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Educators upgrade IT roles

Published on Friday, 10 Aug 2012
IT professionals working in the education sector have the chance to work on many unique challenges.
Photo: CUHK
Gerrit Bahlman
Philip Leung
Charles Caldwell

With information technology (IT) underpinning the way many schools and universities deliver and support programmes, IT professionals in the education sector frequently find themselves working on groundbreaking technology.

While the same can be said of IT professionals at corporations, the education sector presents a number of key differences.

"In the commercial world, most IT jobs focus on generating revenues around a product, service or process," says Gerrit Bahlman, director of information technology at the The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). "But at universities, the IT challenges come from every direction."

This can include a need to deliver solutions for everything from teaching and learning to research, fundamental infrastructure and security. "For those who enjoy variety and change, there is always something new happening and always a different challenge to face," says Bahlman.

Another attraction Bahlman points to is the fact that university IT professionals get to be part of an academic community that is informed, used to taking risks and welcomes opportunities for implementing meaningful technology.

When recruiting, Bahlman says that in addition to IT skills, he also looks for passion and an appreciation of the importance of education.

He cautions, however, that the expectations of staff and students are raising the bar for what is required to fill the roles. "We need to hire enthusiastic people with exceptional skills who want to work on technology projects that haven't been tried before," he says, citing PolyU's soon-to-be-launched learning-management system as an example.

IT professionals are also facing higher expectations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

"IT here covers administration, teaching and learning, research administration support, information and communication, security, intellectual property, and user support," says Philip Leung, CUHK's director of IT services. With technology playing an ever bigger role, Leung says that the university's team of about 160 computer officers, assistant officers and technicians needs to be flexible and adaptable.

As an example, Leung cites the change in job nature of his own staff. "These days computer officers are more like consultants. They spend less time on actual programming and more time improving IT solutions by identifying existing products to overcome challenges," he says.

Because IT serves all of CUHK's departments and colleges, Leung says that when hiring staff, he needs to look beyond technological know-how. "Candidates must also have good business aptitude and the right behaviour attributes," he says.

In addition, Leung says IT professionals need to gain an appreciation of computer time management to prioritise information flows. They also need to learn about IT security requirements, student admission, support platforms and how to use IT to calculate trends from academic results. Furthermore, the ability to interact and communicate with others, explain complex processes and translate requests into technical solutions is also important.

"Our IT department not only provides solutions, but also leads by advising on the different ways technology can improve CUHK's operations and achievement goals," says Leung.

The independent English Schools Foundation (ESF) is another education organisation in which IT is playing a significant role, particularly when it comes to providing teachers with systems to assist their day-to-day teaching work, and students with the ability to access teaching materials anywhere, anytime.

"Our programmers support both ESF-wide systems as well as individual school systems," says Charles Caldwell, ESF's director of human resources. "Our virtual-learning-environment model is one example where programmers have created add-ons to support the needs of our schools."

Currently, ESF is looking to hire a PHP analyst programmer. Caldwell says the successful candidate will assist with the application design, development, maintenance and operation of the cross-school system. "We look for people who are interested in developing a career in the education field and who enjoy working with people from different cultural backgrounds," he says.

Duties include application design, programming, general database operations, producing reports, production support and technical documentation.

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