Nearly three years since joining the Open University, CIO David Matthewman continues to push a strategic programme to deliver value and innovation.
After conducting a thorough review of how the university buys IT over the last few years, the highlights of David Matthewman’s tenure have so far included a move towards cloud tools and a shift towards a leaner set-up for applications and infrastructure.
Now the focus for the next 18 months is supporting study processes and giving a new lease of life to the Open University's (OU’s) core applications, used daily by more than 6,000 associate lecturers and over 250,000 students worldwide.
“Our business has evolved very rapidly in recent years as a result of new government and funding arrangements. So we have evolved our systems at the same time in ever more innovative ways to ensure we are dealing with the strategic needs of the university for the future,” says Matthewman.
Meeting student requirements
The IT team plays an important role in offering new facilities and tools to students as needs and behaviour around study patterns and technology change.
This month, it launched OU Anywhere, an application to give students the option to download and access their core module textbooks, videos and other materials through mobile devices.
This option is being provided in response to the growing number of students using tablets and smartphones as part of their studies. Students will have the option of accessing their course text and media through the app, in addition to the books and DVDs traditionally posted to them at the start of their modules.
Apple and Android smartphone and tablet users have been able to install OU Anywhere through the App Store and Google Play since 30 January 2013. Apps for Kindle Fire and Microsoft Surface will follow shortly.
Apprentices bring a wealth of knowledge of how the organisation operates and we are part way through training them up. We’ve put them all through a fairly intense bootcamp to turn them into developers and they are providing great value already
The IT team also had to intervene when new fee arrangements were enforced late last year. According to Matthewman, changes were needed to process government loans to students. Areas affected included the OU’s web front end, the finance system and links with the Student Loan Company (SLC).
“The web front end and the underlying database were significantly enhanced to allow students to automatically register with an SLC payment, and a new matching and reconciliation process was created using data from the SLC to identify students and complete the funds transfer,” he says.
“The university also created its own online eligibility checker to allow the student to self-assess their loan eligibility prior to the SLC opening applications for part-time students."
He says the links with the SLC are very basic at present, but there are plans to enhance those connections in the near future.
Bespoke is better
One of the key projects is a new version of the OU student information system, Vantage. Based on Microsoft .Net with Oracle and SQL Server databases, the final system is forecast to be up and running in 2014, preceded by interim versions in the meantime.
Once it goes live, it will be a consolidated, improved system handling everything from initial enquiries from prospective students, shipment of materials and course curricula management, to study outcomes and the planning process of graduation ceremonies. It will also allow lecturers to modify course components and execute other tasks without intervention from the IT department.
Matthewman was initially interested in buying off the shelf for most applications, but that wasn’t possible with the core system, mainly because the products offered during the tendering process for packages were not suited to the unique needs of the OU.
“We found that the right solution for the OU was to upgrade the student management software and take away the technical debt while implementing the flexibility and speed of reaction that our organisation is going to need to respond to market and student demand,” he says.
“I wasn’t able to find something off-the-shelf that met those needs, so we will continue to develop in-house. This is actually providing dividends for the university because we are able to leverage on the capability we’ve already got."
The OU talked to a number of suppliers during the tendering process: Tribal, with its SITS product; SunGard with Banner; Unit 4, with Agresso by Unit 4; Campus IT with Core; Oracle with its Campus product; and SAP.
“The systems we have seen are very much focused on universities with on-campus students but those packages didn’t support the way we deliver services. We felt it would be a larger task to customise a package to meet our needs than it would be to upgrade what we have today,” says Matthewman.
“It isn’t what most organisations are doing, but there are still many universities that own their core systems. But we will only continue to do that while it still brings benefits to the organisation."
The OU is, however, swapping other key bespoke applications for packages: the HR system is being replaced by NorthgateArinso’s ResourceLink system; the student personal lending platform will become Core by PanCredit; and the chosen academic research management platform is Awards Management by Worktribe.
“We would resist very strongly developing systems that aren’t core. By the time the strategic programme is finished, we will have replaced a vast amount of bespoke applications by packages and be able to focus on what really matters,” he says.
This service isn’t good enough
The OU is also placing its bets on service-based alternatives for various areas of IT to increase efficiency and reduce cost. Salesforce.com tools are being deployed in the university’s business development unit, where the Sales Cloud suite is used to deal with a wide range of corporate clients.
Amazon Web Services is also being used for platform as a service (PaaS). However, Matthewman has been let down by the options available.
“It was a bit disappointing when we went to market for some of those commodity systems such as HR – the bids we received simply didn’t have SaaS [software as a service] or if they did, they were ‘pseudo-SaaS’. The suppliers would run the application for you but on their hosted environment rather than a true service offering,” he says.
“We do use SaaS very effectively but, generally speaking, I think we are about a year or two from a market where companies will offer true service-based products - the vendors aren’t quite there yet."
Other initiatives focused on improving efficiency include better collaboration and communication tools. More than 4,000 users at the OU are now using Microsoft Lync for that purpose.
The organisation is also in the process of rolling out virtual desktops, which follows a big push to adopt virtual machines in the back end, where servers are nearly 100% virtualised.
Boosting the team
Matthewman had to boost his team of over 200 people with contractors to deliver the projects outlined in his overall plan, mainly in the areas of software architecture and agile development.
Additionally, six apprentices were recruited into the IT team, from a mix of backgrounds ranging from secondary education to masters degrees. The apprentices that do not hold a degree yet will start on computer science degrees sponsored by the OU.
“The apprentices bring a wealth of knowledge of how the organisation operates and we are part way through training them up. We’ve put them all through a fairly intense bootcamp to turn them into developers and they are providing great value already,” Matthewman says.
“We do not have any more vacancies for now but I certainly anticipate we will be recruiting more apprentices again in the next year."
The strategic programme to revamp the Open University’s technology set-up will end in early 2015. Once the job is complete, does Matthewman plan to move on to a different challenge?
“Leaving the OU is the furthest thing from my mind. I haven’t thought about leaving since I’ve joined – it is my most enjoyable job I have ever had, by some margin,” he says.
“I have the privilege of going to graduation events and see how students have changed their life prospects through their studies, plus I have frequent contact with world-leading academics in their field and see how IT relates to so many areas. The variety of the work is terrific, every day is inspiring here.
"It is certainly no ordinary job.”