CIO interview: The IT behind the academic cycle

David Swayne, CIO at South Bank University, talks about how the university’s IT copes with the peaks of activity in the academic year

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August is the busiest time for universities, when, following the publication of A-level results, students hunt for course places.

David Swayne, CIO at London South Bank University, is responsible for making sure the university’s IT copes with the peaks experienced during this time.

Swayne manages the depth and breadth of systems supported in academia, including audio-visual systems in all lecture theatres, video conferencing and telephony plus other systems required by engineering and nursing.

He says: "The IT we support goes way beyond most corporates. We train a large proportion of London nurses. We train people with x-ray equipment and my team supports this."

He is also responsible for the standard business administration systems such as student records. 

"The IT [we support] is very diverse and there is an expectation it will all be available 24 by 7, but we are not funded for 24 by 7 availability."

Swayne has been with the university since August 2012. He says: "I was keen to join at this time because I wanted to see the whole academic year cycle." August is the university’s busiest time with the clearing process and admissions.  "I wanted to understand how the systems and services coped with clearing."

The cycle then moves to enrolment. There is a peak in January and May around assignment times, and a peak at exam time when students’ marks are entered into the system. During these times the IT systems need to cope with increased usage. As such, service availability is key. To reduce downtime during these busy periods, the university is using a SaaS monitoring tool from netEvidence, which provides a high-level view of running IT services.

IT initiatives

Bring your own device (BYOD) is a major initiative for universities. At South Bank, Swayne is updating the wireless provision to support 30,000 devices.

"One of our busiest days in terms of access is the day before the first term starts," he says.

"With students paying £9,000 a year for university education, they expect certain things, like wireless communications.

"They may have used technology far better than they get at university." This is something he has needed to take into account as he develops an IT strategy for the university.

We will beef up analytics to identify students who are not doing as well as other students

For instance, the nature of communications is changing, so providing an email service may no longer be sufficient to meet the communication requirements of students. 

"Increasingly students will use social collaboration and communicate through video and instant messaging," Swayne says.

South Bank is also investing in virtualising user profiles. Swayne plans to deploy a software jukebox using Appsense to provide application virtualisation. He says this will allow anyone at the university to use any PC, without having to install all the software the need manually.

Education analytics

South Bank has developed a virtual learning environment called Noodle, which uses an IBM portal to join up learning and teaching. Swayne hopes the portal will help student keep track of how well they are doing.

We are considering using gamification principle to engage students with rewards

The university collects data on students' engagement along with the qualifications they leave. Swayne says such data can be used to predict students’ performance. 

"We will beef up analytics to identify students who are not doing as well as other student," he says.

"We can currently track whether students attend lectures, whether they use portal and the virtual learning environment. But once we have correlated the data, it is often too late and the students may be thinking of leaving."

Swayne hopes to make more data available to enable students to get the most out of the money they have invested in their education. 

"We will be able to offer traffic lights, and tell students that people with a similar pattern obtained a 2.2, but you should be able to obtain a 2.1," he says.

The dashboard approach could be taken further, he says. "We are considering using gamification principle to engage students with rewards. We need to design the interactions and interventions that have the most effect."

Monitoring clearing

From observing the clearing process, Swayne realised it was not possible to spot problems easily. 

"We establish a call centre specifically for clearing, which takes a month’s worth of phone calls in one day," he says. 

"Usage of the systems and services is quite intense, and clearing is an important event for university. We take a substantial intake of students through clearing."

Traditional system administration tools can tell administrators whether a server is running, or if network has problems, but Swayne wanted a way combine individual metrics to create a service view.

In 2013 Swayne ran a pilot of a new Saas monitoring tool called Highlight from netEvidence on the clearing system.  

"The real surprise was that it only took a few hours to set up Highlight – we could then see clearly how the various servers and network devices were coping," he says. "

We found that the Clearing Service was consuming more memory and disk space than we had anticipated. Adjustments were made and the result was that we avoided any outages and kept the service running at full capacity."

The netEvidence product is used to monitor live services, which it combines into a high-level view of real business services such as the clearing process at South Bank. 

"We combined the various applications used in clearing with the network components, and perform very basic tests of both internal and external web pages to tell whether the service is running well and if we have an issue," Swayne says.

For instance, when disk usage went up Swayne was able to intervene to add more storage on to the server. "We can identify the bottleneck," he adds.

According to Swayne, Highlight reports require little interpretation. He says anyone can look at Highlight’s colour coded Service Tiles to ensure that there are no issues with a given digital service. 

"The colour codes ensure we focus on the right things and there is a wealth of technical detail for those who need to investigate the issue further," he says.

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