Thursday, September 18, 2008

Part 2: the role of IT service departments

Here is the second part of that address to the IT conference. What is not in the address but what I did say at the time is that I believe that teaching institutions like Otago Polytechnic should also be work experience/cooperative education sites in their own right. This would mean that all of our staff would have a direct role to play in teaching and learning. After all, we have some top notch so called "general staff" in our service areas, some with more practical experience than some of our teaching staff! We should be using this expertise more often. Then we could, perhaps, abolish that unfortunate distinction we make between "academics" and "others"!! Or is that too radical?

"It is important to understand the context which has shaped my views on IT, one which 4 years ago had the IT department at Otago Polytechnic focused on the cost effective delivery of a “safe” range of IT services, often better able to tell our staff what they could not do, rather than what they could, or perhaps even should, try.

This was not at all an unreasonable position for our IT team to take: the Polytechnic had been through a financial crisis and IT was a cost – a huge cost – which needed to be contained. But to do this was to waste the considerable IT talent which resided in our staff, and was also a contradiction: we taught IT, did that very well indeed (and still do), inspired others to see the value which creative and future focused IT could add to any business - and yet did not live this belief in our own organisation. And can I say, I believe that this is important: a tertiary organisation that preaches best practice in its training and education programmes should be walking the talk throughout its own business, whether that be best practice IT, HR, accounting, business administration or sustainable business practice. The institution should be a learning resource in its own right!

Today, we have a future focused IT team which is overseeing our investment in IT, and which has goals to (and I quote from our IT Strategic Framework):
· position our graduates at the forefront of IT application in their chosen discipline and work practice
· facilitate teaching and learning unbounded by time and place
· maintain cutting edge IT infrastructure to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning and
· enhance the effectiveness and productivity of our staff, and of our planning and decision making.

A key element of this transformation in the role and focus of our IT department was our recognition that IT is of the utmost strategic importance to the success of our organisation and as a consequence that IT should hold a place in its own right at our executive table. I have no doubts at all that we sent a powerful message to both our IT staff and the organisation as a whole when we promoted our IT Manager to Chief Information Officer and a seat at the Leadership table.

So, what is all of this really saying? Simply that an IT Department in our view is not a mere service department, not merely a supplier and fixer of hardware or installer of software or a designer of systems. It is an integral element of our educational endeavours, at the same time part of educational strategy, an enabler of that strategy, and a partner in the delivery of that strategy. And especially so if you see the future of tertiary teaching and learning as we do at Otago Polytechnic.

If the future is to be one of networked learning – learners networked with learners, and institutions with institutions then we must have reliable access to the enabling technology. IT departments will be very much demand driven, responding to customers who are less concerned about issues of security and more about functionality. Our work places and learning places must perform to the standards which our students (and staff) come to expect. So, the technical demands which currently put pressure on our services will be ever present. But the future as I see it will have IT service departments as an integral part of teaching and learning:

Training and developing staff and students; building capability to use the technology and to get the best out of technology
Contributing expertise and specialist knowledge to the teaching function through teaching assignments
Receiving, absorbing and embracing the developments which our academic staff make through research and scholarship.

Operating as a cooperative education worksite, offering opportunities and supporting students to gain practical experience
Innovating and researching, and publishing and presenting their experiences

Are we trying to make our service personnel academics? No, not at all. Rather, we want them to be genuine partners in our business – teaching and learning.
And to finish let me quote again from our strategic framework for IT. Our priorities include the establishment of a wireless campus, strengthen mobile learning and maintenance of appropriate hardware, software and systems – as you would expect, but also include, and I quote:
-ensure our students are IT savvy users actively using and seeking new and emerging technologies
-Nurture a culture of staff with a “thirst” for IT technology which enhance their personal effectiveness and productivity
-Foster a culture of staff who use and seek new and emerging technologies to position their discipline at the forefront of curriculum development, delivery and research
-Introduce provocative new software and software tools which challenge traditional ways of learning

These are not the usual priorities of an IT service department, but then the future is not business as usual. "

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