Staffordshire University goes all-in on Microsoft Azure for digital transformation

Andrew Proctor, director of digital services at Staffordshire University, describes how ditching its datacentres and moving to the Microsoft Azure public cloud has set the organisation on the path to digital transformation

Staffordshire University is in the midst of a major, multi-year digital transformation, geared towards positioning the organisation as a technology leader in UK education.

This process has already seen the higher education provider declare itself the first university in Europe to go “all-in” on the Microsoft Azure public cloud, and move to adopt the software giant’s online productivity suite, Office 365.

The migration was completed over 12 months, from spring 2016, during which time the university decommissioned the two datacentres that were previously used to host all its infrastructure and applications.

Andrew Proctor, the university’s director of digital services, describes the 12-month delivery timeline allocated for the move as “aggressive”, and the project itself was not without its challenges.

“We had to work with a variety of suppliers to move their applications into the cloud environment, which was sometimes a new experience for the supplier as well,” he says.

“Some of the applications were ones you’ll find in any number of organisations, but the trickier ones were those that were a bit more specific to education. And because we were the first university to do this, some of the suppliers had to learn with us.

“They weren’t ready to deploy their solutions in a cloud environment and we had to do a lot of work with them to make that happen.”

The university’s existing datacentres had become unfit for purpose and would have required “significant investment” to bring them back up to standard, says Proctor – but that would have tied up capital that could have been put to better use elsewhere.

“We want to embed digital into everything the university is about”

Andrew Proctor, Staffordshire University

“We’ve got a highly ambitious digital transformation agenda here in Staffordshire and we saw being fully based in the cloud as a key enabler so that we are much more flexible and responsive,” he says.

“Also, one of key visions for the internal IT function here is that I don’t want them spending 80% of their time managing infrastructure. I want to free them up to focus on transformation and add value to the university.”

This is important because the organisation’s digital transformation ambitions go far beyond simply lifting and shifting its IT requirements to the cloud, and extend to ensuring technology plays a central role in every aspect of its students’ lives, says Proctor.

“Digital technologies are so pervasive now in day-to-day life, and we want to embed digital into everything the university is about,” he says.

“We aspire to be the leading digital university across the UK, so this [cloud migration] was a really good way for us to demonstrate how we are going to realise that ambition.”

Putting digital front and centre

In its quest to become the UK’s leading digital university, Staffordshire has worked hard to ensure its technology aims and objectives are woven into every aspect of its overall business strategy and plan.

“We don’t have a separate digital strategy because once you make it something separate, you are kind of missing the point,” says Proctor.

“So digital runs through all our corporate strategies, visions and all the things we do because we want to place digital at our very core, to the extent that when people are graduating from stuff at university, they are equipped for the digital age.”

Why Microsoft?

Director of digital services Andrew Proctor says Staffordshire University decided to go “all-in” on Microsoft for a mix of economic and support reasons.

“Microsoft is very keen on the education sector, and it didn’t just see us as a customer of cloud,” he says. “It was really the beginning of a partnership with Microsoft, whereby we are one of three institutions throughout the world classed as a Microsoft Innovative Educator.

“So we work with them, not just on the cloud, but to see that we can use technology in an innovative way to assist with learning.”

The university’s workforce is also being encouraged to adopt a more startup-like mindset, with experimentation rewarded and failures treated as learning opportunities, says Proctor.

“One of the key indicators of a digital culture is the ability to experiment quickly to try things out on the understanding that some of these things may fail,” he adds.

“That’s a lot easier to do when you have fully migrated to the cloud because [in order to experiment] we don’t have to go out to procurement to get the hardware we need, which introduces loads of delays.

“If someone comes to us with an idea, we can move very fast and get them set up in hours,” says Proctor.

Reinforcing its reputation

The university is also keen to use its digital transformation to build on its burgeoning reputation as a purveyor of software engineering, games design and e-sports-related courses – and central to that is its commitment to improving the digital learning experiences of its students.

“We see things like games design as specialist, but even if you’re here on a business leadership course, you should leave here with digital skills because they are so important,” says Proctor.

“We do digital specialisms, with games design and software engineering, and more traditional courses, but the difference is we embed digital into those things.”

For example, Proctor says the university is evaluating how Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset technology, HoloLens, could be used to bring aspects of the curriculum for some of its courses to life.

“You don’t suddenly develop digital skills by going on a one-day course or visiting a website – it’s through the confident and pervasive use of digital technology,” he says.

Some of the technologies Staffordshire has already adopted, such as Office 365, are also helping the organisation work towards its goals of embracing the 24-hour university concept, whereby students can access support and education resources out of hours from any location.

However, Proctor says the university’s digital agenda is intended to complement and enhance the work that takes place on the campus, and ensure students make the most of their time there.

“There are things that can happen on campus that you can’t do online, but we want to ensure people are coming to our campus because they want to, not because they feel they have to,” he says.

Data analytics

Looking ahead, the university is investigating the role analytics could play in helping pinpoint students who might be at heightened risk of dropping out, so pre-emptive support and advice can be offered.

“Whether it’s just a conversation or some additional support [they need], just trying to make sure they aren’t dropping out without understanding what their options are and what support could be made available to them, is an immediate use case for analytics,” says Proctor.

There is also scope for using this technology to ensure the course content offered to students remains engaging, but is also tailored to their preferred learning style.

“We want to get to the point where some courses are almost self-optimising,” says Proctor. “They can identify the types of learning and teaching activities that are effective for different types of people and configure courses around people’s personal needs.”

That particular use case is “five to 10 years away” from being realised, he says, but highlights areas of innovation that the university might move into further down the line, now the groundwork for its digital transformation is complete.

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And given the benefits both staff and students seem to be reaping from the work Proctor and his 70-strong IT team have done so far, it is hardly surprising that the university is already looking for ways to capitalise on its cloud move.

“The key benefit for staff and students is the significant improvements we have seen around the availability of applications and services,” he says. “We are in a much better position in that respect, and our ability to meet demand has improved as well.”

As an example of this, Proctor cites improvements in the way the university’s infrastructure now deals with surges in application use during peak periods, such as the annual A-level results day in August.

“We know that is a very important time for the university in terms of attracting students, and it is also a peak demand for certain applications that we use,” he says.

“Previously, we have either had to upgrade a server to make sure it has more memory, and kind of hope it will stand up to the demand. Now, a few hours beforehand, we can just dial up the amount of compute resource assigned to those applications very quickly, and are able to meet demand much more effectively and be a lot more agile and flexible.”

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