How cloud computing helped one university to digitise the student experience

Article by SA Mathieson, Guardian Labs, (The Connected University series paid for by Staffordshire University), 4 December 2019

Until recently, a university that wished to remind students about lectures, answer their questions around the clock and provide personalised suggestions on which societies to join would have needed a call centre of support staff working shifts. Staffordshire University is now providing all of these services and others through its app, Beacon, a digital coach for students available on mobile devices accessed through voice and text.

But getting to this stage required major changes to the university’s technology infrastructure. “There was a bit of a digital deficit,” says Andrew Proctor, pro vice-chancellor for digital at Staffordshire University, who was recruited by the university’s vice-chancellor and chief executive, prof Liz Barnes CBE, from West Midlands police in June 2017. “We needed to get some strong foundations in place.”

This meant a move to “cloud computing”, where on-site technology, such as servers that hold data, are replaced by online services. The university closed its last server room by the end of 2017 and now uses data centres run by Microsoft to hold information and run software, using a fast private connection provided by education technology provider Jisc.

Proctor says that the main benefit of the move has been to free technology staff to do more useful work, rather than maintaining hardware. “That was when they could start being really creative and coming up with ideas,” he says. “Without moving to cloud, we wouldn’t have the spare time or the capability to do those things.”

Chris Rothwell, director of education for Microsoft UK, says many higher education institutions are gradually moving systems to cloud computing. “Staffordshire has made a decision to do that quite quickly,” he says. “The thing that stands out is the pace in which it has made the change.”

Rothwell adds that two specific benefits of cloud computing are making an organisation’s data more accessible and easing the use of online data-processing services such as voice recognition. Both were used in developing Beacon. It was built in four months by Manchester-based software company ANS Group and the university’s technology staff, with the latter responsible for its subsequent development.

In the nine months since Beacon was launched in January 2019, it has been adopted by more than one-third of the university’s students. It can respond to questions but also push out suggestions and reminders – so while it can tell students what is on their personal timetables it can also provide a reminder and a map shortly before a lecture. These reminders were added at users’ requests, along with extending the service from covering the next event to the whole semester.

Beacon can also recognise and answer several hundred common questions, as well as help students to find spare computers, places to eat and the contact details for members of staff. It can also provide personalised recommendations, such as which societies to join based on answers to questions on interests and which groups similar students joined. Proctor says this helps first-year students settle in, making it less likely they will drop out: “The first months until Christmas are critical for students,” he says.

The app can also manage more detailed processes, such as assembling the documents needed by international students to open a bank account. “It is just freeing them up to spend more time studying and more time connecting with teachers and friends,” Proctor says.

But could Beacon mean that students no longer have to learn how to organise their lives? Proctor disagrees, arguing that many employers provide similar services and that such activities are increasingly likely to be carried out by software rather than people in the future. “It’s important for our students to have skills that will be really valuable in the world of work,” he says.

Similar thinking has led Staffordshire University to offer courses on digital skills to all its students, covering areas including finding information, security and managing online identities. They are not mandatory but are aimed at everyone: “Regardless of the course you are on, they will always be valid,” says Proctor.

The university is also introducing digital elements into courses far beyond those in computing and science. Fashion students who learn to build websites are better placed to sell what they design and make, while data science and visualisation are increasingly useful in business management.

Proctor says that some staff are concerned about automation replacing their jobs. “You tend to get a lack of engagement, reluctance and nervousness”, he says, when discussions start. But as with students, the idea is to let digital systems take over repetitive administration so that humans can focus on more creative and communicative work. “Tell me about the things you would love to do less of in your job and the things you would like to spend more time doing”, Proctor tells staff, so some of the former can be automated.

Do students express similar concerns about digital automation? “To be honest, they tend to want more,” says Proctor.