CIO interview: Peter O’Rourke, director of IT, University Campus Suffolk

Peter O’Rourke, IT director at University Campus Suffolk, is looking to students to shape the university’s IT infrastructure

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Rural broadband roll-out row

Peter O’Rourke, IT director at University Campus Suffolk, is looking towards students to shape the university’s IT infrastructure.

He looks at how Suffolk students are interacting on social media, using a variety of devices, and consuming information in a different way.

“We need to start thinking about how students are accessing information,” he says. “Not how we want them to access it.”

O’Rourke found some issues with the way the university provided information to its students. 

One example surrounded the university help pages. If a student could not get onto the Wi-Fi network, the help page for that problem sat on the university intranet. “So you already have to know something about it to get the information you want. How bizarre is that?”

He is currently working towards making the university IT system as transparent as possible, asking: “Why are we trying to lock information up?”

We have to move to allowing students to consume any content they want to, at any time, on any device

Peter O’Rourke, University Campus Suffolk

O’Rourke is looking towards the tools students are using to interact with each other, such as Facebook, on which he noticed a self-created Freshers help page. The Facebook page featured questions such as, Where do I go to do my laundry? Where do I get this form? How do I access the Wi-Fi?

“So you saw them helping one another and sharing links to stuff they couldn’t get to because it was inside the intranet,” he says. “So if we just published it, there’s the information, problem sorted.”

Device agnostic

O’Rourke says another challenge is to become device agnostic for students wishing to access virtual learning environments. 

“For our sector it’s about cultural changes as much as anything else,” he says. “We have to move to allowing students to consume any content they want to, at any time, on any device.”

Students now expect Wi-Fi to connect all of their devices. O’Rourke says you have to think about how people consume: “If the Wi-Fi doesn’t work, they can’t do their shopping, and if they can’t do their shopping, that’s your fault.”

He uses McDonald's as a benchmark: “I can walk into McDonald's with anything and get it working in 30 seconds. We have to do the same thing.”

Consumer experience

O’Rourke says he has to be aware of the whole student experience, in a similar way to the lifecycle of a typical consumer.

“If they have a duff lecture, I can’t help them with that, but it’s probably just as important to the student whether they can get on to the Wi-Fi to check their eBay bid, as much as if the cup of coffee they got on the way to their lecture was a good cup of coffee,” he says.

O’Rourke says he has to look at the whole experience, while making sure IT is not detracting from any of the values the university wants to portray. 

“IT has to adhere to that. If we’re modern, fresh, friendly, but make it difficult for you to log on, that’s just not the right thing. So it’s about making sure we align with organisational values,” he says.


Another way technology could be used in the university is through gamification, to encourage students to register with all the different systems they need to as a first year.

Most students don’t bother registering for a library card, and turn up expecting to be able to use the facility. “The reason why is because there’s no value to them to sign on to the system before they turn up at the library,” says O’Rourke.

He suggests the university could offer rewards for registering online, such as a free coffee. “It’s about thinking through those sorts of support issues so you don’t allow people to walk into a problem.”

Virtual desktop infrastructure

But cost is, unsurprisingly, a barrier. “We’re restrained at the moment,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is keep people in education, but we want to spend less doing it.”

We’re trying to do is keep people in education, but we want to spend less doing it

Peter O’Rourke, University Campus Suffolk

O’Rourke says he would like to implement virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) into the university’s IT offering, but the licensing is very expensive for the education sector.

“You think ‘gee, isn’t this licensing expensive, it would be cheaper for us to buy PCs, and we can’t afford to buy PCs'.”

O’Rourke says thanks to his department's relationship with Fujitsu, he is about to point out his fundamental problems, which the supplier may attempt to try and solve.

But he points out that one of the big challenges for the public sector is procurement. “If you’re not careful, you can get forced down a line of procuring against price, which can destroy relationships,” he says.

“One of the things I’ve always done is make sure we have strong relationships with our key vendors,” he says. “Trying to find a vendor we could work with was a key strategy for me.”

As well as working with Fujitsu for the past two years, O’Rourke works closely with HP and IBM.

Another cost issue is when different departments in the university request different pieces of IT equipment. O’Rourke wants to merge those together and utilise the space.

“This course needs this type of Mac, that course needs another. In fact, you don’t, so what happens you end up with lots of under-utilised resources, which becomes very expensive,” he says.

Read more on IT for government and public sector