With tech, no student is left behind
Being the CIO at Wits entails understanding that everyone isn’t going to be in the same place when it comes to their levels of tech familiarity and competency. Dr Stanley Mpofu explains.
When I speak with Dr Stanley Mpofu about his role as CIO at Wits University, he mentions something that I’ve never considered about the solutions powering everything that happens on campus and, with the rise of remote/online learning and teaching, off campus too. As the man in charge of technology at the university, he has to manage expectations and cater to the needs of a very large group of people that spansBaby Boomers and Gen X to Millennials and Gen Z.
For Mpofu, this means that he must take the time to understand his users and be empathetic to the fact that not everyone is going to be in the same place when it comes to their levels of tech familiarity and competency. “So many of the problems that come up in IT are because of poor communication, inadequate change management, poor stakeholder management and a lack of understanding of user requirements.” To handle these issues, Mpofu believes that you need to take ownership when things don’t go according to plan. “It’s very easy to blame the technology. If something goes wrong, you just say it’s the network or the WiFi or you say the server is down. But all you’re doing is creating distrust in the technology.” If there is an issue, it’s important to be transparent; tell users you are aware of the problem and explain that you’re working on it. “In situations like this, you can’t cut corners and you definitely can’t find a workaround that will last. You have to work at finding a solution and keep communicating with everyone affected so that they know how things are going.”
At times, this can be tough. “When you work in IT, you don’t get a call from someone on a Monday morning just to say hello and ask about your weekend. When that call comes through, it’s because someone’s work has been disrupted. And by the time they’re calling you, they’re not in a very good mood. But you can’t worry about nasty emails or a nasty call, because when there’s a problem, you need to provide a technological solution.”
The campus experience
Mpofu’s job is to provide the technology for teaching, learning and research at optimal levels. Any solutions or tools that Wits deploys must boost academic excellence and add to the ‘campus experience’. This is critical for the entire university community, he says. Something like the launch of ‘Hyflex classrooms’, designed to accommodate hybrid, face-to-face and online learning, makes it easier for lecturers to engage with students in-person as well as synchronously and asynchronously online. Hyflex classrooms also give students the option to decide how they want to participate.
It’s very easy to blame the technology. If something goes wrong, you just blame the network or the WiFi or say the server is down. But all you’re doing is creating distrust in the technology.
Speaking to Mpofu, it’s clear that digitalisation at the university is focused on how it can make it possible for learning to happen anywhere. He and his team recently completed a unified communications project that brings together different communications channels and tools so that users can easily keep in touch wherever they are. This also aligns with the university’s cloud strategy. “I migrated my learning management system (LMS) to the cloud in 2020. Why cloud? Because it makes it possible for anyone within the university to access the LMS sitting anywhere else in the world, using a device of their choice, as long as they've got internet access.” The LMS is housed on AWS, and uses Amazon Elastic Compute, Amazon Relational Database Service and its Elastic File File System across multiple availability zones. It also uses Amazon CloudFront for caching the LMS content to edge locations so that students can access it quickly. . He saysWits will also be moving its Oracle ERP tool to the cloud in 2023.
Building future skills
Speaking about the challenges he faces, Mpofu says poor service delivery from vendors and suppliers are stumbling blocks. He says this isn’t the case with all service providers, but he’s taken action against some vendors to get them to deliver on their contracts. He thinks that these service providers present themselves as being capable, but, when it comes down to it, they don’t have the necessary skills to deliver on the project requirements. This is one of the reasons why he is so passionate about skills transfer and skills development in his own teams. He started an internship programme several years ago in collaboration with a number of vendors, which provides interns with the practical skillsets they need to add value in the real world. Mpofu has also included skills transfer as a KPI in his contracts.
When you work in IT, you don’t get a call from someone on a Monday morning just to say hello and ask about your weekend. When that call comes through, it’s because someone’s work has been disrupted.
Today, technology is the foundation of all university activities in that it supports both forward-facing and background functions, from learning and research to finance and HR. It also facilitates seamless interactions between parties on campus, and makes it easier for faculties across campus to collaborate. “Technology provides a platform where you can share experiences, discuss issues and collectively find solutions.” This isn’t something that has been commonplace in university environments in the past. It’s important to remember, he adds, that technology is not going to wait for people who aren’t ready for it. “It’s going to just march on and if you don’t embrace it, you’re going to get left behind.”
* This feature was first published in the February edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.
* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za