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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

Northampton University’s Rob Palfreman on interweaving tech into teaching

Faced with an increasingly competitive market, the University of Northampton decided to review where it stood and created an overarching strategy. A key part of this strategy was to ensure that the university was future-focused and would use technology accordingly, but perhaps more significantly, the university wanted to change the way it approached teaching.

“We’re dismantling that long haul tradition of broadcast lectures where an individual stands up in front of a theatre and it’s a one way transmission,” says the university’s head of IT Rob Palfreman.

“We want to move towards a blended model of online and face-to-face activities that are much more collaborative, and we’re putting a lot of work into this because we believe it is fundamental in improving the chances of success of our students,” he adds.

This has been fuelled by expectations from students that higher education institutions should be able to deliver teaching in new ways – and on different devices.

This is partly why the organisation has invested £330m into its new Waterside campus which opens in September.

Technology forms a big part of the new campus, and Cisco has been selected to implement what it calls an intent-based network to help support new ways of teaching and learning.

Cisco vs HPE 

Palfreman explains that the organisation was looking for a strategic partnership with a technology vendor; a company that had a great track record technically but that also shared some of the university’s values around education.

“Cisco fit the bill on both of those accounts as their technology is best of breed, but we were also excited by their forward-looking feel when it came to networking as there were concepts that can be introduced that aligned to how we believed we’d deliver a service to our students,” he says.

That said, the university did not have a huge range of vendors to select from, as Palfreman says it was looking for a vendor that could provide everything from the Wi-Fi at the edge through to data centre capability and also the option of moving into the cloud.

The University of Northampton had been a Cisco customer previously – with some of its technology in the university’s network, while HPE was its data centre vendor of choice. After considering both vendors to cover the whole of its IT infrastructure, the company decided to go all-in with Cisco.

“Cisco were much better placed in terms of their vision and I think given we were a Cisco customer, they were well placed to understand where we were at and what we were doing. In addition, they’ve always been responsive and supportive of our journey and keen to help – and it wasn’t just about chasing an order or how much money we were going to spend, it was aligning themselves to our vision and how they could contribute to that,” Palfreman states.

But given the company now has Cisco technology across the whole enterprise, is Palfreman not worried that it is locked-in to one vendor?

“It locks us into a five-year contract that we’ve signed up for in terms of the investment we’ve made, but if you look at how their open architecture now works and with the capabilities we now get with the software-defined piece and DNA, we’re able to now open up the network and in actual fact we’re opening opportunities to how we integrate with our other service layers in a much smarter way than we were able to do,” he says.

The IT team had to be sure that the IT infrastructure selected would work and be secure from day one of its September opening – and so timing was another factor in its decision to go with Cisco, Palfreman adds.

The university is already discussing its future plans with Cisco, with the potential to use advanced analytics to aid student recruitment and retention one of the key areas being explored.

The university plans to use some AI capability to provide new students with a digital helper so that they can get common questions answered.

“We have 3000 new students every year that have possibly left home for the first time, and they need to settle in and we need to ensure they’re plugged into what we do here. They ask the same questions every year and the challenges remain the same, so it’s something we’re absolutely looking to investigate,” he says.

Palfreman will hope that by engaging students from day one and by offering new ways of learning and teaching using technology, retaining and recruiting students will increase, as will the number of students graduating with good results.