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CIO podcast: Claudette Jones, University of the West of Scotland

 

“I wanted to work much more closely with students and people who were at the cutting edge of working with technology,” CIO Claudette Jones says from University of the West of Scotland, where she is leading technology.

The University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has four campuses in south-western Scotland across Paisley, Hamilton, Dumfries and Ayr and even has a campus in London. The university took on its name in 2007, but can trace its roots to the 19th Century.

“This university has a real reputation for vocational courses, we have 16,000 students across five campuses and we are the first official training partner in China,” Jones tells the Horizon CIO podcast.  “It is a really big endorsement for the university and we are the first organisation in China to be accredited to provide technical and leadership training across China. I think this is evidence of the wide range of capabilities that the university has, so we will be training in areas like health, environment and smart cities.”

With its focus on vocational courses, UWS provides education on business, technology, engineering, health and sport as well as a range of more academic courses. CIO Jones says therefore her team has to “provide different solutions for different schools”.

“One of the bits of heritage of this university is that it was a technical college, back in the day, and it has a real reputation for vocational working and one of the attributes of that is we want our students to leave with, is the notion of work ready,” she says.

At the time of our interview UWS is developing a new technology campus in the heart of an international business hub in Hamilton.

“We are looking to roll out virtual desktops and lab environments. As one of the issues is that you need very high speed computing for games development, may be not so much in a social work course and what we want to do is provide labs that are flexible in computing ability so that they can be timetabled for any type of class.

New academics

“In previous roles it felt like the customer was a little bit distant, here in higher education we have 16,000 students you can get really immediate and face-to-face feedback on our services and I like that and I will genuinely stand and try and overhear coffee shop conversations to hear people talking about IT

As the Horizon CIO podcast interview with Alan Hill, CIO of the University of Exeter recently revealed, academia has discovered the importance of technology to attract the students and researchers, which therefore brings in the funding.  With funding thus becoming more commercially driven towards a customer’s outcome, institutions have found the need to hire a leading CIO to deliver great operational technology and deliver a range of technology services that delight students in the same way a CIO in retail, financial services or transportation has to.  Of late major CIOs such as Jones, Hill and Laura Dawson, previously CIO of the British Council when she was on this podcast have joined academia.

“I have only been in this job for 18 months and it does appear to me that previously the role of a CIO in higher education was to just provide line of business systems and audio visual equipment, but as universities have moved more to providing online training, then that partnership between the department and the rest of the business becomes more crucial and universities that don’t invest will be left behind,” Jones observes from Paisley. “That was one of the reasons why I joined the university.”

Jones adds that at UWS her IT team and the institution have taken the US term to heart and they eat their own dog food, members of her team are taking course at UWS alongside their full time roles in the technology team.  “A lot of my IT staff are doing degrees at the uni as there is a big culture of continual development, so having the staff go through the process helps us understand how we impact the students,” Jones says.

And on the flip side of that, the computing academics and their students are becoming part of the innovation community Jones can tap into.

“We have a really good school of computing and engineering here and I wanted to provide information to students, such as how busy the canteen is. So I am working with some of our PHD students on IoT to see if we can provide a heat map  to tell students when the best time is to turn up at the canteen and miss the queues.

“I was concerned with the map functionality,” she says of one recent improvement to the student App. “Paisley is a big campus and university campuses are a bit like a little city. The mapping on the App was Google Maps, which didn’t work well for internal mapping. We tracked down a European company who were doing a new way-finding method using photography. It shows you pictures with an arrow and it is really easy to use.

“In previous roles it felt like the customer was a little bit distant, here in higher education we have 16,000 students you can get really immediate and face-to-face feedback on our services and I like that and I will genuinely stand and try and overhear coffee shop conversations to hear people talking about IT,” she says. As with any business technology leader looking to help an organisation improve its customer focus, Jones has been implementing systems that improve understanding and reducing complexity in the organisation.

An infrastructure upgrade has seen new WiFi installed across the five campuses, which in turn has enabled collaboration technologies to be implemented which benefits the staff and reduces travel between the campuses. An application rationalisation ensured that students have fewer disconnected systems for timetables, learning resources, email and the library for example.

“There were 14 different systems, each with different log-in details and I was surprised at the number of systems that students had to use. That was the impetus for a single sign-on and single portal project that went live at the beginning of this academic year and that has made things much simpler.”

“When I arrived and looked at some of our problems, it seemed to me that a proper commercial CRM would be the answer to make sure that we understood the whole student life cycle,” Jones tells the podcast. Adding that this means the organisation has business dashboards to monitor students as it moves towards becoming a data centric organisation.

“The business really understands the need to take processes out of the box and run with what everyone else is doing rather than make things specific,” she says of implementing an off the shelf CRM.

And like academic CIO peers that have spoken to this title, Jones is looking at taking working methods from the commercial world to prevent the highly important research community from unintentionally creating shadow IT.

“I am offering a pay as you grow model, so we can allow them to quickly spin up new environments,” Jones says. 

Jones joined UWS in September 2016 as Horizon reported. She had been with City of Edinburgh Council since 2012.

“I realised that I needed to work in an environment where I was doing some good in the world and making a difference and I don’t think I could work in the finance sector, I really want to work somewhere that I get up in the morning and can help people,” Jones says of making the shift to academia. “UWS is a widening participation university and the opportunity to help people change their lives really appealed to me.”

Another cause close to Jones’ heart is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and the CIO is a STEM ambassador. “I think the STEM agenda is important, my ethos is about a meritocracy and I don’t worry about females in IT or males in nursing. I am just trying to make as many people as possible aware of the opportunities. I am more about diverse teams and getting kids into STEM, but by dint of being a female out there helps.”

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