Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas festivities

Christmas Party today - lots of fun. Started with mulled wine at 11 - usually we have Buck's Fizz but this year we thought we'd have a change. I think it was probably my idea to make mulled wine for 150 people in a kitchen which is a flight of stairs away from where we were meeting. Not sure we'll do it again - the kitchen actually needs redecorating now, we made such a mess!

Then off to the hotel for more drinks, food and Karaoke. Didn't know we had so many budding singers in the department. As usual, I took lots of photos, but luckily for the singers, we didn't record anything!

This will be the last post until after Christmas - I hope everyone enjoys the holiday season, and I wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas and hope that the new year brings you peace and happiness.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Professor Vanessa's Twenty Performing Wonders

It is tradition in most Universities that when a member of staff is awarded a Personal Chair, then they give an inaugural lecture on their specialist research interest. Sometimes, it is quite low key - sometimes it is exactly the opposite, as was the case last night! Professor Vanessa Toumlin is Director of the National Fairground Archive (NFA) here at the University of Sheffield, and gave an entertaining talk on the relationship between the world of live entertainment culture and early film produced in the 1900s. As well as showing some wonderful early film - including one of the most bizarre films I've ever seen of a dancing pig - she was assisted on stage by a number of modern variety acts. There was a female sword swallower, Miss Behave, a female magician assisted by a very balletic grasshopper, and the Danger Boys - a pair of street enertainers who juggled sharp knives whilst riding giant unicycles on the stage. With their lovely assistant Stuart!

An excellent evening, combining academic scholarship with pure entertainment!

You have to laugh.....

RAE results announced at midnight. Web site falls over at one minute past! So much for people having an early night.

I'm sitting on the sofa tucked up in my pyjamas and dressing gown clicking the page with one hand and a glass of brandy in the other. It's the poor soul looking at the servers I feel sorry for!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Fingers crossed

Meeting of Senior Admin Heads this morning, and a presentation on the work of our Development and Alumni office. It's a much misunderstood office I think, with the connotations of the "begging bowl" - a phrase our development officer quite rightly hates!

Some of the older parts of the University were funded by local philanthropists, and indeed the University was founded after a campaign to the working people of Sheffield to donate a penny each so that their children and their children's children would have a University in their city. These days the office exists to make friends, reconnect with alumni and to raise donations. Donations are particularly important in providing scholarships to students who are suffering hardship - and these days many of them do.

It was a very thought provoking talk, and I hope dispelled many of the myths about fundraising - I'm proud to say I'm an alumnus of the University, and am even a member of the silver arrows club.

Of course the other topic of conversation acros the University today is the results of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) - received by the senior management team this morning, but embargoed until tomorrow. By the time you read this, they will have been released- fingers crossed for good news!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Exec meets the Section Heads

Meetings starting to wind down a bit as we approach the Christmas festivities, but still enough to keep me busy! Last week we had the inaugural meeting of the departmental customer service group. This is definitely not the Customer Services section of the department, but volunteers from across all areas who are coming together to look at where we can improve our customer service, how we can incentivate staff and improve morale and share best practice. Nice to see so many people at the first meeting, and I look forward to seeing it develop.

This morning we had a meeting of our Executive Team and our Section Heads. Lots to discuss, and the first item was the thorny issue of communication - what works well, what doesn't, and what can we do to improve things. Whilst a lot is working well, there are things to be improved - more meetings where the Sections Heads meet the whole of the Executive for example, rather than just their Assistant Director. We presented our two emerging strategies to the group - the Technology Strategy and the Learning and Teaching Support Strategy. A Research Strategy is under development, and all will help to guide the department to realise our vision over the next 5 years.

We discussed items we'd like to see on future meeting agendas, and the two main ones are resource allocation and escalation of issues. Resource allocation in its broadest sense - how we know what people are doing, how do we allocate resources to new projects as well as "business as usual", and what can we stop doing as we run more and more services. Escalation is deciding what decisions people can take on their own, and what needs to be referred upwards. Sometimes referral is not for a decision, but just approval, or even just to make sure people are informed. It's a difficult topic and one which I'm sure will generate a lot of discussion.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

New buildings

Managed to drag myself out of bed and back to work today. Spent the morning trying to catch up with emails, and then had a very pleasant lunchtime looking round three of the University's new buildings which will all be occupied after Christmas.

The first was The Soundhouse, the rubber clad rehearsal and sound studios for the Departmentof Music. Lots of small soundproofed rooms, some with round windows at interesting heights, and some with very interesting sound baffles on the walls. There's also a couple of recording studios in there. We even found a PVC practicing on one of the pianos......

Next was the refurbished Victorian Jessop's Hospital - once the main maternity hospital, and soon to be home to the Department of Music. It was in a terrible state when we took it over and had been home to colonies of pigeons for several years. It's also listed, and was riddled with asbestos. But, the main staircase has been reinstated, and the whole building beautifully refurbished. There are staff offices, postgraduate space and some very nice teaching and seminar rooms. Many of them have been designed acoustically for the Music department, and all are very bright and airy.

Finally we visited Jessop West, a brand new multicoloured building which will be home to the School of Modern Languages, English and History. Each department has its own wing and in the centre is a hub with a fantastic wooden atrium. The picture above is from the 4th floor looking down to the ground floor. Each wing has individual staff offices and shared postgraduate teaching and research space. On the ground floor is a cafe, an exhibition space and the main University visitor centre. The spaces are excellent, and looks like it will be a brilliant building to work and study in.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Try some new blogs.....

A new copy of our Newsletter is out - complete with its own front page wordle. A limited number of printed copies are produced, and then we make it available as a pdf on our web site. I'm a great believer in not printing if we don't need to, but our research has shown that people still like to flick though a printed copy of a publication such as a newsletter. It's the reason we still buy newspapers and books, despite many of them being available electronically.

One thing we keep trying to push to our users is to be aware of phishing, and there's an article warning them about giving away personal details such as user names and passwords. It was rather appropriate that it was published today as we were hit by a particularly sophisticated attack - over 4000 messages delivered supposedly from our Marketing Department, offering staff a pre-christmas, interest-free loan. As long as they divulged their bank details of course!

Sorry for short blog posts - like many people I've been struck down by a lurgy! Bad cold, cough and general fever symptoms. Spent most of today in bed, and the rest watching TV curled up in a duvet on the sofa. If you are suffering withdrawal symptoms, visit some of the excellent blogs in my Blog List over on the right - they include Gartner Analysts, other IT Directors and the Executive Secretary of UCISA.

Normal blogging will resume when I've stopped coughing.....

Monday, 8 December 2008

.uni anyone?

In London at end of last week for UCISA Executive meeting - quite a short meeting, but some interesting discussions. We looked at the implications of a .uni or .university domain name for web sites under the new naming conventions. Would we want to use them? Would it affect our branding if other organisations used them? No answers, but plenty of issues.

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, is carrying out a review of Higher Education, and we looked at some of the papers that have been prepared for him to inform him of the issues. One of the contributions that is particularly relevant to us is the one from Sir Ron Cooke, until recently chairman of the JISC. He was asked to provide a contribution on becoming a world leader in e-learning, but his actual paper is entitled On-Line Innovation in Higher Education. It is worth reading - there is a good executive summary which outlines the three recomendations:
  • a new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content
  • revitalised investment into e-infrastructures
  • development of institutional information strategies
UCISA will be looking closely at this paper and its recommendations to see how we can help take this agenda forward

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Snowflake Ball

Another early start today - on 0719 train to London for UCISA meeting. Normally that's OK, but last night I was at a special party, so my head is feeling a bit sore!

We were celebrating the 25th birthday of the Octagon Centre, a multipurpose venue at the heart of the campus. I remember it being built, and during its construction it was always called the Clarkson Street building (because it was being built on the Clarkson Street car park), but before its opening there was a competition to give it a proper name and the Octagon Centre it became. Named after the largest space in the building, Convocation Hall, which is 8 sided! It was funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC), which no longer exists, with some additional funding from the University and the Student Union. It has unusual management arrangements, as for part of the week during semesters the Student Union have sole use of it, the rest of the time it available for University and outside use and under the management of the Octagon Centre manager and his team who are part of our department. Indeed, the management arrangements were seen to be so complicated, that back in 1983 when it opened, it had its own committee - the Octagon Centre Management Committee, and a certain newly appointed junior administrator, one Dr Sexton, was the secretary to it. Those were the days, when every possible function in the University was overseen by a group of august academics, who would make such important decisions as how the bar profits would be split between the Union and the University and who would be responsible for cleaning the venue after a Union disco!

The Octagon has seen many famous names on its stage, and can be adapted for many different uses. Currently it's used for lectures, exams and the Graduation Ceremonies, as well as concerts and celebrations. Last night it was beautifully decorated for the Snowflake Ball (I have some pictures but they're on my iPhone and I've no way of getting them off until later). It was a great night with an added bonus of raising funds for the Cavendish Cancer Care centre. I will be reminded of it all day, as during the evening as part of the fundraising events, I had to burst a balloon with a pin, whcih I did very close to my face, not realising it was full of glitter, which I was liberally coated with. Despite a shower, I still have gold glittery bits everywhere!

Edit - some pictures now added - not brilliant quality because they were taken with my phone.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

UEB and Apples

Early morning meeting today - University Executive Board meets Heads of Departments. Shorter meeting than usual, with another good presentation from the VC. Biggest discussion was about the release of the RAE results later this month, which will go to the press before the Universities. And even the Universities can only share them with a few senior staff as they are embargoed for a day before we can release them to the rest of the University.

Then at lunchtime my presentation to UEB - seemed to go OK. Lots of discussion and questions. Managed to find plenty of pictures to illustrate it, so very few lists of bullet points. Hope I got over that we're not just about technlogy, but about supporting the business needs and objectives of the University. We need and want to be involved in strategic discussions - almost every decision made by the Board will impact on us in some way, and almost everything we do will impact on the University. Partnership is the key, and we need to work together to make sure that the University gets the maximum benefit from our services.

Then later today I had a meeting with our Apple Higher Education rep. As I'm sure everyone know, I'm a real fan of Apple products, and this was a good opportunuity to talk abot some issues. I found out why Apple weren't at the EDUCAUSE exhibition, and why they won't be at UCISA later this year. A corporate decision aparently, but a pretty stupid one if you ask me. We talked about some of the issues we've been having getting iPhones on an O2 corporate contract, and also about iTunes U - something I'm very interested in. There's some excellent University sites onthere, and we will be considering having our own as part of our media hosting project.

Monday, 1 December 2008


Phew - HR stuff almost finished - can get back to normal work now!

Good planning meeting this morning looking at both our process and plans. Some interesting discussions about system reviews coming up. Our current student system is an in-house developed one, and has been live for 12 years. It's served us very well, and is totally customised to our requirements, and totally integrated. It does everything from dealing with the CRM side of prospective student enquiries, through on-line registration, assessments, graduation, careers and alumni. But, it's time we had a review to see if a bought-in package would give us benefits. That will probably take place next year. We'll be reviewing a few other systems as well, including the VLE, and possibly parts of the portal. Don't like to get complacent!

This afternoon we had an executive meeting, where we talked a lot about how we allocate project managers to projects, items for our upcoming Annual Report, and the content of the presentation I'm making to our Executive Board tomorrow morning. I've had great fun writing it, especially putting the actual presentation together. I don't like "death by bullet point" powerpoints, so this will be mainly lots of pictures. My favourite is the wordle I'm finishing with!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


Sorry - too busy to blog today. Promotion panels, scoring exceptional award cases and writing presentations taking all my time!

But I'll leave you this to play with - it's a stunning application.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Planning a presentation

Spent yesterday morning at another University helping them interview for a senior post. I always enjoy doing it - it's really interesting seeing how other institutions do things and meeting new people.

Most of the afternoon was spent in an Executive Meeting going over our planning documents and strategies which ill be subitted later today.

I also started planning my UEB presentation - I always finding starting these things the hardest - once I've got an outline I'm fine. Anyway, now I have an outline, so just got to write it. This is what I plan to talk about:

What’s in IT for me?

Support by CiCS to the business needs of the University can be categorised into the following broad areas:

• Teaching and Learning
• Research
• Collaboration and Communication
• Help & Support
• Corporate Business Activity
• Supporting Infrastructure

Taking each of these areas, the presentation will illustrate how CiCS is working to help the University achieve its objectives and what developments are either planned or are currently being implemented which will have a strategic benefit. Themes will include working smarter and more efficiently, working with the Faculties and the impact of innovation.

So, now to find pictures and interesting things to illustrate the presentation with - I hate death by powerpoint bullet points!

Sunday, 23 November 2008


Busy week about to start - two important meetings coming up which require a lot of preparation.

First, next Monday, is my opening discussion as part of the new planning process where I will be meeting the Registrar and members of the planning team to look at both our process and our plans for the next 3 years. Most of the documentation is already completed - we have a process in place stating with our vision, which the department agreed earlier this year at World Cafe style events:

“We will be an innovative and influential department, respected by the University and recognised as a leader in the sector, delivering excellent, customer focused services”

This is underpinned by a number of departmental strategies which inform planning, objective setting and the business processes of the department. Existing strategies are:

• Technology
• Teaching and Learning
• Customer Service
• Communications
• Research – (currently under development)

Objectives for the year are set at department, section and team level, and are communicated and available to the whole department. Individual objectives are set during the annual Staff Review and Development Scheme (SRDS)

New developments are managed by the CiCS Programme Board as part of the departmental programme of projects and outlined in our programme definition document. Other programmes oversee specific University initiatives, including the SAP programme and the University Collaboration Improvement Programme. For Business systems, Application Groups receive all requests for new developments for prioritisation, with individual projects then going to the CiCS Programme Board.

So, I think we've got the planning process sorted out, but we need to ensure that we are aligining with University priorities, and that we have the resources to carry out our plans.

Immediately following that on Tuesday I have a session with our governing body - the University Executive Board - where I get the chance to talk to them about how we are supporting the business needs of the University. We will be looking at current and future developments and what strategic benefits they will achieve.

More on that later, I've got to write the presentation now.... Oh, and I've got a week full of meetings.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Collaborating smarter

Collaboration high on the agenda at the moment. UCIP Programme Board meeting yesterday, and a useful discussion on some of the projects which come under this programme.

We're moving forward with the implementation of Zimbra as our next calendaring and email system, and made a decision to roll it out to students first. A number of reasons why : we can roll it out in a phased way, starting with first years who have no experience of current systems so no data to transfer or new systems to learn; students don't have access to a calendar at the moment, and we do have a concern about how we're going to move all of the data over from staff calendars; students complain less!

Clearspace implementation also going well - production service just about in place, pilots identified and starting, and still a lot of buzz about the place as to how this will utilise Web 2.0 technologies to improve collaboration, communication and discussion.

We've also started to pull together a set of web pages about collaboration which will eventually develop into a repository of information and advice for staff and students. Still a work in progress, but moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Koi Carp and Web Sites

Still spending lots of time on promotion and contribution award panels - all other work having to be fitted round it. Did have time for a good discussion yesterday about the future direction of our departmental web site. Who is the audience? What messages are we trying to get over? How can we make it easier for customers to find what they need? How much wizzo stuff do we want to put on it. I think the formal term is probably Web 2.0, but I prefer wizzo. I was in a very wizzo mood, having spent my lunch hour downloading apps onto my iPhone. I can get very excited about stuff - and two apps definitely fell into the wizzo category.

The first was the new version of Google for the iPhone which includes voice recognition. It's fab - you just open the app, move the phone to your ear, the accelerometer in the phone recognises that you've done that, so you speak the search term, move the phone away again, and Google does the search. I tried loads of search terms and it recognised all of them - even with my accent. It also uses location awareness, giving results appropriate to your location.

The second is Shazam, (which I know has been around for a while). Basically you just let your iPhone listen to about 10 seconds of music, and then it tells you what it is - and finds you a youTube video of it! How cool is that. Great for cheating in music quizzes.

So, how can any of that help us with the design of our web site? Well, we need stuff on there that will keep people coming back to it, information that is relevant to them, and interactive features such as discussion boards, polls, blogs etc. We also need more information about our services rather than our systems, and help for users to decide which services they need to use, rather than just listing them. All currently being worked on.

Perhaps we don't need a Koi Pond (my other favourite iPhone app), with tropical fish which are currently in holiday mode, with Christmas Lights, holly in the water and bright red noses on.....

Monday, 17 November 2008

Infinity Bookcase

I've already posted about some chairs I'd like to see in our innovative Information Commons.

Well, how about this for book shelving:

Photo: Job Koelewijn

Supporting Teaching and Learning

We've always provided support for teaching and learning by providing student computing rooms, software and more recently as a partner in the Information Commons. However, the climate in which we now provide support is changing rapidly. The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies, providing new ways to collaborate and publish user generated content means that we have to take a serious look at our role. We need to become facilitators, supporting the use of new technology and embracing the different ways teaching space might be used.

In the light of this, we have produced a strategy for the support of teaching, learning and assessment which will provide a framework for how we provide our services over the next few years. The aim of the document is to align those CiCS objectives that affect the student experience with those of the University and to ensure that CiCS plays its part in achieving the University’s aspiration ‘to ensure that the highest standards of excellence are maintained within the student learning experience’ .

The strategy outlines our direction in three different areas - physical spaces, technology and support. One of our objectives is to enable students to develop their own use of technology to support both their learning as well as their development of skills for life, and our Student Learning Community project is an example of how we are aiming to deliver this.

As part of developing this strategy, and looking at how we might work collaboratively with other support departments to provide the most appropriate support for learning and teaching, we're having a forward look at what technology changes are on the horizon and what effect they might have. Web 5.0 anyone?

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Cultivating, parking and housing

Busy day today - spent the morning scoring promotion cases. I'm heavily involved with the HR process around promotions and contribution awards and on 3 panels for each. Lots and lots of cases to read and score. Hard work, but I enjoy it - keeps me in touch with what other departments do, and with HR processes and policies.

This afternoon we had a presentation and discussion with Cultivate, a company who assist their clients in the adoption of innovative technologies across their campuses. Some very interesting insights into the issues around technology adoption, particularly the "what's in in for me" syndrome. Some of their outputs were very visual and creative, and would appeal to the non technologists looking for the business slant rather than the the IT one. We will be considering whether we might use them to help us with some of our new projects.

Then we had a Programme Board, looking at progress with our existing projects, proposals for new projects and project closures. Good progress on most projects, but as always some delays due almost totally to resource issues. Only 2 new projects approved - one is a feasibilty study into a pay-on-the-day parking scheme Currently staff pay a yearly fee for a parking permit, no matter how many times they bring their car in. A pay on the day scheme might be fairer to part-time staff and might encourage staff to use their cars more selectively. To walk in on nice sunny days for example. If we had any nice sunny days of course. The other project was a rewrite of our private housing system which allows private landlords to register with us and have their details accessible via a web site which students can search for appropriate properties. Our existing system was written some years ago and could do with updating, but it will have to be prioirtised along with all of the other student related projects we have.


Videos of some of the sessions I attended at EDUCAUSE have just gone on line - I've put links to them at the bottom of the relevant blog posts. All of them can be accessed from here, and I might now use the opportunity to watch some of the ones I didn't get to - it's difficult when there's 20 sessions running at the same time, there's always at least two I want to get to.

And if you want to watch a funny video, try this one

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A day in the life of

As part of the University Collaboration Improvement Programme we're drawing up a blueprint - a look forward 5 years of where we want to be. How do we think we'll be collaborating, what do we want to be able to do that we can't do now? We're looking at it from a number of different angles - researchers, teachers, senior management, support staff and students - with a different person taking the lead role in pulling a scenario together. What we're intending to produce is a "day in the life of" story which will help guide the project which form part of the programme and clarify what benefits we're hoping to achieve. An initial meeting today with the 5 of us who are responsible for the areas clarified how we're going to go about gathering the information. I'm looking at the professional support staff - if anyone wants to contribute ideas I'd be more than happy to receive them.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Be careful of...

Given the momentous events of the last few days, there were several things in the last talk of EDUCAUSE which had particular relevance.

It was given by Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and he was inspirational – there were many IT Directors in the audience who left wishing that he was their President/Vice Chancellor.

He told us the story of his grandmother who as an African American growing up in the Southern US (I think it was Alabama) couldn’t vote. Eventually non-whites were given the opportunity to vote, but had to take a literacy test, and he read out 3 sample questions and asked us to raise our hands if we knew the answers. Given that the questions were on the American constitution, I didn’t know any of them – but nether did any of the Americans in the audience! Based on the results, there would have been a very small turnout on Tuesday. It was his grandmother’s overriding wish to be a voting American citizen, so she had to take the test. It took several failed attempts and weeks of revising the American constitution, but she became a voting citizen at the age of 73. His message – don’t take your right to vote lightly – exercise it!

His final comments (which he made us learn and recite back to him)…

Be careful of your thoughts, they become your words.
Be careful of your words, they become your actions
Be careful of your actions, they become your habits
Be careful of your habits they become your character
Be careful of your character, it becomes your destiny

A video of the session is here

OK – that’s the last EDUCAUSE post – normal service will be resumed next week when I leave the beautiful Lake District and get back to work.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Hire the Howards

One of the general sessions was given by Moira Gunn - she’s a former NASA scientist and now hosts Tech Nation. I didn’t take a lot of notes in this session, (battery must have been running out), but one of her anecdotes stuck in my mind - although with apologies to those concerned as I’ve probably gone some details wrong, but the general principles are right!

Whilst she was studying for one of her degrees, she was allowed to share an office, unlike other undergraduates, because she was already a graduate teacher. Also in her office was an undergraduate, Howard, and she couldn’t understand why he was allowed an office – when pressed he told her the story why.

It was in the days of the mainframe, and rooms full of teletypes where you input your code. Howard had worked out how to get into the kernel of the mainframe and thought he could shut it down and bring it back to life seconds later by typing in a time.

One day, in a very noisy room of teletypes, all clacking away, he watched the clock second hand coming up to 30 – he keyed in 35, and miraculously the room went silent as the machine stopped, and then at 35 seconds, it all started up again. Howard thought this was hilarious, and did it again, stopping the machine for a few seconds. Then he realised that maybe, someone in the computer room had spotted this, so he ought to leave – he gathered up his belongings and crept out, passing the Head of Computing and some technicians storming towards the room.

A week later he thought he’d try it again, and again it worked. Next time he thought he’d try for longer – watching as the clock second hand approached 50, he typed in 60 – the room went quiet, the clock second hand passed by the top, and nothing happened. Howard had forgotten than a second counter never goes to 60 – it goes from 59 to 00!

As he made to run out of the room – he was too late – there was the Head of Computing, with a number of other systems people blocking the door, pointing a finger at Howard, he shouted, trembling – “you, you, you’re hired!”

And that was the finale of her talk – Hire the Howards!

A philosophy I completely agree with. You can teach people technical skills - it's difficult to teach creativity, innovation, a different way of looking at things, and a desire to push things to the limit.

Howard did go on to make quite a name for himself by inventing something a lot of us use, but no-one knows him as Howard now – any guesses as to who he is?

A video of the session is here

Monday, 3 November 2008


I got a few blog posts behind last week, so saved them up for this week, as I'm having a few days leave in the Lake District and won't have anything work related to blog about!

Sarah Robbins, (aka Intellagirl - have a look at her site) gave a very good talk on Social Media and Education: The conflict between technology and institutional education and the future

Sarah started by postulating that many of the benefits of institutional learning can now be accomplished via social media. If we (as University staff) don’t realise this we will get left behind and possibly replaced. She compared what HE offered with what role social media can play:

What does HE offer?
  • Membership of intellectual and social affinity groups
  • Engaging in intellectual discussions
  • Access to resources and experts
  • Official endorsement of completion ie graduation
  • Accumulate and develop skills for employment
  • Association with professional communities
  • Guidance through experiences and thought processes
What role does social media play in the lives of those engaged in it?
  • Self expression – can upload anything you’ve created and share it with the world
  • Sharing enthusiasms for common interests – web sites, blogs, wikis ,
  • Access to experts and personalities –people you might never meet face to face _ (see TED talks)
  • Enhanced personal and professional reputation – you can create on-line portfolios
  • The ability to build and share skills. The example here was the “You Suck at Photoshop” videos.. which were put together by an out of work graphic designer.
Social media changes who we can reach and how many we can reach. Web 2.0 facilitates two way communication – the difference between giving a lecture and having a discussion. Social media creates new ways to learn without the communities and structures created by institutions. You don’t have to sign up for a class to learn Photoshop for example, although students do have to have some critical literacy skills to recognise what’s good and what isn’t.

What is the educator’s role in a world where production and consumption of information has become:
  • Democratic – Wikpedia vs Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Amateur –eg you tube – a student can film a video in their free time and millions of people can watch it
  • Distributed – information is spread out – being aggregated by sites like delicious – imagine going into a library and finding every book had been reviewed by students.
Educators are not the gatekeepers of knowledge, but need to teach students how to learn in an information economy. Access to information is their right and their responsibility. They need to be taught the importance of contributing to a community - they are global citizens now. Academic staff need to be relating to students as more experienced co-creators, serving as guides as students shape their own paths. The world is out there – they are not limited by the resources we can provide.

In a world of social media, the role of the educator is more important then ever.

Enjoyable talk, but my thoughts were perhaps summed up by someone who asked a question about the appropriateness of using this type of learning for all disciplines - would you really want to drive over a bridge where the bridge builder had learned his skills from Wikipedia? No, not necessarily - you'd want some formal imparting of facts, theories etc which have been peer reviewed. But social media does still have a part to play in discussions, inquiry based learning etc

A video of the session is here

Friday, 31 October 2008

The long haul home

The end of another excellent conference. Strange that after traveling several thousand miles, I attended two presentations from Sheffield. There was the one from SHU yesterday, and this morning one given by Martin Lewis and Phil Levy about the Information Commons. It was a very well attended session and the buzz in the room was that it was a very exciting project - lots of interest and people saying how fantastic it looked. And of course they would be right!

As I write this I'm sitting at the airport waiting for the long flight home. As usual a very useful few days - most of the sessions I attended were very good (and I made all of the 8am ones....). The networking opportunities are excellent, with colleagues from different countries, different institutions, suppliers and friends. I had a very useful hour with a Vice President of Blackboard about their roadmap and new product -Blackboard 9 - which will help to inform us as we review our elearning systems and agree our future strategy.

I've still got some sessions to write up for this blog, including the last one which was inspirational. I'll do them over the next few days.

Finally, one of the things that makes a conference is the company, and I was fortunate to be with a group of great people - colleagues who have become friends. Especially the cute furry badger - you know who you are!

Oh, and Happy Halloween everyone!

Meeting or managing?

Always nice to find out what the opposition's doing, especially when the presentation's given by a former colleague! Louise Thorpe from Sheffield Hallam University gave a good talk on "Responding to student expectations through policy and practice"
As well as carrying out student satisfaction surveys, for the last 5 years SHU have been carrying out an expectations survey in freshers week and the first week of term. Their view is that an expectations gap can lead to difficulties in making the first year transition to University and in retention and non completion as it is a different experience going from from school to university.
They wanted to understand student expectations to inform development and planning and to use the feedback to inform curriculum design.

One of their challenges was the issues of whether actually asking questions raises expectations – for example if you ask whether students expect podcasting, do they then expect you to provide them. So - do you try and meet expectations, or manage them?

Their results show a number of things whch haven't changed over time:
Overall expectations are high
Working and commuting students assign biggest value to technology
All see it as an essential feature of learning and preparedness for workplace
Many students are confident with technology, but there's still a significant minority needing support
Their essential baselines – electronic resources, email communications with tutors, blended activity – don’t want just on line resources but need face to face contact as well

What has changed:
2003 students were more uncertain that those surveyed in 2007
2007 students want technology to play a greater role in assessment - 83% expect on-line feedback
They are more confident about the robustness of technology and trust it more
The newer technologies have seen the greatest growth – 50% expect online collaboration and reflection tools, eg blogs and wikis.
They want more access to online media eg podcasts

What have they done about these expectations?
To try and meet some of them they've moved to on-line feedback and technology supported submission of course work. Students have to read their feedback in order to release their grades.
To manage them they've encouraged staff to have a clear rationale for using elearning and to publish it including what is expected of the student and of the staff member.

This year they are not doing the same survey but have moved to just text based questions such as
what are you most looking forward to about course, what do you think will be different, and what skills would you like to improve to help you to do better.

I look forward to seeing the results.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Google Apps and Spiderman

A couple of nights here at EDUCAUSE are know as suppliers nights - certain big suppliers put on special nights for their customers, or for people who they hope might soon be their customers. Last night I was invited to Google Night held at Universal Studios. The Google Bus was there, and we were given a presentation on Google Apps for Education. Very slick presentaion at at the end of it I was certainly left wondering why we hadn't implemented them - after all, it's quick, it's easy and it's free (according to Google). Well, a presentation today answered that question!

The University of South California gave a very good warts and all presentation of their experience, and it was quite illuminating! It was a packed session with people sitting on the floor and standing all the way round the room - there's a lot of interest.

In the Summer of 2007 USC decided to implement Google mail for students – it wasn't Google apps at that time. Their justification was that it was perceived to be a better mail client, students would get increased storage (2Gb), it should reduce email storage costs and their mail would not be purged after 12 months as was their practice. Of their 38,000 students, 15% were already forwarding their email to Google.
And, according to Google, it's quick, easy and free!

They made some initial security decisions - they wouldn't provide their enterprise password to Google and would forward mail rather than change the DNS. They also decided it would be an opt-in service and they would have a privacy policy. Students would have a Google password which would be forced to be different to their UCS password, which therefore required integration with the university change password application

The plan was to go live in January 2008, but in November 2007 google mail for students morphed into Google apps, leading to a whole raft of additional work, but they did go live and currently they have 15,000 student signed up which is 50% - a lot lower than expected.
There are many limitations to the service - Google offers no means of renaming an account, the Google migration was not as simple or secure as first thought, suspending an account bounces email ( an issue when you have to temporarily suspend an email account), there's no restore function - an issue if you accidently delete an account. there are more but that's perhaps enough!

Google will also release new services and new functions without any advanced notice - your students usually find out before your helpdesk does.

Was it quick? No - it took more than 8 months to implement, and there are still issues outstanding
Was it easy? No - it required a lot of people and impacted on other projects - there were more than 30 people on the project team.
Was it free? No - it took 4000 hours of time. There was also opportunity costs as other projects were delayed.

Does make you wonder why they did it!

What I failed to mention at the beginning, was that last night's Google event provided unlimited access to part of Universal's Island's of Adventure theme park, after the park was closed to the public! I got to go on the best ride in the world - The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman - 4 times. Some members of our party were seen to go on the Hulk Roller coaster 8 times! So, I can forgive Google some things...

Pushing aside the tears to get the job done.

Lawrence Hincker is the Associate Vice President for University Relations at Virginia Tech and gave a moving and scary story of the events which unfolded on April 16 2007 and how the PR team and IT team worked together to manage communications.

Virginia Tech is a large campus with 26,000 students and 6,000 staff. On that fateful day, one student, in 9 minutes of carnage shot 60 people and killed 32.

It became a global event - 15593 news stories were logged about the incident in 2 weeks, and because of the unthinkable nature of the tragedy it seemed like the whole world was involved.
The university teams had to deal with influx of journalists, and a communications situation that no-one expected to have to handle.

A Media City had to be set up – 1500 journalists turned up, together with 140 satellite trucks. They needed a briefing room, a work room, truck logistics, internet access, protocols for campus access. VT opened up their campus network so that everyone had internet access.
Some important thoughts from the situation:
  • Communicate as much as possible – they can’t get too much information
  • Stay on message
  • Use other experts where necessary
  • ID target audiences and flood them with information
  • Reputation management starts at the beginning of the crisis
The shooting was over at 10am and VT had information up on the web almost straight after and had their first press conference at noon.

Think about how you’re going to manage phone calls – their telecomms team were constantly adding capacity and priority management. The mobile providers were contacted and mobile towers added. A Joint Information Centre to handle calls was set up within 12 hours with phones, TVs and computers and all calls were diverted there. Interestingly their on campus network held up - it was the off campus and mobile networks which crashed.

A point well made was that in these days, the Web is everything – it’s a powerful tool in a crisis, particularly as it allows you to self publish. University home pages are normally heavy with graphics – in situations like this you need a very light text based one – get one ready now and hold it in reserve. The traffic on VTs web site shot through the roof, and the IT team had a new webserver up and running in 15 minutes. In total they added a 5 new fileservers in less than 24 hours. Information was continually added in a blog-like format. Think web 2.0.

Some issues around communication

  • Notifications – the fact the we have capability creates expectations
  • Notification systems – do they work? Are they quick? NB no single system does it all
  • When do you declare an incident? What about false alarms?
  • Who makes the decision to notify when public safety is involved?
VT have developed a new notification system where the ability to send an email to everyone on campus, to send text messages, put up alerts on the web site and send messages to digital screens in classrooms is all handled through a single portal and can be done in minutes.

It was a very thought provoking presentation and has made me realise that our notification systems are nowhere near as good as they could be, but it usually takes an incident to make you realise it.

A video of the session is here

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Give me a segway....

I want a Segway - the Conference Centre is just too big - 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I doesn't help that I walked out of the last session and absent mindedly turned the wrong way, and walked for 10 minutes before I realised I was heading away from the hotel not towards it. But then anyone who knows me will know what a good sense of direction I have.

Last session of the day was a debate about outsourcing IT services - should you or shouldn't you. Despite the fact that it was a debate, both sides seemed to me to be saying the same thing, or perhaps that's just because it was late! Basically if it's right for you, and gives you benefits whether they are service related or cost savings, do it. If not, don't. I think that sums up the hour.

Culture eats strategy for lunch every day of the week

So the presentation on IT governance started with the most important quote. Whatever plans, strategies etc we have, it’s culture that will be the deciding factor on whether it happens or not.

The CIO of Guelph University (Ontario, Canada), Mike Ridley took us on a journey of how he had introduced a new IT Decision framework, and how he'd coped with the cultural and people issues that such change brings with it.

Some things I will bring back with me - one is something we have been meaning to do for a long time, which is to engage the IT support staff we have located in our academic departments more. At Guelph they took this disparate group of staff and suggested to them that they should organise themselves, and in return they would be given designated positions on IT committees. So the ITSIG (IT Special Interest Group) was formed, which meets regularly, and is attended by central computing service staff, and has representatives on all IT committees.

Mike's view was that CIOs should spend a lot of time communicating and building relationships- "The way forward is paradoxically not to look ahead, but to look around".

He advocated the use of blogs, twitter etc (I'm OK there then...), so I had a quick look at his blog and thought you might enjoy this article he'd written for the student newsletter.


Good session from Christine Borgman, who chaired the NSF Task Force on Cyberlearning, which produced its report in July 2008 entitled Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge

She started by outlining the Task Force’s vision of cyberlearing in 2015. We were asked to imagine a college student, Katie, in the year 2015. She has grown up in a world where learning is as accessible through technologies at home as it is in the classroom, and digital content is as real to her as paper, lab equipment, or textbooks. In high school, she and her classmates engaged in creative problem-solving activities by manipulating simulations in a virtual laboratory or by downloading and analyzing visualizations of real-time data from remote sensors. Away from the classroom, she has had seamless access to school materials and homework assignments using inexpensive mobile technologies. She continues to collaborate with her classmates in virtual environments that allow not only social interaction with each other but also rich connections with a wealth of supplementary content. Her teacher has tracked her progress over the course of a lesson plan and compared her performance across a lifelong “digital portfolio,” making note of areas that need additional attention through personalized assignments and alerting parents to specific concerns.

So, the question was, how are we going to get to this vision. The Task Force made a number of recommendations:

The first involved building a vibrant cyberlearning field, promoting cross disciplinary communities of cyberlearning researchers and practitioners. This will require a partnership of IT technical specialists with educators.

Interestingly the second recommendation was around instilling a platform perspective with shared, interoperable designs of hardware, software and services. New technological innovations need to be incorporated and supported. Multiple course management systems and platforms lead to duplication of effort

Thirdly, the transformative power of technology should be emphasised. Information and communication technologies can allow interaction with data, visualisations, remote and virtual laboratories and experts.

Finally, the report suggests that open educational resources should be promoted. Materials should be made available on the web with permission for unrestricted reuse and recombination. Need to be able to pull things from different sources mash it up, combine and use in novel ways. In this respect, the creative commons was cited as an example of good practice.

In making these recommendations it was suggested that we are a long way from the vision - students can’t move seamlessly between school and home and are using new technologies for everything but learning.

Is that really true here in the UK? I think not!

Faceblindness, seeing in colours and metaphor

First keynote speaker was Professor Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, talking about The Unique Human Brain: Clues from Neurology.

It was a fascinating talk, focusing on the complex structure of the human brain, and it's relevance to creativity and metaphor!

The human brain is the most complexly organised form of matter in the universe, with 100 billion neurones in the adult nervous system each making 10,000 points of contact. It's been estimated that the number of possible brain states exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe. So - how do you begin to understand it? His technique is to study patients with tiny brain injuries which often lead to a highly specific loss of one function. One example he gave was faceblindness. A condition where people canot recognise faces, even of close relatives. Studying these patients has lead to the identification of the part of the brain which indentifies faces.

Another rare condition was one of his students who after a head injury thought his mother was an imposter - he couldn't recognise her face. A highly selective delusion with a number of freudian explanations. However, cognitive neurosciene has shown that it is a straightforward small brain injury where messages are not getting to emotional centre of brain from the visual recognition part.

A particular area of study is phantom limbs, where after amputation patients can continue to feel the limbs presence, often with excrutiating pain in them (as an aside he said that this phantom presence can happen when any part of the body is removed except of course the brain, unless you were a politician). Study of these phantoms has allowed the identification of cross wiring that has gone on in the brain, where the lack of signal from one part of the body to its area of the brain allows that area to be "invaded " by another area and signals misinterpreted as coming from the arm – even though it’s gone. A radical change in the pathways of brain. His hypothesis was that the brain is in a constant state of dynamic equilibrium with the potentail for pathways to be changed and adapted.

The final area he covered was Synesthesia - a condition where people see things (often numbers) in colours and hear music as colours. This runs in families and is more common in artists, poets and novelist.
There are many theories to explain this– the patient is mad, high on drugs, reliving childhood memories, or just being metaphorical. But it is a concrete sensory phenomenon and he has shown that the part of brain processing colour is right next to area which processes numbers and that some cross wiring has occurred. It's a genetic phenomenon, and happens when there is a fault in "pruning genes" which operate in the foetus to correct misconnections in the brain.
Some people see days of the week, months etc as colours and this is caused when the cross wiring is higher up.

The excess connections caused by the synestheseia gene makes people more creative - artisits, novelists etc are all good at metaphors. That’s why this seemingly useless gene has survived. and the reason not everyone is synesthetic - you don't want everyone to be metaphorical and creative - especially neurosurgeons! A diverse set of skills is needed.

I really enjoyed this talk - took me back to being a genetics student again! I liked that fact that he made it clear that he did not believe in intelligent design, but in evolution. His final comment was that it was ironic that the President was championing intelligent design when his own existence was a living negation of it!

A video of the session is here

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

EDUCAUSE Exhibition Shock Horror!

No Apple stand! Usually one of the biggest there, with constant demonstrations, new products being demonstrated and a lot of hands on experience of how Apple can be used in Higher Education. But, they're not here. Wonder who upset Mr Jobs?

Lots of other suppliers though - some we're customers of, and some who would like us to be! It's a huge exhibition with more than 200 stands, many doing theatre style presentations throughout the day. I spent two hours there today - it's a great place to network and chat to suppliers, and find out about new products which are on the horizon. It amuses me the lengths some suppliers will go to to get you to their stand and then keep you there - one stand had a racing car circuit, and another a juggler on a unicycle!

The conference is really getting going now - they expect 9,500 delegates so it's huge by our standards. The conference centre staff get around on Segways, looks great fun!

Monday, 27 October 2008

Failure is not an option

Saw some great display screens whilst watching Shamu the whale do her stuff - giant ones, with a giant motor behind, and on a track. One minute they were 4 separate horizontal ones, then one single screen with them joined vertically, then diagonal. Sometimes with 4 different things on them, sometimes with one film or image. I though the giant plasma screens we had in the IC were good, but we must get some of these....

Had a great trip to Kennedy Space centre as well - very excited to see a Shuttle ( Endeavour) on the launch pad ready for her next trip in November. You can just see the tip of the solid rocket boosters and the orange tip of the external tank peeping out above the launch pad. I've always been fascinated by space travel and followed the Apollo missions closely. I've said before that one of my heros is Gene Krantz - mission controller for so many of them including Apollo 13 where he famously said "failure is not an option" . It's the reason I hate it when people tell me things can't be done. They might be difficult, or expensive, or would need something dramatic to happen, but they're not impossible. Not when you see how they got men to the moon in the 60s. I stood and looked at the consoles today in the control room used in Apollo 8, and it took me while to work out what was wrong - then I realised - these computers didn't have any keyboards! I've bought a mouse mat with "failure is not an option" on it to have by my desk....

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Pumpkins and awards

Well I'm here - ever so slightly jet lagged, but not too bad. Not seen Mickey yet, but there's time! America is right in the middle of one of it's favourite holidays - Halloween. Pumpkins everywhere, kids dressed up and sweets being given away for trick or treating - and its not even here yet. I have some time off before the conference starts and hope to get to Kennedy Space Centre, and maybe see Shamu the whale at Seaworld - will have to see how much we can cram in.

Got some good news earlier today - it was the Regional RIBA awards ceremony in Leeds on Friday evening but unfortunately I couldn't go because I was packing! As well as the IC's RIBA
award being presented, the results of the RIBA's White Rose competition were also announced, and the IC won the Gold Prize for architecture, and was also named Building of the Year. Fantastic news!

Friday, 24 October 2008


As soon as I've answered all my emails, cleared, (or at least tidied) my desk, I'm off to pack for the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference which I set off to early tomorrow morning. Anyone who's been reading this blog for a year will remember that last year it was in Seattle, and this year it's in Orlando - home to Mickey Mouse, Universal Studios and Shamu the performing whale. We usually get one free day (to adjust to the jet lag of course) and last time it was in Orlando a few years ago, several UK IT Directors hit one of the theme parks for the day and had a great if very childish time! Not sure what we'll do this year, but I'm sure it will be fun.

Lots of sessions planned, so I'll blog about as many as possible, and until my laptop battery runs out. It's always funny watching people gradually move to the edge of the rooms to find the power sockets- this picture was taken last year by a colleague of mine - 3 of us (and 3 macs!) sitting in a row hogging the power.

Just pull this cable out and see what happens

Normally I'm not let loose in our data centres - I think it's because when faced with all those cables, I have a huge desire to pull some out! However, the other day I was invited into one of the machine rooms, and treated to a demonstration of some clever work our network team have been doing. We're gradually reconfiguring the network to increase resilience, doubling up network connections and replacing our user switches with new virtual routers. Eventually we'll have 2 Gb resilient connections to all buildings. Watched a nice demo of the way the two routers will work with one active and one inactive - if the active one fails, the inactive one immediately takes over. This was simulated by me pulling out the power cables to the active one (heavily supervised of course) and the other one kicking in straight away - barely a blip in the guitar solo being transmitted. Marvellous!

A lot of what our infrastructure team does is hidden to most of our users, with it only coming to their attention when something goes wrong. But it goes without saying that it's absolutely vital to the institution and much appreciated.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Teaching an old dog.....

Had an unusual experience yesterday - I went on a training course! I can't remember the last time I had to watch powerpoint slides for two hours and actually learn something, especially when the topic was a quite complicated HR related one. Still, I now feel equipped to determine how atypical workers (ie casual staff) can be assimilated onto regular contracts, and I think I understand the difference between an employee, a worker and a contractor....

Then to a meeting to discuss the concept of the Sheffield Graduate, which is at the heart of our Teaching and Learning Strategy . This defines 12 the attributes that we believe we should be enabling our students to develop and demonstrate impact, excellence and distinctiveness in their chosen field. I won't list them all here but they include being able to carry out independent enquiry, having core information literacy skills, applying creativity, enterprise and innovation to knowledge creation, identifying the wider social, cultural and economic context of their academic knowledge, and recognising their responsibilities as active citizens. All departments should be building in the concept of the Sheffield Graduate into their own teaching and learning strategies, and we will be looking at how we can build it into ours.

I then had a very useful hour with the PVC for Teaching and Learning where we discussed a number of issues, including the development of our teaching and learning support strategy, the minefield that is student printing (especially the requirement to print out all assignment, single sided and double line spaced), and the management of teaching space .

Finally an Innovative Comms project group - following our announcment of our decision to implement Clearspace, we received many applications from staff to take part in the pilots. Yesterday we had the difficult task of deciding which ones to go with as we couldn't support them all. We were looking to cover 4 different areas - research, teaching and learning, business processes and student activity and will run 2 pilots in each area. If all goes well, they will start in January, and a full service will be available in May.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Green IT Audit

Our auditors have just completed a "Green IT" audit on us, and I met them yesterday to discuss the first draft of the report and their recommendations. Interesting discussion about the difference between what we as a department can do, and what the University must recognise is its responsibility. Lots of recommendations for action, but on first glance, most of them very sensible. Some will be easier to do than others such as looking at procurement policies, educating users (will that be easy?) to save power by turning machines off, using low power screen savers etc. Some will be harder because they will cost money including looking at DC and alternative energy power sources, optimising computer room airflow, installing sub metering so energy use per department can be measured. Some will be political, such as consolidating computer rooms, ie removing them from departments and locating all servers in our central machine rooms. Some will be impossible, such as powering down servers out of hours - I did point out that defining out of hours on a 24 hour campus and with distance learners all over the world would be a bit tricky!

I'm pleased to say that we came out of it very well, and we were commended on the actions we have already taken to reduce our carbon footprint, but there's still a lot to do. Don't get me started on printing again.....

Friday, 17 October 2008

Happy Birthday Blog

It's a year ago today that I sat and wrote my first post on this blog. I was in a hotel in London, about to go to a couple of meetings, and then a week later, the Educause Annual Conference. Everytime I was out of the office for any length of time, someone would ask me what I actually did when I wasn't there (and often what I did when I was there!) So, this blog started as a way of keeping people in the department in touch with what I was doing, and as an experiment to see if I could keep it up, and whether it was useful. I did what any self respecting IT Director should do, and asked someone to set it up for me. No, they said, set it up for yourself. So I did, and I'm quite proud that this is all my own work!

I decided that if writing it got to be a bore, or if I couldn't think of anything to say, or no-one read it, I would stop. Well, I'm still here, a year and 232 posts later. I haven't found it a bore to write, I can usually think of something to say ( well, about 4 times a week I can), and I know from google analytics that people are reading it. What I don't know is how useful or interesting it is! When I sit down to write it, the audience in my head is still my department, with maybe a secondary audience which is the rest of the University. What I have been fascinated by is how many people from outside the University read it - not just once, but keep coming back.

Readership has gradually risen, especially as it's been linked to from more places, and there are always interesting peaks. Sometimes I know why, for example when I put the Christmas Party pictures up, and some have me scratching my head as to what I've written that's suddenly so interesting. The last time was when someone linked to one of my posts from a local forum because I'd used a picture of a Sheffield building they obviously couldn't find anywhere else.

You can get some interesting stats from the analytics software. The most viewed post (other than the home page) is one of the first ones I wrote, about Abraham Lincoln - there's a lot of people interested in him as the most commonly used term to find this blog in Google is "leadership traits of Abraham Lincoln". The second most common term which finds this blog is "egg catapult'! Firefox is the broswer most people use, 22% of visitors use Macs and the average time people spend on the site is about 3 minutes.

So, I shall carry on until I run out of things to say, hoping that someone, somewhere is reading it and finding it vaguely interesting or useful, or better still, both!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Another train journey with no wireless and no laptop power...

Another travelling day today – to London to the UCISA Executive meeting. Our Chairman is holidaying in Australia, so it was down to me to chair the meeting. As usual, we began with a number of strategic items, presentations and discussions before moving to the business meeting after lunch.

First off was a presentation from JISC Infonet on their Strategy Planning & Implementation initiative which is funded by the JISC Organisational Support Committee. This programme of work is aimed at supporting and improving the effectiveness of strategic planning and looking at its implementation within higher and further education institutions. One of their first tasks was to carry out a survey on strategic issues faced by institutions, and the results are now available here.

Issues relating to 'organisational infrastructure' are the biggest challenges apparently faced by institutions, over financial concerns and operating within an increasingly competitive, market-driven sector. Indeed, five of the top six issues cited as wasting the most time, effort and energy within the institution are of an infrastructural nature (relating to the quality and efficiency of processes, communication & collaboration, IT infrastructure, information quality & access and poor decision-making processes). However, when institutions were asked why they were facing these pressures, 'external factors beyond their control' was cited as the principal factor.

We then had a very interesting discussion with the Chief Executive of JANET UK Tim Marshall about how UCISA and JANET might have a more formal partnership. We have an interesting relationship –we provide mission critical services to our institutions, and JANET provides the critical network infrastructure upon which we run those services. We discussed the measurement of services and performance, the importance of good customer feedback and governance.

Our final strategic item was an update on the UKRDS which I’ve reported on before.

Lots of items covered in the business meeting including the implementation of an extended character set by UCAS to enable applicants to have their names spelled correctly including special characters such as accents. This will have an implication on our student record systems. We also had to look at the current financial situation and how it might affect our business. One obvious area is conference attendance, and sponsorship of our events by suppliers.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blogs and Wikis on their way

I've mentioned before that our Innovative Communications Project has been looking at web based applications, such as blogs and wikis, and we have agreed to invest in Clearspace. We've recently announced it to the University as follows:

A Internal Blogging and Wiki Service

We are investing in Clearspace, a collaboration environment, which we anticipate will have many applications within the University. Academics will be able to use it as a wiki and blogging environment in their teaching, linked from MOLE. Research groups, working with external collaborators, will be able to share and write documents together, and capture discussions as an alternative to email. Departments and groups across the University may use it to communicate and collaborate with colleagues as well as to publish documents.

In order to ensure the new service meets the needs of the University, we are running a number of pilots from Jan 2009 (through to May 2009), and the selected pilots will be asked to write a case study about how they used Clearspace and the benefits, and any problems of using it. If all goes as planned, the service will be available, to all, in May 2009.

We're well aware that many departments will be using external Web 2.0 Services within their work already - things like YouTube, Google, Slideshare or Facebook. These can be extremely useful applications, but there are some risks associated them including the ownership of the intellectual property of the ideas expressed through these tools and what happens if the application you're using is no longer available or the company providing it is taken over?

We have drawn together a number of resources to help departments consider the issues before they start investing time in using externally hosted web 2.0 applications.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

UEB/HoDS meeting

Spent yesterday in Oxford on UCISA business - the train journey there is dreadful, but I get a lot of work done, and find myChat (our IM service) invaluable - I can talk to lots of people, it works better on my modem than email, and the rest of the carriage don't have to listen to my conversations whcih they would if I was using my mobile phone.

This morning we had a Heads of Department meeting with the University Executive Board. Very well attended meeting, and lots of good discussion. We had a presentation on the results of the NSS (National Student Survey) where overall we do very well - 3rd in the Russell Group. We've also seen big improvements in the area of Learning Resources (covering Library, IT and facilities) where we also score well. Some areas for improvement though, and these are being looked at.

The VC talked about his first year in office and the changes that have happened, as well as those yet to come! We'll be reviewing our Corporate Plan (Our Shared Vision) to ensure that not only are our aspirations still relevant, but we know how we're going to get to them.

We couldn't have a meeting in the current climate without looking at the University's financial position, and the only thing I'd better publish here is that we don't have any Icelandic deposits!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Customer Service Week

Last week the University took part in National Customer Service week. Lots of events all week, with the main one on Friday - the Customer Service awards. All staff and students are invited to nominate staff who have shown excellent customer service. This year we were very pleased to have 8 departmental nominations – 4 individual nominations and 4 team ones. Unfortunately we didn’t get one of the awards, but it was an excellent achievement to get so many nominations. I would like to congratulate the concierge team in the Information Commons who won one of the team awards – very well deserved. The building is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – they are the first point of contact for all visitors to the building, and the only point of contact when the IC staff are not there. There are nights when there are several hundred students in the building and the team have to deal will every eventuality - which as you can imagine are many and varied! Well done to the whole team.

As part of the award ceremony we had a talk from Andy Hanselman on "Creating Devoted Customers". In a world of rising customer expectations and demands, how do you provide customer service that not only delights them, but keeps them "devoted' to you as a service provider? And just as important, how do you deal with their disappointments when the service isn't up to scratch and stop them becoming disaffected? Word of mouth - and word of mouse - is increasing and poor service can't be hidden. Andy gave some great examples, and provided a number of tips and ideas to answer the above questions. A few I remember are: stand in your own queues, ring up your own business, give your customers a damn good listening to, delight your customers, spot disappointment and address it immediately. All common sense, but easy to not do.

I'm committed to CiCS providing excellent customer service, and it's the reason we have a dedicated section to it in the department. BUT - it's everyone's responsibility, and just because we have a Customer Services Section it doesn't mean everyone else can just sit back. We're doing regular reviews of our services to get the views of our customers but over the next few weeks I want to get the views of those who provide the services - so I'll be walking a floor near you soon.....

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How cool is this

I'm always on the look out for innovative ways to implement technology. Well, I'm dead impressed with this restaurant where the menus are projected onto the table tops, and diners can order food, change the look of their tables, play games and even order a cab home. Looks great fun, providing it works. So, how does it work? If the information is being projected onto ordinary table tops, it can't be interactive. So, the tabletops must be active in some way (LCD?)

Just think of the potential for it going wrong.

So, any similar uses for this technology in a University?

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Our Shared Vision

First Senate meeting of the new session today. As always, the main item of business is the VCs report where he gave a good overview of what's happened in his first year at Sheffield:
  • The new University structure is operational
  • Faculties are the primary focus for decision making
  • A University Executive Board is operational with Faculties represented
  • There's openess and transparency about what is being discussed

He also talked about the global situation and how that could affect us:
  • The Global financial crisis will have knock on effect
  • What's the financial sustainability of HE sector nationally
  • Will there/won't there be a change in government, and if so what effect will it have
  • Demographic changes will begin to kick in in the next 5 to 10 yrs
  • There's an atmosphere of greater competition which will lead to increased selectivity in funding
There was some good discussion about our aspirations as a University, and how we can achieve them particularly in the difficult financial climate. Some very positive vibes about working together and having open debates on the way forward.

The rest of the agenda fairly uncontentious. A couple of questions about how successful the new on-line registration system had been. We were able to confirm that overall it had been a success, but there had been some departments where there had been problems - presumably the question came from one of those departments. I think we did a good job - the implementation of a new system is rarely without problems, and this had very few overall.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

MI View

Had the first meeting last Friday of our Heads of Professional Services with the new Directors of Faculty Operations - very useful and I hope a sign of us all working very closely together. We looked at how we might interface with each other, and discussed what functions are best suited to be carried out at a Faculty level, and which are better carried out by a Central service.

We also had a demonstration of MIView - a dashboard of information specifically for Faculties, initially looking at planning data, but being expanded over the next few months to include financial and HR data. this has been developed as a joint project between us and the Corporate Planning Office and is being very well received. Of course, as Sod's Law is alive and well, just before the demo there was a server problem which caused me to dash out and frantically call the Helpdesk to get it fixed!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

What not to print

Printing has been on my mind again! On Friday we had a very good presentation to the CiCS User Group about our Print Service. It's an excellent service, completely self financed and offering a range of services including print buying and estimating, graphic design and large format printing, which is in big demand for posters and exhibition type material. Demand for printing in some areas is decreasing - and we are actively encouraging that - so the service has diversified, and now prints all manner of things, including promotional gifts. They even printed sticks of rock for the Information Commons opening.

One of the projects they are heavily involved in is an environmental review of printing, reviewing how, why and where printing is performed on campus so that we can make informed judgements about how best to reduce costs and make sure we're handling material in the most cost effective and environmentally friendly manner. For example, the amount of high volume duplicating is decreasing as committee papers are increasingly stored and distributed digitally. But, if all the recipients then decide to print the papers off on their own individual desktop printers - it's more expensive, and less environmentally friendly.

Student printing is another areas I've been thinking about. Students complain about the cost of printing, but we've charged them the same for printing one sheet for 10 years - 5p. We also set all of our printers to print double-sided by default. But - some departments are refusing to accept assignment and essays unless they are printed single sided AND double line spaced. I wonder if they realise how much this is costing the student (and the planet!). Why can't they accept them electronically I wonder?

My mission is definitely to reduce the amount of paper we print as a University - it is nothing short of ridiculous - over 100,000,000 sheets last year. I still see people carrying huge piles of paper into committee meetings, which is barely looked at, and then presumeably binned.