Education — 11 April 2017

IT Hero: Christine Sexton, The University of Sheffield

Christine Sexton is a pioneer. A true IT Hero. Dedicating her entire life to just one University.

After starting out as graduate at University of Sheffield, she stayed on, rising from Head of Administration in the Faculty of Medicine to Director of IT leading a team of hundreds. And for someone with a degree in genetics, who’s overseen so much of the university’s transition to digital, imagine our surprise when the first thing she told us was: “To be honest, I’m not really that techy!”

Christine was there for Sheffield’s first move from paper to digital; next up was the expansion of her university’s networks, setting up secure data services, before her final act of moving to the cloud. Which takes us to today, just a few months after her retirement, where on reflection she says: “It’s fair to say I’ve been involved of a number of firsts for The University of Sheffield”.

As she settles into her new life we caught up with her to look back at the calculated risks she’s taken to move her beloved University forward, and to find out the top tips she has for other universities wanting to take calculated digital risks.

How did you end up leading Information and Computing Services at Sheffield?

I actually joined the University of Sheffield in 1974 as a student – and then never left!  After my degree in genetics, a PHD and a post doc, I realised research wasn’t for me so thought I should get a  job and applied for a post in the administration team in 1983.  In the early 90s the PC revolution took place.  Up until then, there was one computer in my department and it was behind a locked door.  But by 1994 people were coming into my office and asking if I’d heard about the World Wide Web.

So, it was an interesting time and I became fascinated by IT despite having no technical background – I was then, and am still today, interested in what IT can help people achieve.  In 1996 the university reorganised how things were run and put IT into a single department, with me as the head of it.

The team grew and grew – as did our remit – over the next 20 years.  By the time I left we had a department of 220 people and covered everything from IT implementation to customer service.

What were the main developments that impacted student learning during your career?

People say it’s got to be the internet but I think that’s only because we were around when it was invented.  Students today have no idea about life without the internet – they don’t think it’s a revolution because for them, it’s always been there.  For me, the most recent revolution is mobile, which has enabled the mobility of IT.

As a result we’ve seen huge changes in student behaviour.  Students are noticeably now collaborating much more, they want a collaborative learning environment and it’s changed the way we teach in higher education.

What challenges do universities face when it comes to keeping up with mobile technology?

Keeping up with mobile developments is a huge challenge for Universities.  It puts physical demand on the network – we have changed our wireless network three or four times to cope with the sheer numbers of devices students expect to routinely connect to the Wi-Fi.  We can have 100,000 unique devices connected to our network – even though we only have 25,000 students.

With each student now carrying between 1 – 3 mobile devices IT directors need to accept that they don’t run IT any more – I accepted this long ago and tried to rise to the challenge.  One of the ways to do this is to use suppliers.  I asked myself: “As cloud services merged, why would I as an IT director run something myself if someone can run it better for me – and cheaper?”

Moving university mail, calendar and file storage to a cloud provider is a no brainer – there was no agonising over that decision.  But my reasons for moving weren’t actually to save money.  It was to provide a better service and be able to target resources into areas where I needed them – and free up staff to support learning, student experience and research.

That’s where the value of cloud based service lies – you can target resources into other areas that make a difference. So by moving to the cloud and letting someone else run it, we were able to concentrate on other services.

What’s holding universities back from cloud adoption?

It’s the perception of risk, and I think that scares a lot of universities.  There’s a fear over security and privacy issues, and not wanting to lose control.

When we moved to the cloud, we did a privacy and security assessment.  We decided there was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking and that we could mitigate against.  It amused me that people said “you are not putting my data into the cloud” – I was flattered they thought my data centre in Sheffield was more secure than Google or Dropbox’s: but in reality, it’s not!  These companies are running super secure operations because it’s what they specialise in.

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I know you were part of the Russell Universities Group IT Directors forum – was there a lot of discussion around the role of cloud in University learning?

The role of cloud in supporting researchers is a focus for the Russell Universities Group.  Research is very data intensive and you have to look at cloud services for managing and storing that data.  There is more data now than ever before and universities can’t keep using onsite storage – there is a need to use the cloud.

Also, in a world of diminishing resources, there is not an unlimited IT budget.  There needs to be resources to help departments free up time, and the cloud is the way to do it.

What ROI have you seen since moving to the cloud?

We’re seeing a good increase in student satisfaction which is very important in universities.  Students stopped complaining about things as soon as we moved them to a proper cloud based service, and feedback has been good.

Staff feedback has been positive also.  By moving to the cloud, we stopped running our own servers and it freed up huge potential from the staff body to help in areas the university really needed extra support.  Cloud has helped us use our staff much more efficiently.

I’d say to any university considering the move to look closely at your obstacles and whether they are really barriers to adoption – most of the time you’ll probably realise that they aren’t.

To find out more about how UK universities are using the cloud to improve teaching and learning, and to hear from other IT Hero’s, click here.

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