University of Newcastle looks forward with five-year digital plan

The University of Newcastle is currently rolling out its Digital 2020 strategy, which involves moving staff and students to cloud-based platforms.

As the University of Newcastle celebrates its 50th birthday this year, the university is preparing to launch by the end of the year its 10-year plan to ensure it continues to remain progressive come 2025.

A core aspect of its forward-thinking plan is the transformation of the IT department, which is currently rolling out its Digital 2020 strategy. Ann Walters, the university's associate director of IT client services, said the digital strategy is aimed at identifying current and emerging technologies that can be applied to deliver value to staff and students.

"We're looking to drive and improve student experience; to create efficiency for our staff and administration; to enable high quality collaboration, in particular our staff across the state, across the sector, across the world, so we need to have collaboration at the heart of what we do; but also perform partnerships with industry and the community," she said.

"We want to support the university's research and education goals; they're the two things we're there for. Anything IT needs to do has to support and also drive innovation."

Speaking at Microsoft Australia Ignite 2015, Walters outlined there are three streams of work the IT department is undertaking as part of the 2020 strategy: Fix and modernise, operational and efficiency, and transform which will start next year. The cornerstone of the entire program will be a "cloud-first, mobile-first" approach.

Walters said another outcome from the digital strategy she hopes to see is changing the role of the IT department to become a digital partner for the university, and not just the technology service provider "because the university can get that from any shop up the road".

The university has partnered with the likes of Microsoft and Dell to help with the roll out of the strategy. Under these partnerships, Walters said it has enabled the university to be an early adopter of Office 365. She boasted that as a result, the university has managed to upgrade the email accounts of all 40,000 students and 6,000 staff onto Office 365, as well as give students and staff the ability to download copies of Microsoft Office for free through the Microsoft Advantage program.

At the same time, the university switched on Skype for Business to enable instant messaging between staff, and to encourage desktop collaboration.

Walters added that before the end of the year, staff will be given access to OneDrive, something which students have already been provided. The university is also actively rolling out SharePoint online, which will become the staff collaboration platform, she said.

There are plans to use software that will help bridge Skype for Business with the university's traditional Cisco telephony platform, with Walters expecting it will also drive the uptake of Skype for Business.

"We can't throw away 20 years of a robust telephony solution and we've also got them in our large video conferencing spaces. What we'll ideally want to do is use Skype for Business in the smaller spaces where it makes sense, but when it comes to a 200 lecture room I don't think it will actually scale," she said.

"Right now on Skype for Business I can't make a phone call to a Cisco handset, we haven't built the bridge yet."

In addition to this, the university has become the first university to deploy Windows 10, following the pilot of the new operating system on 300 devices across campus -- 200 on student-facing devices and 100 on staff machines.

Walters said the upgrade was natural after being on Windows 7 and having the appropriate hardware platform to support Windows 10.

"We thought we were go with Windows 8 ... and we've been purchasing hardware that was touch-enabled for some time. In our student space we were buying Dell's All-in-One with touch, and a lot of the staff were purchasing that as their preferred desktop model if they weren't getting a laptop. So we had the hardware platform in place," she said.

Compatibility with existing applications was another feature of Windows 10 that appealed to the university, Walters said. She said aside from a few patches, there was only one incompatibility issue, which was software that helped students with disabilities, and as a result bought a newer version of it.

The university now plans on having 3,000 devices updated with Windows 10 by the start of the next university year dedicated for student use and the remaining 7,000 devices before the end of 2016 for staff.

To further compliment the progress so far, the University is in the midst of completing its New Space building, a AU$95 million education precinct located in Newcastle CBD that is due to open in 2017.

Aimee Chanthadavong travelled to Microsoft Australia Ignite 2015 as a guest of Microsoft.