Universities work best when they are globally connected and link their research efforts with their teaching. Therefore, it’s vital to create a learning environment that empowers both research teams and students alike.
With three Scottish campuses, one in Dubai, and another in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt University’s ‘hub and spoke’ approach was falling short of meeting the needs of its 30,000 online students, 13,500 on-campus students, and 2,500 global staff. Cultural and regulatory differences were adding further complications to the university’s worldwide network, making it difficult to share and access resources. To solve these challenges, the IT team set out to overhaul existing systems, and move towards a 100% cloud-based model.
This is the story of how Kathy McCabe, Global Director of Information Services at Heriot-Watt University and her team, transformed the university’s strategic plan and created a globally connected campus ready for 2025 and beyond.
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Creating a global research strategic plan
“When I joined the university 18 months ago, there was an Edinburgh-centric hub-and-spoke model,” explains Kathy. “As we became increasingly global, it became apparent we needed to move away from this and create a smoother, connected operation across our campuses.
“We identified three core challenges with our existing plan,” says Kathy. “The first was that we had clear differences of provision and service at each of our campuses, which meant our students and faculty were receiving different experiences depending on where they were.
“The second was that our considerable research datasets were not being adequately protected,” says Kathy. “And thirdly we were struggling with inter-campus connectivity, hindering collaboration between teams and students.”
From here, Kathy and her team mapped out what the system could look like, and how it could be improved. “We knew we had to deliver a consistent experience for users on all devices, anywhere in the world,” says Kathy. “We needed to provide everyone access to teaching and resources. We recognised the importance of enabling a more collaborative culture to create genuinely global research projects. To help deliver on our objectives we migrated to Dropbox Business.”
Becoming a globally connected university
Within the first six months of the project, Kathy and her team delivered significant improvements across the board. “In creating a more globally accessible network we were able to implement an international staff portal and online training resource,” says Kathy. “It is helping us to raise digital skills across the institution and is providing a solid basis for the next set of infrastructure improvements.
“We rolled out Dropbox Business for our research community too,” continues Kathy. “It has been adopted readily due to the majority already using Dropbox. It also offers integration to core tools – not to mention it works with Linux, a firm favourite. We now have total visibility over usage, a global research network enhancing our reputation around the world, and the comfort of knowing our data is secure. Not to mention it has sped up the research set-up process dramatically.”
The importance of understanding culture in deployment
“When implementing change management programmes, you must understand the culture and work out how technology fits,” says Kathy. “Knowing this gives you a way to facilitate change in the most effective way.”
At Heriot-Watt University, this challenge was magnified due to the dispersed nature of its campuses and schools. “We had cautious attitudes in some locations, coupled with a high appetite for change in others,” explains Kathy. “We had to work with the teams at each location and understand exactly how best to proceed. We haven’t imposed any new technology on staff or students, but we have demonstrated the benefits and highlighted best practice. We have worked with early adopters and enthusiasts and used them to help gently nudge change forwards in places more resistant.”
The roadmap for the future
Sharing her thoughts for the future of Heriot-Watt University, Kathy elaborated on her plans to migrate the institution fully to the cloud. “Our next objectives are to promote and embed Dropbox Business even deeper into our research efforts and identify other areas where the solution would provide benefit,” says Kathy. “From here, we will create more resilient communications between campuses that foster ever more collaborative learning, teaching and research environments. Migrating to the cloud offers us a wide range of benefits, chiefly among those is the capacity to integrate and take advantage of new digital tools, and we have a range of projects underway looking to do this.”