As the sea fog rolled away revealing clear skies, bright sun and still waters as far as the eye could see, the UK university community arrived at the Bournemouth International Centre for three days of sharing, learning and collaborating. The Conference this year refocused on the Leadership of IT and promised a programme of engaging speakers from within and outside the world of HE. UCISA’s mission includes sharing best practice, inspiring universities to think outside of their borders and leading digital transformation. As we squinted in the southern summer sunshine we were ready …
Day one sessions started with Fixing Education for the AI age from Conrad Wolfram. Conrad described a future where computational systems could be spun up on any device, anywhere and used to take natural language questions and perform computation. He gave examples of algorithms that could detect and track objects as well as taking natural language questions and converting them to rich, interactive, cloud-based assets that could be further interacted with. More important were key skills that would be needed in this knowledge economy and how our education system could develop mathematical and thinking teaching, moving from hand-calculating answers, to deep thinking about problem and solution definition. We were left feeling challenged and encouraged in equal measure.
UCISA is very much about sharing best practice and collaborating with partner organisations and during the Conference we were treated to a set of partner case studies and university showcases which included Ellucian, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Salesforce. Universities gave insight into the use of voice and chat interfaces, how to create an IT strategy in eight weeks and other interesting presentations which highlighted the breadth of activity underway in the sector.
David Bicknell and Rob Stoneman from government computing presented an interesting, if initially rather gloomy, session on public sector and higher education themes from a government perspective. David talked about black swans, events such as 9/11 or tsunamis that cannot be predicted but have wide ranging effects. Themes for government computing were Brexit, Brexit and more Brexit with a sprinkling of GDPR thrown in, hardly the stuff to excite. However, there were examples of good practice with local councils making better use of AI, and even the use of unstructured conferences (unconferences) such as GovCamp. We were left wondering what an unstructured UCISA conference might look like! Robert focused on HE, stating that we were firmly in the age of the student and needed to focus on giving value. There was more to be positive about here with examples of AI, value being driven from paid MOOCs and developments at the University of Glasgow smart campus project.
Day two started with a focus on cyber security, a topic much in the news and on the mind of IT professionals. Amongst other interesting information, Henry Hughes from Jisc encouraged us to read the national cyber security strategy, assuring us that it was very readable and useful. We learnt that more than 50% of events could be fixed by basic patching and improved training and awareness, which should be top priority for IT departments.
Steve Egan from the University of Bath brought us a talk on the changing use of data, highlighting the importance that data has as a source of knowledge. It was not the data that had changed, he said, but the technology and HE landscape. We were all encouraged to think of identifying competitive advantage and focusing on investment.
In a lighter, but still informative session, Chris Dixon from Lancaster University chaired a panel who were encouraged to put IT annoyances into Room 101, a concept inspired by a George Orwell novel and the BBC TV series of the same name. Into Room 101 went items such as business cases promising armageddon, software that doesn’t publish APIs, emails after 2pm on Fridays and a host of other annoyances. The audience were allowed to consign further items. Seemingly, IT professionals enjoy a good cathartic sharing of frustrations.
After lunch, Regina Murray and Andy Nagle from Microsoft presented on the future of technology and highlighted work on AI helping us to design our tricky PowerPoint presentations but also demonstrated technology that could recognise age, mood and other features from live images. Microsoft call this infused AI, things that we can use in our everyday life.
After a full day of input, it was time for the anticipated Conference dinner and evening speaker, an event held in the beautiful ballroom at the Brighton Pavilion where delegates were treated to an excellent and entertaining talk from Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the US.
The final day dawned with a few sore heads, but a programme which continued with valuable themes for HE. David Furlonger, from Gartner UK, spoke on Blockchain and the impact it could have on HE. Blockchain offers the possibility of an immutable, secure digital record. Applications in HE include a distributed and verifiable student record. However, in David’s view Blockchain is buggy and new, and HE should be careful of projects that might use it. There are other technologies available now which could create cloud-based database and secure message systems which would achieve similar results. The overall message was a technology to watch, but perhaps not embrace without recognising the risks involved.
Sharif Nijim from the University of Notre Dame, USA talked passionately about the role that cloud services could play and highlighted how his institution had moved from on-site services to the Amazon web cloud, inspiring us that such cloud-based dreams may be more than pie in the sky.
Heidi Fraser-Krauss from University of York and Claire Priestley from City, University of London spoke together on WIT and Wags, a presentation which would have been fit for International Women’s Day, if a day late! Clear statistics were presented showing that HE has some way to go to achieve a more balanced gender profile across IT roles, and there was a lively discussion both in the room and via social media. Clearly, there are still some barriers to be broken down.
The Conference closed with a woman who started as a libel lawyer and went on to found a company selling Indian cooking sauces to big retail. Priya Lakhani, OBE, is now the CEO of CENTURY-Tech, providing an inspiring end to the Conference. Her message of resilience and perseverance in tough times was incredibly relevant to the HE sector. She encouraged us to innovate, to not be afraid of failure and to recognise the crucial role of education in building the leaders of tomorrow. Priya talked about the responsibility we have to ensure we are innovating, especially as the world of technology is shifting faster than ever before. She highlighted how HE needs to respond to technical challenges, enable cultural change and use technology to solve business issues rather than for technology’s sake.
Many might criticise organisations like UCISA and the HE sector for being behind the curve, slow to take on new ideas, perhaps even a little stuffy and academic. This conference, which continues to be a much-needed resource of inspiration and valuable networking, proved the opposite. Innovation and big dreams are alive and thriving in HE and IT departments are raring and ready to face the challenges of tomorrow.