Thursday, 21 July 2011

Farewell to the Shuttle

Bit of an emotional day today - first I watched the landing of Atlantis, the last ever Space Shuttle. I watched the first one, Columbia, land in 1981, and was captivated then by the sheer beauty and elegance of the orbiter. I'd been fascinated by space travel ever since the Apollo missions, I can remember the first moon landing, and in particular the very tense wait for Apollo 13 to contact Houston after its re-entry. My mouse mat has Gene Kranz's famous quote "Failure is not an option" on it, which he made to Mission Control after learning what had happened and they were planning how to get the astronauts  back to earth safely (actually, he never actually said it real life, only in the film....). So, today was the end of an era, but it won't be the end of space exploration and travel - we can't afford to let it be. The return on investment of the 15cents a day that each american citizen has invested in it has been enormous, and the scientific, technological and medical advancements which have come out of the space programme are too many to list here - but the world today would not be the same without them.

The other emotional event was attending a degree ceremony, - I try and get to a few during graduation week, and it always makes me realise why we're here. All of those proud students, parents, supporters, family and friends. And I always get a lump in my throat at the bit in the ceremony where the graduands stand up, turn round and applaud their family.

Not a lot else to report from this week - except that we had a very good demonstration of Webex at our section heads meeting. It's a web conferencing tool used by a number of departments, and we're thinking of making it our recommended standard, and supporting it centrally.

This will be the last blog post for a couple of weeks -  busy at degree ceremonies again tomorrow, and then off on hols - twitter, facebook and the other blog will probably have a few holiday related posts on if you're really interested :-)

Monday, 18 July 2011

SSB, Exec and mobile coverage

Service Strategy Board today, and a catch up on all of our projects and Service Advisory Groups. As we approach the time of year where new stuff goes live, there's an understandable nervousness about whether stuff is going to be ready. One of the big projects is the Enquirer and Applicant Portal, which will handle much of the registration process this year. Lots of people working hard on it, and it will be a huge improvement on current processes. Big discussion on allocation of resources to projects, and where we can find more!

Exec meeting this morning where we had a look at the recommendations from our mobile survey, and the latest draft of the booklet explaining our services for new students. We also had a discussion about whether we should be looking at accreditation by the NCC - there's a number of case studies here, and the ones from JANET and Imperial College are particularly relevant. They obviously found it useful, and it's something we'll consider, but only if there are benefits.

Finally, I was interested to see this morning that the BBC is attempting to map mobile phone coverage in the UK using an Android app which collects information about 2G and 3G availability. It's the first time an independent map has been produced - it will be interesting to see the results. If my experience is anything to go by, there will be some big gaps!

Saturday, 16 July 2011


Great departmental BBQ as always - thanks to everyone who helped. Shopping, chopping, cooking, carrying chairs, assembling gazebos, setting up the PA, putting together the music playlist (which was mixed to say the least) and clearing up afterwards.  The sun shone, the food was good, there was plenty of drinks, and there was plenty of good company. 

Some pictures here.  Have a great summer everyone.

Friday, 15 July 2011


Exciting day yesterday as we began our journey to becoming LEAN. And no, I don't mean a mass diet. We're using some excellent help from the St Andrew's LEAN unit to help us understand the way it works, and we're running through two different processes - Maintenance of programme regulations and student computer account registration. Hopefully after that we'll be able to demonstrate the benefit to the University and get some commitment to take it further forward.

This morning we had an interesting telephone call with a Gartner analyst about introducing release management into our cycle and that led to a discussion about how some of our processes including change management and project management fit together. Lots to think about.

I'm also involved in planning a session for our Internal Communications Network on using social media  - looking at the pros and cons of using blogs, Twitter etc in a work setting. I have plenty of examples of both, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

And today is our departmental BBQ - the last one in the picturesque setting of our car park. Hopefully by this time next year we'll be in our new building with a proper garden with grass and everything. Off to chop salads now, but expect photos here later.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Timetabling, Google and browsers.....

Yesterday morning we had some meetings open to any member of staff to listen to Google talk about their apps suite, and give some demos. I was pleased to see that there was a lot of interest and the lecture theatre was full for both sessions. Very lively discussion, and people seemed to be impressed with the functionality of apps, and particularly the integration with Sites. Very easy to collaborate and share stuff, and some nice new features. So, we'll have to see what the take up is like. We will be promoting all of the apps suite, once we have the calendar live. And the calendar will be live when we're happy with the data migration from our existing calendar. Legacy data eh?

Also yesterday we had some feedback from a consultant who had been taking a look at our Common Timetabling project. We had a pilot last year which was not particularly successful, and we wanted someone from outside to take a look and give us advice on what we could have done better, what lessons we could learn, and how to take it forward. It generated a lot of debate about room usage - occupancy (how many seats in a booked room are used) and frequency (how many of the available slots for a room are booked). Our figures are not particularly high for either and we need to look at the reasons - there are many and varied ones - one being that apparently not all students turn up for lectures.  A helpful report with a number of recommendations we'll be taking forward over the next few weeks.

And finally for now, a major frustration with browser versions and software suppliers. We try and ensure that all of our services run on all modern browsers, but when  our suppliers can't keep up, what can we do? It also doesn't help when browser versions are released in rapid succession - like Firefox for instance - and they remove the previous versions that did work. I haven't got a browser on my mac at the moment that works with one of our services, unless I go back to Firefox 3.something. Oh well, I just can't approve anyone's leave......

Friday, 8 July 2011

Student mobiles and the gender difference.....

A couple of months ago we carried out a survey of what mobile devices our students had, and what they used them for. Analysis still being done, but there were some interesting results. Some not surprising - 99.96% of students have a mobile, 92% have a laptop. 14% have an iPod touch, 10% a netbook, 7% a tablet or eReader.

In terms of phones, 56% have a smartphone (UK average is 35%),  and of the ones who don't 25% were thinking of upgrading to one in the next year. The main makes are iPhone (30%),  Blackberry (25%) and Android (23%). There's an interesting gender differene in ownership:

Men are more likely than women to own an iPhone or HTC, women more likely to own a Blackberry. Wonder why? Answers on a postcard please.

Laptops are mainly Windows (85%) and Mac (13%), with some Linux and dual boots making up the rest - mainly in the Faculty of Engineering. No women own Linux machines. :-)

Significant numbers of students said they didn't bring their laptops onto campus, the main reasons being the weight and bulkiness, and issues connecting to the wireless network. There was also a wireless issue with smartphones, with only 51% connecting them. Awareness seemed high, but the actual connection was an issue which is obviously something we need to look into. And, more women have trouble connecting than men. Is it because they find it harder, or is it because they've all gone out and bought Blackberrys?
The other gender difference was in confidence - men said they were more confident in using their equipment than women. Are they? Or do they just say so?

All interesting stuff, and I'm sure will spark some good debate.

Shine on...

About 3 times a year we have a departmental meeting - there's over 200 of us, so difficult to get everyone together but we do our best. Yesterday was a good one, and in fact many people have said to me that it was the best ever!  We try and keep people in touch with whats going on in the departmnt, so there's often a couple of demos of new services, and also we get an external speaker - we've had both the  VC, and the Registrar recently.

Yesterday we had a demo of our new on-line registration system which will allow most of what students need to do to register with us to be done before they arrive. Also we have a new Enquirer and Applicant portal which is being developed using our new portal technology, Liferay, which is looking good.

We also had a demo of Google Calendar which we'll all be moving to in the next few weeks. Very different to the one we use now (Oracle calendar), but I was impressed with the features we saw yesterday, and it integrates so much better with other apps including mail. Our move to Google mail went really well, but the issues around moving calendar data from one system to another are so much more complicated than moving mail, so we're doing lots of checking, and not hopefully managing user expectations....

We reported on our survey on student mobiles (will do a separate post on that), but the highlight of the meeting was a talk from one of our Prov-Vice-Chancellors - Professor Tony Ryan OBE who is a Professor of Chemistry. He appears on the BBC radio 4 programme Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox and Robin Ince, and was recently on stage with them at Glastonbury. Tony talked to us about a major project in the Faculty of Science - Project Sunshine.  I couldn't possibly do credit to the talk - Tony is an excellent presenter, and is passionate about this research. Based on the fact that we're running out of fuel and food, Project Sunshine brings together many different research areas in the University to harness the power of the sun to solve these enormous problems.

As lots of people said to me afterwards, it made you proud to work at this University. Many of our staff don't some into contact with academic research very often, and this really showed people why we're here.  I decided to call this post Shine On, and that probably implies that Tony is a crazy diamond. Well, he's not really crazy, but certainly a diamond.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Google Plus

As I was lucky enough to get an invite, I've been having a bit of a play with  Google Plus in the last couple of days. First reaction is that I like it. I can actually see a use for it, whereas Google Wave and Google Buzz seemed like solutions looking for a problem to solve. It's easy to use and navigate, and I like the idea of circles - groups of people you can share things with with different privacy settings. Hangout is a nice desktop video conferencing service that you can invite people to - we had five of us taking part like week - and you can share documents, presentations, etc and have chat windows open. Will be interesting to see how it integrates with other apps.

 Yesterday I posted that I've now got Ehco360 on my mac, and I've been having a bit of a think about what to use it for. We've been branding it as lecture capture software, but this version is really personal capture software - I suspect it will be very useful for producing short training videos, demos of how to do simple things, or in my case, maybe some things that I would find easier to say to the team rather than write down - summaries of presentations complete with slides that I've given to outside bodies for example. Any other things you think it might be useful for, let me know.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

What to record?

Early start today with a meeting of the University Executive Board and all Heads of Department, mainly talking about the White Paper and its implications. Of course, it's been massively delayed, and subject to much debate I imagine in the coalition.  Key outcomes are the opening up of HE to FE Colleges and alternative suppliers and a more risk based approach to quality assurance. Freeing up 85,000 student numbers from current controls in 2012/13 is a interesting one - what will it do for widening participation?  AAB results are strongly correlated with social class. From 2013/14 there'll be sponsorship by employers and charities of off quota places, and its expected that the core student numbers of institutions will reduce year on year. Lots of stuff about improved information for students through the Key Information Set including time spent on different teaching activities, assessment methods used and data on graduate salaries.

What is interesting is what's not in it. No vision for the wider purpose of Universities - it's very operational. Nothing on research, plans for PG support or internationalisation. The Times Higher has a good leader article on it this week making many of these points.  We're in a consultation period at the moment - will be interesting to see if anything changes at the end of it.

Later today I had a catch up with the Internal Auditors on a review of Business Continuity they've just completed - lots of recommenadtions but nothing too controversial, and most of them are already in hand.

Then a bit of excitement as I had Echo360 installed on my mac, so I can now record myself in glorious technicolour (do you get technicolour on a mac?). It's very easy - you hit a red button to start, and the same button to stop. Even I can do it. And it can record anything you're showing on your screen as well - web pages powerpoint etc. So, expect a video blog entry very soon, when I've thought of something to say!

Friday, 1 July 2011

CABs, Admissions and White Paper

A few things to catch up on. Last Wednesday I was in London at a meeting of the UCAS Admissions Process Review Group. Lots of extremely good research has been carried out using prospective students, students who've been through the system, schools, colleges, universities and both good and bad points about the system identified. Lots of very exciting proposals for change, and we're in the middle of considering them now, and of course wider stakeholder groups are also being consulted. Expect to see a report for consultation around September.

Also this week I've been involved in discussions about how we might offer Google accounts to students when they leave and become alumni, and bout how our data migration in preparation for our move to Google calendar for staff is going.

This morning was our weekly  Change Advisory Board, and a discussion about when is the best time to do some upgrades to our core routers, which might, if it all goes horribly wrong,  cause a network outage, and some server outages. Of course the answer to that is never, so we have to look for the least worst time. It is definitely an issue with the current 24/7 expectation, that finding maintenance windows gets harder.

Oh, and of course, the other interesting event this week was the White Paper. Watched the debate on a live BBC stream, and followed the breaking news through the day on twitter.  Supposed to be released at 3.30 but late in the day a delay was announced, leading to much speculation on twitter for the reasons. My two favorites were:

delay: BIS officials struggle with numbered paragraph issues in Word 2007"


"I presume the delay is down to the possible plagiarism found in it by Turnitin"

Implications for IT to follow when I've managed to read though and digest it all.