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Australian universities are growing their IT budgets much faster than their peers in the rest of the world, as they seek improved educational outcomes on top of operating efficiencies.
Gartner has pegged IT spending growth in the higher education sector at 1.2% globally. However, IT spending in the sector is expected to be higher in Australia, with growth slated to be 4% in 2016, reaching $A1.7bn.
Australia has 39 universities, which boast more than a million enrolled students and employ more than 100,000 staff between them. This makes even a $1.7bn technology budget seem modest, but the students bring their own devices and are increasingly tech savvy.
The key to success in the sector is less about spending big and more a case of spending smart.
According to Gartner, in 2016 universities shifted focus from reducing costs and driving efficiencies toward “using technology to enhance competitive advantage and support emerging business models – ultimately, the institutions’ main missions of education and research.”
It said that the two leading strategic technologies for the sector in 2016 are adaptive learning and predictive analytics, with both targeted at improving student and institution outcomes.
According to Fred Singer, founder and CEO of Echo360 – which is an active learning platform used in 30 of Australia’s universities – the country has proven the most advanced in terms of its deployment of learning technologies.
Singer said more centralised decision-making processes in Australian universities has led to widespread technology uptake, rather than the more piecemeal approach in the US where individual faculties may hold sway.
Active learning platforms sit alongside learning management systems such as Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai, which allow content to be loaded and distributed to students.
Echo360 allows students to interact with the content, so they can capture lectures, access related content such as slide decks, take notes and ask questions. It also monitors student engagement, and the insights can then be used to track how effective particular teachers or learning approaches have proven.
The insights from the data can be used to tweak content or delivery techniques. It can also provide early alerts about student problems and the risk of drop out, which can be costly to both university and student.
“The University of Michigan has shown there can be up to 50-fold improvement in the level of engagement and a 10% increase in academic grades,” said Singer.
Tools for learning
Initially developed for in-house deployment advances in connectivity and cloud, Echo360 rewrote the platform in 2015 for delivery via the Amazon AWS cloud. One of the first global users of the new version of the system is the University of Adelaide.
Mark Gregory, CIO of the University of Adelaide, said Echo360 gave students tools to be able to say whether they were confused by content and seek a response from the lecturer. Meanwhile, the dashboards meant the lecturer could see how many students watched the lecture and what proportion were confused.
“This is a toolset for asynchronous learning,” he said. He added that users could also configure the display to suit them, as some students wanted the screen to mainly show the lecturers, while others preferred the slideshow dominating their screen.
“This gets us into the space of learning analytics. It’s powerful stuff. At the end of the term, the instructor can look back and see the discussion groups and find out where people are learning.” This then allowed the lecturer to optimise future courses based on what was demonstrated to work best.
Universities could potentially also use insights from the data to radically alter timetables and even physical buildings.
Gregory said it might make sense to have staggered term times in the future, as evidence showed lecture theatres tended to fill at the beginning and end of terms, while students preferred to access lectures online during the middle of term.
Staggering term times would allow large lecture theatres to be more effectively used by different faculties at different times of the year.
“It’s important to manage the physical spaces – there’s a real economic advantage for universities,” said Gregory.
Read more about IT at Australian universities
- Australia’s largest university is to implement a 100Gbps network backbone that will drive a new generation of academic understanding.
- Australian businesses, such as the University of Adelaide, are gaining customer insights from large volumes of data through data analytics technology.