Friday, 31 July 2009

Swine flu, Student PCs and trolls

Been a hectic week this week - but then the week before you go off on holiday often is!

Lots of swine flu planning - especially around what happens in September/October time when all the students come back and we have some very staff intensive processes such as registration. How will we cope with that if lots of our staff are off? Already drawing up lists of volunteers from other teams, and even some of our out of work children are being drafted in!

As usual at this time of year we're gearing up to launches of new services and that mild panic has arrived as September starts to get closer. We'll be launching our collaboration environment uSpace to students, as well as rolling out Google Mail and Calendar to all taught students.

Hope it improves their opinion of us! For the last few years we've taken part in the annual student satisfaction survey, and began with a very high satisfaction rating of about 84%. We've managed to push that up to 87%, but can't get it any higher, and for the last 2 years it's remained the same. I got a quick heads up yesterday of our rating this year, and it's the same again. Some variation between Faculties, with the Medics particularly liking us, and the Engineers not.

Biggest complaint - not enough PCs available - despite having over 1700 on campus, 550 available 24 hour a day, and about 95% ownership of laptops or PCs by students. This is a particular problem at exam time with 64% of students expressing dissatisfaction with the provision of PCs at that time of year. This is despite the fact that we know there is never a time when all PCs are in use - there are always free ones, it's just that students only want to use the ones in the Information Commons and won't go anywhere else. I think until we provide one each for them, there won't be enough. And I seem to remember saying that last year......

This is the last blog post for a couple of weeks - I'm off on leave, but will twitter occasionally.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to turn comment moderation on for the next two weeks. This is not something I want to do, or have done before, but over the last few weeks there's been a rather nasty troll leaving rude and abusive comments on here and I'd like to avoid them building up while I'm not here to look after this blog. Hope they get the message and go away.

See you all soon!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Education Hype

It's Hype Cycle time of year again. I've posted before about Gartner Hype Cycles so not going to explain them again, but do go and have a look if you're interested. I like them and find them a really useful way of tracking emerging technologies and trends.

The Education one has just come out and I've just spent a while looking at it. Technologies on the plateau of productivity include unsurprisingly grid computing in education and web services for administrative applications. Seeing open source VLEs there is perhaps more unexpected. Open source e-learning platforms such as Moodle and Sakai have had a bit of a breakthrough in the last year, and are in 20% of institutions and have 31% of the market share. Gartner predict that more integration of these products with services such as Goggle Apps will serve to increase this trend. As we are about to start a review of our current VLE, this is something we will have to take careful account of.

Podcasting learning content is predicted to be obsolete before it ever reaches the plateau, mainly because podcasts are being incorporated into other technologies such as social software and other broadcasting tools such as iTunes.

A trend on the rise and predicted to have reached mainstream adoption in under 5 years is cloud email - ie the free email services offered to students by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. This hadn't even reached the peak of inflated expectations this time last year, but its already gone over the top, got out of the trough and is on its way up. Gartner's analysis is that due to intense competition, the vendors have worked really hard over the past year to solve issues around the complexity of the education environment including integration, directories and single sign on.

Hurtling down from the peak of inflated expectations towards the trough of disillusionment there's a few interesting things - including ITIL for Education. Especially as we're just about to start implementing it. Their justification though is quite clear - most adopters have focused on the service desk, and change, incident and problem management. Full implementation of all of the ITIL processes is rare, and Gartner estimate that it would take an institution up to 7 years to do so.

A couple of things on the rise worth mentioning including digital preservation of research data. This is considered to be crucial for future research because much data now exists only in a digital form. It has the potential to open up data for new interpretations and to access long series of data. This reflects very much the work of the UKRDS.

Another rising trend is Quantum Computing. I tried to understand what it was, but couldn't. Easy explanations on the back of a postcard please!

Monday, 27 July 2009

IiP, BBQ and late nights

We got the result of our Investors in People assessment last week, and found out that we had met the required standard in all areas - excellent news. Our management development programme was particularly commended. This is a tailor made set of sessions which we are cascading down the department so that everyone has the skills required of a manager, is aware of the role of a manager, and what to expect from the staff who are being managed. So far all of our section heads and most of our next level of managers have received several days training, and we will continue the programme until it has touched everyone in the department.

On Friday it was the annual CiCS BBQ - the social event of the year held in the prestigious surroundings of our car park! As usual, food was cooked (not too much of it burnt), beer was consumed and for a change, the sun shone for most of the time. Pictures available here for those who want a look, and thanks are due as always to those who did the shopping, prepared the food, put up the gazebos (even though I heard complaints that it was too difficult because the instructions were not in the technical wiki so no-one could figure out how to do it), and cleared away afterwards.

Some people couldn't drink as much beer as the others, as they were preparing to begin a major upgrade of our filestorage system. I felt a little guilty when I saw them trooping off down the car park to begin work in one of our data centres, and even more so when I discovered that they'd worked really late - some of them until 4am - and then come in early Saturday morning to start again. Thanks to all of you guys, and to the ones monitoring and working on systems from home over the weekend - it's much appreciated. I'm not sure where the University would be if we didn't have dedicated people in all areas of the department willing to go above and beyond the call of duty so often.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Graduation Week

It's degree ceremony week again, and as usual I've done my fair share of sitting on the stage in my gown and unflattering mortar board clapping and smiling. Just three ceremonies this year as I've got a lot on this week, although I do try and make it more normally. The University puts on a good show - the Octagon Centre is done out in its best, and the concourse has food outlets, a champagne bar and a jazz band. The graduates look smarter than they ever have as students - although this year I'm amazed by how many of the men walk across the stage with the hands in their pockets. I must also be getting old, as I'm also slightly shocked at the length of some of the women's skirts - but looking back, they're probably about the same few inches long that mine was in the late 60s!

It's a great time of year when we can all see exactly why we're here and what our job is about - whatever our role is.

Congratulations to all of our new graduates.

Portal and Planning

Must be the time for brainstorming, as we had another one at the end of last week on our portal. We've had a staff and student portal in place for many years and we're on the second platform for it, and looking to move to a new one. So, to start the review off we looked at what's good about it, what's bad about it, and what we need it to do that it doesn't do at the moment. Unsuprisingly, the good things were single sign-on, easy access to systems and services in one place, easy access when working off campus, customisable pages, it's personalised, viewing things without having to open the applications, and so on. Bad things - clunky interface, it can be slow, logs you out too easily, single point of failure, difficult to develop for. And things we want that we don't have - more customisation and personalisation, better interface, more targetted information, more widgets. So, we will start the review soon - hopefully to have something in place during next year.

We spent sometime yesterday in the Executive Team discussing the University's latest planning statement. This sets out the Unviersity's plans for the next few years, including the size and shape of the University, the way we see teaching and learning developing, the strategy for research including the recruitment of postgraduates, and our plans for internationalisation and equality and diversity. Key themes running through the document are flexibility and reducing complexity - things that will also be important to us as we develop our plans for this year.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Stop, Start, Continue

Lively session last week at a meeting of our Section Heads with the Executive Team. We brainstormed in three groups around what we should stop doing, what we should start doing, and what we should continue doing. Each group had a go at all three flipcharts, then we each picked our top priority in all three categories. The process was as good as the outcome, and we managed to find plenty to talk about and discuss. We didn't all agree with each other and that lead to some lively debate.

The "STOP" suggestions ranged from attending pointless meetings, moaning, and thinking narrowly, to fluffware (my favourite!), dithering and obsolete systems. The top priorities were (in no particular order):

• Making commitments without resource
• Waste of time meetings
• Support for too many systems and services
• Ridiculously complicated processes
• Making errors and ignoring, ie not learning from, them
• Moaning

START had a whole range of suggestions including many about how we work particularly promoting cross team working, reviewing and/outsourcing more systems including the portal and the VLE and a lot of suggestions around knowing our costs.

And top of the list were:
• Prioritising more effectively
• Cost /benefit analysis of current activities
• Promoting what we do
• Producing software with user-friendly interfaces
• Thinking of user requirements from the start
• Reducing the number of incidents through clear processes and communication

The things we wanted to continue were around valuing and developing our staff, innovating, providing core services and having a friendly and helpful attitude. Those with the highest scores were:

• Innovate
• Focus on quick wins (80/20 rule)
• Value staff
• Supporting Faculties
• To have a sense of humour
• Using common sense

So, that's just a flavour - we filled about 12 flip charts. Some very specific things listed and some very general. Now we're going to have hard decisions to make over the next few weeks about what we stop, start and continue and this discussion was very helpful and a good start.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Security in the cloud

One of the areas we've been looking at is how much of our commodity services we can outsource. Student email is an obvious one (and we're dong that from September), but what about staff mail, file storage. Everything comes with a risk, and these have to be analysed and assessed and a decision taken. One of the criticisms often thrown at us is that we can appear to be risk averse. I'm a great believer in taking risks, as long as they have been carefully assessed and the consequences of the risk materialising or not are fully understood.

The company Twitter took a risk when it started up by using Google for email and storing their corporate data with them in the cloud. I don't know how carefully they assessed the risk, what security measures they should put in place, and and the possible damage that could be done to the company if that data somehow got out, but they might be wishing they'd looked a bit closer at it now.

A french hacker announced yesterday that he'd managed to get hold of hundreds of confidential documents, apparently by using password recovery techniques (ie guessing the answers to key questions and having the paswords mailed to an address of his choosing). The technology blog Techcrunch has got hold of this information and is in the process of publishing parts of it. There's a row going on about how ethical it is for this information to be published, but alongside that, and more relevant to us, questions are being asked about just how secure cloud computing is. There's no question that Google's servers were hacked, just that Twitter employees did not have very secure passwords or password recovery questions.

It's an issue we will have to deal with carefully as we make decisions about whether to make more use of the cloud and what for. It all goes back to the main security weakspot in any system being people!

EDIT: If you're interested in how that hack worked (and it was relatively simple), Techcrunch have published it here. Makes sobering reading for those of who use a lot of web apps and struggle to remember passwords.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Google vs Microsoft

So, Google announce last week that they're developing an operating system, and today Microsoft announce that they're making the office applications available as free web based products from 2010.

Will either of them be real competition for the other? Will the linux - based Chrome OS ever be serious competition to Windows? Currently it's only being targeted at netbooks, but two years ago netbooks didn't really exist. The world changes fast.

Conversely, will the lightweight web based versions of word, excel and powerpoint catch up in popularity terms with Google docs? Time will tell I suppose.

They say all competition is healthy, and I'm watching the developments of these two rivals - with two very different business models - with interest. I'm also wondering whether we are now witnessing the beginning of a real shift away from desktop operating systems and applications towards the web and the cloud.

I do feel sorry for Microsoft's group product manager for Office who told the BBC: "We believe the web has a lot to offer in terms of connectivity". This rather unfortunate quote is being widely tweeted around at the moment, usually followed by a comment about how up with the times MS are.....

Monday, 13 July 2009

Technical strategy

We had an open forum this morning for anyone in the department who wanted to come along to discuss our technology strategy, and how we’re going to implement it. It was well attended – about 50 people from all sections.

Lots of discussion about the sorts of services we offer, and not surprisingly in the current climate, what services we should be withdrawing in order to cope with a reduced level of resource and at the same time, an increasing demand for new IT services. There was a general view that we don’t measure service usage enough – if we don’t know who’s using services we can’t measure their impact and make informed decisions about their development or discontinuation.
Where we do have data, it’s obvious that some services we offer don’t have a high level of usage - is that because we don’t advertise them enough, or don’t help departments to get the best use out of systems, or is it that there’s a certain amount of business process change needed and departments aren’t prepared or able to put the effort in? Answer (in my view) yes, definitely.

There was a view expressed that we should be doing less development of systems in-house and more integration and improvements to the usability of systems. Users these days want joined up services with easy to use web front ends. Unfortunately the systems we buy often don’t provide either – the back end functionality being good, but the user experience poor. Is that where we should be putting our effort? Again - I think yes!

Delivery of services through our portal is our strategy, although there were a (small) few who didn’t see the point in that. Mainly those who don’t use portals and can’t see that the effort involved is worth it. I must admit I am always surprised that we have developers who don’t use our own services, and don’t use web 2.0 technologies, including readily available portals such as iGoogle.

We talked about exposing functionality thought the portal, so that users don’t actually have to be in a system to carry out common functions. We’ve done that with some services, but our strategy is to do it with many more. Technically that won’t be easy, but it’s what we’re aiming for. After all, they put a man on the moon forty years ago, so anything should be possible….

Back to the medical faculty

Today we had the third of our strategic liaison meetings with the new Faculties - this time it was the turn of Medicine. I used to work in the Medical faculty and it was nice to meet some old friends again. We followed the same agenda as in our previous meetings, covering topics under the umbrella headings of teaching and learning, research, communication and collaboration, and help and support. The Medical School doesn't use the centrally provided and supported VLE, it uses its own, so we had an interesting discussion about whether our imminent review of MOLE (our on-line learning environment) should include their requirements, or whether they would continue to use their own system. My concern is not with them using a medical-specific VLE, but how much the system is being developed to duplicate functionality that we already provide. We've agreed to meet with them urgently to discuss it.

They also flagged up the need for larger IT teaching spaces - something that other departments have asked for, and the need for better technology in them including plasma display screens. We talked about research data storage which is a growing problem for many departments and the need to cost it properly in any grant application.

With the current economic climate, travel to meetings is being looked at carefully, and although we provide central video conferencing facilities, desktop video and teleconferencing was asked for.

Overall it was a good meeting, and although we aren't getting through these meetings as fast as I would like, they are allowing us to have a good dialogue with the faculties.

Friday, 10 July 2009


Short post today - off to an Awayday with rest of Professional Service heads looking at planning and strategy for next few years. Spent a lot of yesterday in meetings (when don't I?). Covered lots of topics - spent a couple of hours in the morning with the rest of the Exec team in the department looking at priorities for the next couple of years, expecially in the light of the economic situation and doing more with less. Looking at what we should be concentrating on, and what we will have to stop doing.

We will have to be much more selective about what we take on, especially in the development area, concentrating on those developments which benefit the whole University in teaching and learning and research, and avoiding the temptation to implement things which although important to the few people who use them, really do only benefit those few people. More integration and less development, more web services, more self service and automation of processes, an emphasis on speed and reliability - all areas which we agreed to prioritise. Of course, what is important is that we continue to be innovative.

OK, off to see what everyone else's priorities are.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Picnic in the Park

Today the University had a Picnic in the Park for all staff, and the local community. We're very lucky to have a lovely park - Weston Park - right next to the University, and today we made good use of it. The idea came from a Party in the Park we had to celebrate our centenary in 2005 which was a huge success. On that occasion there was a Tug of War competition and our team - CiCS ASS (what else!), won the trophy. This time it was held again ran, and CiCS ASS2 defended our trophy. We also had a team from the Information Commons in the competition - IC Animals. I'm pleased to say both teams reached the semi finals, but sad to say they got no further. But, a great performance from both teams - well done to all of you.

There were street entertainers, including the Danger Boys (who amused me by juggling fire on giant unicycles with the Head of our Safety Services watching them...) a real flea circus (with very well trained fleas), jazz bands, candy floss, donuts, coconut shy, and lots more. Altogether a great afternoon. Well done to the University for putting it on, and also for raising money for the local Children's Hospital and Leukemia research which is where all of the proceeds went to.

To be or not to be

The last session at the Advisory Services Symposium was a debate – “To be or not to be (centralised or distributed), that is the question.” I chaired it and first off we had a speaker speaking for the motion – that centralised IT support was best. She argued that is was more efficient, there was less duplication of effort and a consistent service can only be provided to users if staff are working as part of the same department. Thee were also more opportunities for career progression in a centralised service, staff absences were more easily coped with, and there are more opportunity for multi-skilling.

The next speaker was against the motion and argued for distributed support staff on the basis that staff based in departments had a better understanding of the particular needs of departments, and could offer a service that was more tailored to individual departments needs. They were also always on-hand and available with better local knowledge.

Then we had another speaker supporting the motion, but this time with a slant towards shared services, using the NORMAN out of hours support service as an example.

Finally, a speaker neither for or against – but on the fence! He argued that a mixture of centralised and distributed was the best. Centralised support for core services and systems common across the institution, and staff located in departments to provide specialist, local support.

We had a lively debate afterwards, with many argument put forward – most of them supporting some form of centralised service, but in the end, the majority of people voted for a mixed service. It was interesting talking to people about the different models in their institutions. Most had some sort of mixed service, but in some even the local staff based in departments were members of the central IT department, and some had different arrangement for different departments. Arts and Humanities for example having more central support than more technical areas such as Science and Engineering.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Should we abandon ITIL

An interesting and thought provoking session as always from Noel Brunton, an IT service management consultant. He examined the question, should the service desk abandon ITIL?

In short, the answer is - it depends! His view was the with version 3, ITIL has become more corporate, not about IT support, but about IT and the business and of less practical relevance to the service desk. Many things of prime importance to service management are missing from ITIL - dealing with users, out of hours support, skills, operational stats, structures, and staffing. All the difficult stuff!

However, ITIL is still relevant to the IT department. It addresses the basic concepts of change management, problem managment and incident management. You need to stick with ITIL until change management is universally adopted, all developments have supportablilty as a primary issue, and the development team carry out problem management including root cause analysis as a matter of routine.

But, if all of those things are embedded, then it might be time for the service desk and IT support to start developing differnet methodologies, more relevant to their user support role.

Changing models of support

I'm in Aston at the moment for the UCISA Advisory and Support Staff Symposium, the theme of which is "It's not what you do but the way that you do it". The day started with me giving an introduction of what I think the 4 drivers are that are going to change "the way that we do it" over the next few years.

The first is funding. No point planning for financial uncertainty - there's nothing uncertain about it, we're going to have less. therefore we have to get tough and make decisions about how we do things differently, what we can stop doing and what we can offer a lower level of service on (very difficult to twll an audience of support staff that....). We have to do that in order to protect areas of excellent service and innovation. We also have to step up and help the University become more efficient and productive. Think the unthinkable and get rid of the white elephants. Change the support model.

24*7 support - been an issue for ages and there are ways of providing it - NORMAN is one good example of providing out of hours help to customers. But, it's no good having someone on the end of a phone reporting a service failure if there's no one available to fix it. The support model needs changing (or we could just build services which only break in working hours....)

Outsourcing - we should concentrate on where we can add value and look carefully at what services we are offering have become a commodity and can be offered cheaper and more efficiently by someone else. Obvious targets are student email – being done by some Universities, being considered by many more. Why do it yourself when Google or Microsoft will do it better, and for free. But that will change our support model. How do we support a service being run by someone else? Do we? Do we let the provider do it? If we can outsource email, and calendars, and media hosting to YouTube Google, and audio hosting to iTunes, (and what about storage - should we put it all in the cloud?). What effect will that have on how we support our users?

Finally, web 2.0 (or the social web or whatever label you want to give it). It's here and it's going to change things whether we like it or not. I've proably written about this so much that you'll be bored with it now! Our students are arriving with differnet expectations, and experience. their experience is with the intenet, not applications. Also there are other ways of doing things now – you don’t have to use what the IT department says any more. If you want to share a video- put it on youTube; collaborate on a document - use Google docs; survey your students - use survey monkey; talk to a colleague overseas - use Skype; keep your users informed of status updates – use twitter. We can't stop this, so we have to learn how to support it - change the support model. of su

Support services will need to engage with the whole University, especially staff. Not just in using the tools but how to using them properly. The library has a role in information literacy, our's is in new media literacy.

In summary - this is a challenging time for support staff, but exciting. We have the potential to do things in a very different way. To challenge some of the accepted ways of doing things, stop being gatekeepers and be facilitators, and embrace a diversity of solutions.

Monday, 6 July 2009

When is a student not a student

Started the day today with a visit from our Gartner Account manager. I've been a Gartner client for a few years and find their research papers very useful. We've procured access to the Gartner research web site for all University staff and students (access details given in an earlier post for anyone at TUOS who's interested). Today we were making sure that our section heads were up to speed on how to use it and familiar with hype cycles, magic quadrants and the like. I'm looking forward to the new Hype cycles on Emerging Technologies and Higher Education which I suspect are due out soon.

Then we had a meeting looking at how we might change our recording of assessments in order to take account of HEFCEs rather odd definition of "completion". Rather odd in my opinion anyway. Their definition of completion for financial purposes is that a student completes the final assessment (and by final HEFCE means chronologically the last one - no matter how many credits it carries). So a student can attend for the whole year, take every assessment but the last one, come back and take the one they missed as a resit, pass, and proceed to the next year. But in HEFCEs eye thay haven't completed the year and we lose all the funding for them. Personally I just can't understand it. But, that's what the rules are, so we have to abide by them and change all of our assessment and data collection procedures merely to fulfil this recording requirement - nothing to do with the business of the Unversity at all. As I said, that's my opinion, not necessarily that of the University ;-)

Finally, we had a look at the use of our Twitter account - how we can make it more useful rather than just reporting on planned maintenance and status updates of service failures, which is what we seem to do at the moment. It started as a bit of an experiment and we've not advertised it much but we have 340 followers. We'll be looking at how successful it's been and what sort of things we can use it for over the summer.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

An elephant in the room?

A little case study for you…

Several years ago we decided we needed a document and records management system. After a lot of careful evaluation, we bought one. It looked as though it would do everything we wanted it to - not just store corporate documents but properly mange them as well, keep excellent version control, allow collaboration to produce compound documents, produce workflows which could be used to simplify and digitise many of our processes.

Today, 3 years later, we're still not live with it in any real sense of the word, apart from some pilots. Why? Lots of reasons. It took us a lot longer to get a working system than we thought it would - about 18 months - it was more complex to install than we expected. Since then we've spent a lot of time getting to grips with how it works, training people to develop and configure it, and working on our pilots. I think it's fair to say that we probably underestimated the resource that would be needed both in our department and those working with us. Certainly no fault of anyone working on it.

Today we had a meeting to look at a way forward. It was a very good discussion and I’m writing about it because it raised so many issues – issues I think we may need to face in other projects. We faced a number of options. The main one - is it a white elephant? We bought it several years ago, times have changed, technology has moved on. We have other systems which can store documents and allow collaboration. Web 2.0 is here. So, should we scrap it and look at alternatives? That’s one of the things we talked about - how we could replicate the functionality using other ways of doing things – existing systems, workarounds, and other bits of software we might get. Some of the stuff we can do in different ways, some we can’t.

How high a priority is it? How closely does it align with University objectives? Well, interestingly, some of it aligns very closely. We’re committed to simplifying and streamlining processes and the workflow can help with this - it can’t solve it. Only business process analysis and re-engineering can do that, but the actual process of designing the workflow system can build that in.

Should we go with basic functionality (lets say 80%), or go for all the bells and whistles as well? The bells and whistles would be nice, but will take longer development time, and I think more staff training for the system.

It’s fair to say we had a full and frank exchange of views, especially as we have staff who are committed to the product, who have spent 2 years working with it, who can see the benefits it will bring if it’s implemented to its full extent. Talking about scrapping it or limiting its implementation was difficult for them. But, it’s fair to say they stood their ground well! :-)

We will take it forward, but in carefully prioritised and focussed areas, where we don’t have other ways of doing the things it does, and not necessarily with all the bells and whistles. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But, what can be difficult, especially for people closely involved with projects, is taking a step back, seeing the bigger picture and considering alterative ways forward. Thinking the unthinkable is something we are going to have to do more often in the current climate.