ICT department maps out Fort Hare’s ‘smart’ future
The rapid evolution of information and communications technologies, further nudged by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, cajoled universities like Fort Hare into becoming “smarter” academic institutions.
Wherever in South Africa they are and whatever time of the day or night it is, students and staff have come to rely on the ICT department to plug them into the university’s systems via the internet for e-learning purposes or to access vital documents and information.
To prevent outsiders from having any type of access, the Eastern Cape institution has invested heavily in its cybersecurity protocols. These include e-mail and endpoint security as well as robust perimeter protection and detection software.
The University of Fort Hare’s (UFH) interim chief information officer Shakes Scott is confident that the Alice-based institution is now in a prime position to safeguard data “quickly and effectively” in the face of malicious attacks.
Endpoint security will ensure that the university can continue to reach staff and students should it ever need to go into “pandemic mode” again, he says.
The UFH ICT department of today has evolved from the data processing function used to capture the university’s finances in the 1980s.
In the nineties, says Scott, data processing matured to the extent that business support and management information systems could be established.
A database to manage all of UFH’s operations was in place by the turn of the century. This system was based on Enterprise Resource Planning and Management technologies – ERPM in short.
Scott scores the department highly when it comes to being proactive in a field that evolves at a phenomenal pace. It takes 25 permanent staffers, 21 part-time workers and three government-sponsored interns to run this digital race.
The team oversees the digitisation and automation programmes that allow UFH to take advantage of what is now referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The CIO explains that the division is driven by the Smart concept, which entrenches specific, attainable and measurable goals. It guides it in its efforts to keep abreast of the latest technology, the Internet of Things (a system of interrelated computer devices and other mechanical and digital machines) and 4IR initiatives.
In his opinion, this need to be ahead of the curve is crucial if the institution wants to keep fighting in the same weight class as its competitors. To this end, he says, the department’s role is pivotal in UFH’s transition to e-learning and blended pedagogical models.
“We are doing this by providing a cloud-based LMS Blackboard as well as Microsoft Teams for hybrid teaching and operations.”
The need for flexibility and adapting to everchanging circumstances brought on by lockdown was a learning curve Scott and his team will not forget in a hurry.
“We provided various solutions to address the operational requirements under Covid. Staff worked from home using VPN (Virtual Private Network) connections that allowed them to bring the classroom experience into an online environment.”
Adopting the same method made it possible for students to attend classes from their residences or homes.
Technology-wise, Scott believes the ICT department is on par and in some cases ahead of other tertiary institutions in this country.
“That said, we also have to negotiate issues unique to the Eastern Cape, many of which are finance-related. These include the provision of data and modems to students.”
The secondary problem is that none of the mobile network operators’ networks offer coverage to all parts of the province and beyond.
“We are forced to refine the service to allow access via a ‘network of choice’ to reach the students that are scattered across the country.”
With new systems come the need to train students in the proper use of ICT technologies. In this regard, says Scott, UFH has moved from a push to a pull approach.
This means online training videos and demos are available, while most courses provide tutorials and practicals.
Here, too, the ICT division plays a crucial role to ensure that effective training systems are in place. Open, free-to-use computer labs equipped with the necessary soft and hardware are an example.
Scott says every single staff member and student has been a beneficiary of the department’s initiatives over the past 40 years, yet he believes it is just the tip of the iceberg.
“An improved and more reliable internet service with additional access points, faster network speeds and better tech for teaching venues are in the pipeline.
“Other than that, there is the upgrade of Alice’s 3G network to 5G and new units for the computer labs to look forward to.”
The department is also involved in plans to introduce an alternative energy plan for UFH in order to negate the Eskom factor.