NTU’s vision for a data-driven university

By Vanessa Gu

Alvin Ong, Nanyang Technological University’s CIO, shares his vision for data and changing the way the university buys tech.

“The mark of higher education isn't the knowledge you accumulate in your head, it’s the skills you gain about how to learn”, says Adam Grant, a professor at the world-famous Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

The role of higher education has evolved in the last decade. Conventionally, university education equipped students with skills for the workforce. But in a world where technology is changing the way we learn and work, how can universities prepare students for the future?

Against this backdrop, Alvin Ong, Nanyang Technological University’s Chief Information Officer, says “you always need to be mindful of what is happening in that [digital] space, and be sure that we continuously add value.” He shares with GovInsider how the university is using a data-driven approach to provide a more tailored education for students beyond graduation.

Data-driven education

In 2018, NTU’s President, Professor Subra Suresh, launched a Smart Campus vision, which focuses on using the latest technologies to support education and sustainability on campus. Ong says that chatbots, robotic process automation, and facial recognition will be used in the university.

But first the CIO wants to use data to have a more holistic view of students’ performance. In a campus of over 30,000 students, profiling students is no easy feat, and he wants to use machine learning to identify those who may be falling behind. This, he says, has the potential to help "identify students that are at risk," and help professors to "intervene in a timely manner.”

Ong says the goal is “to have an integrated view of a student” from the point of admission till after graduation. Eventually, he wants to “have insights from all the data, and have all the prompts and alerts in real time, which will help us make better decisions.”

With an increased focus on lifelong learning, having a comprehensive student profile will allow the university to help with development beyond graduation. In 2017, the university announced that it will provide US$1,175 worth of additional SkillsFuture credit for the school’s alumni to earn certificates through NTU’s online professional development courses.

For a start, Ong reveals that plans are already underway to replace “different pockets of systems” used by students to a single platform in the next two years. He explains this will help create a single data lake for analytics to take place.

Changing the way NTU buys tech

As the university continues on its tech modernisation journey, it is looking to increase partnerships with companies to build tech, instead of developing it in-house. He argues: “How can one organisation be better than 1,000 organisations, which have used the software, provided inputs to the vendor to improve the software almost every day?”

Ong explains that it is difficult for a single organisation to match the amount of resources a company with millions of customers has. Rather than trying to develop something that is specifically tailored, he prefers to embrace “best practices that are out there” and configure them to the university’s needs.

For instance, the university recently replaced more than 60 legacy HR systems using a commercial cloud provider. Now that information is in one place, Ong says they now have a convenient way to perform data analytics. “We now can quite easily, or in the future, we can generate reports on talent development, and on attrition,” he says.

NTU is one of the top research universities in the world, and holds valuable data which may be targets for hackers. But Ong is not that worried about security risks from commercial providers because “they know that if there is a breach of their cloud infrastructure, the repercussions are quite tremendous." He adds that cybersecurity challenges will always be present regardless of where information is hosted. What is important are independent checks and balances and multiple layers of defence.

The jobs of the future will require the workforce to adapt and learn quickly. Education institutions will have to remain ahead by moving quicker than digital trends, and planning for development beyond graduation.