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Birmingham City University deploys SAS® on demand to help create more employable graduates

With SAS® embedded in various degree courses, Birmingham City University (BCU) opted to migrate to SAS® OnDemand for Academics (SoDA)– giving its technology students more flexible 24/7 access to powerful analytics and helping arm them with essential 'can do' workplace skills

"We are different from other Universities in that we approach this field from the computing side rather than the business side," says Dr Kathy Maitland PhD, Senior Lecturer and SAS Academic Lead in the School of Computing, Telecommunications and Networks. "We give students the ability to actually drive SAS to meet different business needs, rather than simply using SAS as a tool; a cross-discipline approach." The objective is to foster a true 'can do' attitude. "Our graduates not only leave with degrees but can also be SAS Certified Professionals, giving them an extra edge compared to other graduates." She says the Faculty is now producing what are loosely termed 'graduates plus' who "have the theory along with proven experience of using the industrial-strength tools, like SAS, that industry wants. Our students are known for their ability to go into an organisation and hit the ground running." The latest development in SAS has been a highly successful migration to SAS® OnDemand for Academics (SoDA). With software-as-a-service (SaaS) acknowledged as the fastest and most mature form of cloud deployment, this change provided BCU students with far more flexible 24/7 access to SAS from any location.

SAS® on demand to help create in-demand graduates

58 staff in the school, which is part of the Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment, deliver 15 courses to 900 undergraduate and postgraduate students. "We offer a mixed portfolio, from networks, telecommunications and electronics through forensic computing to games technology – and, increasingly, business intelligence, which is where SAS comes in," Dr Maitland says. The mix is driven by demand from industry and prospective students. "There is a BI skills shortage in the UK, and internationally. Part of our role is to listen to what industry and commerce require and reflect that in our courses." As BCU's relationship with SAS has evolved over time, the software has been introduced into various course modules with the emphasis on applied analytics and specifically data mining, from the programming side while also reflecting practical business needs. "This cross-discipline approach is what industry is calling for," Dr Maitland adds.

Until 2011, student access to SAS for exercises and assignments was limited to the building's opening hours and timetabled lab access, and only then for six days' each week; SAS was running on a limited number of machines. "Students wanted to work when they wanted, where they wanted," Dr Maitland continues. "When the opportunity arose from SAS to run our solution through the cloud and have 24/7 access, anywhere and any time on any machine, it seemed an offer we couldn't refuse." However, this was not only mid-semester, and halfway through a course, but would also mean switching the students to a different platform and from base SAS to SAS® Enterprise Guide®, with totally different interfaces. Dr Maitland was concerned this could lead to problems in how mixed ability students would react - but the actual experience proved very different when 50 MSc students migrated to the new platform over the Easter holidays. In the event, initial issues related to the multiple operating systems used by the University, its staff and students. "I did require a significant amount of help from SAS Support, in Cary, and I can't speak highly enough about the helpfulness, honesty and openness of the support technicians," Dr Maitland says. "For example, as soon as we got things working, the information on 'how to do it' was immediately posted on the SAS website. The level of collaboration and co-operation was brilliant."

With more able students treated as 'technical experts', their knowledge rapidly cascaded to less experienced peers – on how to use the service, creating accounts, and so on – rather than students coming to Dr Maitland. "That was fantastic, and the students took to it like ducks to water. It was amazing. They had no difficulty switching to the new platform, and to Enterprise Guide. At the same time, brighter students were empowered to learn more about SAS, while the others learned just enough to do what they needed to do. The result? I've got very contented students who switched far more easily than I'd expected. The important thing is the fact they can now work wherever they take their laptops or netbooks. It's changed their working patterns - and the results of my class have improved because the students have greater access to SAS. It's a real success story. And it's easier for me, as a tutor, and my colleagues. I can also work anywhere I want, including at home, with secure access via a broadband connection. I've demonstrated to colleagues and they can't tell the difference if I'm using SAS on my system or the on demand version."

Bringing highly employable professionals into the workplace

With plans to continue bringing SAS into a variety of modules, the future of 'can do' SAS professionals at BCU is bright. This will include modelling and analytics for banks and pharmaceuticals, and using SAS in network analysis projects for retail, construction and train management. "We're aiming for a situation where SAS can provide us with the software and training materials, we match that with the academic theory and put it all within an 'educational wrapper' to enable the right pedagogy from the University's perspective," Dr Maitland adds. Others initiatives planned include a 'rollback course' for former graduates, adding to their earlier degree by teaching SAS skills and so making them more employable, and offering students on other courses the opportunity to learn SAS skills in their own time through the school. "Our ultimate goal is to create an Academy of Applied Analytics," says Dr Maitland. "We live in a world that's data rich: data's everywhere, but most of it is just stored. Developing our students' abilities in understanding and working in applied analytics means they can not only write code and extract information from data stores but actually push the boundaries - to be more innovative, and discover new information that organisations might not have even considered."

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Birmingham City University

Business Issue:
Provide BSc and MSc students with easier, more flexible and extended access to powerful SAS analytics, for exercises and assignments, outside Faculty building opening hours and scheduled lab times.
Solution:
Migrating from base SAS in-house to SAS® OnDemand for Academics (SoDA) / SAS® Enterprise Guide® accessed using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud model; ongoing support from SAS Academic Programme.
Benefits:
Students and academic staff have faster and easier 'any time' secure access to powerful SAS software on demand to support more effective and flexible teaching and learning, helping create more employable professionals with the 'can do' attitude BCU students are becoming recognised for.

Our graduates not only leave with degrees but can also be SAS Certified Professionals, giving them an extra edge compared to other graduates – helping them be even more employable.

Dr Kathy Maitland

Senior Lecturer and SAS Academic Lead, School of Computing, Telecommunications and Networks

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