network provider responsible for delivering high-speed internet connectivity and ICT shared services to all levels of the Irish education sector, has established a Cybersecurity Advisory group to identify potential security services that may mitigate against these threats.

Damovo, too, is increasing its offering to the sector, McCabe said.

“We are also positioning Damovo Cybersecurity services such as PEN testing, security audits and the ‘Virtual CISO’ [chief information security officer] offering,” he said.