Director of Digital Services at Staffordshire University, Andrew Proctor, explains how digital is leading the way at one of the…

Director of Digital Services at Staffordshire University, Andrew Proctor, explains how digital is leading the way at one of the UK’s emerging tech powerhouses…

For a sector steeped in tradition, it’s perhaps not surprising that higher education has taken longer than most industries to wake up to the digitisation of operations and offerings that have disrupted virtually every other market. However, with rising customer expectation linked to increased fees, and a battle to establish points of differentiation in a highly competitive marketplace, higher education has had to respond to the changing needs of the client, and nowhere is that more evident than at Staffordshire University.

Director of Digital Services at Staffordshire University, Andrew Proctor, is the man who has spearheaded a massive digital revolution in an attempt to truly harness digital. “If you compare higher education to a lot of the modern digital era organisations or companies, universities can be obsessed with physical assets such as buildings; a new building being a sign of a healthy university,” he explains. “Now, I’m not saying that buildings aren’t a part of that future, they absolutely are, but we are developing what we call a ‘clicks and mortar’ strategy that delivers the best of the physical and the digital. It’s that harmony between your physical infrastructure and your online presence.”

An alumnus of the university himself, Proctor is keen to establish Staffordshire University as a tech leader within the HE sector. Staffordshire University has a rich heritage in technology and was one of the first in the UK to launch a computing degree. However, modern times had seen the university lose its way a little; languishing in the league tables until the arrival in 2016 of new Vice Chancellor Liz Barnes who immediately set an exciting new direction and recruited the team, including Proctor, to deliver it. The digital programme established by Andrew Proctor, and heavily supported by his Vice Chancellor has been a guiding force behind the university’s elevation, seen in higher rankings, nationally and globally and numerous awards as the university becomes a flagship establishment for digital innovation as part of a massive digital transformation. Indeed, Staffordshire University was the first in Europe to fully migrate to the cloud and is one of only three universities in the world to be granted Microsoft Innovative Institution status.

“The impact of things like artificial intelligence and automation of jobs, is expected to have quite a profound effect,” says Proctor. “But a lot of research actually suggests that across education there’ll be a net gain from what people call the fourth industrial revolution. And the reason behind that is, as companies start to make more use of AI, they can probably shrink the size of their workforce, which typically means they’ll be able to sell products and services cheaper, which will ultimately mean more money and time available for the general public. And the things that people tend to want time and more funds for, are things like health care, travel and education.”

A digital education

Proctor believes that higher education has lagged behind digitally-led enterprises in one key area. “Successful digital companies offer products and services that very much adapt themselves around customer needs and requirements and higher education hasn’t yet faced up to that challenge. We take £9000 pounds a year off our students and then we expect them to adapt to our timetable and our way of delivering courses.” With that in mind, Proctor spun the bottle 180 degrees with the university’s latest offering. With many students experiencing stress and anxiety when starting higher education, often far from home, Beacon AI is a smartphone app that acts as a virtual life coach. Helping the university’s 15,000 students to organise their diary, alerting them to lectures, and supporting them in revision, Beacon AI also acts as a gateway to pastoral care that many students are often not confident enough to seek. It’s an AI-driven digital aid, hosted on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform that complements the entire student experience. “The guiding ethos of AI is that it’s human-centric and can actually free up time for staff and students so that they can spend more of their time building social connections, engaging in activities, and just doing things that are far more interesting to them,” Proctor explains. “We think we can actually increase your social activity and motive relationships that people have via the use of AI, rather than the idea of AI being this cold thing that replaces relationships and makes us quite insular and secluded.”

Beacon AI can provide nurturing to learning, organisational help and emotional support. Should a student lose their ID card, Beacon can initiate a replacement, thus saving a certain amount of stress on behalf of the user. Its biggest boon is to learning, however. “The coaching area is this idea of incentivising and using nudge techniques to guide students towards activities that will benefit them and likely help their levels of achievement,” Proctor enthuses. “We can use things such as gamification, by saying to a student: ‘You’ve spent five hours studying this week, and you’re one hour away from your personal best, how about you try to beat it?’ It could be, ‘We’ve noticed that the amount of studying or the amount of time you’ve spent in the library, has started to drop. Are you OK? Are you struggling with something? Would you like me to make an appointment with someone?’ Because one of the things we’re aware of with new students, is that there can be this stigma attached to putting your hand up and saying, ‘Actually, I’m not OK. I’m struggling.’ It can be quite an intimidating thing. Beacon will actually check in with students and ask them: ‘How are you feeling today?’ And the student can answer with a happy, neutral or sad face. If a student starts answering with a sad face, Beacon can explore that in more detail, ‘What is it that’s upsetting you? Is there anything we can help you with? Can we make you an appointment with a wellbeing coach or with financial support if that’s what’s worrying you?’ It’s just trying to really connect students with the fantastic human support we offer as a university.”

Proctor and his team took a blended model approach to building Beacon as Proctor is a “huge believer” in the talented creativity of in-house staff, “because they absolutely buy into the whole purpose of the university and our mission”. Proctor then reached out to the private sector for AI expertise, and had them working side by side with his team. Proctor and his team had already used ANS to help gain cloud management skills and so they were a good fit in providing the private sector expertise that blended with the creativity and passion from the university. “That’s a big part of why we got the results we have, and how we were able to hit those deadlines. It’s been great because we’ve gained new skills in using AI that we can apply much more broadly now.”
Proctor gave his team four months to develop and release Beacon to the students, the ethos being that the quicker they could get something into the hands of the students, “the quicker we can learn how good or how bad it is before starting to improve it”.

Beacon follows on the university’s other core digital channel, the ‘MyStaffsUni’ app, which Ex Libris helped to develop. “‘MyStaffsUni’ is a mobile app for things like attendance capture, so a student can check in to a lecture when they’ve arrived, which feeds some of the exciting work we’re doing around learner analytics; students’ engagement data is a key part of that. We’ve been working very closely with Ex Libris to trial the ability to capture that information via a student mobile app so the experience for the students is pretty slick.” Proctor’s comments were echoed by Matthew Sherlock, Director of Product Strategy at Ex Libris: “During my time of working in higher education I saw how technology can empower both institutions and students and drive change throughout the university. At Ex Libris we are thrilled to have been able to work with Staffordshire University to help them on their digital transformation journey, by supplying the campusM platform that the MyStaffsUni mobile app is built on. We love what the team have done with the platform to really enhance their student experience and can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Digital transformation

Beacon has been a massive success boosting student response times 24/7, while building upon the university’s award of the Times Higher Education’s ‘Most Improved Student Experience’. Beacon is just the latest product of this digitally-led establishment and its massive digital transformation, overseen by Proctor who inherited a rather clunky legacy system on joining Staffordshire University in 2017.

“We were the first university in Europe to migrate fully to Microsoft Azure Cloud Services, and that was really putting in place the platform for transformation. And the reason for that is because, beyond a sort of business case or a project based on cost, it was more about increasing business agility and our ability to experiment and gain access to technology quicker than we’ve been able to previously. This was a big driver in freeing up more and more time within my internal departments. I didn’t want them spending 90% of their time plumbing and fixing things when they break. I wanted them to spend more and more time talking to students, finding out how we could use technology to help students and use their creativity to build new solutions rather than just keeping the lights on. We used to have monthly meetings that would report on some of the traditional KPIs such as system up-time, the number of incidents we’ve resolved, etc. and I completely changed that, so we have a leadership board once a month, where all of my leaders and managers come to the table armed with a list of all of the things they’ve done for our students and staff.”

A digital beacon

A good example of the university’s new direction is seen in its adoption of Microsoft Teams; one of the first universities in the UK to use the platform as its sole learning environment on a number of its courses. “We’ve had great results from that by just getting Teams into the hands of some of our lecturers rather than us keeping it under lock and key until we fully understood it. It’s that sort of user-centric and partnership approach of working with people to be innovative and creative. That’s gone really well and some of our lecturers and senior lecturers are now designated ‘digital champions’. It was about us getting new technology into their hands, and helping them figure out whether they can use it to benefit our students while enabling and supporting the creativity of our lecturers.”

Staffordshire University has also embedded digital skills across all of its courses to fully future-proof its graduates. “We are starting to embed the development of digital skills across all our courses. The idea is that, if you’re a fashion student, you will graduate not just being great at producing really interesting items of clothing, but also being able to market them. When I say digital skills, I don’t just mean technical ones. There’s something we call soft digital skills, which are things such as embracing change, problem solving and entrepreneurial spirit as well. People who are great with technology, tend to be people that embrace change. They tend to be the ones that want the latest device or the latest version of software because they can’t wait to get the hands on it. It’s not just about the technical skills for us, it’s about those softer skills as well. We’re the first university in the UK to embed some Microsoft professional programs to teach students about analytics, artificial intelligence, across some of our business-related courses. If you’re studying a degree in business, you can start on some of the track that takes you towards becoming a data scientist, to get a grounding in how you analyse and visualise data, which is really important in modern business.”

Staffordshire University is on the up. Proctor’s work has seen him earn number six in the UK CIO Top 100 list, which is “more of a reflection on the team than myself”, he says. “I just get to do the publicity around all of their hard work to be honest.”Beacon recently won the “Best Not-For-Profit Project’ at the national Digital Leadership Awards and the university received a gold award within the Teaching Excellence Framework, moving up from silver to the highest level. “We’re one of the highest climbing universities across the league tables as well. Five years ago, we were really languishing. Now we’re in the top 50 across all the league tables, and we’ve actually entered into the world rankings too. It’s just a reflection of a lot of the hard work that’s been done so far.And, it would be remiss of me not to mention Vice Chancellor Liz Barnes, because she wholeheartedly believes that digital is fundamental to the future of universities. And as a digital director, if you don’t have a CEO that really buys into digital, you’re always going to be limited in what you can do.”

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