A robot revolution on our campuses

Automation isn’t just for industrial processes: it can also simplify time-consuming tasks in university and college administration. Jason Walsh reports

13th October, 2019
John McCabe, executive vp and managing director, Damovo Ireland

Automation is already underway in factories and other production environments, but the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has also moved into professional domains. Everything is being automated, it seems, from car production and driving, to legal services and more.

But automation isn’t only about the rise of the robots. It can also be about getting processes right, said John McCabe, managing director for Damovo Ireland.

For colleges and universities this means making life easier for students and staff alike. It’s really all about the proper use of resources, said McCabe.

“What we’re seeing at the moment is that the universities are struggling to cope with the growth that they’ve had. The Sunday Business Post had it last week that Trinity was looking toward reducing student numbers. Well, the reason for that is resources. The other options are ‘Do we get more people in?’, which they can’t because of resources, or ‘Can we automate things?’.”

Damovo already counts seven of Ireland’s third-level institutions among its clients. Conversations about automation often begin around banal but essential and time-consuming tasks.

“Password resets and things like that that: taking it away from the internal helpdesk within the college. Something as simple as password authentication should be done, and that is frustrating not just for the students but also for the academic staff and the researchers,” he said.

Other difficulties can be even greater, though, and create major bottlenecks—as anyone who has ever set foot on a campus during registration will know. They’ve got to look at student registration, which is a big pain point for these organisations.”

As attracting foreign students has become a lucrative business as well as a potential source of competitive advantage in research grading, technology can also help to paint a living picture of college life—though this is not yet happening in Ireland.

However, it is more than possible now and, McCabe said, more than a gimmick. It is also part of a wider engagement with digital technologies on the part of educational institutions, and one that mirrors similar developments in industry.

“Getting the research people in is a big thing for them, giving them a better experience. Bringing it up a level, you could be talking smart buildings. There’s lots of that coming,” he said.

For McCabe, the key is simplification: complexity at the back end, including the requirements for legal compliance, need not mean complexity for the student or staff member.

“Our business is basically network infrastructure and that is key—it enables these things. We’re looking at moving some of the easier processes, and then ramping it out from there.

“Take student registration, which should include linking in the financial information. Right now it’s all stored in different modules. Or consider a guest lecturer coming in to do a six-week term: how do you process that person onto the books and then make sure they get paid? How do you make sure their laptop is up and running from day one?”

Instead of thinking about automation as something for manufacturing or for the distant future, McCabe said it was something that should be understood as current technology: something educational institutions can get to grips with in the here and now.

“There are technologies now that allow existing databases to be utilised,” he said. “We offer a mediation platform that pulls the information together so that you can enrol online—and it all works on day one when you need it. It’s basically a question of workflows. Some of the systems may need to be replaced but really, it’s about bringing the information together.

“You hear about RPA [robotic process automation] and so on. Well, the technology is there: look at the workflows, ask how do things link together, and see about automating the processes.”

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