Griffith College’s IT manager John Molohan talks about meeting the challenges that technology and mobility are bringing to the education sector, and about developing the IT department’s role to deliver value.
Can you briefly map out the IT landscape at Griffith College: how many sites do you have, and how extensive is the network?
We manage three campuses in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, providing a full range of IT services for approximately 7,000 staff, students, lecturers and residents. We have around 800 desktops and 35 servers across multiple locations.
In Cork, the college has recently started a move to a new five-acre campus on Wellington Street. Once that’s fully operational, this will increase significantly the infrastructure we manage and services we provide.
The college has grown hugely in recent years. What impact has that had on IT?
We’re offering a much wider range of courses and people are looking to get access to those courses in a flexible manner. Even the idea of a daytime student might work for someone now, but they then may want to change to night-time classes, and we have to accommodate that change in the learning management system.
Also, the consumerisation of IT is driving the changes: people in their private lives have IT surrounding them and they expect on a third-level campus the same level of service or better again.
What processes or technologies have you used to help you manage that complexity?
Both, really, in terms of processes and technologies. A lot of it came originally in the form of process changes, initially within the department in simple areas such as implementing standard operating procedures and improving our own internal documentation but then through closer engagement with college policies, end-user training and closer engagement with other business units – faculties and departments – in the college.
These changes really helped streamline our internal processes, which were somewhat immature some years back, and aligned IT more closely with the business requirements.
Then, on the technology side, we’ve leveraged several open-source platforms and packages to good success. Moodle provides an industry standard platform for our learning management system based on open-source code which has allowed us to innovate and at the same time keep our costs under control.
We use a wide range of other open-source systems, including our help desk, asset management and monitoring systems, licensed cost-free. These can introduce challenges of their own in terms of skill sets required to deploy and maintain them but we have a strong emphasis on training within the department. We try not to pigeonhole people within roles but to instead allow them to challenge themselves to learn new technologies and disciplines within IT.
A lot of people didn’t have a clear understanding of what the industry could offer. Open source can often come at zero cost in terms of licensing. Now it’s matured and can be relatively easy to deploy, almost as simple as Windows where it’s a case of clicking ‘next, next, next’.
Having said that, though, these tools have served us well over the last five or six years. Both the college’s requirements and the technical landscape are changing rapidly and we’re constantly reviewing them to ensure we continue to have the best solutions in place. As we continue to grow we may find that the free licensing and flexibility they afford no longer outweigh our other requirements for these systems.
What’s the ratio of investment on IT maintenance, compared to what gets spent on introducing new technologies?
It’s difficult to pinpoint within budgets, because sometimes that level of detail gets lost. We’d probably average around industry norms of 15pc [for innovation], but that can fluctuate. During the recent downturn our focus had to be on front-line services and their maintenance. Prior to that, there would have been a greater focus on innovation.
Has this balance changed recently, or do you expect it to change in the future?
Going along with the economic cycle, we’d expect that to change. Hopefully, there will be some growth this year, so for us, that ratio must increase in favour of innovation. At the same time, there is a task to be done to ensure IT complexity is managed out, so we can prevent innovation from being drowned out by demands from older systems, hardware and software. They really go hand in hand.
How close is your IT to its ideal state, would you say?
Not as close as I’d like it to be [laughs]. We will get to some version of it. We’ve made huge improvements but there is still a significant amount of work to be done to get close to an ideal state.
We’ve moved initially from a cost centre within the college to being somewhere between a service centre and an investment centre.
Our challenge there is to become a value centre for the business, where IT and business values are highly aligned and we’re not working as an isolated silo: that the IT organisation is strongly entrepreneurial, in some sense, that we’re helping to enhance our existing business, facilitate growth and drive new revenue streams.
Most businesses now will need to engage with IT on a much more strategic manner to see how it can be used to drive growth rather than being seen as a service and repair centre and a necessary evil.
How have you gone about changing perceptions of IT in the college?
When I started here, the IT department really was just a cost centre. Because of that, it was a very insular attitude within the department, and they weren’t engaging with the rest of the college. They were waiting for a phone call to say ‘something isn’t working, can you fix it’?
We’ve improved on that, in terms of marketing ourselves. IT people aren’t often the most approachable. When people call, you need to smile, in a way, and reassure them you’re here to help them: to have an approach that says ‘don’t worry, we’ll get that fixed for you’. We had that challenge initially, and once we started turning that around, instead of looking at it as ‘why do I have IT problems’? people in the college started seeing a different attitude and approach and they started wondering what more IT could do.
In IT in general, there’s been a lot of cases of technology introduced for technology’s sake. There’s a real necessity for IT management to bring better cost controls and drive project management in a more efficient manner. The percentage of projects in IT that go over budget is still way out of kilter. And that’s a challenge that all industries face.
Do you find you have to do a lot of ‘educating’ of GCD’s board to show the value IT brings, or is there an appetite for investing in technology where there’s a strong business case?
I think there’s always a process of education to be done, especially with technology, where so much of the complexity can be hidden from the end user, but the board members have a strong understanding of the value that IT can bring. They see it embedded in nearly every key strategic objective and also as a driving force for change in itself.
We might be lucky in that we have a former engineer as a board member. We’ve been able to introduce some innovations that have really made an impact on the business, and once you get that idea across that IT can drive business and drive value and change, rather than just facilitate technical processes, the board starts to get a picture that these guys can really help on a strategic level if we engage with them in the right way.
We led the way, probably, in delivering the Law Society entrance exams online. We innovated with Moodle and were able to develop an advanced embedded watermarking system in-house to protect our IP. That eased the board members’ minds and allowed us to get into it.
Will you be spending more, less or about the same on IT this year compared to 2013, and how do you spend it smartly?
Certainly, we’ll be spending more this year. The last five years have been quite tough but on our side it saw heavy investment on the end-user side: large-scale lab refreshments taking place. Although we’ll continue a rolling programme of lab replacements, this year we’ll be increasing our focus on infrastructure, with significant investment to come in our server infrastructure, communication platforms and information systems. As a part of that, you can throw in some buzzwords: virtualisation, cloud services and systems integration – they will be three areas that will be a huge part in this.
What’s the biggest technology trend facing Griffith College right now?
Technology is changing our business. One [trend] would be moving teaching and technology out of the classroom to facilitate blended and online learning. In this, we have to ensure these changes aren’t introduced just as technical solutions but are backed by sound pedagogical practice so that we can provide appropriate learning environments online.
The second ties in with the trends: dealing with the explosion of ‘bring your own device’ on campus. How will that affect us from a resource point of view: will we need the same number of labs in coming years as we had previously or will we deliver classes using devices owned by students? How do we provide services seamlessly, such as printing, to the myriad end-user devices? How do we provide bandwidth and wireless networks to support this explosion of devices?
The other aspect to the BYOD movement is from a data protection point of view, where staff are looking for more and more mobility and flexibility, we have to facilitate this where appropriate but at the same time to ensure it’s done in a secure way.
This year, Griffith celebrates its 40th anniversary. In that time you could argue that teaching has not changed much despite the technological revolution that has taken place. I think over the next five to 10 years we will see that change finally take shape: robust online learning environments will open up education to a much wider audience. Big data will help provide insights into learners that simply aren’t possible now.
Sharing of data on learners from second level to third level, for example, may allow a lecturer to identify from day one those students with dyslexia or other learning problems, those who tend to procrastinate and deliver work at the last minute every time, those whose attendance has historically been poor. This level of knowledge will help lecturers and institutions develop supports that will improve the overall learning experience. Early warning systems will go hand in hand with this to help improve retention rates. Taken together these changes will help both to increase the quality and number of graduates produced each year.
Brick-and-mortar campuses will be around for a long time to come, what we will see is an increase in the effectiveness of the technology used in delivering classes both on campus and online.