CIO interview: Darrell Sturley, deputy CIO, University of Oxford

Darrell Sturley, deputy CIO at the University of Oxford, discusses plans to replace current IT systems with managed services

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The University of Oxford comprises 38 individual colleges, each full of students and staff with the need to communicate across campuses, and sometimes even across countries.

The university recently announced it will adopt new communications systems to increase the use of bring your own device (BYOD) and collaboration across the educational institution.

Darrell Sturley, deputy CIO at the university, says the project will replace Oxford University’s current systems with managed services. 

The university has invested in several new administrative systems over the past five years and, with those investments behind it, now aims to steer focus towards building a new IT infrastructure that reflects the institution’s academic needs.

“This integrated communications project is part of the overall initiative to give our admin staff, researchers, teachers and students more modern ways to communicate,” he says. 

The telephone system currently in place at the university is almost 30 years old. Although it still works, the technology does not deliver the functionality that the current generation of students need, and some of the technology has reached end of support. 

Choosing unified communications

Rather than replacing the phone system with a new one, the university chose to explore what else was available. It decided to look beyond telephony and consider what else people might find useful, says Sturley.

The university chose OpenScape Voice and OpenScape UC from Unify to provide students with the ability to call from a PC, audio conference, use headsets and instant message to increase collaboration across campuses. This allows them to communicate with staff and other students at no cost over Wi-Fi.

“Until the spring, the story was us knowing we needed to do something different and finding out what that different thing was. Having chosen to work with Unify, we’re now building the equipment,” says Sturley.

Promoting user acceptance

The IT team will pilot the system from February 2015, starting with around 250 staff and students, to understand any human, cultural or process issues that may occur during use, rather than just focusing on the technology problems that may arise.

Sturley points out that, as with any IT project, one of the biggest issues will be user acceptance. He says although many will easily adopt the new technology, there are always individuals who struggle with technological change.

“For some people, it will be very natural, as they probably use something like this at home. But for others, it will be quite a departure. It might take those who are used to having a physical phone on their desk a while to get used to this sort of system,” he says.

By the end of the project in 2017, all university staff and students will be integrated into the system. With 28,000 phone lines and approximately 40,000 staff and students, the length of the project is important in ensuring the least disruption possible when implementing and rolling out the new system.

“We could just turn it on and say to everybody, ‘right, there you are guys, get started’, but we felt that was not likely to generate the most benefit and that proper preparation and proper readiness was the way to do this,” he says.

Supporting communications across multiple devices

Sturley points out that the need for collaboration and communication has increased, as has the number of devices each student uses. Students will not only have a laptop, but may also have a phone and a tablet device.

The university has ensured the new system will support the main smartphone operating systems – Android, iOS and Windows Phone.

We're very mindful that students require a modern working environment

Darrell Sturley, University of Oxford

“We’re very mindful that students require a modern working environment,” says Sturley. “It is student-led to a certain extent, as they turn up with all kinds of gadgets and devices. This system will allow students to make use of a range of those.”

Oxford University is a collegiate university made up of several buildings, colleges and campuses, and also has a unique teaching system based around personal tutorials.

This dynamic makes communication extremely important, and although the university is very traditional, it is still technologically advanced.

“As well as the tradition and the architectural heritage, we think it’s important that students and staff have access to modern IT systems, and that working here is a 21st century experience,” says Sturley. 

“This kind of system can bring us all closer together – it can tie the colleges of Oxford University together as one community.”

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