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Using AI in IT Support for Higher Education with Dr Cris Bloomfield, Architect at Microsoft

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Dr Cris Bloomfield, Microsoft

We recently hosted a webinar (grab the recording here) on supporting IT teams in higher education with AI. For the event we were lucky enough to be joined by Dr Cris Bloomfield, Architect at Microsoft Education, who shared his thoughts on the state of technology in education spaces. Cris had some great insights and examples of how Covid as well as the pace of technolffogy are changing the way we learn and teach.

Here's some key extracts from his talk with us.


I work as part of the industry solutions team at Microsoft, specialising in higher education and it's been a really interesting time to be working in higher education during the pandemic.

''The pandemic created challenges for teaching and learning that were unprecedented in scope. But it also sparked unprecedented innovation across Harvard''

I quite like this quote, which comes from a colleague at Harvard, because I think it sums up the challenges that the sector has faced over the last two years or so, as it has come to terms with what the pandemic has meant. We've seen some great innovations taking place in these unprecedented times, and there's the high level picture that we hear from executive colleagues, and then there's the operational aspect that people are facing on the ground and many institutions have experienced this.

One of the areas that's been particularly affected has been university libraries, which traditionally have had a very engaged physical presence on campus, they have high footfall, they tend to be a real locus point for students, and they've been one of the areas where access to campus has sometimes been difficult or even if the building has been open, people

may have not been able to get into the library to consume the services that are offered from that location. In many universities, the IT service desk is integral into the library, or shared service desks are offered. It's been a real challenge as colleagues at research libraries UK talk about. There's been a need to think about how that that experience is reimagined.

It's not just in the world of higher education where we're seeing a challenge, if we look at the global supply chain, they picked up that there was already a shift in how they provided services to their customers, what they've seen is that the pandemic has accelerated that shift and the service culture is really now becoming prominent.

Perhaps it's no surprise, because if we think about society more broadly, the way in which we consume services is really changing, some of that's born out of convenience, can you avoid having to stand in a queue? Is there a self service option that might allow you to progress through particular transaction more quickly? is there during the pandemic an advantage which means you can socially distance more effectively?

But people's lives also changing, for both students and staff, people are increasingly busy, they're available free time is decreasing, your opportunity to get to a particular location during its normal working hours might be quite limited. So the ability to be able to access a service 24/7 via an online facility could be a real convenience factor.

With the adoption of technologies like two factor authentication, the ability to move certain transactions into that digital space has certainly improved and so it's transforming services like online banking, but also increasingly seeing public sector organisations like local councils looking to adopt technologies, which also empower self service. If we then have a think about what's happening in the higher education space. Those students who are consuming both services are having those great experience as an online retail customers are coming into universities each year, with really high expectations from the digital experience that they might have, and expecting to be able to self serve, and get answers quickly.

The experiences they have are often going to be shared on social media so there'll be taking to Instagram, posting YouTube videos, sharing on Facebook, some of the experience that they're having with family friends, comparing experiences between institutions.

Student experience has for a long time taken really seriously by universities, they measure it internally but are also ranked on it at a national level. During the pandemic, when certain things that used to be face to face were no longer possible, universities did a great job and IT teams were absolutely pivotal in enabling a shift to greater online practices.

At the time, there was a good degree of patience from society more generally, as organisations like universities adapted. As we emerge, and I'd like to think that's what we are now, emerging from the pandemic, some of the solutions that were put into place are being reviewed because they were reactions to the status quo, maybe they weren't ideal from an architectural perspective and it's a great opportunity now to look at, again, how some of the good ground that was made, in moving to digitalization of processes can be consolidated, can the number of platforms needed to deliver that be reduced, can the overarching student experience be improved? And can efforts be made to make life easier for a whole range of people across the organisation?

People are quite worn out and exhausted by the efforts that have gone on over the last couple of years, burnout syndrome is affecting our sector like many others, and is there an opportunity to help IT teams not just handle the requests that are coming in on a day to day basis, but to give them the headspace to innovate and find new ways of working.

If we come to the fundamentals around support services, it's about meeting the expectations of a range of customers, students and staff, finding means to work more effectively and efficiently, and really uplift the experience that people have had.

Universities UK published some research last month, looking at some of the positives that have come out of the pandemic and one of the things they picked up on is the fact that universities have done a great job of engaging with students, and making much better use of social media, and digital communications, moving away from more traditional printed materials, notice boards and word of mouth. The move to online teaching has led to a significant digital, upscaling of staff and students and that access to support services, those things that wrap around teaching and learning and lead to a really enriched experience having expanded because of the digital platforms that universities have put in place to support their students and staff during the pandemic.

Some students have expressed a really positive sentiment around some of those online moves, particularly around things like online assessment. There's an opportunity at the moment for universities and IT teams within them, to continue to lead in meeting the expectations of students, but also to try and find that opportunity to innovate and go one step further, because one of the things that universities are really interested in is this concept of being able to identify the different touch points between a student and the institution more broadly, that ties into all sorts of benefits around well being and contact with students.

The concept that when people come for help, whether that's to the IT Service Desk, or to the library help desk, or any other function, they're looking to try and get an answer first time and if you can provide that first time solution, you can really build a lot of loyalty and a sense of trust.

But conversely, if you can't provide that solution at first point of contact, that might mean that people get frustrated, it might mean that people end up logging additional tickets, thinking that that's going to help their original one get fixed more quickly, it might lead to escalation, and sometimes those things are happening, because there just isn't that transparency about where a particular request is up to within a service system. That can then lead to this this compound effect that you've got older requests that the team just haven't quite got to at the moment, there's an influx of new requests coming in, and you end up with a backlog building up.

The IT team and the other support services staff are finding it hard to get through that backlog, and resolve the tickets, They're being taken away from trying to improve services to just try and maintain.

That's affecting a whole range of industries, not just higher education and if we look at what some commercial organisations are doing, they're looking for that means of innovation they're looking for that means to try and get back to being much more customer focused, and to handle and process those different tickets. One of the things that they're turning to is more automation of services.

Data published in January this year by the Welsh Institute body of technology collected showed:

The use of automation, robotics and AI had grown by 30% since March 2020. So during the pandemic, we've seen lots of businesses, look at their use of technology and around 50% of them said that it felt that the pandemic had actually encouraged them to adopt more new technologies and working practices.

Some of the the innovation that's happening in this space is building on existing good foundation. If you've already got some good FAQ environments, they can really be a basis to to launchpad into new ways of working to try and bring together some of the core threads that are running through higher education at the moment that these new students coming onto campus each year, bringing with them their expectations for engaging with technology in the way that they do at home, the way that they engage with conversational AI, the way in which they consume services.

The technologies that we're seeing with these improvements in the ability of technologies like AI to understand people more effectively, and a societal expectation, that what we experience in that digital space is much more personalised and unique to you as an individual.

Within the Microsoft world, we have a model called the education transformation framework. It consists of four pillars, one of the four pillars is this concept of the connected campus that we can bring together different component parts of an organisation's IT environment to create a really rich experience.

We can encourage people to think about how are they facilitating data sharing across departments? How are systems being put in place to support students, and institutional success? How quickly can a university respond to changes in key processes and things that are happening during the pandemic in terms of making information available, making that information searchable, and being able to provide answers to people when they're looking for those?

Professor Susan Fortier, the Principal and Vice Chancellor at McGill (University) in Canada also talks about how during the pandemic her institution has learned much more about how they can be accessible to people all over the world, no matter what their situation might be and that many people have had constraints for years that have meant that they can't physically come on campus. And now, we're in a position where we can bring them on in a remote way and really transform their experiences.

This interview has been transcribed from a live webinar event.

Watch our webinar where we discuss how AI can transform IT Support within higher education as well as showcasing our newest product capabilities.

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