Friday, 31 October 2008

The long haul home

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

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

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

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

Oh, and Happy Halloween everyone!

Meeting or managing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to seeing the results.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Google Apps and Spiderman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does make you wonder why they did it!

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

Pushing aside the tears to get the job done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some issues around communication

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

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

A video of the session is here

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Give me a segway....

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

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

Culture eats strategy for lunch every day of the week

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faceblindness, seeing in colours and metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A video of the session is here

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

EDUCAUSE Exhibition Shock Horror!

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

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

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

Monday, 27 October 2008

Failure is not an option

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

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

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Pumpkins and awards

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

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

Friday, 24 October 2008


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

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

Just pull this cable out and see what happens

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

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

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Teaching an old dog.....

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Green IT Audit

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2008

Happy Birthday Blog

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 October 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blogs and Wikis on their way

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

A Internal Blogging and Wiki Service

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

UEB/HoDS meeting

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Customer Service Week

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 October 2008

How cool is this

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

Just think of the potential for it going wrong.

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Our Shared Vision

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

MI View

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

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

Sunday, 5 October 2008

What not to print

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 October 2008

User Group

Our User Group yesterday - about 50 people normally attend from all areas of the University, including students. We normally do a few presentations of things we're doing, new projects etc, and ask for questions from the floor. Yesterday we demonstrated Clearspace, our new social networking software which was very well received, gave an overview of the student satisfaction survey results and our action plan, and an overview of the Print Service. However, the item which caused the most discussion was our move to Office 2007 (2008 for our mac users).

There was a general acceptance that we had to do it, but a number of issues, particularly in relation to file formats and their incompatibility with previous office versions, and whether staff would have to upgrade their PCs to run the new versions. Lots of discussion about why we don't run Open Office as standard and avoid the "Microsoft treadmill" of upgrades. The student reps were very clear that they want to run the industry standard versions of Office, and as Microsoft make their software available cheaply to them, that 's what they have on their own laptops, and that's what they need on our PCs. I have to say we agree with them. We were asked whether their was any possibility of us moving away from our dependence on Microsoft in the future, and the answer is it's unlikely! However, we did remind our users that we have very little Microsoft infrastructure in place, prefering to run open standards and systems wherever possible.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Where did I leave my glasses....

the future of the Internet - he insists we have only glimpsed a fraction of its capabilities so far and that in a few years it will dominate our workplace, our leisure time and our home lives.

He predicts that in the next decade, around 70% of the human population will have fixed or mobile access to the Internet at speeds of up to gigabits per second. Mobile devices, appliances and sensors of all kinds will become a major component of the Internet and will know where they are, both geographically and logically. So, the following scenario might be enacted:

You enter a hotel room and your mobile and your laptop will be told their precise location including room number. They will discover what other devices are in the neighborhood, so your mobile will discover that it has a high resolution display available in what was once called a television set. Your mobile will remember where you have been and will keep track of RFID-labeled objects such as your briefcase, car keys and glasses. "Where are my glasses?" you will ask. "You were last within RFID reach of them while in the living room," your mobile or laptop will say.

Lots of other possible scenarios are illustrated, ending with the reassurance that Google will be there, helping to make sense of it all, helping to organize and make everything accessible and useful!

Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Bring on the benefits

A full day looking at the University Collaboration Improvement Programme today in relation to Benefits Realisation. Re-defined the objectives, and came up with some new benefits, as well a fresh look at some of the business changes that need to take place. Lots of debate about whether the programme is concerned with technology, or collaboration in general - general concensus that it has to be about the exchange of information facilitated by technology. Other enablers are way out of scope, and our group doesn't have the resources to solve them. The next step is to develop a blueprint for what collaboration might look like in the future - a sort of day in the life of.

The three objectives we agreed for the programme are:
  • To enable and encourage the university community to communicate and collaborate more effectively
  • To promote inclusion, enhancing the sense of community for staff and students
  • To enable and encourage collaboration between the university community and external partners

Yesterday I spoke to our new University Executive Board about how they might be more open and transparent in terms of release of Board agendas, minutes and papers, and how Freedom of Information and Data Protection Legislation might impact what is and isn't released. I must say, I'm really glad to see a change in culture with this move towards more transparent governance - it can only be a good thing.