CIO50 #14 Kerry Holling, Western Sydney University
The education sector has been completely upended by COVID-19, throwing educators, students, their degrees and for some possibly even their futures into disarray.
This is largely because of all the industries that have had to pivot away from face-to-face interactions, education has faced arguably the biggest cultural challenges given that teaching has relied in this basic mode of engagement for millennia.
But over at Western Sydney University, chief information and digital officer Kelly Holling and his team have presided over a truly remarkable transformation that further emphasises the contemporary nature of one of Australia’s youngest tertiary institutions.
The entire curriculum is now delivered in a completely different way than it was prior to the pandemic, he tells CIO Australia.
“We can pivot seamlessly between on-campus and online delivery, with designs now being firmly embedded that will allow a hybrid mode to eventually becoming the norm.”
Key to the success of UWS’s digital transformation, Holling notes, was a fortuitous combination of skilled innovation on the fly and the prior deployment of extensive digital systems and processes which held it in good stead when the pandemic hit.
“We achieved in months what would normally have taken years to achieve, if at all,” he says.
He cites the University’s Zoom Enabled Teaching Spaces (ZETS) initiative as being especially critical.
While many organisations and staff likely hadn’t thought much – if at all – about Zoom prior to COVID-19, UWS was a notable early-adopter, at one stage being the largest enterprise user of the platform in Australia.
“For professional staff, it had become an integral part of our operating model well before COVID-19,” Holling says.
But it was yet to fully enter the actual teaching arena, being used more for supporting collaboration between the academic portfolio, facilities and IT.
Spurred by COVID-19, Holling and the team sought to imbue ZETS with the “practices of engaged learning”, enabling academics to work with students, regardless of where they are.
Called the HyFlex model, this was the framework for upgrading close to 80 flat-floor teaching spaces to enable technology-based learning across the UWS campus network.
“With improved acoustics and simple to use technology (including Zoom), these spaces set a new standard for hybrid learning models within the sector,” Holling says.
“Students can choose to attend in person or connect from anywhere, and still fully participate in the class activities.”
An important piece of the puzzle was a completely new type of lectern designed to further optimise functionality of rooms.
More slim-lined and clutter-free with a minimalistic design, staff can easily plug in their own laptops.
The lecterns are also designed to be highly mobile. Fitted with wheels for movement, they can be rotated to face any direction in the room as well as being able to move forward or backwards. The use of an all-in-one computer screen replaces the need for an in-house computer within the lectern.
“Further innovations within the Hyflex model include the use of innovative software to improve the online student experience, providing large cohorts of students with highly flexible learning experiences across multiple disciplines,” Holling explains.
For example, the platform lets students gather and store all their experiences, achievements and accomplishments - from placements to specific learning activities -in the one place, as well as create personalised online showcases of their work.
Virtual laboratories provide students continuity of learning while off campus, while ensuring an easier transition back to blended and face-to-face teaching after the pandemic.
Holling and his team also helped design digital tools allowing students to test their knowledge and understanding with immediate feedback. They involve over 40 different question types reflecting various disciplines, and let students give answers in more creative ways, including video and audio responses.
One of the best measures of success for universities and other institutions is ‘student attainment, with Holling and his team presiding over a 1-2 percentage point improvement during the period in question, compared with 2019.
“For every business decision there is an IT implication; for every IT change there needs to be business value; and for every business outcome there will undoubtedly be an IT contribution,” Holling notes.
These values are enshrined by the Learning and Teaching Technologies (LaTTe) body at UWS. Convened by the Academic portfolio, it draws contributions from a wide range of stakeholders including IT.
“The key to success is that it is a “business-led” forum with IT acting as a trusted advisor, broker and aggregator of the services needed to deliver the outcome,” Holling adds.
And it’s a testament to the commitment he and his team have to upholding these values that the UWS IT strategic programs budget has been increased by an unprecedented four-fold, with funds allocated to new investments across foundation, enabling and seeding categories.
Being also on the University Executive Committee provides him with early insights into the strategic direction of the organisation, the operational challenges it’s facing, and the opportunity to provide input on how digital capabilities can strengthen, support and sometimes even reshape the agenda.
“In early-2021, it became clear to me that whilst we had done a great job of using technology to pivot the entire university to teaching, learning, and working from home - made all the more easier through the earlier investments that we’d made in collaboration and cloud technologies – the opportunity to accelerate our digital journey still lay ahead of us.
“We had momentum, but we needed to pick up the pace.”
To that end, Holling drafted a paper entitled Digital Acceleration that proposed changes to the pace of digital adoption, the investment required to bring this about, and the governance model needed in order to operate in a more agile fashion.
He recalls fondly how his proposition was elevated to a key agenda item for the Board of Trustees strategic planning day in June 2021, and the enthusiastic reception to his presentation of it, especially from the Chair of the University Infrastructure, who wrote.
“Didn't want to let the day go by without congratulating you on a great presentation with the right balance of humour, engagement and information. It was a great presentation and very well received and comments were made to that effect. Well done and thank you again”.