In this article Jim Nottingham, the new head of IT at UAL discusses his role, explains the complexity of working in IT and talks about the future challenges facing the higher education sector, with CSM student Paulina Jawor.
FROM FINE ART TO IT – JIM’S BACKGROUND
‘My undergraduate degree is a Fine Art degree from Loughborough College of Art & Design, which is now part of Loughborough University. My degree specialisation was in printmaking. Immediately after I finished my degree at Loughborough, I went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and did a 3 year Master of Fine Arts degree, again that was focused on printmaking. In those days, digital technology was only just starting to come into the studio but I took an early interest, especially in the application of technology into fine art practice.’
‘After graduating from Louisiana State University I worked in the USA for a further 2 years. During that period I taught foundation drawing and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. In 1990 we decided to move back to the UK’
‘My first job on returning to the UK was as the Printmaking Technician in the Fine Art department at the University of Reading. This is where I started the Fine Arts Digital Lab and learnt a lot about IT in general. After a few years I moved to what is now called the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham as the Technical Co-ordinator. A key part of my role was to ‘digitise’ the resources needed for Animation, Film & Video, Fine Art, Journalism and Time Based media.’
‘It was clear at the time and is possibly still true today that a blended approach of the old and the new technologies within an arts school environment seems to work best. It was during this period that I became a Charted IT Professional. I left UCA and went to London South Bank University where I eventually became Director of IT services, during this period I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Gartner Chief Information Officer Academy. After London South Bank University I went to Regent’s University a private University based in Regent’s Park as the Chief Information Officer with responsibility for not just IT but for all learning resources. I have always continued with printmaking and digital art, I am key-holder at the Thames Barrier Print Studio and I share a studio at the 2nd Floor Studios.’
VARIED IT ROLES
IT is of central importance to UAL. It is core to both the administrative functions for the University and helps to enable the art and design practice of all UAL students. How do you deal with these multiple functions?
‘The IT team are doing lots of different things now, but primarily IT is split into 3 groups. One group is looking after the technical infrastructure, which includes the network, the servers, the web and the Wi-Fi. Another group looks after the front-end customer services, so they’re the people who answer the phone and come out to help fix computers and other items such as printing problems. The third group is our Portfolio team and they’re dealing with big change programmes across the University.’
‘IT also works closely with all the Colleges to try to ensure that IT services get delivered in the right way. We also liaise with the University e-learning team, the Libraries, Registry, Estates, Communications, Human Resources and Finance.’
‘We’re very keen that we have much better relationship with all of these groups, so we can be much more focused on the student experience and supporting learning and teaching, not just making sure that the internet works correctly.’
Are there any current projects that improve the scope of digital practice across the University?
‘In my opinion the digital platforms have to be available any time, any place, anywhere. There is an expectation of this from Students and Staff and that’s the way it should work. We also need to be supplying systems that are really simple to use, and there should be a one-stop shop for all Staff and Student information, not unlike online banking. We are also working hard to improve the Wi-Fi, install faster Internet connections and have better data security.’
‘We need to take advantage of things that are coming through the market place like moving to Microsoft 365, additionally we are trying to negotiate some good deals for students on Creative Cloud and similar software’s. ‘
IMPROVING DIGITAL PLATFORMS FOR THE STUDENTS’ USE
I find Outlook very troublesome. When you access it on your mobile, the messages go in alphabetical order, thus if you have lots of messages you really struggle with finding your recent emails, which can be painful. Also, I think it would be much easier if Outlook, Moodle, your student blog were all connected and combined in one platform rather than having to access/ log into them one by one, as you do at present.
‘Yes, it’s really frustrating, UAL is a highly creative university, one of the best art & design universities in the world and we need to reflect that throughout the IT department. We need to encourage innovative out of the box thinking and try to not contain it, but we must also protect our end users. It’s a bit like working in the studio and having a lock on the door or having door wide open. You don’t want anybody to steal your creative practice, but you also want to share so you need to be in safe environment. My view is I’m not here just to look after the Wi-Fi and the internet but to work with the Staff and Students to get the best out of digital technology’
‘We are working on a way in which all students and staff have a single place to go for all their essential information and we have what’s known as single sign on, hopefully by next September.’
IT AT UNIVERSITIES
At work we have 3 different CRM systems, which is very confusing, I constantly have to update one part of a website with WordPress and the other with LiveLink, which is very old. Why is that?
‘It is very confusing, and it’s certainly not uncommon in universities. I usually find that in Universities there is a very mixed landscape in terms of multiple software’s all basically doing the same thing, which is why when people come from the private sector look at IT in universities and they will inevitably say we’re just going to go with a corporate model but that doesn’t take into account that 90% of software’s in use by Students and Staff don’t conform to this model. We are not working in the corporate environment it’s a university. A lot of software’s mirror each other, and are sometimes doing the same thing, but they’re quite specific to certain groups and you have try your best to accommodate that. It would be very difficult to manage this diversity of approach to technology in the Cloud environment.’
They blocked Cloud from my work.
‘Some corporates and a few universities are very strict on access to private external services, quite often in big corporate organisations the only software’s they will be using are Microsoft Office, CRM, Finance & HR and not much else.’
‘If you tried to do the same thing here we have so many different software’s that are key to the running of the university it would be impossible to manage them in the same manner. We have a complex IT landscape which as an IT department we have to contend with, there may be some duplication which we will deal with but for the most part you have to accept that the University isn’t a corporate entity, it’s a University.’
‘What I want is a very exciting, vibrant and intuitive and in some ways disruptive approach to Technology, making people think, making them re-think, breaking things and re-compiling them and making them do things differently and that doesn’t happen if you’re too rigid in the way you control things. Simply using technology to replace current teaching practice isn’t progress, what is progress is applying technology in new ways that does fundamentally change the way we learn.’
THE SIZE OF THE IT TEAM AT UAL
‘In IT there are about 110, it’s quite a few but they’re spread across a number of sites. There is also quite a lot of staff that support IT and students in the Colleges as well. It’s not a small department, but, you can go to some other universities of the same size as UAL and find double the number, and I’ve worked in other universities that are bigger than UAL with half the number. It depends, but I think the staff numbers are about right for UAL at the current time.’
THE FUTURE OF IT AT UAL
‘We’ve got some really exciting times coming over the next 5 years. We are going to make big changes to the IT infrastructure, so it works better. The university is hopefully going to agree on an investment programme and we’ll be able to get moving on some positive changes and really begin in earnest to use technology rather than the other way round!’
‘For me IT in Universities is changing significantly in the way in which students interact with the digital world and the way we as a university are beginning to accommodate that. We’ve two new buildings going up. One will be in Stratford, at the Olympic site, the other will be in the Elephant and Castle area and will replace the current LCC buildings. It’s a real opportunity to build something innovative, architecturally challenging and of course we hope to help make the building more useful as digital workspaces.’
So you’re not fully moving from LCC?
‘We don’t know yet. It has not been announced, where the building is going to be but there will be a new home for LCC. Certainly all those things together will be really interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing the end result.’
‘There is something else really good about working here as well and that’s the way in which IT has been moved into one of the colleges. Originally IT was based at the High Holborn, which is with the corporate hub. It’s been a really good idea to move us into one of the colleges, because my staff here can see and understand more and has helped the IT staff appreciate what goes on in the Colleges, they can see and interact with students, becoming much more part of the community and that’s hugely important for IT.’
CHALLENGES FACING HIGHER EDUCATION SYSTEMS WHEN IT COMES TO IT
‘One of the biggest challenges is getting the right people involved. It’s really important that the people in my type of role, are not just focused on technology but that they do actually understand the University environment. They must learn that students arrive at certain level and leave at a certain level, they’re not just a commodity. They’re individuals and as individuals they need particular attention and they need to do certain things that will help them complete a degree. I don’t see student as customers, I see them as clients and as such it’s a more collaborative partnership rather than an exchange of goods and services.’
Whilst I was studying towards my degree, I was fairly fluent in Adobe CS. By the 3rd year, I have noticed that students in the 1st year can design Apps, and for me it’s still black magic. I bet my knowledge of Adobe CS was alien to the students whom preceded me. The fast paced environment and rapid development of technology will enable future students to be more digitally aware and technology focused, thus staff at universities will have to adapt. Given the changes I’ve witnessed in the few years since graduation, the knowledge that IT support will always be there is reassuring.