Chapter 5

ICT in New Zealand universities, 1985–2010

Neil James & Marjan Lousberg

The past is a different country. It is no surprise to us that our grandparents had a very different experience of life than the one we have today. Nonagenarians have witnessed tremendous technological changes, from horse-drawn carriages to jet travel and walking on the moon. What is perhaps more surprising is that today’s 40-year-old can look back in equal wonderment at the world of their youth without the Internet, email and laptops, not to mention without Google and Facebook. How would today’s universities cope without broadband Internet access? Could a student find his or her way in the old library card system, or a lecturer teach with only chalk and a blackboard as tools? The innovations in information and communication technology (ICT) over the last 25 years have been astonishing. In this chapter we discuss these changes over the period from 1985 to the present, from the perspective of New Zealand universities, with particular reference to the University of Otago. Some of the most dramatic changes in information technology overseas and in New Zealand have been spearheaded by universities. Although universities use ICT to support management and operating functions, just like business corporations, they also face particular challenges in deploying ICT to administer a large, constantly changing population of students and to serve the university’s primary functions of research, teaching and learning. Today’s students want to be able to enrol and check their marks online, connect to the university’s wireless network from anywhere on campus and expect a lecture presentation with PowerPoint richly laced with photos and video clips, and available for review on the university website.

We begin this chapter by outlining what the ICT environment was like during the 1980s, and then look at what changes have taken place in ICT in universities over the past 25 years, and the impact of these changes on the areas of administration, support and services, research, teaching and learning. Finally, we look at what may lie ahead in the decades to follow.

ICT in the 1980s

From the mid-1960s New Zealand universities installed small, mainly IBM computers, particularly for administrative processing. Over time these were displaced by Burroughs computers (through a collective purchase by all New Zealand universities), and DEC and PRIME mini computers. In the early days, computer programming and computer science basics, if taught at all, were taught by departments such as Mathematics, but by the mid-1980s New Zealand universities had generally established a separate Department of Computer Science, and several taught Information Science courses in their business faculties. Microcomputers were in use in universities before 1980, but had yet to have a major impact. Each computer enthusiast had their own favourite hardware brand and operating system, including Apple II, Microsoft PC with MS-DOS, Amiga, Osborne, Commodore, Kaypro, Atari, NEC-APC, Amstrad, BBC and TRS-80. Researchers in science departments often created their own software for laboratory calculations and also for teaching purposes. The introduction of spreadsheet software, which started with VisiCalc on the Apple II, provided a tool with many potential uses beyond the original employment for financial modelling.

Word processing gradually replaced typewriters, but its beginnings were rather primitive. Administrative staff tended to use stand-alone word processing machines, which combined the keyboard text-entry and printing functions of an electric typewriter with a dedicated computer for the editing of text. One of the most common types in New Zealand was the CPT 8000. The name originally meant Cassette Power Typing, and the original product was a cassette tape base memory add-on for IBM Selectric typewriters. The CPT 8000 series was a dedicated word processor, with a 14" portrait oriented screen, that perfectly mimicked a sheet of paper being scrolled through an electric typewriter. The new microcomputers were used for word processing, with dot matrix printers capable only of draft quality printing. Word processing was also available on the central computers through various packages, including Mass-11 on the Digital Equipment Corporation VAX machines. These computers typically had attached high speed (1000 lines per minute) ‘line’ printers.

The most far reaching developments of the 1980s were in the areas of interface design and printing. In 1984 Apple introduced the Macintosh computer, with a graphical user interface (GUI) and dedicated and integrated programs for word processing (MacWrite) and picture drawing (MacPaint). In November 1985 Microsoft introduced its own GUI — an operating environment named Windows — as an add-on to MS-DOS. In 1985 Microsoft also introduced the first version of Word for the Macintosh. The first affordable laser printers started to appear in 1984 and the release of the Apple LaserWriter in 1985, using Adobe’s Postscript, provided revolutionary capabilities. The University of Otago purchased one (costing just over $14,000 — the equivalent to $32,000 in 2009 dollars). The ability to see on the screen an accurate representation of what would be printed, the so-called ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG) interface opened up the possibility of small scale in-house production of printed materials; soon there was an explosion of desktop publishing.

A strong initiative by Apple Computers in 1984 saw all but one of the New Zealand universities join a consortium for the acquisition of Apple Macintosh and Apple Lisa computers. The availability and use of microcomputers grew so rapidly that the University of Otago set up an internal microcomputer purchasing and sales service to help manage the flood of computer acquisitions — soon there was a roughly equal balance between Microsoft based PCs and Macintoshes. By 1985 the University, with a full-time equivalent staff count of 1100 had around 400 microcomputers distributed across departments; about 30 of these were dedicated for student use.

Notwithstanding the growing use of microcomputers, computing capacity in 1985 remained largely centralised. Typically, there was a computing centre that housed a handful of what were then called super minicomputers. The University of Otago had two mid-sized Digital Equipment Corporation VAX machines (largely devoted to research) and a Burroughs B5900 (largely devoted to administrative functions). While none of these machines would have been considered to be a mainframe computer, they were deployed and used in the same way as mainframe computers were used in other parts of the world. They had a growing number of attached ‘dumb’ terminals providing access from across campus. It was not unusual to find twice as many terminals attached to these timesharing minicomputers as would have been the case elsewhere in the world. For example, the University of Otago VAX/780 had over 40 attached dumb terminals in 1985. Microcomputers were also able to connect as terminals through software such as the widely available KERMIT.*

* The Kermit Project from Columbia University New York City has created communications software for nearly every computer and operating system on the planet since 1981. Initially Kermit software provided interactive and scripted file transfer and management and terminal emulation. Today the Kermit software does much more, including Unicode-aware character-set conversion, and Internet security for a wide range of platforms.

In 1985 telephone services were provided by the then New Zealand Post Office. University personnel worked with Post Office personnel to tailor services for their campuses and, in some cases, inter-campus communication. The actual cabling was owned by the Post Office; any use for campus data networking had to be negotiated with them, and only certified line drivers or modems could be attached to the lines. The University of Otago undertook a do-it-yourself computer cabling project to major buildings with 100 pair copper cables. This network removed the need to lease lines from the Post Office and consequently represented a considerable saving. By the end of 1985, a large electronic switch (DevelSwitch from Develcon), rather like an automated telephone exchange, was installed to connect terminals to central computers. Access to university computers from off-campus was available through devices such as dial-up acoustically coupled modems. While the Internet had yet to make a noticeable impact in New Zealand universities in 1985, the possibility of using networks to transfer files was being investigated — for example, to obtain urgently required software updates. Email was being used internally and there were minor international communications using dial-up links.

While in the early decades of computing some universities provided central computers particularly for research use, more often research access had to be interleaved with administrative computing requirements. The majority of research use of central computers was around data manipulation and statistical analysis, using a range of packages including SAS, BMDP, GLIM, Minitab and SPSS. The development and spread of personal computers provided an opportunity for individual research staff and groups to obtain their own computers. Although access to capital resources was often moderated through centralised capital allocation mechanisms, by 1985 the University of Otago encouraged departments to provide for their own research IT requirements. It was recognised that if the research worker required heavy computer services, microcomputers, or departmental minicomputers, could provide a less expensive option than relying on a timeshared central computer.

Teaching departments were experimenting with the use of computers to support teaching and learning, but in 1985 little support was available for these initiatives, although innovative and enthusiastic staff found their own way to introduce ICT technologies into their teaching activities. At the University of Otago a laboratory of Z80 microcomputers, running UCSD Pascal, had been established in 1981. These were replaced in 1985 with 13 Macintosh computers, marking the start of the establishment of a network of computer laboratories later in the decade.

By 1985, much of the potential was there: embryonic communication networks, microcomputers, and graphic user interfaces, but technology was too slow and too expensive. Yet, the ICT world was, as it were, poised for a ‘great leap forward’. The most important changes in ICT technologies from 1985 to this day have been in networking and communications — including local area networks, the advent of universal access to the Internet, advanced high-speed national and international networking with the resulting rise of the eResearch paradigm, which supports data intensive research and dynamic virtual environments — the continual lowering of the cost of hardware, leading to a wide-spread availability of personal computers, and incremental improvements in the reliability and continuity of services. In the following pages we will discuss the practical implications of these ICT changes for the overall functioning of universities.

Local networking

Through the latter half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, universities generally developed their local area networks (LAN) in a piecemeal fashion as funds and requirements coincided. At the University of Otago, with the rapidly increasing demand on the LAN, performance became less than adequate. A project was established in 1994 to completely re-implement the LAN over a three-year period, including rewiring all university buildings with CAT5copper cables, the highest standard for high speed networking at that time. Buildings were interconnected with fibre and the active elements included fibre distributed data interface (FDDI) rings feeding Ethernet. Early in the 21st century, the whole LAN was further upgraded to gigabit Ethernet standard. These LANs in the universities are some of the largest and most complex in New Zealand.

By the 1990s, universities were taking over the on-campus cabling originally owned by the Post Office, and taking direct responsibility for on-campus telephone services. With the rewiring to support LAN technology, the distinction between telephone cabling and data cabling disappeared, and the responsibility for telephone services came under the same management as the computing services in the universities. Over the last decade the universities moved into the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and the traditional private automatic branch exchange (PABX) started to be displaced on many campuses. The widespread use of cell phone technology in universities led to a variety of bundled offerings, where on-campus use of cell phones was offered ‘free’, from suppliers keen for university business.

More recently, universities started to invest in the deployment of wireless access points using the Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11) standard, aiming to eventually provide the convenience of access across their campuses.

National and international networking

New Zealand’s link to the Internet began as a joint development project with NASA in 1989, and formed part of the Pacific Communications programme, PACCOM. The gateway, NZGate, was managed by Waikato University on behalf of Tuia,* an incorporated society whose mission was to further the networking interests of the research and education community within New Zealand. NZGate began with a 9600bit/sec analogue cable link to Hawaii. Connectivity inside New Zealand was provided by PACNET (Telecom’s public X.25 service) and Coloured Book** software at each of the universities. PACNET access speeds were mostly 9600 bps. In 1992 the Tuia network was set up with a backbone of leased lines linking 13 sites: five universities, six Crown Research Institutes (CRIs), the National Library of New Zealand and the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST). The backbone was upgraded in capacity over the next few years, but by 1997 the telecommunications companies targeted individual universities with offers for bundled telecommunications services that undercut the rates Tuia had to charge. The telecommunications companies offered lower rates to individual universities than they offered to the collective Tuia operation. Tuia was dissolved in November 1997. Unfortunately this arrangement did not provide the necessary improvement in services, and by 2000 it was becoming clear that New Zealand universities were falling behind the rest of the academic world in their access to national and international networking. The cost of high-speed connectivity nationally was very high, limiting what was feasible in using large data sets remotely or accessing collaboration technologies such as videoconferencing. After several years of lobbying for development of an advanced network similar to that available in all other countries in the developed world, the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology finally took the initiative to lead a project to establish a network for the research and education sector. The arrival of the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (KAREN) network in 2006 completed the high-speed transport from the desktop to the whole research and education networked world.

* Tuia is a Māori word that means ‘bound together’.

** The Coloured Book protocols were a set of computer network protocols used on packet-switched academic networks in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1992. The name originated with each protocol being identified by the colour of the cover of its specification document.

Until KAREN existed, the cost of videoconferencing was relatively high, and not widely used by universities. With KAREN removing the cost of transmission (to connect with others in the KAREN network) from the equation, videoconferencing, in a number of different forms, blossomed. There was initial widespread deployment of Access Grid technology, which enabled large format audio and video collaboration between different groups on the KAREN network; this was catalysed by the Building Research Capability in Social Sciences (BRCSS) project. To complement this, a number of desktop videoconference systems and other videoconference packages were also deployed across KAREN, and in the last two years high-definition videoconferencing has become available, facilitated in particular by a high-definition Multi-Conferencing Unit (MCU) bridge at Research and Education Network New Zealand (REANNZ). These facilities have been used for meetings, and, as noted above, for research collaboration, and there is growing use to support teaching and learning activities. The Advanced Video Collaboration Centre was established in 2008 dedicated to facilitating, enhancing and encouraging the use of video collaboration technologies across New Zealand’s universities and Crown Research Institutes.

The Internet and the World Wide Web

In common with similar developments in other countries, the universities and research community spearheaded the establishment of the Internet in New Zealand. Having created the first Internet gateway for New Zealand, universities by default often became the local Internet service provider (ISP) for their geographical region. However, by the turn of the century universities had removed themselves from the ISP business outside their own institutions.

In the early 1990s, leading universities in the US were developing campus wide information systems using technology such as WAIS (Wide Area Information System — a text search system) and Veronica (a search engine) used in conjunction with the TCP Gopher protocol to provide a range of information accessible from computers connected to their local networks. In 1993 New Zealand universities began experimenting with Gopher and it was possible to access remote library catalogues and news services. By 1994 universities had mounted World Wide Web (WWW) home pages, and web access in New Zealand became a reality. While Gopher services continued in parallel for some time the Web, with its graphic capabilities, quickly became dominant. This started to have an impact on international communications. In February 1994, New Zealand traffic had doubled in one year, after which traffic increased by 15% per month, even though the New Zealand Internet connection with the rest of the world only had a total capacity of 48 Kilobytes per second. This was subsequently upgraded to the then massive 128 Kilobytes per second. Today’s capacity on the main international cable is 495 Gigabytes per second, around 4 millions times as much capacity.

The University of Otago had established a web presence by 1994 and in only a few years web pages became a vital information service for the university community, as well as a useful marketing and publicity device. Finding an administrative home for the web presence caused some problems over the years for universities. The corporate marketing section of the university saw the web presence as clearly in their domain; the student administration services people thought it was largely their facility; and teachers were beginning to see the WWW as an important tool for teaching and learning. Because the web presence serves so many purposes it cannot easily fit into one section, and its chosen management ‘home’ is somewhat arbitrary. Some universities handled the issue of policy regarding the Web by the establishment of a representative committee, giving all sections of the university a say — common solution to decision making in universities.

Before Internet usage became widespread, there were problems with the introduction of viruses and other malicious software (malware) through swapping of storage disks; the Internet provided a much greater security threat. In a corporate environment it is usually considered acceptable to tightly control what is loaded on to computers, but this is not considered acceptable in the university research environment. The more open university environment exacerbated the security problems. There is a continuing tension between the desire to allow research workers their freedom, and the need for the university to provide a secure and safe computing environment. This has generally been managed through education, and light handled ‘regulation’, ratified through an appropriate governance mechanism. As early adopters of email, universities have attracted enormous amounts of spam (unsolicited email). This has typically been managed through employing spam control software that filters out likely spam, but gives users the option of recovering ‘spam’ mail.


Universities have invested heavily in database systems ever since moving beyond the indexed sequential file solutions of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1985 universities were learning to use database systems and were developing home-grown administration software. By the turn of the century, most services were supported by commercial software. Several universities took the path toward enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in the late 1990s and early in the new century for financial services and personnel services, and some also picked up the emerging student administration offerings. These systems proved to be anything but turnkey solutions, with a requirement for external consultants and in-house staff to tailor implementations (particularly for student administration). These developments came at a very significant increase in expenditure with universities investing multiple millions of dollars. In practise, as a result of the specific requirements of universities, including the diversity of function and the large, constantly changing student population, no complete ERP solution yet exists for universities and in essence the development path for most has continued to be ‘best of breed’.

More recently, there has been a growing interest in open source/community source developments. While these are not yet widely deployed in administrative areas, the fact that universities have accepted open source in other key areas (e.g. Moodle in course management) it is likely that universities will start to accept software development in an open source paradigm within their own education community.

This century has seen a major push to make a lot of material available online to the end users. Students are able to enrol online and access their personal information as held by the university. Staff have direct access to financial systems, personnel systems, and other management systems, both for performing their duties (e.g. entering university data) and access to information and services to do with their employment (e.g. staff request leave and supervisors assess leave online).


As an academic community a university forms a unique environment. Generally, university ICT governance is managed through a high-level committee with representatives from across the university. This high-level committee debates ICT developments and ratifies policy. The same is true at a national level. While to an extent, universities in New Zealand have been forced into competition, particularly for student enrolments and research money, they have continued to cooperate at many levels. The universities are all members of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and a national IT committee has been convened under their aegis since the 1960s. This committee typically meets three times a year to discuss ICT usage in universities and to share experience. It has facilitated collective action and has provided leadership to advance the efficient and effective use of ICT in the universities. The committee has convened national workshops and worked on collective purchasing for software, hardware and services. In addition, all the New Zealand universities have benefited from being associate members of the equivalent Australian body, Council of Australian Directors of Information Technology (CAUDIT). This forum provides a much wider perspective with over 40 members. It has also provided its members with access to professional staff development opportunities.

Funding IT services

Early funding of computing developments in universities was often from one-off grants, or purchases from residual budgets. As IT services and consequential expenditure grew, universities planned more consistently for computing developments, but at the same time concern was growing about the level of spending. University libraries had existed for centuries and had developed benchmarks for the resources required for a good library. No similar measures were available for IT. In addition, the rapid advances in IT made the development of benchmark statistics difficult.

Different universities responded in different ways to the pressures of increasing IT costs. All used cost recovery or various charging mechanisms to try to contain costs. The University of Otago alone moved to a full cost recovery model for internal ICT services, with mixed results. Services such as telephones and toll calls, where staff members were familiar with similar charging in their private lives, were generally successful in containing costs. But charging for ICT advice and support services proved to be counterproductive in the university environment. Rather than paying for central services, departments preferred to rely on their own staff, which led to higher real costs for the university as a whole.

Charging for Internet use had become a hot topic by the turn of the century, and most universities moved to direct user charging for Internet use in an effort to curb profligate usage. However, some universities have now moved away from direct charging, partly because the actual costs have greatly reduced, and partly to align with the ‘free’ access model adopted for the use of KAREN services.

The ubiquitous need for the acquisition and update of computer hardware and software has required a rethinking of capital expenditure. While science based departments traditionally had significant equipment budgets, and a concomitant expectation of capital expenditure, the humanities departments tended to have minuscule capital budgets. As computers became a fundamental part of the administrative infrastructure and integrated in teaching and learning activities, the demand for computers in humanities grew quickly. It has taken many years for this capital budget inequality to be addressed.

The data centre

From the mid-1990s, the central machine room slowly morphed into something more recognisable as a modern data centre. There was an explosion of rack-mounted servers running Microsoft or UNIX based software. Earlier this century, however, many rack-mounted servers were replaced with blade technology. The switch to blade servers greatly increased server density, lowered power and cooling costs, and simplified data centre management. Because of a continuing focus on improving reliability, Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) technology became standard, along with mirroring for vital services. The aim of being able to very rapidly recover from failures moved on to implementation of continuous computing relying on geographically separated systems. Virtualisation played a big part in bringing down the large numbers of servers in the data centres, and provided a greatly improved flexibility.

Disaster recovery plans were given substance with the establishment of additional data centres, connected by very high-speed communications. By 2009, most universities had very robust central computing environments able to support continuous computing.

Support services

Over the decades, the focus of computer centres moved from the running of the central computers to one of providing support services and a helpdesk function. The University of Otago established a comprehensive helpdesk service early in 1992. From its inception, the decision was taken to staff the facility with highly experienced personnel, rather than to function as a referral agency. This ensured that a high proportion of enquiries (greater than 80%) could be satisfied on first contact. The concept of the helpdesk as the first point of contact for all queries was promoted and the helpdesk was seen as central to the whole Computing Service Centre.

In the 1980s and through the 1990s it was common for universities to have in-house computer maintenance services. However, as computers became more reliable, and as purchase arrangements offered extended warranties, most universities dropped the maintenance services late last century or early this century. Over the same period most of the universities had in-house computer purchasing sections. However, once again these sections have largely disappeared as purchasing arrangements with suppliers has become more sophisticated and flexible.

The University of Otago rapidly developed its internal IT training section in the early 1990s, in response to demand from university staff who found themselves expected to be ‘computer literate’. The university also recognised the need to instruct even computer literate students on the increasingly sophisticated computer infrastructure. Towards this end, a compulsory computer ‘driver’s licence’ scheme was introduced, greatly reducing reported problems. In later years, as computer literacy of incoming students was at a much higher level, the ‘driver’s licence’ scheme was abolished, but the requirement for substantial support continued.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s the University of Otago established a network of computer resource rooms. So-called ‘tutor-supervisors’, drawn from senior students, were employed to provide front-line assistance to students using the computers in the resource rooms. During the 1990s lecture theatres were augmented with sophisticated technology, including display equipment, sound systems, video facilities, lighting controls, and computers. The Teaching and Learning Facilities support services at the University of Otago currently provide support for lecture theatres, computer resource rooms, audio/visual services, audio/videoconferencing, and e-learning.

Access to printing facilities for students has always been a particular challenge. Various solutions have been tried over the years, but perhaps the most successful have been those based on a prepaid swipe card access. Ensuring appropriate flexibility in such systems turns out to be a less than trivial task. This leads to the irony that the cost of running such services can easily exceed the cost of the actual printing and supplies, with the implication that providing free printing would appear to be a less expensive option. However, if there were no restrictions, the amount of printing and paper used would dramatically increase.

By the turn of the century, in addition to the computers in resources rooms and in recognition of the importance of email communication for teaching and learning activities, the University of Otago began distributing computers known as ‘eStops’, in areas where students socialised. These were configured for email and web services and generally provided only stand up access, but special eStops were also designated for mobility-impaired students. By 2009 there were a total of over 700 computers in 30 different locations for all students to use across the Dunedin university campus. Clearly this growth could not continue. Fortunately, the decreasing cost of laptop computers has made it possible in recent years for students to purchase their own computers. By 2005 50% of students at the University of Otago came with a laptop and by 2009 this had risen to almost 90%. Consequently, the University of Otago has expended considerable resources supporting student use of their own laptop computers, thus lowering the demand on the University-provided computer resource rooms. The introduction of Wi-Fi services (wireless local area network) has helped the university to cope with the insatiable student appetite for Internet access.

Library services

In 1985, ICT had as yet had little influence on libraries, but that was about to change. The first major change came with the introduction of ‘automated library systems’. These packages provided a range of facilities including an electronically accessible catalogue, and a range of technical ‘back-end’ services, such as acquisition support and cataloguing. Converting the old card catalogues was an enormous task, with the data entry work usually being done by specialist services offshore.

The advent of inexpensive CD-ROM technology in the late 1980s led libraries to use the medium for a variety of purposes. A CD-ROM data base server was able to restrict the use according to the licensing details associated with the material on the CD-ROM. The somewhat clumsy, site specific CD-ROM technology gave way to online access to databases in the late 1990s. Academic journals became available electronically and universities could purchase licenses for electronic access only, or electronic and paper copies. The licensing arrangements continued — and continue — to pose access problems. Usually databases and journals are licensed for use by members of the university and different suppliers use different techniques to try to ensure compliance. In some cases, the databases can only be accessed by machines within the domain of the university, restricting staff and student access and preventing the use of their own computers. It is hoped that federated identity management will eventually solve such issues. In this model the material suppliers will be able to rely on the proof of identity — membership of the appropriate community — for the provision of access.

As a result of their entry into the digital world, the role of university libraries has changed. Costs are applied very differently and libraries have to employ IT personnel as well as librarians, while librarians have to be willing to embrace technology. Students bring their laptops to the library; therefore, study spaces need to accommodate this. The redevelopment of the central library of the University of Otago in 2001 was a golden opportunity to create study facilities for students where they were able to plug their laptops directly into the campus LAN. There are now around 1100 wired study spaces available, but the big growth area is wireless access from the study areas. Today’s libraries have an important teaching task to assist students in navigating cyberspace and locating information of the right calibre. Libraries also need to be able to provide appropriate services for the increased number of students studying extramurally.

University libraries have, in recent years, started to involve themselves in digitising New Zealand books, documents, specialist collections and picture archives to make them more readily available online. For example, Victoria University of Wellington Libraries have initiated the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (NZETC) to provide open access to significant New Zealand and Pacific Island texts and materials. Matapihi is another online resource of New Zealand materials, to which a number of academic libraries contribute.

Early this century several universities found themselves ready to renew their automated library systems and they decided to work together for the supply of library services. This led, in 2004, to the establishment of the Library Consortium of New Zealand (LCoNZ), which is described as a national, virtual organisation. A national data centre runs library systems software providing remote access to the library services by the member universities’ communities.


The trend to encourage researchers, whether individuals, groups or departments, to obtain their own computers dedicated to research continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. By the turn of the century, little research processing was handled on the university’s central computers. Beyond some help with statistical packages and other data analysis, research workers largely looked after their own computing needs. Starting early this century the need for national and international collaboration in research through the use of computer networking became apparent. The paradigm of eResearch was developed and drove the need for advanced networks with high-speed capacity both nationally and internationally. Although New Zealand was slow to respond to this need, the KAREN network was established in 2006, bringing New Zealand online to the world of advanced networking. Beyond the high speed, a key aspect of the KAREN network is that universities are encouraged to provide access without directly charging usage to the individual research worker or group. This is the usual situation in advanced research networks in other countries. The ‘free’ access encourages usage and experimentation, leading to much improved collaboration across institutions and the world. This has allowed researchers and teachers to do ‘wasteful’ and ‘blue sky’ explorations with the network, and as a result new opportunities have been and are being discovered.

Unlike in Australia, the US and the UK, New Zealand universities did not obtain anything of the class of super computers until recent years. As a result of lowered hardware costs, most of the universities now have high performance computers for research use. These computers provide another element of the eResearch environment. With the emergence of eResearch came the requirement for support for the development and use of the various associated technologies. The Broadband enabled Science and Technology GRID (BeSTGRID) project was initiated in 2006 to facilitate eResearch in New Zealand. Another element of the eResearch environment is collaboration technology such as advanced videoconferencing. By 2006, videoconferencing was increasingly used through technologies such as the Access Grid and desktop videoconferencing systems such as EVO (Enabling Virtual Organizations).

Teaching and learning

The University of Otago has a strong tradition of supporting the use of computers in teaching and learning activities. The first Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) consultant, based in the computing centre, was appointed in 1986. At that stage at least 30% of teaching departments used computers for teaching and learning. Many had developed specific software for their discipline. The University of Otago made extensive use of HyperCard on the Macintosh computer to develop CAL software, and students were provided access through a network of some 13 geographically distributed computers resource rooms with a total of around 250 computers. Several of the resource rooms were made available 24 hours a day via swipe-card. Students also made extensive use of word processing and other common utilities such as spreadsheets. By 1994 Computer Assisted Learning had grown to a unit with three full-time staff. At present an Educational Media section with seven full-time staff is attached to the academic staff development section of the University of Otago. It is no exaggeration to claim that today every department uses technology to support teaching and learning. Lecturers can download their lecture materials (generally in PowerPoint or similar format) from the comfort of their desk to the lecture theatre computer.

By 1994, students were beginning to use the World Wide Web and email. At the University of Otago, web access was initially freely available from the computer resource rooms, but inevitably such liberal access had to be limited when the level of traffic was observed to be doubling each day!

Departments started experimenting with delivering assignments via email and expecting students to respond in the same way. By the end of the century departments began to investigate the use of websites to help support their teaching and learning. At this stage too most New Zealand universities introduced an e-learning management system — Blackboard (originally known as CourseInfo) at the University of Otago — that provided a comprehensive course management environment, integrated with each university’s student records system. Most of the universities also moved to provide audio and/or video recordings of lectures for later review by students. Some lecturers worried about the pedagogical value of such recording, or about attendance at lectures. This resulted in different approaches at the various universities.

Today all universities use a variety of computer-mediated services for teaching. Students have ready access to lecture material, recorded lectures, and assignment information, as well as specialised software to assist in the learning process. Undeniably, the core business of teaching and learning of universities has undergone tremendous changes as a result of the digital revolution, with a clear shift towards a more learner centred approach.

Conclusion and a look forward

Starting as a small unit responsible for a single or a few central mini computers, the Information and Communications Technology section in today’s universities has a wide purview, including the operation of data centres, the development of software solutions, development and operation of the LAN and wireless networks, ICT training, IT security, helpdesk and IT consulting, development of ICT strategy and policy, providing services for web hosting, email services, podcasting, student ICT support, videoconferencing, operating learning management systems, lecture theatre management, the support of eResearch tool, and a host of other services too numerous to name here.

In recent years, several universities have moved to outsource particular services. The provision of student email services has been a prominent candidate for outsourcing with high profile offering from both Microsoft and Google. At this point, with the availability of the very high speed fixed price national networking provided by the KAREN network, it has become increasingly realistic to consider utilising cloud computing. It is almost certain that more services will be outsourced and the need to operate data centres in universities will diminish. ICT is increasingly implicated in growing CO2 emissions bringing pressure to rationalise computing power. This is another pressure that is likely to move universities and other large organisations towards the use of cloud computing.

The hierarchical model of Web 1.0 is being displaced by the social networking atmosphere of Web 2.0, while at the same time academic teaching is moving from a teacher centred to a learner centred paradigm. The user-led content creation communities are being reflected in the academic sphere, with the use of virtual worlds, games and blogs for teaching and learning. Wireless networks and mobile tools also contribute to collaborative learning in higher education — education is becoming not only continuing but also ubiquitous. New applications such as Google Wave — an innovative online tool for real-time communication — will further enhance research, teaching and learning.

It is clear that changes and developments in ICT technologies from 1985 to this day have had a major impact on the functioning of universities. These changes have turned universities into communities of learners and researchers that, despite the increase in size, can feel connected internally, nationally and internationally.

Neil James has worked in New Zealand universities since 1969, including technical information technology development work and lecturing in computer science for 15 years. Neil is a fellow of NZCS. He served as the Director of IT Services at the University of Otago for 15 years, and chaired the universities’ national IT committee for over a decade. He has been a leader in the field of computer networking since the 1980s, advocating for an advanced computer network for research and education.

Marjan Lousberg has an MA in Computer Science and has been employed as both tutor and teaching fellow in the department of Computer Science at the University of Otago. From 1986 to 2000 she was the computer assisted learning consultant and manager of educational technology services at the University of Otago. In 2007 she was awarded a Doctorate in History.


BeSTGRID (n.d.). Broadband enabled science and technology GRID. Retrieved 25 May 2010, from

CAUDIT (n.d.). Council of Australian University directors of information technology. Retrieved 25 May 2010, from

KAREN (n.d.). Kiwi advanced research and education network. Retrieved 25 May 2010, from

Matapihi (n.d.). Retrieved 25 May 2010, from

Newman, K (2008). Connecting the clouds: The Internet in New Zealand. Retrieved 25 May 2010, from

NZETC (n.d.). New Zealand electronic text centre. Retrieved 25 May 2010, from