Author Archives: Dave Berry

About Dave Berry

Enterprise Architect

Core Systems Sub-Strategies

The University’s Core Systems programme is developing a set of technically-oriented sub-strategies for our central business IT services. These supporting strategies cover themes that apply across multiple projects and programmes. They are intended as guides for setting overall directions and helping each projects to work consistently within an overall framework.

The sub-strategies are created and managed by the Core Systems Sub-Strategy Board. This board is convened by the CIO and comprises members of staff from ISG and the Service Excellence Programme.

A key part of creating strategies is the discussion and consultation that goes into them. To that end, the Board has approved a consultation process that includes technical members of ISG, external reviewers, and constulation with computing professionals in schools. When each supporting strategy is ready, it will be submitted to the University’s IT committee.

The supporting strategies are at different stages of development. Most are still works in progress, while a couple are ready to be submitted and a couple have only just started. The strategies that are currently in development are:

  • Infrastructure strategies
    • Cloud Computing
    • Identity, Authentication, Authorisation
  • Data strategies 
    • Data Architecture
    • Data Retention and Archiving
    • Reporting & Analytics
  • Application strategies
    • Application Integration
    • Application Rationalisation
    • Document Management
    • Relationship Management
  • Vendor management strategies
    • IT Vendor Management
    • Software Testing & Acceptance

Over the next few months, we will consult further regarding individual strategy documents.

HE Data Festival, University of Huddersfield

Last month, I attended the Festival of HE Data at the University of Huddersfield.  This one-day event had a number of speakers in the morning and an afternoon session in which various Universities (including Edinburgh) and other services demonstrated some of their projects and services.

“Data” is rather a broad topic and the emphasis of the day was on how to use data to enhance University services, providing dashboards for staff and for students.

Matt Hiely-Rayner explained how the Guardian’s university guide determines its “value-added” score,and described how Kingston University used this understanding to improve their score, while simultaneously improving the outcomes for a particular group of students. He noted that students’ final results tend to be correlated with the qualifications when they arrive at University.  The value-added measure looks for progress beyond this correlation, i.e. how many students who were less well qualified on entry go on to achieve good results on graduation.

Marian Hilditch explained how she instituted a programme to improve the data quality in Teeside University’s HESA return.  I was very interested in her talk, because we need to improve data quality in general at Edinburgh.  While the details of her work don’t necessarily translate directly to our situation, it was useful to see the approach Marian has taken.  An emphasis on community support seems key.

Andy Westwood emphasis the importance of communicating data and meaning.  In summary: first frame the presentation – what is your question?  Then explain the meaning, giving it a narrative, not just a bunch of figures

The data behind the Teaching Excellence Framework provided the basis for the University of  University  to improve their services.  Paul Youngston explained how they rebuild the TEF data set at an individual level, identifying for each student their probability of dropping out, of being satisfied, and of getting a job when they graduate.  They use this information to set benchmarks for each school and course, and to identify problem areas (including for particular sub-groups of students).  Liz Bennet followed this up with a discussion about how students respond to receiving information about themselves via dashboards.

Simon Jennings set out nine rules of data, not as hard and fast rules but to stimulate discussion.  For example, his first rule of data is that you don’t talk about data (i.e. you talk to the business about their issues and concerns).  This was an entertaining and interesting talk, both for what Simon said and for how he presented it.

Overall, this was an interesting day and I would like to thank the University of Huddersfield team for arranging it.

Nudged Users, Distributed Security, and Voice Control: Days 2 & 3 of EDUCAUSE 2017

As I mentioned previously, my main interest in the EDUCAUSE conference this year is to learn about new technologies which may impact higher education.  The sessions I chose for the second half the conference included presentations on nudge theory, the blockchain distributed ledger, and voice control interfaces

Katherine Milkman, who gave the keynote presentation on Thursday, is a behavioural economist researching how people make decisions.  She gave a set of principles, backed with examples, on how we can structure everyday tasks to help people make better decisions.  She called this “choice architecture”; it’s more commonly known as “nudge theory”.  There are ideas here that we could use when building and configuring our student systems.

Decision Biases Improving the Quality of our Everyday Decisions

The Blockchain is a distributed financial ledger which can store records of your transactions securely and forever.  It’s best known as the record that underpins Bitcoin and it has many other potential uses.  Philip Kormany and Phillip Long of the University of Texas have been investigating its potential for education.  The most obvious use is for secure student transcripts, perhaps linked to detailed records of achievement using badges.  Other uses they suggested included recording academics contributions to peer review (as a record of work worth rewarding), and validating whether people have the appropriate training to work in laboratories.  This work is at an early stage; time will tell whether the security provided by Blockchain will lead to significant uses.

Blockchain: How Can We Use it in Higher Ed

Also at an early stage is the use of voice control interfaces such as Alexa, Siri, Home & Cortana.  John Rome of Arizona State Univerity suggested that voice interfaces will be the next stage of user interaction, largely supplanting mobile apps just as mobile apps supplanted desktop GUIs.  He has been exploring the use of Alexa, including a pilot in which they gave Amazon Dots to all the students in a hall of residencl, to see how they used it.  The capabilities of their interface are very basic at present but they are learning what features students would like to have and how these needs may be met.  Most of the actual programming is being done by student interns, which seems a good way to get students involved in shaping future University support.

Alexa Goes to College



Artificial Intelligence, Clouds, and Prediction: Day 1 of EDUCAUSE 2017

My main interest this year’s EDUCAUSE conference is to learn about how new technologies may impact higher education, whether that is through providing new features for students, or by making our services more efficient and reliable.  The sessions I chose on the first day covered AI-driven learning technologies, cloud-based infrastructure, and how to make best use of predictive analytics.

In the first session, four vendors gave short presentations about their adoption of artificial intelligence techniques.  The most interesting, but perhaps least immediately useful, was from Alfred Essa of McGraw Hill, who referred to Learning Science as well as Data Science, and how AI techniques can tailor learning to the individual student.   The other vendors all explained how they were augmenting their products with features such as automatic audio transcription, topic extraction and classification of documents, image tagging and search, handwriting detection, tagging of people in videos, and so forth. It seems these will be standard features soon, if they aren’t already.

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning – The Art of the Possible

April SIim, a database administrator from Southern Utah University, gave a more down-to-earth presentation about moving her IT infrastructure to the cloud, using Amazon Web Services and Docker.  Her short talk was full of practical guidance.  She was very clear on the benefits, which include better performance, disaster recovery, freedom from patching, and increased security.  Our institution, as a much larger and more diverse University than SUU, may or may not see the same benefits, but we can take notice of the lessons learned, including careful evaluation of the available options.

Moving an Entire Infrastructure to the Cloud – AWS and Docker

Predictive analytics are all the rage in higher education at the moment, especially among colleges that need to reduce their student drop-out rate.  As with any technology, buying the system or service is not enough; the challenge is how to make best use of it.  Presenters from Montgomery Community College explained how they made it work for them.  The key is a cross-disciplinary team, empowered to make interventions.  The team includes the Chief Digital Officer, the Director of Marketing, the VP of Student Services, Academic Advisors, and others.  They meet for two hours every fortnight, actively investigating the data and iteratively testing interventions.

A Researcher, an Advisor and a Marketer Walk Into a Predictive Analytics Tool

The future, as William Gibson said, is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.  It’s quite possible that we will adopt some or all of these technologies over the next few years.  So we need to understand what benefits they might offer and what we would need to do to make best use of them.  Sessions such as these are

Enterprise Architecture and Digital Transformation

Yesterday I attended a rather good workshop on the topic of enterprise architecture and digital transformation, which was organised by the architecture group of EDUCAUSE, the American society for IT in higher education. This topic is of obvious interest to me because we are running several digital transformation initiatives at the University of Edinburgh.  The workshop was a good opportunity for the participants to learn what other universities are doing and to reflect on how we, as architects, can position our work to help these initiatives succeed.

The presenters didn’t let us sit back and relax; there was a lot of group work and few presentations.  We began by compiling a list of the external factors driving digital transformation, both technical and cultural.  We produced a long list!  Then we divided into groups, each of which chose one value chain which would be affected – e.g. recruitment of international students – and discussed the drivers and blockers affecting that activity.

For example, factors driving an increase in international students include: the business drivers of more income and enhancing the student experience; the students’ interest in studying abroad and improving their employability; and the technical capabilities of hyper-personalisation and relationship management.  These technologies can be used to make students feel welcomed from a distance and to reassure them that the university will look after them when they arrive.  For the university, these systems can demonstrate which marketing campaigns work for which students, and help the university understand what motivates their potential students, so that the university can adapt what it offers them.

After lunch, we looked more at how far our own institutions have progressed along the road to digital transformation and where the enterprise architecture teams fit in that journey.  This part of the meeting included a very interesting presentation about how social transformations progress, which I don’t have space here to do justice to.

The day concluded with personal reflections on how we may improve the alignment of our teams with the business transformations that either are happening or which need to happen.  We considered what we may need to do differently, or to start or stop doing.

I took several points from the workshop.  Some are general, such as more ideas for the university to transform the services we offer.  Others were more about how to communicate the benefits that my team can offer: I was particularly taken with the idea of training other people in specific architecture tasks, so that we can scale up our work without running out of resource.  I also realised that I have to spend more time learning about predictive analytics, as we will need to use this much more in the not too distant future.

EDUCAUSE home page

Workshop agenda

CRM Strategy from Plymouth University

Last week, we were delighted to receive a visit from Rupert Frankum of Plymouth University.  Rupert was the technical manager for Plymouth’s project to replace their old student recruitment and admissions processes with a modern system based on a CRM platform  You can see a shorter presentation that Rupert and his colleague Paul Westmore gave at this year’s UCISA conference on the conference website.

Rupert gave an excellent talk, covering many aspects of their project.  For me, the highlight was the discussion of their CRM vision, which used an analogy of a Rubik’s cube to give an image of how common technical components can support different parts of the recruitment process.  This explained the issues, and how they can be addressed, in an engaging and effective way.

This visit was timely for us. We have been building a business case for a CRM platform for several months, and the University is currently reviewing how we manage (or fail to manage) student recruitment.  We need a compelling explanation of how this technology can enable a real transformation of the face we present to the outside world, to become more responsive and to meet people’s individual needs.  Rupert’s presentation set us a high standard to aim for.

Work Experience

Some high schools in Edinburgh run work experience schemes, in which their senior pupils spend a week visiting companies or other organisations to learn what working life is like.  Last week, Applications Division joined in by hosting Ted Hilton from Boroughmuir High School.  We showed Ted a range of activities that contribute to the running of a modern IT facility.

Ted had this to say about his week:

I spent 4 days working in the Applications section of Edinburgh University.  I worked with the following teams: Development Services, Project Services, Service Management and Production Management.

My favourite moment on my visit has to be the Senior Developer meeting discussing usability testing and why it’s so important in developing applications.

As well I was really interested in the Service Management part of my visit.  I was shown things such as Office365 and how it works within the business (more specifically SharePoint and how it works), and the ticket support system.

If you enjoy computing and want to learn about the behind the scenes of IT applications, then I highly recommend looking into the University of Edinburgh.

We enjoyed having Ted work with us and wish him well in his future career.