Thursday, 29 November 2007

Bikes, Segways and conquering the Universe

I grew up in North Nottinghamshire, and loved riding my bike. Now I live in Sheffield, I don't even own one. Two obvious reasons - too many cars, and, more to the point, too many hills. I hate cycling up hills. Last year a friend persuaded me to cycle over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco because he told me that once you got onto the bridge it was all downhill. He lied, and I nearly died. So did he when I'd recovered. I was therefore interested to read an account from one of our Campus Wardens about his experience with an electric bike. Our Campus Wardens do a great job of patrolling the campus, checking on car parks and cars, and generally helping to keep the campus clean and tidy. As those of you from Sheffield will know, the campus is spread out, and has a lot of hills, so they have to cover large areas. If they're responding to an incident, it can take them some time to get there. So, our Room and Parking Services section have been trialling a Powabyke. The report has been excellent, with the warden being able to travel over large parts of the campus quickly and safely, even negotiating some quite steep hills with only moderate pedal assist. The bike also kept its charge well - it plugs into a normal socket, and only appears to need charging every few days. This sounds like something the University should be promoting and I can see many areas where it will provide a quick, energy efficient way of travelling around the campus.

Another device to provide this sort of transport, is the Segway. These have never really taken off over here, but in the US you see them a lot, especially in huge conference centres, where there are large, flat distances to be covered. It can be quite a surprise to see one come whizzing past you. They can get up quite a speed - up to 12mph, and you can carry quite a lot of stuff on them. The police also use them. They work by changing your balance - to move forward, you lean forward; to stop, you lean back. To steer, you lean left or right. They're also very energy efficient. I rather fancy one, but I'm not sure if they'd cope with Sheffield hills. They certainly don't cope with stairs. Reminds me of the Dalek joke......

"Well this certainly buggers our plans to conquer the Universe....."

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

IC Filming

Spent a pleasant couple of hours at lunchtime in the Information Commons with some journalism students who were filming a piece to be broadcast on SteelTV which launches on Friday. This is a TV channel which is being set up by the student newspaper, Steel Press. The piece is going to be on what students think of the IC, 6 months after its opening. I was interviewed and asked a number of questions, including whether many students are in the IC at night and whether it's worth opening for 24 hours. Our view is that it is - at busy times there can be several hundred students in the building overnight, and even when it's quiet, there can be 30 to 40. The quietest time is from 5am to 8am. The 24*7 nature of the building was one of the key demands from students during the design phase of the building. Oh, they were also interested in rumours that students were getting up to "no good" in the group study rooms and the shower!

It will be interesting to see what spin the students put on the piece. If my experience with Steel Press is anything to go by, it might not be all that positive! I don't care what they say - I think it's a fantastic building (I think I may have said that before....), and I still smile when I go in. It's an incredibly satisfying experience to see something grow from an idea, through outline sketches, to detailed drawings and plans and finally to a real building. It really is the result of a partnership - between CiCS and the Library, the Estates department, the project mangers and the consultant team, especially the architects. I'd like to do it again now. Roll on Phase 3...

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Managed service and liaison

Fairly lengthy posts yesterday, so will keep this short!

Had a meeting to discuss how we might improve our liaison with our customers, particularly with the proposed new Faculty structure. There's a number of different types - strategic, technical, liaison with staff, with students, with academic departments and faculties, and with professional services. Had a good brainstorm about a number of different models, and proposals are being drawn up for further consultation.

The group which considers requests for software to be installed on the managed desktop also met today, and as well as approving software installation requests, discussed a couple of matters of principle. We agreed that we would consider requests from departments to install software previously on departmental machines onto the managed service so that students could make use of the increased opening hours of the Information Commons. We also talked about the best way of supporting students who needed access to particular pieces of software, for example for visually impaired students. This is often difficult to install on the managed service or licence restrictions prohibit it, and we believe that the most appropriate way forward is for students to have the software installed on a laptop provided for them, so that they have access to it at any time.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Exploiting the potential for blogs etc part 3

The Hidden Dangers of Social Networks: You can log-on but you cannot hide
Stuart Lee, University of Oxford

Are Computing Services using Web 2.0 technologies? On OUCS web site - RSS, Blog, Podcasts, so some use. NB - are we using anything?
Quote from Gartner - "Web2.0 disrupts existing models. Web 2.0 communities connect people in ways that many companies hadn't anticipated when they began to develop their online strategies"
Is it really disruptive? Has been around a while. Has it changed what we do?
Gartner again: "Social environments are the wave of the future - companies need to provide interactive services such as blogs, wikis and tagging"'

Impact on central IT services:
Is an increased burden - need to provide education, training. Need staff skilled to do it.
14% of Oxford University email is generated from Facebook.
IT services have to keep up with increased user demands and expectations.
Outsourcing and demands for justifying central services. Academics see top slice as infrastructure tax - have to justify our costs. Questions could be asked - why are we paying computing services to provide something that we could get for free from Facebook, Google etc? This is a problem with Web2.0 we have to face. If it's offering a more cost effective service, should we use it? But, when considering solutions like Google apps have to consider hidden issues, political as well as technical.

JISC Great Expectations survey:
65% of prospective students regularly use social networking sites - only 5% never use them. 27% regularly use blogs, wikis etc.
Oxford have found that 96% of freshers use Facebook.

Legal institutional aspects - should we rewrite our rules/AUPs? Or just use exisiting ones. Oxford experience is that if students are asked to take offensive materail down, they usually do. Are problmes with sites like "ratemyprofessor" -c an get some very rude comments. Anonymous. No way of tracing.

Willingness of people to give away so much information about themselves, ie privacy concerns

Appvertising - (a word which makes you want to reach for your revolver according to Stuart) - commercial companies looking at data collected by apps and using it to target information and adverts

Facebook opens profiles to public.
Is no way to delete your personal data from Facebook. Servers are in US so not governed by UK data protection laws.

Concerns about corporate single sign on user name and passwords being used for social networking sites. University regulations say you can't hand user names and passwords over to any other person. But what about handing it to a third party service? Is this against the regulations? If it is, staff suing Blackberrys could be in trouble...C

Oxford has had some press coverage:
Oxford using Facebook to snoop.
Oxford trying to stop "trashing" ie pelting each other with eggs and flour at end of exams. Uni looked on Facebook for photos, and then fined students - 200 students caught and fined, mainly caught by photos their friends had posted and tagged them in. Best education ever about privacy settings on Facebook. This was their social site - VLE was where work was done. Students didn't realise that these were coming together. Private lives clashing with formal lives.
"Facebook is ephemeral - just a laugh"

Second Life
Oxford have bought an island to play about with. Design competition to build it. But then press got hold of it. "Going virtual"
Concern among academics:
It's a waste of money (but it's only £40 per month for unlimited access!!!)
Damages the Uni reputation - it's a game, it's full of porn. But the whole web is full of porn - do we stop publishing on it?
Who gave you the right to do this? Interesting question - who does decide these things?

Conclusion - Web2.0 is fantastic, but IT services have to step in occasionally and give advice.
Explore provision
Tread carefully - separate fad from future
Educate re privacy
Educate re libel
Educate re copyright
Use the tools yourselves

Above all, it's not disruptive and we should let these tools flourish.

Disruptive Technology and its Implications for University Information Services
David Harrison, University of Cardiff

Talkin about:
Things outside the "service offering"
User centric rather than organisation centric
Issues that transcend organisational boundariesIssues that break traditional security and privacy models

UCISA have produced a discussion document setting out the potential conflict between users who want to do new things and service providers who want to lock down and control everything.

Nothing a user can do with disruptive technologies that is different from their use of traditional technology. The primacy of AUP remains.
But, we need to be prepared to relinquish sole responsibility for IT regulations

Cardiff have developed Safe IT Guidelines in partnership with Student Union.

We work in different realms :
sometimes on our own
sometimes in a way that shields our true identity eg Second Life
sometimes as part of a group, as part of an organisation,
sometimes as a contributor to someone else's work
We work differently and use different language according to the realm we are working in.
Most of us haven't had any training in how to work in the virtual world
Cardiff partnering with IBM
IMB have taken a lead in encouraging employees to blog, and have produced guidelines for blogging, and engaging with the virtual world

Different types of blog:
Personal but not corporate - no need for this to be hosted on corporate systems
Personal or group, work related - collaborative - should be host on corporate intranet
Group internet presence - external collaboration with others - may or may not be hosted corporately. Eg UCISA on Facebook.
Corporate blog for marketing etc. - should be hosted on corporate systems

Adopt suitable language, style, and identity depending on where you are
Have guidelines on usage and on what type of collaboration tool is best for what purpose - IM, chat rooms, email, blogs, wikis, shared workspaces
Be supportive rather than prevent

Nothing new in web 2.0
Users need protecting from their own foolishness
Institutions should trust staff and students and use existing codes of practice
Embrace and engage
Partnership - be customer centric
Work life balance - some people want separation, some like the blurring.

Exploiting the potential for blogs etc part 2

Case Study 3: Put Yourself Out There
Alison Wildish, Edge Hill University

Edge Hill became a University in 2006. Need to do a lot of awareness raising. People talking about you is best form of advertising/PR.

People are going to talk about pub or on a social networking site. Boundaries becoming blurred - common to mix business/study with pleasure. Students don't switch off from Facebook when they come in to uni. But also same for staff. No-one comes in and leaves their personal lives at home. Regardless of any institutional policy - students and staff will use social networking sites.

Approach from Edge Hill - great! Embrace use of social networking tools. Make it easier. Range of communication channels which they will plug into Facebook, and plug student networking sites into university portal.
Policy/strategy - not to have one, not even for teaching and learning. Use it while we can. Use it as complementary to marketing and to existing communication channels.
Blogs managed on site (wordpress), but can use externally hosted ones as well. Not prescriptive.

Actively building applications to link into Facebook. Student portal information fed into Facebook accounts - students opt into it. Not only way of getting info. Different tools for different preferences.
Are problems. eg, they had a false allegation about member of staff on Facebook including photographs. Not under uni control. Solution - use proper channels. Report group. Acceptable use policy covers use of network and facilities - therefore can talk to students. Remind students about libel and defamation laws.
Keele University - asked students not to express dissatisfaction about institution on social networking sites. Goes against culture of openness being encouraged. Instead should educate individuals about their responsibilities. and how to manage on-line presence. Ironically, Keele have won competition on Facebook for favourite university!
Policy on social networking - very open, accept it, allow it,and actively encourage it.
Screenshot of student portal - very Web2.0. Links to YouTube, IM, Flikr, Blogs, news (don't use email).
Some good ideas.
Interesting talk from a University obviously not frightened by social networking and actively embracing it.

Case Study 4: The Student Perspective
Tom Milburn, University of Bath

Tom is a sabbatical officer at Bath, responsible for Education. Has surveyed students to prepare this talk.
Social networks adopted by students at a phenomenal rate - UK are leading social networking users in Europe. Huge potential because of frequency of visits and high retention rates.

Student perspective on social networking:
Peer to peer support
Provides support of their cohert in a strucutred enviroment - eg first years set up group about how to use a lab. Not bound by office hours. Older students coaching younger students. Can ease pressure on staff. Final year student can often explian better than staff. Discussion board can focus on certain aspects of course.

Student feedback
Can provide liaison for staff student committees - have been set up in Bath. Provide open forum - students check regularly (more than email!). Easy to voice opinion, have open channel of communication with staff. Staff can run things past students and gauge opinion.

L and t can be enhanced by being offered in various formats. Social networks offer flexible use of images and videos. Questionnaires can be linked to Facebook which can aid research for students projects.

Can be perceived as closed commincation channels. ie outside of University
Consequence of actions can become distant as socail networks can be turned off
Need for a username and password can give a false sense of security.
Lack of clarity from University on what the consequence of actions on social ntworks can be.

Advice statements
Uni and SU jointly now providing advice statements
Often details what students should be wary of - be careful about you leave as your digital footprint. If you wouldn't put it on noticeboard, don't put it on the internet.
Privacy - contact details etc. bullying and harrassment
At Bath these were delivered as Flyers on Facebook. Missed the boat, because so many flyers are now advertising, so get lost. Wouldn't do again.

Can be excellent ay of keeping students up to date with developments
Not as well known as social networking
But, not easy to find, not updated regulalry, not used by student themselves

Great potential for social networks to engage students and enhance experience of uni life - email just isn't read
Depends on how much effort staff put in and depends on culture of students on various courses
can be of great value to the instution.

Discussion - more acceptance now of staff using facebook, especially as students see staff having profiles and posting interests etc. Institutions should use the new facility to set up institution pages.

Exploiting the Potential for Blogs and Social Networks

I'll blog during the day, and tidy up later, so apologies for spelling etc.

Introduction from Brian Kelly from UKOLN.

All talks being video streamed, onto a web site and into Second Life. 8 people already in Second Life attending the virtual workshop. Remote participants can log into chat and ask questions. There is a workshop wiki that everyone can contribute to.
Future is Web 2.0. User generated content - big change from standard content management systems at present. Will be challenges for IT departments and universities. Hope to discuss them during day.
Brian gives definition of a blog and uses mine as an example! Thanks Brian.
Then a definition of a Social Network - and uses my Facebook profile as an example. Draws attention to fact that we know what we're posting about ourselves - but do we know what other people are posting about us - embarrassing incidents, photos etc.
What if we build services and no-one uses them - do students want social webs built in institutions? - Recent report from OCLC says that students don't trust institutions with their data, but do trust social networking sites etc.

Case Study 1: Blogging In A Managed Environment
Stephen Clarke, University of Birmingham

Birmingham Uni makes extensive use of blogs - set up in VLE (WebCT Vista), Set up by academic staff as part of course. Not moderated or checked centrally. Academic member of staff responsible for content.

Educational blogs - are there risks?
Innovations are nearly always risky, and risk aversion slows innovation. Risk management needs to be proportionate.
Blogs can be part of VLE. Focussed on learning, assessed, retained by institution.
Can be about work life - more a diary. Help to build cohesion. Can be transient. Independent of learning activities. Is it right for institution to be spending money on this sort of service when resources are available elsewhere?
Blogs can be in social networking software - eg Facebook. Created by students. Can be rude, disrespectful, spread a poor image of University. University cannot easily intervene.
Further risks of using social networking software:
Universal loss of service. Facebook nearly had to go off line a few weeks ago. What if it contained content essential for course?
Individual loss of service - eg individual removed from Facebook, blogger etc. No University control.
Need to agree acceptable level of risk and then manage it.

Good blogs in an educational context:
Secure, safe, reliable
Inappropriate use can be stopped
The institution controls access and sets acceptable use policy
Support institutional goals

Bad blogs:
Are a fact of life
Institutions need to maintain a distance from them
Should not be imposed on learners

Working in a managed environment:
Supports good blogs
Protects users
Protects content
Carries responsibility

Case Study 2: Leedsfeeds: a Blogging Service based on the Open Source Elgg Application
Melissa Highton, University of Leeds

Leeds host blogs for staff on campus. Many staff stay at Leeds for many years - potentially important resource - research, reflective writing etc. Keeps them safe - Facebook can be for private life only. Protects staff from bullying and harrassment.
Leeds University values:
Community, inclusiveness, integrity, professionalism, academic excellence. All words used when describing Web 2.0!
Leeds did a study on information flows for staff - lot about networking. Networking was very physical - coffee room etc. But in a large organisation, how do you know who knows what, ie who to ask?
Leeds started using an externally hosted product for blogs, but webmaster not happy, so decided to host on campus. Decided on Elgg - free, open source, also allows you to have community blogging, ie not just individual blogs. Also felt that Leeds content should stay on Leeds servers - safe, archiving, being proud of it.
Why should institutions have an interest in blogs and social networks?
Enhance learning. Blogs promoted to staff, can use any way they want to. Can invite students to contribute to community blogs. Haven't had much "trouble", but have had trouble in Facebook. Student know the difference between writing in Leeds Uni domain and on Facebook.
Lot of blogs are public - has led to interest in research, collaboration etc. Students learning to write better because other people reading them.
Community benefits - staff enjoy reading each other's blogs. Groups forming - number of networks being set up as community blogs. Share ideas, put comments and links on each other's blogs. Peer support, reflective learning.

Do users trust it? Seem to.
No moderation, but is a "report as offensive" button. Not used much. Governed by acceptable use policy.
Run training and support for staff. Seen as extension of personal web space.
Not just academic staff - open to all staff. Some librarians and technologists blogging. Is a purchasing community, research office blog, projects news.
Can search by name, tags, see all posts. But fairly chaotic. Some posts private, some public.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Senate Steering Group reports

I've mentioned in previous posts that the new Vice-Chancellor had identified that a review of the University's organisational structure had a high priority. A Senate Steering Group was established to review the current structure and to make recommendations for change. That group has now produced a report which has just been circulated to Senate and Council for discussion and approval. It has been sent to the CiCS Executive team so that it can be cascaded in the department, so that we can begin to discuss what implications it might have for us and how we organise our services and support.

The key recommendations are:

The existing Faculties (Medicine and Health, Pure Science, Engineering, Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences), are retained and become the primary location for all of the existing 41 planning units and the research centres/institutes;

Each Faculty will be led by a Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC) who will be the budget holders for that Faculty

There will also be 3 PVCs who are appointed to lead cross-cutting areas of research and innovation, learning and teaching, and external affairs

The Senior Management Group (SMG) will be replaced by a University Executive Board (UEB) which comprises the Vice Chancellor and 8 PVCs, the Registrar and Secretary and Director of Finance

The arrangements for the faculty infrastructure, resourcing and operational environment will emerge under the leadership of the new PVCs

The report specifically refers to the scope for alignment of the Faculties with professional services.

I look forward to this being discussed within the departmental teams and will post any further news here as soon as I can.

Tomorrow (Monday) I'm going to a workshop on Exploiting the Potential for Blogs and Social Networking, and providing there is a good wireless connection, will attempt to blog some of the sessions as they happen!

Friday, 23 November 2007

Electronic footprints

I'm interested in a story on the BBC web site about young people and social networking sites - it confirms my belief that we should be giving advice to students about privacy. I'm often surprised by the amount of personal information people post, including contact details, dates of birth, addresses, when they're on holiday. I think most of us would be surprised by the electronic footprint we're leaving. The Information Commissioner's Office has developed a web site for young people which has some good advice. Facebook for example has very good privacy settings, if only people used them.

Edit: When I wrote this, I hadn't seen the front page of today's Independent.

Miscellaneous Thursday

Spent some of today showing a colleague from another Russell Group University around the Information Commons - I still love showing people around the IC - it really is a fantastic facility and we should be proud of it. We then spent a very profitable hour discussing how our respective institutions organise IT services - it's always good to get another perspective, and share experiences - both good and bad. This was particularly useful as we start to think how we might organise ourselves to support a new University structure.

I also got my laptop back today, after its disasterous hard disc crash last week. Great - except there wasn't anything on it when I picked it up. But - looks like all I've lost is the most recent set of photos - still bad, but nothing like as bad as it could have been.

I was interested to see that Amazon have sold out of its book reader - despite some sceptisism about whether anyone would want it. Will the book eventually be replaced? I'm not sure, but I remember not being sure about the fax machine either. Maybe I should do a post about life before the internet, and when cut and paste meant scissors and sellotape. Or maybe that would be showing my age too much...

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Shared research data

Recently, one of the organisations we're a member of - RUGIT (The Russell Group of IT Directors) has been involved in an Invitation to Tender for a study into the feasibility of establishing a shared digital research data service for UK Universities. This is a joint proposal from RUGIT and CURL (the Consortium of Research Libraries). It’s being funded by HEFCE as part of its Shared Services programme – “shared services” being used to describe a model of providing services in a combined or collaborative way to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

In this case, the outcome could be a business case for a service shared among all UK Universities, with input from the IT departments and Libraries, and bringing huge benefits to researchers.

The amount of data being produced by research is enormous, especially with the advent of grid computing and e-science. Areas such as meteorology, aeronautics and particle physics are obvious producers of large data sets, but all disciplines including the social sciences and the arts and humanities are already producing large volumes of data, of all kinds - complex data used in climate modelling, aerodynamics, molecular modelling, bioinformatics; video and image archives used in archaeology, anthropology and drama; massively large data sets used in particle physics.

The intention is not just to set up a large shared data storage facility - this would be valuable, but would add no real value to the research process. What is being proposed is a facility to manage the whole data life cycle - including creation, selection, retrieval and preservation. This will allow researchers to access previously generated data sets, to undertake new analyses and to annotate existing data.

It’s a very exciting project, and on one which I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Exceptional Beer

As well as the work I do in CiCS, I spend a lot of time on other University matters - it's very important to play a wide role and be aware of what's happening in the University. One area I spend a lot of time in is Human Resources - I'm a member of the Pay and Reward Review Group and the Equality and Diversity Board, and I serve on promotion and appeal panels, as well as grievance and disciplinary panels. This afternoon I chaired one of the Exceptional Contribution Award (ECA) panels - after 3 hours preparation of reading and scoring the cases, in 3 hours this afternoon we got through about half of them, so will meet again later in the week to look at the rest. It's hard work, and takes a lot of time, but it's very important that each individual case is considered thoroughly and fairly.

From there I went to a much more enjoyable event - a beer launch! I was lucky enough to be chosen as part of Brewteam 07 - a joint venture between Thornbridge Brewery and the University to produce two new beers to coincide with the opening of The Edge - the new social facility at the Student Village. Two teams of staff and students worked with the brewers from Thornbridge over a period of months to produce the two beers - Belay Bob and Belay Betty. My team produced Belay Bob - by far the more superior of the two - a dark, new world brown ale with lovely coffee overtones, and quite bitter. The two will go on sale soon in outlets around Sheffield - let me know if you see them, and what you think. With a bit of luck I'll be going out to Thornbridge in December to help with the brewing process - I'll see if I can bring some back for the Christmas party.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Executive Team

Several meetings today, and I wasn’t impressed that the last one was at 5pm! I’ll start with the one of most relevance to the department - the Executive Team meeting. Items discussed included:
  • How CiCS might have to realign its services to take account of a major restructuring of the University which will happen next year. I’ll post more on that later when the report is circulated to the Senate.
  • ITIL - this provides a structured framework for best practices for IT Service management and related processes. ITIL has been widely implemented within the IT industry but has only recently been adopted by the HE sector. A number of Universities have started implementing ITIL in specific areas with a view to applying the principles to other areas over time. The areas covered are:
    • Service Strategy
    • Service Design
    • Service Transition
    • Service Operation
    • Continual Service Improvement
Potential benefits of implementing ITIL include improved service quality, better resource allocation and pro-active IT management.
We’ve agreed that in principle we want to implement ITIL but in order to find out more, and decide which bits and how, we’re arranging a half-day overview for key people.
  • Lessons learnt from the power outage incident last week – we’ll be having a number of discussions about how we might improve a number of things.
  • How we might provide training and support for staff in CiCS who manage staff, by setting up a management development programme, tailored to the needs of individual staff

Other meetings included the Admin Team – the Heads and Directors of the Professional Services - where the main item of discussion was the implications of the restructuring, and a meeting to discuss transparency and information flows.

Electronic books

Amazon has just unveiled a wireless electronic bookreader called Kindle. It's about the size of a paperback, holds about 200 books, and is on sale at $400. It doesn't need a PC to download books - you can do it wirelessly.

What does this mean? Other electronic book readers have been released, but have failed to get a big share of the market. Will we ever get used to reading books electronically? Can we get rid of all those books making the Information Commons look untidy and fill it with lovely new PCs instead? Any librarians want to comment?

Sunday, 18 November 2007


Last Friday night I was tapping away with my laptop on my knee, watching the 50 top comedy sketches on Channel 4, when the application I was working in froze. So I closed it. Then another froze. Then there was a funny clicking noise under my keyboard, worryingly just about where my hard disk is. So I did what any self-respecting IT professional does when faced with a situation like this, and turned the laptop off and back on again. The problem was, it wouldn't come back on. Even after a lot of messing about, trying to boot from the install disk, booting in safe mode. Nothing. Just a blank screen. By now, I'd accepted that my hard disc had gone, and I trekked to the Apple Store in Meadowhall on Saturday afternoon where it was confirmed. It's still under warranty so the nice guys there will fit me a new hard disc in the next couple of days, and my old one will wing its way back to Apple. Along with all my data on it. All my work documents, presentations, music, photos, my family tree research. Everything.

Why am I not crying you might ask. Well, last week, because I upgraded my operating system, (and then had to de-install it and put the old one back one!), Stuart backed up all of my hard disk! Thats the first time it's been backed up since I got this laptop. Talk about a fortuitous coincidence. So everyone - BACK UP YOUR STUFF NOW - hard disks do break - it can happen to you!

Communication and collaboration

A couple of meetings on Friday about Collaboration and Communication. First was about our Annual Report - we have to produce one every year and if you're not careful they can turn out to be very dry, with lots of facts and figures, and not a lot of relevant information. This year we're trying a different approach, along the lines of "What's in it for me?", ie what have we done that will benefit our customers, and how much value do we provide. If anyone has any comments or ideas for inclusion, let me know.

The other meeting was a joint one with Internal Communication, which started off looking at some of the benefits identified by the University Collaboration Improvement Programme (UCIP) and how we are going to achieve them, but developed into a lively and interesting conversation about some of the developments and changes in the way we communicate and liaise with staff and students and how we can get feedback on our services with a view to improving them.

A new web page for staff is being developed, which will contain up to date news items and information about what's happening around the University which all departments will be able to feed in to.

CiCS is working on a programme of customer service reviews which will look at individual services we provide, and a series of small forums to get feedback. We also want to become more involved in the induction of new staff so that we can help them to understand what we provide and how to get the best out of it. We are lucky in that we see every new staff member face to face as they have to come to the Computing Centre to get a Ucard and a computer account, and we should make more of this. We'll also be getting out more into departments providing tailored sessions on particular services. We are also willing to go into departments and provide technical help, for example if a department wants to roll out myCalendar or myChat and staff need assistance in installing or using it.

CiCS has recently rewritten and redesigned its entire web site, and we're still working on how to improve it - again, all comments gratefully received. We will be introducing a system soon so that an individual will be able to register an interest with us, either in helping us with a particular review or project, or piloting a new service.

It goes without saying that we're also trying to improve our communication in general to move away from technical language and use words and terms that our users might actually understand!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Future directions in computing

The BBC has produced a report on future directions in computing, looking at areas including quantum computing, spintronics, chemical computing and DNA computing. Described as advances which could spell the end of traditional computing, it makes fascinating reading:

Thursday, 15 November 2007

First I was afraid...

...I was petrified.

Then I discovered Google! Everything about setting up this blog has been so easy. The only thing I've had help with is the wonderful little phases of the moon application (thanks Paul). A couple of weeks after I set it up I decided I wanted to know who was looking at it - or if anyone actually was. So after a little bit of searching, I installed Google analytics - and discovered what interesting information I can now get.

Since then, (about 2 weeks ago), this blog has had 545 visits from 350 unique visitors. Who are they all I wonder? Most come from Sheffield, but 98 are from London and 54 from the USA. There's even 2 from Iran. 56% use Firefox as a browser and only 38% Internet Explorer. PCs are still in the majority, but 25% use a mac. 69 visitors came via Google search, with the most common search words being Abraham Lincoln!

I could bore you for hours with more information provided by Google, and all for free! As I said in a previous post, it's an interesting business model.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


Spent all of today on a training course with the rest of the Executive Team learning about coaching skills. Coaching is a technique used to bring out the best in people or a team, and is about helping people to analyse and solve their own problems, rather than giving advice or direction. It’s often linked or confused with mentoring – the difference being that a mentor is normally an expert in the field in which the client practices and offers advice – a coach isn’t an expert and doesn’t offer opinions.

We took part in a number of exercises looking at non verbal communication, listening skills and communication styles. We also learnt a coaching model, and saw a demonstration of coaching. Towards the end of the day we were able to practise coaching techniques on each other.

It was a fascinating day – most of us went into it to learn skills which we could use as managers, but I think most of us came out of it thinking that some coaching would be good for us as well.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Risks, portals and awards

A couple of interesting meetings today, and an awards ceremony.

First meeting was about Risk Management, and whether we should develop some software for keeping track of risk, or whether we should buy something. We did develop a database a couple of years go but it has never really been used and things have changed. What we need now is something a bit more sophisticated. Something for example which would allow groups of people to score risks in terms of likelihood and impact. I went to a workshop a few weeks ago where a group of us scored about 35 of the University's Corporate risks. Then we discussed them and then scored them again. What was interesting was seeing what scores had changed following the discussion. Given the events of the past weekend, I was particularly interested in the scoring for the likelihood and impact of a major systems failure or power outage! They ranged from low to very high.

The second meeting was the Portal Applications Group where we discuss and prioritise developments of the University portal MUSE (My University of Sheffield Environment).
At the moment our biggest priority is to develop a self service portal for students to allow them to do for themselves many things which at the moment they have to come into central offices to do - print off council tax exemption forms for example. We also need to educate and help users in how to get the most of out of MUSE and customise it for their own personal use. Many criticisms we get relate to things people think they can't do, but can.

Tonight Kath, Patrice and myself went to the Exposed 2007 Awards Ceremony, where the Information Commons had been nominated in the Best New Development Category, along with Millenium Square, Leopold Square, and Sheffield Station. Never having been to an awards ceremony before, we were a little nervous - what was the dress code, would we be expected to make a speech? The invitations said dress to impress, so at least one of us was tempted to hunt out the hotpants, but we resisted the urge, and in the end blended in rather well I think. Unfortunately we lost out to Leopold Square, but we did get a big cheer when the nomination was read out which was very gratifying. The three free vodka and tonics also went down rather well.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Waves of Power

Incidents have a habit of happening when I’m not around – even when Sheffield flooded back in June, I was away on a course, in the Lake District in beautiful sunshine. It shouldn’t have surprised me too much then when I received a call on my mobile which stared with those immortal words – “I think we’ve got a problem” - and I had just arrived in Scarborough on a long weekend!

On Thursday evening at 1720, a fire in a local substation caused a power outage to large parts of the University – including our main data centre. We’ve just spent a lot of money installing a diesel-powered generator to protect us against things like this, but it isn’t fully commissioned yet as we need to install a new UPS. We knew we had a two-week window where although the generator would cut in and provide power within seconds of a power loss, we didn’t have those few minutes of power from a UPS to allow that to happen. I mean, what were the chances of a power cut occurring in those 2 weeks? As it happened, the power was only off for about 20 seconds, as the generator kicked in, but 20 seconds is no different to 20 minutes or 20 hours to a computer. You know what a state your home PC is in if you just pull the plug out without shutting it down properly? Now imagine a room full of network and communications equipment, and about 70 servers, fallen over in a heap!

I’m lucky in that we have a team of excellent staff who worked until about 2330 to bring services back – a highly complex operation because of the dependencies of so many processes - often unknown and unforeseen. Also many systems require to be started in a particular order. Power came back on at 0600, and the generator did as it should and closed down, allowing the mains power to take over.

For the rest of the day many areas had to remain closed, as we were operating on reduced power, and there were a number of other building and security issues to be resolved. Work continued to make sure our systems were working correctly, and in the afternoon it was agreed to switch the data centre back over to the generator to fix some high voltage problems with the substation. Unfortunately, this didn’t work as expected and we lost power again – only for 10 seconds this time (I’m told that it was as long as it took the engineer to realise what had happened, utter an expletive, and flick the switch again) - – and completely self-induced! Cue all systems to be restarted again – slightly quicker this time after Thursday night’s rehearsal.

As I type this, everything appears to be back to normal, and our Business Continuity and Incident Plan has had a good test. Obviously nothing went as well as it could have done, and there are many lessons to learn, but I would like to put on record my thanks to all of the staff involved over the period who worked really hard.

Oh, and while I was keeping in touch with what was going on here on my mobile, I was watching the highest tide Scarborough has had in 50 years with some fantastic waves. But, the donkeys were back on the beach the next day!

Staying safe online

Following on from the previous post, we've been thinking about giving students some advice on privacy, especially when using social networking sites such as Facebook, and we've had some preliminary discussions with the Student Union. I do have concerns about the amount of information some people post about themselves and make available to large numbers of people - phone numbers, addresses, dates of birth, when they're going on holiday. More than enough for some form of identity theft to take place, or indeed stalking.

I discovered today that Cardiff University have produced some excellent guidelines:

which of course we wouldn't dream of plagiarising...

Leave MySpace alone?

Interesting article in the Guardian about students and social networking:,,2205512,00.html

based on the JISC Learner Experience Project. Most students use a social networking site - Facebook or MySpace - but do they want us to use them? Apparently some very mixed answers, "Students appear to want their cake and eat it," says the project manager, Lawrie Phipps. "They appear to want to keep their online persona private but when you ask them whether they'd like instant communication with tutors or feedback on essays (via Skype or Facebook) the answer is always yes."

In doing some investigation on the JISC website about this project, I came across Lawrie Phipp's blog, again very interesting reading, especially the article about Facebook Friday. Apparently Serena Software have launched this and encourage all employees to spend an hour each Friday updating their Facebook profile and making connections! Just as many other employers are banning it altogether.

Universities are beginning to take the issues seriously - another relevant article about Leeds University and Facebook.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

I think I'm turning Japanese...

I'm pleased to welcome my second guest blogger, Paul Leman:

Not an entry about the pop song by the Vapors but about the photograph of the square black and white matrix to the right. It is a Datamatrix (DM) 'mobile-code', one of the two open-standard formats for 2D codes - the other is a Quick Response (QR) 'mobile-code'. I noticed this at the bottom of a roadside advert and remembered that my son had told me he had seen Japanese teenagers pointing their camera phones at these objects when he was in Japan some years ago. A quick Google search and the loan of a Nokia N95 camera phone had this rather useful technology working in minutes. The Nokia Mobiles codes page gives you the information you need. I downloaded the free i-nigma reader from here (lots of devices are supported including Windows Mobile), created a
Datamatrix code for a URL link here, pointed my phones's camera at the code on screen and the phone's browser opened the appropriate web page. The software even managed with the rather poor quality photograph taken of the above-mentioned advert (but the N95 has a good quality camera). Chris Sexton says there's a prize for the first person to send the url back as a comment to this blog entry.*

* terms and conditions apply.

Now playing:The
Pretty Things - Don't Bring Me Down

via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Learning Hub

Everyone will be aware of the amount of capital development taking place on campus at the moment. Jessop West (opposite the Information Commons) is taking shape and will house the departments of English, History and SOMLAL (School of Modern Languages an Linguistics). The Victorian wing of Jessops is being refurbished and Music will move in there. In addition, the Soundhouse is being constructed on the site of the old Gell Street porters building as practice rooms and sound studios for Music – it’s an amazing design, clad in rubber (see pic).

I’m on the PEG (Project Executive Group) for a building which is being considered – not given final approval yet - but initial plans are being drawn up. This is The Learning Hub – intended to provide teaching space, a skills centre and an executive education suite. This afternoon’s PEG was particularly exciting as it was the first time the architect revealed some outline plans and sketches for the building. The architects are RMJM who designed the Information Commons, and I was taken back about 4 years today to IC PEGs as Colin Moses from RMJM went through his presentation and revealed their latest thinking. The building will contain a variety of different teaching spaces, open access IT areas, state of the art AV facilities, as well as self help skills areas currently housed in MLTC and ELTC. It will complement the IC but obviously have a different use, and one of the sites being considered is on the opposite side of Favell Road to the IC. CiCS will obviously be heavily involved in the building in terms of managing the AV, IT and teaching spaces. If approval is give, it's planned that the building will open in the middle of 2010.

I'm not here for the next day or two, so look out for another guest blog post tomorrow...

More about Digital Natives

A couple of people have asked me to expand on the concept of Digital Natives, referred to in last night's post.

The phrase was coined by Mark Prensky in 2005 to differentiate between those who have grown up with technology (the digital natives), and those who have adopted it (the digital immigrants). A good way of telling the difference is that digital natives will rarely use the word "digital". They will for example buy a new camera. We (the immigrants) will buy a new digital camera - because we know there used to be another kind.

It is a concept being used a lot in discussions about education and how different types of people learn, and whether the types of instruction we use are appropriate for this new generation. Does it matter for instance that most teachers are digital immigrants, and most schoolchildren and new students are digital natives. The differences in the two are summarised below (and I've lost the reference for this information, but will insert it later).

The differences between digital native learners and digital immigrant teachers.

Digital Native Learners
Digital Immigrant Teachers
Prefer receiving information quickly from multiple multimedia sources. Prefer slow and controlled release of information from limited sources.
Prefer parallel processing and multitasking. Prefer singular processing and single or limited tasking.
Prefer processing pictures, sounds and video before text. Prefer to provide text before pictures, sounds and video.
Prefer random access to hyperlinked multimedia information. Prefer to provide information linearly, logically and sequentially.
Prefer to interact/network simultaneously with many others. Prefer students to work independently rather than network and interact.
Prefer to learn “just-in-time.” Prefer to teach “just-in-case” (it’s on the exam).
Prefer instant gratification and instant rewards. Prefer deferred gratification and deferred rewards.
Prefer learning that is relevant, instantly useful and fun. Prefer to teach to the curriculum guide and standardized tests.

Something we need to bear in mind when designing learning spaces and educational technology?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Reboots, Leopards and Digital Natives...

A bad start to the day as I'm phoned at home in the morning as we've lost some portal services. I am lucky (unlucky?) enough to live about 2 minutes from work so am often the first person people call when they can't get anyone else. I'm good at passing messages on, but can't actually fix anything! Perhaps I should learn. I'm told all of our technical information is in a wiki which anyone can follow. Maybe I'll test it next time something needs restarting - can't be too difficult turning something on and off again can it? Just joking guys - I know it's much more complex than that!

Day got a bit worse when I went to a meeting and tried connecting my laptop to the wireless network. For some time I've been refusing to print huge piles of paper out to take to meetings, and I just take my laptop instead - we print far too much paper. More than we've ever done, and we need to stop. Unfortunately I made the mistake of upgrading the operating system on my laptop last night from Tiger to Leopard (it's a mac, before windows users think I've gone mad). Worked perfectly, until I tried to use it wirelessly. Basically, it doesn't work now. Pretty useless for a laptop really. I had 3 of the best brains in the department working on it during the afternoon (anyone want to guess who?) but still it doesn't work. However, I have every hope that a fix will be found tomorrow....

Went to a very interesting meeting about how we in the Professional Services - including the Library, LeTS, Careers Services, Student Services, CiCS - could communicate better to the University about the development work we're doing in support of learning and teaching. We also talked about how we communicate with the digital natives - our prospective and current students who don't use email because it's "old fashioned", who think that instant messaging is old hat, and for whom social networking is the way they communicate with each other, but they don't necessarily want us to use it.

I'm going to a workshop soon on exploiting the potential of blogs and social networks which I hope will help me understand some of the issues. I certainly think it's something we in CiCS need to address fairly urgently.

Google take over the world

Is there anything Google can't do?

Does anyone know how they make any money as everything seems to be free?

Monday, 5 November 2007

Executive Team move into Ivory Towers

Every Monday we have an Executive Team meeting – myself, Deputy Director John Hawley, and Assistant Directors John McAuley. Dave Speake and Kath Winter. Many things are discussed, decided and argued about (not necessarily in that order), and I’ll try and produce an update after each meeting - if you want more information or to discuss something further, don’t hesitate to comment!

Today we talked about some “Transformational Maps” we’ve been working on. Basically to try and show an “as is” and a “to be” situation - where we are now, and where we want to get to as a department. When these are in a fit state to share, we will, and then hopefully they will be discussed in teams and sections. We are also going to hold some consultation events with all staff to get everyone’s opinions of what the department’s vision should be, and where individual staff can contribute to achieving it.

Staff accommodation is also high on the agenda at the moment, and we want to try and improve the working environment for everyone – the Computer Centre has just had a major refurbishment, and our attention is turning now to the Glossop Road properties. We will be making a series of moves over the next few months, and doing what refurbishment we can afford. User and Data Support will be moving into 344 Glossop Road, allowing Technical Services to be better consolidated in 285-289, with all of the Executive Team on the top 2 floors of 285 – some people have referred to this as the Ivory Towers – others think Fawlty Towers might be more appropriate.

Changes to the way we charge for telephone services - moving towards a line rental and lower charges for calls - were also discussed - proposals will be put to the appropriate bodies soon.

And of course – the most important discussion of all – arrangements for the Christmas party!

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Dave Speake goes to a RUGIT meeting

I'm please to welcome my first guest blogger, Dave Speake, Assistant Director for Technical Services:

Yesterday, standing in for Chris Sexton, I went to my first RUGIT meeting, at the JANET(UK) headquarters near Didcot. I decided to go by car, given the difficulties of train travel and my need to get back home to look after my dog, who is terrified at this time of year by the almost continual rocket and grenade attacks that are the precursor to Bonfire Night.
Given the nature of a lot of the discussion at the meeting, this was a decision calculated to make me feel guilty.

The Harwell Innovation Centre is an interesting place - half nuclear bunker and half enormous shiny doughnut, with various huts and sheds scattered in between. With my unerring sense of direction I found JANET's headquarters, in one of the smarter sheds, on only my third attempt.

The meeting itself was very interesting, and particularly relevant for me as a number of the issues raised by other attendees were very similar to those troubling us in CiCS at the moment.
The first item of business was a presentation by Chris Scott of IBM about the problems facing data centres now and over the next few years, followed by experiences from various Universities. I was particularly interested to see that the 'green' agenda is now firmly embedded, at least in this sample of IT directors. All present were concerned about the apparently ceaseless growth in research computing energy use, and the need to find more efficient ways of cooling than the traditional 'blow cold air about the place' approach. One university had invested in doors filled with CO2, which attach to the rear of the racks containing their HPC equipment. This is claimed to remove up to 80% of the heat from the racks. It wasn't clear to me what the cost (both in energy and money) of this approach is, but it's something I will be getting my Data Centre expert to take a close look at.

Other concerns were the growth in physical space requirements, again mainly driven by the unpredictable requirements of research computing. Some universities have multi-million pound projects either starting or underway to provide new data centre facilities. At Sheffield we're both fortunate and unfortunate in this regard. Fortunate because we've just completed a major fitout of a second machine room and refurbishment of our first, and are therefore fairly secure for the next three years, and unfortunate because it means that we haven't been able to take advantage of some of the 'green' technologies coming through.

Shared facilities are being actively investigated by some universities, while others have or are about to rent facilities from third parties.

After lunch there was an update on progress with the 'Shared Research Repository'. This takes the form of a feasibility study funded by HEFCE, which will investigate the possibility of building a nationwide distributed repository for research data. This would be a massive and complex project, but one which, if successful, would provide enormous benefits for the UK research community.

Cambridge then gave us a talk about their VOIP project, which will replace (almost) all their analogue phones with IP phones. One of the benefits of this project is that members of the University will be able to take their phones home and benefit from the calling rates negotiated by the University. The speaker had used such a phone in Melbourne Australia successfully - all charged at local rates! As someone who is somewhat cynical about the benefits of IP telephony, which strike me as being mainly for the providers, this was an interesting idea.

All in all a very interesting day out, although I didn't have time for the tour round the facilities, as I wanted to get back before the fusillades started. As it was, it took me three and a half hours. I really don't know how people who use the motorways as part of a regular commute manage to retain their sanity!

Reading the Guardian technology page I see that VOIP has already attracted the attentions of the spammers - particularly the phishing community - who see it as another opportunity to persuade the gullible to part with their bank details. Of course there are already acronyms for these activities - IPT spam is called 'SPIT', and IPT phishing is called 'vishing'. I sometimes think that IT phrase coiners are responsible for more misery in the world than all the spammers, phishers, vishers, hackers and crackers put together.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Staying connected...

Having just spent some time away from the University at meetings, conferences and on leave, a few random thoughts about staying connected.

I have a mobile phone which allows me to browse the internet, and read my email if I can be bothered to wait for it to download. It won’t however synchronise properly with myCalendar – partly my fault for using an iMac and not having a PC, but mainly because of the incompatibility of the different phones and the different calendar and synchronisation clients. It’s not bad for making phone calls from, but terrible to receive them on – to answer a call you have to hit a tiny button, and if you don’t, the call gets cut off. Apologies to the many people who phone me and get cut off after a couple of rings. I need a new one, but more on that later….

I also have a Macbook Pro which I can use to connect to wireless networks – Eduroam if I’m at another University, various hotel and conference networks, and, if I give them my credit card details, pay as you go networks.

I recently got a Vodafone USB modem for it which has revolutionised my train journeys – it connects to the 3G network if there is one and ordinary GPRS if there isn’t. When connected to 3G it’s really fast, GPRS is OK for scanning email but downloading attachments is painful. But, there are drawbacks. I’m not now reliant on a wireless network – so I can use it anywhere – even on holiday, where the temptation to “just check your email in case there’s something urgent”, is great. And then when you’ve had a quick look, you can’t resist reading some of them, and then answering them, and then getting cross, and then spoiling your holiday.

I recently discovered another downside of the Vodafone modem – it comes with parental content control already switched on. And it’s not easy to get turned off. Now, in case you think I discovered this by trying to access some dodgy web site, you’d be mistaken. I was actually trying to get to some of my pictures of the Information Commons which I’d uploaded to Flikr to include in a report. Unfortunately Vodafone blocks access to Flikr. But not to YouTube. Strange.

MUSE is a fantastic way of staying connected, with access to mail, calendar, filestore, corporate applications etc - I have no problems blowing our trumpet over this one. We were one of the first Universities in the UK to implement such a feature rich portal, and we are continuing to develop it. One day, you may even be able to run applications though it. More on that in a later post.

Now, back to me needing a new mobile phone. Want I really want is an iPhone. They are beautiful. Never mind what they can do, they are fantastically designed and have a wonderful interface – only when you’ve tried one, as I did last week, can you begin to appreciate this. Of course, there will be a few problems to overcome, such as the fact that they are tied to the O2 network and we have a contract with Vodafone, the fact that they won’t work with the Eduroam network because they don’t support the correct standards, and they don’t use the 3G network. Problems I’m sure will eventually be overcome. Roll on November 9th…..