Roundtable: saving on ICT expenses – Mark Clark

From SaaS to scalability, how can universities keep a tight rein on their ICT expenses, while still offering students the best digital experience available? Steve Wright quizzes six experts

Mark Clark is from Jisc.

Q. Let’s look at the ICT landscape first. What developments and trends should universities be aware of over the coming few years, and how should they make sure they are responding to them?

With the onset of the fourth industrial revolution, there will be demand for an ‘education 4.0’ to meet the needs of our future economy. But going back to basics, universities need to be embedding technology within the whole university experience for students and researchers – IT is a big part of that move towards personalised adapted learning, a more intelligent pedagogy, and using artificial intelligence.

The fourth industrial revolution means that we must provide infrastructure for the future, including things like wayfinding – anticipating where on campus your students are heading next, and where resources need the most support or flex. It might seem costly, but this smart campus technology allows us to create better, adaptive buildings, with less waste on unsustainable resources.

At Jisc, we’ve been working on how we can use big data for learning analytics, which is all about that anticipation of need, through the use of AI. There’s the potential for interventions to make students’ lives, as well as their learning environments, better.

Q. How important – and how feasible – is it for universities to have a fully scalable ICT framework, capable of growing in capacity to suit demand either over time and/or for specific projects?

 ICT managers can be guilty of over-spending to meet potential (but never materialising) needs. With big data storage and high-performance computing, you need to have flexibility as and when required, which is where cloud services come in. Data centres onsite and across the country reduce the capital outlay and operational costs for institutions, and these frameworks are very scalable.

Cloud-first policies may not always be the best route for all institutions, though. Some basic software comes as standard, but as you begin to add some of the more advanced features, you can end up with unpredictable costs down the line. It’s best to start out with how the technology will facilitate the learning or research of your institution, so you know your parameters.

Q. Can you recommend some useful cost-saving solutions?

Universities and colleges have banked on bring your own device (BYOD) for some time, although some institutions are better than others at saving costs here. Cloud services really can help add to the cost savings and compatibility issues when it comes to students using their own devices, as well as those provided by the institutions themselves.

The caveat to all this, of course, is security: are you going to be opening yourself up to malware through student devices?

On-campus IT security implications need to be managed, which is why Jisc provides a security vulnerability assessment and information service to overcome these hurdles.

Q. How should universities balance budgets while also future-proofing their ICT? Does more durable always mean more expensive?

It is difficult to make a call on where to invest, but it becomes more difficult if you’re thinking about your hardware systems, not your strategic objectives. If you lead with the strategy rather than the technical trends, and take an approach where the hardware can have flexible applications, then you’re starting from a good place. Investing in the digital capabilities of staff and students also helps to future-proof your ICT resources for years to come. It’s not all about the machines.

Q. What is the minimum that a university should be offering its students in terms of its ICT provision?

As a minimum, students need a safe environment that allows them to have access to managed internet services, all the way up to, well, the sky’s the limit. 

A whole campus with seamlessly interoperable systems, where learning materials, assessment and administration are all interlinked is the ideal, but costly – although it is something we should be striving for. Again, this comes back to the vision for the institution and how ICT should support the learning and research aims from the outset.

Q. Should ICT systems be updated on a piecemeal basis, or via more radical overhauls every few years?

All ICT should be updated in a piecemeal way when it comes to patching and security updates, but there are occasions when this won’t be enough. At the moment I’m working with an institution and looking at a fairly radical overhaul of their network – in this instance it seems more sensible to change everything, but this kind of update is a ‘once every 10 years’ affair, which a long time in ICT.