Academic approach to IT


27 Nov 2003

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A university is a complex organisation and, just like any other organisation in the commercial or public sector, it has some basic processes that it seeks to improve. A university has to buy things, attract customers (students), handle income and be accountable, and it all has to be achieved within an available and secure infrastructure. But unlike other organisations there are two very distinct sides to their operations – the administrative and commercial, and the academic. The academic side has to be continually updated to ensure its students are being taught the skills needed in the market.

What also sets them apart from more typical Oracle customers is that they also have a unique business cycle – the academic year – but just like everyone else, they have to watch their expenditure.

Oracle has traditionally carried out a lot of work in third-level institutions. In this sector, Oracle’s objective is to identify education organisations’ pains and problems, and map them to Oracle solutions. We support the decision-making process by providing detailed demos and proof points relative to Oracle’s experience in solving similar issues elsewhere, be it locally or globally, but always within the same industry.

The main drivers we see in this sector are oriented around two themes: the first is about attracting and retaining students. The second concerns increasing the running efficiency of the organisation in terms of cost reduction and service improvements.

Education organisations at all levels – primary, secondary or third level – are constantly asked to increase productivity with tighter budgets and stricter accountability. And in order to combat competition for students, educational establishments need to be seen as offering services in an ever more flexible way. These services range from registration procedures to new ways of accessing course/exam information, fee payments or grants via the internet. The abiding princpal is that students and staff expect the high levels of service and access similar to what they experience in the private sector.

There are many practical, here and now examples, of how Oracle is delivering these services. Online portals, for example, can be used as a single access point to information and services in a secure and controlled way. At the Glasgow Caledonian University, 14,000 students and 1,200 staff use Oracle Portal to provide access to all systems to authorised users at anytime from anyplace. In Turin, the Politecnico di Torino has integrated the data for its 25,000 students with the administration procedures to ensure students have the same level of service on site and remotely over the web.

In the UK, many universities are using Oracle Collaboration suite to offer calendaring solutions integrated with functionality such as email and voicemail. Yeovil College is even planning to have voice access via mobile phones to the class calendar and email system. We are starting to see an increase in interest from Ireland in these types of solutions.

A big area at the moment is in remote or distance learning. Common in many businesses as a way of reducing the time that staff have to be in the classroom, many educational establishments are seeing the possibilities in this technology – not just in offering a flexible learning method to current students, but also in allowing them to expand into more commercial training areas. Geneva University, for example, is using Oracle’s I-learning product in a trial of online degree courses.

As well as being used extensively in the administration of third-level institutions, Oracle solutions are also adopted by the academic side in high-end research projects, such as those affiliated with CERN, but also as part of standard courses. As the first commercially available SQL database, Oracle database technology is often regarded as high-quality, secure and scalable product to teach highly valued standard IT skills. To help this, the Oracle Academic Initiative has provided software, curriculum material and certification resources for use in university and college degree programmes. Over 20 institutes, universities and colleges in Ireland have availed of this scheme since 2000.

Until relatively recently the focus of IT companies such as Oracle has been on third-level education, but as technology has proliferated and skill requirements increased, there is an increasing focus in schools. As Oracle believes that an IT literate workforce is essential, we have a variety of education initiatives around the world under our Oracle in the community programme – these range from providing secure email services to helping train teachers to teach technical subjects in secondary school. These schemes have all started in the US and are being gradually rolled out where appropriate.

One particularly interesting example is Thinkquest. This is an international web authoring competition that was created in 1996 and so far has seen participation by over 125,000 students in 100 countries. Last year, this was acquired by the Oracle Help Us Help Foundation. The foundation, which works largely in the US, operates programmes and partnerships aimed at helping school children from poorer sections of society get access to the highest quality technology learning opportunities.

In the last year, Oracle has worked to make Thinkquest multinational, multilingual and multicultural. Aimed at nine to 19 year olds it is designed to get groups of three to six working on projects in a truly collaborative way to produce educational websites in areas such as medicine, space travel, natural history and the world economy.

Teams will have five months to produce their sites with the best winning significant prizes. As well as teaching the increasingly important digital and technical skills, this process also teaches other valuable life skills around collaborative working, creative thinking and ownership. It also has one other vitally important side effect – the Thinkquest library. This is a free and unique educational resource available worldwide of thousands of award-winning sites. Details on the library and more about the Thinkquest programme can be found at www.thinkquest.org.

By John Caulfield