Friday, 29 May 2009

Bada Bing and Google Waves

There was a bit of a buzz in the technology world on Twitter yesterday as two new products were unveiled.

Microsoft announced their revamped search engine - Bing. With only 8% of the search market compared to Google's 64% they have a long way to go, but Microsoft are hopeful that some of its new features will capture a bigger market share. The main difference to its previous incarnation, Live Search,is that it has some contextual intelligence. A search for Cannes during the film festival for instance will give different results to if you search say at Christmas. It can find information related to the original search word, so for example a search for a product might also find product reviews, stockists, accessories. It's launched in the UK next week in a beta version and it will be interesting to see how it takes off. Google has found its way into our vocabulary as a verb, and I'm not sure that to Bing something has the same ring to it.

The another announcement is more interesting to me at least - it's Google Wave. This is Google's new collaboration service and is a combination of email, instant messaging and document, image, video and map sharing - all together in one environment. It's an open source product and Google have released it to the developer community with lots of API integrations, so expect a lot of applications developed for it. I spent a bit of time yesterday looking at it, and the best description I've found of it so far is here at Mashable, an excellent social media guide. It's worth a look. Headlines were starting to appear yesterday in the technology press suggesting that this could completely redefine web based communication and virtually replace existing email and chat services. This is one of the technologies we will need to watch, especially as we roll out Google services to our students. Unfortunately it won't be released to the public till later this year so I can't play with it till then!

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Minority report here we come

In response to my post about Microsoft Surface, Matt has reminded me about this TED talk which I did watch a few weeks ago but didn't share. It's definitely worth watching. I was talking to some staff yesterday about how we might use technology in the future, and some people are very surprised about what is in development now, never mind what will be around in a year or two. Very clever stuff!

You can be a victim of your own success

One of the problems with creating something innovative and popular is that it can easily become a victim of its own success. That's something we have to face with the Information Commons. I've blogged before about students not wanting to work in other locations so that there is extreme pressure on the PCs in the building, even when there are many PCs not being used just minutes walk away. The same is happening at the moment. It's one of our busiest times, and the screen showing PC availability across campus is almost completely red for the IC, and green everywhere else. (You just need to know that red is low availibilty, green the opposite).

To make things worse, after blogging not long ago that students didn't seem to be making a huge use of the wireless network, that has now changed completely. In the last few weeks they've turned up in droves with their laptops to the extent that the wireless network we put in the IC has been overloaded! A number of new access points have been added quickly, but a serious review will need to take place over the summer as we see growing evidence of changing student behaviour. It doesn't help the load problmes on the network that every device with wireless capability (eg the iPhone) connects as soon as you walk into the building whether you want to use it or not.

Formally announced the Google mail for students option last night by sending an email to all staff and students. Replies are split almost 50/50. From students saying this is great news, and from staff saying why can't we have it!

Friday, 22 May 2009

I want one

Not sure what I'd use it for, but I want one.......

Blogs and funerals

Well, apart from being on holiday, this is longest I've gone without updating this blog. Writer's block maybe? Or just too busy to blog? A combination of circumstances I think. It's been a funny sort of week. A visit to Chelsea Flower Show - a highlight of my year. Then the funeral on Wednesday of a much loved and respected colleague - Terry Shepherd, the University's Clerk of Works for many years and all round good bloke. It was good to see such a high turnout for his funeral, with not only University colleagues, but many contractors who Terry had worked with over the years there as well.

Then on Thursday it was the memorial service for Bob Boucher at the Sheffield Cathedral. Another well attended event with many representatives of the City there - I counted at least 4 previous Lord Mayors for example. I was rather suprised when a number of people congratulated me on the contribution I'd made to the obituary of Bob in the Independent - I hadn't seen it, and certainly hadn't been aware that I'd been quoted in it. I later realised that it was a cut and paste job on the blog post I'd made just after his death. Should I be offended that someone had lifted part of my blog without permission - or flattered? I'm still not sure!

More blog issues earlier on in the work when for the first time I had an encounter with a troll - over the space of an hour many fairly nasty and personal comments left on a number of different posts on this blog. All quickly cleared up, but left a rather nasty feeling. I have always had a policy of not moderating comments and not requiring any sort of registration, and I intend to keep it that way if I can, but I might rethink if this happens again. Be interested to know what other bloggers think.

Other things happening this week - a project meeting to look at progess on our new mail and calendaring service for students run by Google, and a discussion with our alumni office about the potential for an email account for life as part of this contract.

Our Business Continuity Steering group met to look at how prepared we are if the flu pandemic happens. This was a University wide meeting, not just looking at IT, and really centred around priorities - what takes priority if 25% of staff are absent, how do we continue to deliver teaching and research, what are the issues around redeployment of staff, working from home etc. We will continue to plan over the summer because of the possibility of the pandemic arriving in October/November time.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Quick update

Just a quick update on a few things. We've finally got the go ahead to really go with Google mail and calendar for students this September, so will be working hard now to get all of the technical stuff and integration in place.

Lots of excitement around the imminent go live of our collaboration service - uSpace. We did a stress and volume test last Friday and even I couldn't break it. It was great fun watching how inventive people were in starting discussions, posing questions and creating documents though.

No further updates for next day or two - I'm off to Chelsea Flower Show.

Friday, 15 May 2009

New Research Themes

Had a very good meeting with our new PVC for Research earlier this week. Talked a lot about Research Computing and how it's funded and some of the issues we have with research councils who want actual hardware to be bought with the research grants rather than 'renting' time and space on our big High Throughput Computers. We also looked at other areas of research support that we're involved in particularly data storage and archiving.

As a University we've chosen three cross-cutting research themes to take forward at a strategic level and we're appointing new Directors of Research and Innovation to lead each of the areas. I think the areas chosen are exciting. They are :

Healthcare across the Disciplines

Energy and the Environment

Digital World
This is obviously the one I'm most interested in and will look at the technological, economic and social implications of a world in which information processing is cheap, powerful and ubiquitous. Looking forward to getting involved and working with the academic community on this.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

CLEX report published

The Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX) has just published its final report entitled "Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World”. I've just spent an hour reading it and would recommend it to anyone involved in IT or teaching and learning in Higher Education.

The report outlines some key findings about today's learners and their experience of the digital age. Some statistics are not surprising - 75% of 11 to 15 year olds have at least one social networking site, 90% use email and instant messaging and 85% own a mobile phone with camera. It also looks at the deployment of Web 2.0 technologies in Universities at the moment, commenting that although the use is relatively high, it is not systematic and comes from enthusiastic individuals, with patchy implementations in teaching and learning. The report makes a number of recommendations for Universities and the JISC which I'm not going to go into as they are very well presented in the executive summary, but I do want to draw attention to the conclusion:

"Web 2.0, the Social Web, has had a profound effect on behaviours, particularly those of young people whose medium and metier it is. They inhabit it with ease and it has led them to a strong sense of communities of interest linked in their own web spaces, and to a disposition to share and participate. It has also led them to impatience – a preference for quick answers – and to a casual approach to evaluating information and attributing it and also to copyright and legal constraints.

The world they encounter in higher education has been constructed on a wholly different set of norms. Characterised broadly, it is hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured. The two worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change. They aren’t demanding different approaches; rather they are making such adaptations as are necessary for the time it takes to gain their qualifications. Effectively, they are managing a disjuncture, and the situation is feeding the natural inertia of any established system. It is, however, unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating and some rapprochement will be necessary if higher education is to continue to provide a learning experience that is recognised as stimulating, challenging and relevant".

So, we're at the edge of major change with today's students putting up with what we give them rather than demanding a different approach. Look what it says about this being unsustainable, and tomorrow's students not being as accommodating.

Universites will need to change and embrace new technologies and new ways of working and interacting with students. I find it extraordinary that there could be resistance to this - especially from IT departments. I am always disappointed when colleagues aren't as excited by change and the potential of new technologies as I am, and in many cases don't even use them. How many of my department make use of web 2.0 or social software I wonder? Why aren't there more bloggers, twitterers etc? If we are the department who are facilitating and supporting students who use this software, don't we have a responsibility to know how it works rather than just dismiss it?

Perhaps our new social software will change all of this - uSpace will be launched at the beginning of June and will provide all staff and students with blogs, wikis, discussions, social groups and collaborative spaces. Pilots have been running for a few months and the feedback is very positive.

As a side effect of the CLEX report we got an unexpected bit of publicity in the Guardian article released to accompany its launch which told the world of our decision to implement Google mail for students, before we've actually formally agreed to do so. All publicity is good publicity though, and it has speeded up our decision making process - formal decision expected soon!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Lord Hattersley and political biography

I had the honour tonight of attending a lecture given by Lord Hattersley at the opening of our new History Building. He's a Sheffield lad, a journalist and writer who holds a Visiting Fellowship at Harvard and an excellent speaker. His topic was political biographies, and he gave an interesting insight into them, being in the process of writing one on Lloyd George. His view was that biographies of politicians were more likely to be more biased and more affected by the views of the author than biographies of "normal" people. He illustrated his talk with excerpts from several biographies and many anecdotes, and at the end took several questions and appeared to thoroughly enjoy the ensuing discussion. It's events like these that make me glad I work at a University.

ITIL on the way

We're moving closer towards implementing Service Management in the department using ITIL. Our service catalogue is being drawn up, service managers appointed, and now we're looking at who can fill some of the other key roles including Change, Release and Test Managers, and Incident and Problem Managers. Several staff have been trained and have their Foundation Certificate. I know we're behind some other Universities who have already implemented these processes, but we can learn from their experience and share their good practice. Sometimes it's good not to be at the bleeding edge.

Internal resistance to change is often cited as the hardest thing to overcome in any ITIL implementation, particularly as it will involve some major changes! But I hope the benefits will outweigh some of the discomfort that these changes might initially cause. The benefits I hope to see include better incident managment and review (so that when things do go wrong we know why and can put measures in place to stop or reduce the liklihood of them happening again) and better change management (so that both costs and the effect on users are reduced). Of course there are many more, and I've been impressed talking to other Universities who are further down the road how many benefits have been realised. One which we are already seeing is how defining ourselves in terms of services rather than systems is improving our communication with the University and our customers.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Squares, circles and squiggles

Had a very productive awayday yesterday with the Executive Teams from CiCS and the Library. The day started with some exploring of our cultures, and in a very lightheatred but illuminating exercise we had to explain how we thought the other service would describe us. We thought the Library would describe us as unstructured, chaotic, laid back, risk takers, geeky, too technical, too flexible and enjoying change and uncertainty. We weren't far wrong! The Library thought we would describe them as hierarchical, customer focused, process and rule driven, risk averse, inflexible and conservative. They weren't too far wrong either! It was an interesting exercise and led to a lot of discussion about where these stereotypes and perceptions come from, how we have changed and how we can start to change the perceptions as well as understand each other better.

We then spent some time exploring what we all did and explaining our vision and aims, objectives and strategic plans and looking at where we had things in common - there was a lot of commonality here. We also looked at our current and future projects to see where we were already collaborating, and where there could be more collaboration. Joint projects we already have include media hosting, evaluating web 2.0 technologies for communicating with students and developing models for learner support. Future projects we identified include research data management, digital preservation, replacement of our current Ucard, and the implementation of new library management systems.

One of the biggest future projects will be Phase 3 of the Information Commons, for which a business case is currently being prepared - that will be very exciting and provide an additional 500 study spaces.

Finally, we did the shapes exercise which looks at personality types based on which of 5 shapes you think best describes you. I won't go into detail, but the CiCS Executive consists of a square, a circle and two squiggles! Can you guess which one of us is which?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

IT departments and Swine Flu

Pandemic Flu planning meeting today - interesting set of issues to look at. If we're planning for 20% of staff being absent across the University, what does that mean for our department? More people working from home, more people coming in to our systems through the portal, increased load on our communication systems such as email and the web. If we cancel lectures, more pressure on our VLE as more teaching materials are put there. If we cancel exams, more on-line assessments. All this extra pressure and load, when 20% of our staff will be absent as well. This fact is often forgotten.

Will our systems cope with this load, and if not, are there any contingency plans we can put in place now? If we have only 80% of our staff present, what will our priorities be? Obviously communications systems such as email, the web, telephones and the VLE. But this will have to be at the expense of less important systems such as our research computers.

Will we be able to move staff away from these less vital systems to support the critical ones? And what will we do about some of our business systems - is it really critcal to keep the finance and purchasing systems going? Obviously payroll goes without saying! Or does it - afterall, our contingency plan for no payroll is just to pay people what they got last month.

Another area we're planning for is an increased number of incoming phone calls. If we are affected, and have a number of cases of swine (or whatever strain it is) flu we can expect many incoming phone calls - from worried parents, media, students, staff. We can set up a call centre quickly - we have the space, phone lines, software - but we need staff to answer calls, and access to linguists to deal with the many calls we can expect from overseas relatives.

If we are affected we will have to look at closing areas where students gather and infection can spread such as the Information Commons, Libraries and the Student's Union. Trigger points for all of these eventualities being looked at.

Hopefully we won't need any of these plans, but it's proving a good test of what we have in place now, and identifying ares where we still have work to do.