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CIO interview: Jason Oliver, IT director, University of Sussex

Imagine taking a year to formulate a digital transformation plan – then having to implement much of it in two weeks when the coronavirus hit. For the Sussex University IT chief, there’s even more to do now

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Early April was a busy time for Jason Oliver, IT director at the University of Sussex. In March, just 100 members of staff could work remotely from home. Now, with the coronavirus lockdown under way, as many as 3,000 employees and 19,000 students can log into the institution’s systems remotely and complete their work or studies away from the campus.

This rapid progress has been crucial. The spread of Covid-19 means the campus in Brighton is closed. By putting in place a secure set of networks and applications to help people hook into university systems, Oliver and his IT team have helped turn what could have been an intractable challenge into a new opportunity for distance learning.

“It’s been a real challenge, but it’s also really fulfilling,” says Oliver. “These are exactly the things that we wanted to do to evolve teaching across the university in the next five years – but, instead, we’re doing it now.”

Such has been the scale of change that Oliver has had to fast-forward a fully costed digital transformation plan that he had spent 12 months crafting and which had been signed off recently by the university’s executive board. His plan to drive rapid digital-led change in the slow-moving higher education sector could not have been more apposite.

The IT team at Sussex has fast-tracked the implementation of a range of technologies, including the Canvas learning-management platform, Panopto lecture-capture software, Citrix virtual desktop infrastructure, Microsoft Teams for collaboration, and Zoom videoconferencing technology.

Much of the IT team’s effort in recent months had centred on thinking about the implementation of Canvas and Panopto as part of the digital transformation process. Oliver says that work has been expedited so that the university’s remote-working students now have a full online-learning environment.

Lectures are streamed online and available for viewing afterwards, including full captioning, which means learning resources are accessible to all students, including those without English as a first language. Zoom videoconferencing, meanwhile, has been implemented to support the use of real-time seminars between staff and students.

“Because I’ve spent a year positioning the financial roadmap, I made sure through huge amounts of consultation with people across the different communities within the establishment – our students, our executive, our researchers and our academics – that this strategy was really built around them,” says Oliver. “It’s been great seeing that work come to fruition so quickly.”

“We’re in an on-demand society and an on-demand culture, yet we were still teaching students like it was the 1990s”

Jason Oliver, University of Sussex

Oliver joined the university in September 2018 after leading technology operations at the Science Museum Group in London and the Royal Opera House. He spent the first three months at Sussex taking stock of the IT that was in place and preparing for change. He then formulated the five-year plan for digital transformation that has recently been initiated in super-fast time.

“That’s about taking the institution from where it was before – which, in large part, was an analogue institution,” he says. “It hadn’t changed significantly over the past decade. There had been a chronic under-investment in technology, and an acknowledgement of that fact from the leadership team.

“And so they brought me in, much as was the case at the Science Museum and the Royal Opera House, to turn what was primarily an analogue organisation into a digital one. I’ve spent the past year working on that digital transformation and it’s been an awful lot of work preparing that for the leadership team, so they can approve a significant investment in IT.”

Having to run a major transformation project is nothing new to Oliver. He reflects back on his first week in his previous role at the Science Museum, where he quickly realised that digitisation of systems and services at the world-famous institution would be a three-year exercise.

“At the end of those three years, I felt as if I’d achieved what I needed to – the Science Museum was doing some great things with technology,” he says, and then explains his decision to take up a new challenge at Sussex: “I was looking at what opportunities there were for someone like me someone to go in and change the status quo – and higher education was really attractive for that reason.”

A new education experience

Oliver says he could see many possibilities for change, mainly because the main cohort of students entering the university are aged between 18 and 21, yet he believed the pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching in an academic context – was not meeting their skills, demands and expectations.

“We’re in an on-demand society and an on-demand culture, where young people are tech-savvy – and yet we were still teaching them like it was the 1990s,” he says. “I felt there had to be something that I could do to change that, and I’m really fortunate in the job that I’ve taken.”

Crucially, Oliver says the senior leadership team at Sussex understands the potential game-changing role of technology. He says most of the leadership team at the university has been in situ for less than three years and everyone has the same common goal.

“We want to challenge the conventional,” he says. “We want to be setting the standard for the way we evolve the pedagogy. We’ve got a project called the Pedagogical Revolution, which is about how students want to be taught now and how we put the mechanisms in place to give them what they want.”

Oliver’s first 18 months in the role have gone “really well”, he says. Interestingly, he believes he has been helped by not having previous experience of working in education. “It’s meant that I’ve been able to challenge some of the accepted thinking,” he adds.

The broader aim is for the leadership team at Sussex to drive a lasting digital-led business transformation. “That’s what we’re trying to apply here to the way we work,” he says. “It’s not a case of just tweaking what’s there – it’s a case of actually tearing up the rulebook and saying, how do we meet our objectives in the most efficient and effective way?”

Read more about IT in education

Oliver says his achievements so far are less related to technology and more about helping to adjust the institution’s culture. “My management portfolio is technology, but I actually contribute as much on the educational side, on the estates side and on the business-planning side as I do around the technology,” he says.

“What I’ve been able to do is help with changing the mindset of people within the organisation – and that includes my team. Half my team has been working here in excess of a decade. Getting them into a new mindset, with new ways of working, is a tremendous change.”

Oliver says the evidence of this cultural shift can already be seen. He says the team responded brilliantly to the huge demands placed on them in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

“That would have been impossible, even six months ago,” he says. “So, for me, my biggest impact has been around the people, the mindset and the culture of the organisation. And now we’re starting to apply the technology that really will make a difference.”

Oliver’s plans for digital transformation also include a shift to the cloud. He is talking to major cloud providers, such as Microsoft and Amazon, about how the university might be able to take advantage of on-demand systems and services.

He believes that too many educational institutions are too reliant on tin and on-site storage technologies, when they could be taking advantage of the economies of scale offered by cloud computing. Oliver says there is big potential for Sussex to make the most of the scalability and flexibility of the public cloud, particularly in terms of academic research.

Better distance learning

Oliver is also keen to work with his colleagues in other functions, particularly in the estates department. He expects both teams to continue to place a lot of effort on the creation of what he calls “the smart institution”, which aims to put emerging technologies into the hands of staff and students.

“The convergence between IT and estates is happening – it’s growing closer every week,” he says. “I think that, in four or five years’ time, they’ll probably be functioning as one department because they’re so interlinked now. The buildings are so underpinned by technology – and your technology requirements are based around the spaces.”

Oliver’s last digital transformation initiative at the Science Museum took three years – so how long will it take to change Sussex for the better? Early evidence from the changes his team has made because of the coronavirus suggest that digital-led change is having a big impact much more quickly than might have been expected.

Yet Oliver’s work is far from complete. As well as the continuing development of distance learning by deploying digital services, he hopes that, two years from now, the university will be a very different place in terms of the educational experience it offers.

“I would hope the university is one where, no matter where you’re studying in the world, you have a Sussex experience,” he says, “that you feel like a Sussex student, without necessarily having to be on the campus physically, which is the situation at the moment. I’d like to think that everything that you need in order to do your studies – and to undertake outstanding, world-class research – can be completed from anywhere.

“My aim is for the pedagogy to be less tied to the physical campus. I want the campus to be more about the social perspective – if you’re online, you still get a great learning experience.”

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