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Alan Hill has become one of the driving forces behind the digital transformation of higher education in the UK since he was appointed Chief Information and Digital Officer at the University of Exeter in 2016.

The CIO 100 high-flyer has rolled out a range of digital services for the research-intensive Russell Group university's 22,000 students and 4,500 staff, from a class attendance monitoring app to a student CRM that manages thousands of enquiries that were previously handled manually.

The core digital tool for students is the iExeter app, which provides them with personalised information and services such as email, timetables, data storage, GPS directions, and even washing machine availability. The app was used by 95% of student in the last academic year, who click on it eight times a day on average.

Hill’s IT operating model has helped propel this uptake. His digital strategy is design-led, service-centric and user-focused, which has led to a strong personalisation drive.

"We are investing heavily in digital services to create deeply personalised learning environments for students, so can we produce education material personalised for the individual and how that individual learns," says Hill. "That is a big push for us. It's about getting better educational outcomes all the way and recruiting the very best students that we can do."

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The approach allows the university to adapt to different learning preferences and personal needs. Many students have to juggle domestic and professional commitments far away from Exeter's Devon-based campus and rely on digital tools and remote access to online resources to complete their degrees.

One of the ways in which Hill has supported these needs is by installing a lecture capture system across 400 rooms on the campus. In the last academic year, streams and recordings of these lectures attracted 650,000 views.

The aim is to provide an "environment that's always available, so you can learn wherever and however you want to, [that's] what we do," he added.

User needs

Innovation in academia has often been led by politicians and companies whose motivations are not solely pedagogical. In the early 2000s, this led to a range of poorly-planned edtech schemes being launched without proper training for staff, causing many educators to associate new tech with an increase in workload.

Their digital literacy is also typically far lower than that of their students. A 2018 survey conducted by Insight Avenue for Fujitsu found that while 87% of students in higher education had excellent or good digital literacy, only 37% of staff did.

Hill maximises the impact of his initiatives by shifting the ownership of digital services out of the IT office and into the hands of the staff and students who use them by involving them in user groups, testing and project boards.

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This approach led him to create an immersive digital environment that works for both students and academics, complete with an electronic performance and development record that replaced a paper-based system with a digital tool they can use to review progress and plan for the future.

Hill is also working closely with the university's director of research to create a research management service that will guide the ideas of academics through application, grant, delivery and impact phases.

The system will provide detailed visibility into the bidding process, which will help reduce costs and win more grants for research, a vital source for revenue for Exeter as it attracts both funding and students.

Hill further supports university researchers by providing them with bespoke digital tools and has more than doubled the number of staff who directly support research with specialist skills in coding, hardware, and high-performance computing.

This technology has helped the university do everything from model climates on extrasolar planets 200 light years away from earth, to analysing the effects of dementia.

Hill compares the contribution of Exeter's IT team to the janitor mopping the floor at NASA headquarters when President John F. Kennedy made his first visit to the facility in 1961. Kennedy asked the man what he did at NASA, to which the janitor replied: "I’m helping put a man on the moon."

"What we do here is we help that kind of research, which impacts on dementia research, on planetary research, on digital humanities - you name it, we're involved in it," he says.

Research security

The value of this research also makes it a tempting target for cybercriminals, including state actors. In 2018, the National Cyber Security Centre claimed that hackers sponsored by the government of Iran had been responsible for the global theft of intellectual property from universities.

Hill learnt about this threat first-hand during a 10-year stint in the military, where he reached the rank of brigadier and served as the head of global military network operations and cyber defence. He draws on this experience to protect the university.

"I start applying military planning and military thinking to it, because we need to know where our critical data is, and who are our high-value targets... it's thinking like the attacker, considering what they might be after and understanding our own inherent vulnerabilities," he says.

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This approach led Hill to roll out the largest deployment of Splunk in the UK higher education sector. Exeter is using the cyber security software to identify potential threats by spotting anomalies in machine data.

"We're using Splunk to look at what is going on inside that environment in ways we couldn't see before and continuing to improve our protection around research data related to commercial research, intellectual property, and patents, because that is our crown jewels," says Hill.

"We're wrapping Splunk around these really important areas and around student data, because we know those are our biggest risks."