Monday, 30 March 2009

Our walled gardens

Last week it was the Annual JISC Conference, and unfortunately due to other commitments, I couldn't get to it. However, I did manage to watch some of the sessions on the excellent live streaming service they had set up. I particularly enjoyed the closing keynote by Ewan McIntosh, Digital Commissioner for Channel Four's 4iP. They've invested £50m over 3 years to develop ideas in ddigtail media that will make a change to people's lives. New business models are being investigated which make content free to the public, whilst being sustainable in terms of income generation.

Ewan's main theme was the opening up of information. As he said, free is a hard price to beat. The release of public data, such as the Guardian's data store allows mashups to bring together information from disparate sources in an easy to use and understand way - sites like Theyworkforyou, and interactive maps that show whether you could afford to live in certain areas of London being good examples. But as well as information being open, it has to be available where people want it. He compared sites in your toolbar (facebook, Flickr, BBCNews), with a University's VLE. The former are sites that people want to go to, the latter that they have to go to. And because of that, students get in, get what they want and get out as quick as possible.

He had some interesting ideas about spaces - watching spaces, participating space, performing spaces, publishing spaces and group spaces. Those in the audience not using Twitter were in a watching space and not participating. Interestingly I was watching it on a live video stream and twittering to people in the audience as well as those watching from the outside.

His challenge to Universities was to change our ideas on pedagogy, to make our information more open and not hide it in our walled gardens, and encourage our students to be creative with it.

Well worth a watch - it's available here by clicking on the "closing keynote" link in the video section.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Overlapping functionality

Lots of discussions going on at the moment about how we integrate our services and present them to our users. We'll soon be live with uSpace our collaboration environment, our document management system is being piloted and should be live at the end of the summer, and we'll be replacing our email and calendaring client for students this summer. Friday saw a demonstration on Google Apps for Education - every time I see it there seems to be more functionality. One of the advatages that Google promote is delivery of innovation in small chunks - no more waiting until the next major release of the software. Of course that can lead to problems in an enterprise solution if releases aren't controlled, but Google seem to have made some improvements in that area. I particularly liked the few seconds you have to cancel sending an email after you've hit send. I once sent a mail to all staff at the University, instead of just to CiCS staff, and that would have been very handy!

All of the above services have functionality in common including the ability to share and collaborate on documents, workflow, chat. How we integrate these systems, and how we make them easy for users will determine how successful they are. We will have to be innovative in the way we expose functionality through our portal, and think about services, not systems.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Annual Report

Our latest Annual Report has just been published - available here. Lots of information about what we've done in the past year, and what we have planned for next. Happy to receive any comments from inside or outside the University.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Do we need student computing rooms?

In the middle of a review of our services at the moment. Dr John Bielec, CIO at Drexel University has been over a couple of times before, and is here again for a 3 day visit. He's spent a lot of time talking to us and our major customers, and will produce a report of our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. It's always been very helpful in the past and is a good "health check" of what we're doing.

One of the areas we've spent some time discussing today is whether we should continue to provide student computing rooms and PCs in the Information Commons. Given that we know that about 90% of students are arriving at University with a PC, (mainly laptops), why are we still not only providing them but are increasing their numbers? Despite opening the Information Commons two years ago with 550 PCs available 24*7, plus another 1000 across campus, why is "increase the number of PCs" the most requested improvement to our services in our student satisfaction survey? The University of Virginia has announced that it will phase out most of its student computing rooms over the next 2 years.

Walking round the IC today, nearly all of the PCs were in use, and there were many students with laptops. The wireless network is fairly pervasive over the campus, so why is there such a demand on our PCs? One answer is that the managed service gives access to the specialist teaching applications - but we know that these aren't widely used. Most of our services - mail, VLE etc - are web based and could just as easily be accessed from laptops. So, what would happen if instead of increasing the number of PCs we started to reduce it? Would more students bring their laptops onto campus? It would certainly save a huge chunk of my budget which could be put into improving other services. What are the barriers to students using their own machines - their weight, security, battery life, easily damaged? If there's any students reading this I'd love to know the answer!

Sunday, 22 March 2009


Our Research Computing group spent some time last week discussing how we finance our research computing - currently we fund a core service centrally. Departments can then add to this or buy dedicated time from specific research grants. What we don't do is charge departments for all of their use of our High Performance Computing - my view is that it would be too much of an administrative overhead, and we should be providing some sort of pump priming service, as well the opportunity for undergraduates to use it. However, we do need a simple model for calculating costs both for fEC and so that we can recover the true costs from research grants. One of the biggest costs associated with these machines is power and cooling. They need a lot of power - a lot of which they seem to turn into heat - which then needs removing. It's causing problems across the sector, and has led to a number of institutions looking to see if we can share data centres for this sort of specialised computing, with properly designed power and cooling facilities. Peter Tinson of UCISA blogged about a number of projects recently, and summarised the situation better than I could, so I won't try and repeat it here. We're involved in two of them - YHMAN and SHED - and are waiting with interest to see how they progress.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Google Street View comes to Sheffield

This morning I had lots of good intentions - I have emails to reply to, papers to read, reports to write - you know the score. Thought I'd catch up on the Twitterverse before I started, and found the most fantastic aid to procrastination - Google Street View has come to Sheffield! So far I've found my house, my car, my colleagues house, the Information Commons, colleagues walking down the road - and I haven't really started yet......

View Larger Map

Raises some interesting thoughts, particularly around privacy? Most, though not all, car numbers are blurred, as are most faces. You can apply to have your image removed, and there has been one unsuccessful attempt to sue them. Will be interesting to see how it develops.

Now - how we can we use it?

We can work out what day the camera visited, and there's some great publicity material for us:

View Larger Map

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Printing efficiently

Programme Board meeting discussed progress on all existing projects, and only approved one new one - Print Audit and Submission Software. This follows on from our environmental printing review and we're trying to ensure that we print as little as possible, but when we do print, we do it in the most environmentally friendly way. The University needs to take tighter control of its print spend and make the best possible use of existing resources.

Print submission & ordering software gives users a choice of where to print and makes best use of our equipment and resources, and print monitoring software will raise awareness of the cost of printing and help us to manage our print spend. Hopefully we will be able to reduce our spend and our carbon footprint. But - and this is a big but - the software alone will not solve the problem. There'll need to be a big change in business processes and behaviour. Giving up individual printers on desks, and moving to networked, efficient, multi-function-devices (photocopiers for the uninitiated) will require a culture change. Thinking about NOT printing rather than printing, not printing powerpoint slides one to a page with full colour backgrounds with white text, printing double sided - all require a conscious change in behaviour. Without that, we won't get any of the benefits of the service.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Strictly not Skydiving

Still catching up on posts from last week's UCISA conference - sorry - am normally more up to date than this! AGM came and went, and I was elected Chair for the next two years. Should have spotted it coming really, what with being Vice-Chair for the last two. Busy couple of years ahead.

Thursday evening's dinner was at the splendid St George's Hall in the Great Hall - a beautiful room, recently restored. The Hall boasts a magnificent organ, and we were treated to an organ recital by non other than our Treasurer, Iain Stinson. An excellent start, and followed by some inter course entertainment from Grafitti Classics, a lively fun string quartet who danced as well as played. They even got John Sergeant clapping - yes, the Strictly Come Dancing Star was our after-dinner speaker, and very funny he was too. Tales of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair. Very nice man - sat and had a drink with us in the bar afterwards which is most unusual for celebrities who don't normally want to mix.

I soon discovered a downside to being the new Chair, as I had to chair the morning session, which involved getting up early, checking all the arrangements were OK, introducing the speakers and sitting on the stage during the session. No dropping off for a quick nap. Actually staying awake was easy, as we had three very good speakers. Robina Chatham began by giving us 10 things to take away and improve our standing in the organisation - how we can evolve the role of Chief Technology Officer into Chief Transformation Officers.

Simon Mingay from Gartner gave a very thorough talk on sustainable IT - lots of practical things we can be doing, not just to reduce the carbon footprint in IT, but how we can use IT to reduce the impact of other services and activities across the University.

Finally, the conference closed with a motivational talk from Robin Sieger. Based on personal experiences, including recovering from cancer, running a marathon in a kilt wearing no underwear, and making a skydive to conquer his fear of heights, Robin delivered an inspiring talk on how to achieve success. I must admit, as someone who is scared of both heights and flying, watching the video of him climbing on the wing of the plane to make his skydive had me trembling!

An excellent conference as always - thanks to everyone in the UCISA office and to Graham for chairing the Conference Committee so well.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Grannies with Blackberries

The myths and realities surrounding the Google generation were discussed by Jeff Haywood from Edinburgh. The Google generation is defined as those born after the mid 90s, and is a topic which raises strong feeling, both negative and positive. The strongest debate comes out of the writings of Marc Prensky who coined the terms digital natives and digital immigrants. Jeff covered the stereotyping surrounding this generation, and the variations (I loved his phrase - grannies with their blackberries) both in generations and across continents.

He came up with ways he thought we should shape our services - all of which had a real resonance with me - especially the first one which was design, design, design. Make things look good and easy to use. If Amazon had looked like SAP no-one would have used it (I stuck the SAP bit in!).

Something that we've become very aware of is that although the Google generation might be able to use any number of web applications - they can't look after a laptop. They can Google anything, but can't always assess the quality of the information they find. These are competencies that we should be addressing.

We also need to make sure we are producing services and content which can be used on mobile devices - screens are going to get bigger and phones smarter and we need to have stuff ready now. We will only develop services for todays learners if we are aware of what they want - we must read, watch, talk, consult and listen. Partership is important - with academics, and other professional services including AV, the Library and colleagues involved with learning media technologies. Finally, we must be risky - users are bringing their own technology and we need to take risks like they do, supporting them with best of breed applications.

We're doooomed

David Sweeney is Director of Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, used to be an IT Director, and is a past Chair of UCISA. He also reads this blog, so I have to be very careful what I say.....

On the second afternoon of the UCSIA Management Conference, David spoke to us about making good institutional decisions about IT, and was as always, entertaining and thought provoking. Some of us present, me included, have been around long enough to remember the Dearing Report published in 1997 on the future of Higher Education. Fans of Hitchhikers amongst us were amused to read recommendation 42 - which is of course the answer to life, the universe and everything - "We recommend that all higher education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience". David's talk began by looking at whether this had been achieved, and I think all of us would agree that generally the answer is no. IT is not on the horizon of most senior management teams, doesn't figure as an area of concern and there's been no significant change in the way IT decisions are taken. But, a lot has been achieved, especially when compared to IT developments in other parts of the public sector, and maybe type 42 managers wouldn't have made much difference. It's unlikely for example that we would have had more funding!

Funding was the area that David concentrated on - bascially it's going to get worse and we need to be prepared. Prepared to make tough decisions, especially about quality and where we might be able to let it drop in a controlled way. IT will have to step and volunteer to help the University improve its productivity and do more with less. We need to stop talking about non essentials (including governance) and toughen up - that was his message for us! A bit of gloom and doom. but a message we need to take seriously.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Brown Fibre

Today's session started with a talk by ex FBI Ed Gibson - Chief (cyber) Security Adviser for Microsoft. Very dramatic presentation emphasising the need to take security seriously - cyber crime is on the increase. His main message was install the updates - keep your operating system up to date. Good advice from Microsoft!

This was followed by an interesting case study from the University of Bath - it's always good to hear what other institutions are doing, especially the different ways problems are solved. Bath was faced with a situation where the Halls of Residence, which are based in a traffic-congested, world heritage site city, were connected to the University network by 10 MB leased lines. As internet traffic had increased - both by students using Web 2.0 technologies including video streaming, and more media rich course material being put on line - the lines couldn't cope. Students were complaining, and urgent action was needed.

Faced with the problems of big digs in the City (and there was a question as to whether they would even be permitted), Bath partnered with H2Onetworks who ran dark fibre through the City's sewers. It apparently quickly became known as brown fibre! 14 km of fibre was deployed in 5 months, with only a 200m dig. To get added value, VOIP and IPTV was also deployed, leading to huge rises in satisfaction levels from students.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

UCISA day one - lets play games more

First day of UCISA conference almost over - just the poster session and drinks/dinner to go! I'm very impressed with the location - just next to the Albert Docks in Liverpool - some excellent regeneration has gone on here.

Excellent start - began with Professor Steve Kenny, PVC of Liverpool John Moores University welcoming us to this city, and giving us some good pointers as to how ICT can help with some of the challenges Universities are facing. These include changes in the student demographic, the changing expectations of students, and funding. His message was that we should be investing in technology now to meet the challenges we’re going to meet in the future. I can't argue with that!

The first keynote talk was from Bill Graves of Sungard on The Learning Cloud. He opened by suggesting how to explain what the cloud actually is - Do you use google? Do you know where the servers are? Does it matter? He talked a lot about evolving learners and how to improve our performance and productivity by considering innovative and radical solutions, including outsourcing services. His take on education - "We're preparing students for jobs that don’t exist to use technology not yet invented to solve problems we haven’t yet imagined".

The final session I went to was actually the best. The University of Glamorgan won the UCISA award for excellence last year for GlamStart - an interactive game aimed at new students to enhance their induction to University. The presentation by Martin Lynch, Head of the Multimedia Team, (with a Fine Art background), gave an excellent introduction to the background of the project, the development, and its evaluation. The first 3 weeks of a student's time at University is critical - and a significant proprtion will drop out during thqt period. Also students are coming to University unprepared for some aspects of university life including time management, workload managment and study skills.

Glamorgan have developed a simulation game - students receive a personalised introduction form the dean of their Faculty, have an interactive map of the campus that they can explre, and play a game where they have to get trhough a number of days carrying out tasks (going to lectures for example) and balancing time, financil and academic resources. There is a scorebaord where that can compare scores, and resources that can be unlocked as the game is played. It has proved popular with the stsudents, and receives positive scores in all evaluations. I loved it, and it showed what a group of professionals from different backgrounds can acheive when they come together to solve a problem. There are a lot of game designers out there - perhaps we should be making more use of them to design interactive techology with interfaces that our students are used to using.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The BigDog

Woke up to find this going around my Twitterverse this morning (thanks Beezly), and it was so good I had to share it:

It's a quadruped robot designed by Boston dynamics called BigDog and is amazingly lifelike - for a robot that's something between a big dog and a small horse. Much more lifelike that if it had been designed to look humanoid though. I actually felt sorry for it when someone kicks it during the movie. Robot technology is scarily advanced. I could do with one of these to carry my case later today....

Monday, 9 March 2009

Back to work, briefly

Back from IUISC in Galway - had a great time, a very useful and interesting conference, and like the rest of Ireland, very friendly. Spent Saturday driving round County Clare where my father's family is from getting very wet. Someone told me you can get 4 seasons in a day in Ireland, and they're right - we had snow, sunshine, rain and wind in almost equal measure. Lovely place, and I will go back. Flew back with Aer Arron, and whilst I'm very impressed with them as a company and the way they've embraced new technologies, I hate the way those small planes get blown about in the wind - it was a very bumpy descent. I'm sure very safe, but I was terrified. I'm just a wimp when it comes to flying.

Back to work for one day today as I leave tomorrow for the UCISA Management Conference in Liverpool. We've got some good speakers planned, and I'll post about as many of them as I can.

Had a good meeting this morning looking at our next service review which will be on our portal, MUSE (My University of Sheffield Environment, in case you're interested). We're trying to carry out about 6 a year using simple web surveys. Because the University needs to ensure that we don't send our students too many and induce survey fatigue, we need to coordinate them across the University, and that can cause delays in our programme. To get round that we might be asking for students to volunteers for a feedback list - that way we can send surveys out whenever we like. Also difficult to decide what questions to ask - how to separate the portal from the services it gives access to in a way users understand.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The IC to join the Sistine Chapel in SL?

The final conference session was on the use of Second Life in Education, drawing on experiences from University College Dublin. With 16.6m residents, a currency linked to the US dollar exchange rate and almost totally user generated content, it is more than a game - but will it ever become mainstream? It's at a stage that the web was in in the mid 1990s and it will be interesting so see what happens to it over the next few years. Certainly if you look to analysts like Gartner they show it on the downward slore to the "trough of disillusionment" on their hype cycle. But in Education there are some interesting uses for it. You can fly up to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and examine the frescos on the ceiling, learn how to give emergency first aid, and walk though the Saltire Centre in Glasgow. 70% of UK universities have a presence of some kind in SL delivering classes, seminars, skills sessions and conferences.

UCD have a library in SL - it has no walls, no doors, and doesn't try to replicate real life. They've hosted lectures and tutorials in it, and provide information for prospective and new students. The future remains uncertain, and it was interesting to hear a technical view of some of the issues surrounding the use of SL. It requires high internet speeds and high spec PCs, not all operating systems are supported, and there is a steep learning curve to use it properly. I must admit I find it very difficult - my avatar seems to have a mind of her own, and I find it hard to navigate the environment properly.

The conclusion was that virtual worlds offer a lot, but Second Life might not be the right environment - other toolkits may provide a better user experience. We perhaps need to look in more detail at it with our academic colleagues who are already using it. I'm also keen to get the IC in there - especially as the Saltire Centre is there already! Can't beat a bit of friendly rivalry.

Speaking of the IC, nice to see that Google Earth have just updated their images of Sheffield, and it is now clearly visible, rather than a car park.

Edit: Just had a fly round the Sistine Chapel in SL - it's pretty good - for anyone with a Second Life account it's here:

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A vision of the future?

Google made a good pitch for their Google apps product today - email, calendar, talk (IM and videochat), docs and sites (wikis). Free use for 4 years, leveraging their technology infrastructure, integration with existing portals, 7GB filestore. Their presentation was tailored to the theme of the conference, to the point, and appealed to everyone in the room. That's more than can be said for the next presentation given by a supplier. Better not say which one, but you might guess.

It started well, with a great video looking at how the future might be:

Really enjoyed that - lots of exciting things in it and some great glimpses of how we might change our services. But, I'm afraid things went downhill from there. I have to be very careful as a presenter myself because I'm setting myself up to be criticised, but I just felt they missed a great opportunity. Began by demonstrating server virtualisation and clustering - far too technical for the audience, then progressed to demonstrating the new features of Windows 7 which has a dock, I mean a task bar at the bottom of the screen. Outlook 14 took the ribbon concept to its limit - how cluttered can a screen look? And once a command line came on I'm afraid I turned off completely. There was some nice features - IM which translated text instantaneously into different languages - but these were lost in a very technical demonstration which failed to address the theme of the conference at all.

The Airline that Tweets

Got up early this morning (well it seemed early after visiting a Galway pub last night to drink and listen to a music session), to hear Padraig O’Ceidigh, Chairman of Aer Arann. Very inspirational speaker, and all done without visual aids - just the powerpoint slides in our brains! He described it as not a lecture, but a workshop with him doing all the work.

He talked about vision, strategy and the importance of people - "your biggest asset is not on your balance sheet". We should develop our personal vision and strategy by answering the following question. What is the world with you, compared to the world without you ? Do you make a difference? Could you make it more significant? If so how? If not, why not?

In developing a work strategy the focus should always be in the customer and how to improve services. He flies with his own airline, because he wants to know what it's like to fly with them, what it's like to be delayed etc.

I have first hand experience of some of the things they offer, as I flew with them from Manchester to Galway on Tuesday. The flight was delayed, and I've already told you I don't like Turbo-prop planes. But for me the two things that stuck out were that I got a text on Tuesday morning telling me the flight had been delayed, the estimated departure time and what time check in had been moved to, and when I landed there in my Twitter inbox was a tweet from @aerarann asking me how the flight had been. Very impressive.

Google and the Future of Thinking

The last session yesterday was by Tara Brabazon, Professor of Media, at the University of Brighton - entitled Google and the Future of Thinking. I couldn't possibly do the talk justice here - a very lively talk and she kept all of us riveted (as well as slightly scared). Tara has been refered to as a digital dissenter, and used an overhead projector and acetates to deliver her talk (very effectively I might add), which rather bemused the AV technician, who like me, was suprised to find out they still existed. She caused a bit of stir in the media last year by reportedly banning her students from using Google and Wikipedia, and her inaugural lecture was entitled Google is White Bread for the Mind.

The premise of her talk was that Web 2.0 technologies, Google, blogs etc, are creating a generation of students with no real information literacy skills - they know how to find information, but not how to interpret it. She wants to put the research back into search - Google provides facts without a context. Her students have to answer questions about all of the information they use, including who authored it, what evidence is used are there citations in the piece, what genre is the document (journalism, blog, acdemic paper?), who is the intened audience? All basic questions which should be asked about any citations, but apparently not regularly by todays Google generation students.

She believes that for too long teachers have got enthused about new hardware, software and how can they use it and not what they're trying to achieve. Curriculum development has suffered, as the focus has been on process and tools not literacies and knowledge.

Her new literacy model was:

Click, pause, Think.

Not click, click, click.

Very entertaining - and heads up to the brave soul at the end who challenged some of her assertions!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

First IUISC session

First session finished - began with an excellent speaker (me!), talking about an award winning building (the IC). But seriously folks - think my talk went down OK. Managed to fill the time, all technology worked, lots of questions, and lots of interest afterwards.

Second presentation was Jeff Haywood from the University of Edinburgh talking about Bridges and chasms: Successfully managing the Relationships between IT, Library and eLearning. Very entertaining and thought provoking talk as ever from Jeff.

He looked at the opportunities and problems of bringing library, IT and eLearning together, and why you would do it, pointing out the huge amount of change affecting all of our services at the moment. Internationalisation, mobile students, the Google generation, web 2.0, BYOTechnology, eResearch, pressures to do more with less, 24*7*365 services and self help. He postulated that all of these are unsustainable with the traditional silo-ised model.

There are questions which need answering which require an interdisciplinary approach:-
How do we curate and preserve big science/digital humanities data sets?
What tools and and expertise are needed to support learning and teaching?
How do we give mobile access to digital resources?
How do we define and support essential information and digital literacies?

He covered the different cultures of the areas of Library, IT and eLearning, and how sometimes we all have different view of the big picture and a lack of awareness of the work of others.

Jeff used the organisational structure at Edinburgh to illustrate how the above areas can work together - I don't personally think that you need to physically or organisationally restructure to achieve this, but I do agree that what is needed is good leadership, explicit strategies with alignments between professional domains, shared staff development, common terminologies and methodologies, joint projects and services and multi-professional teams.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Galway at last

Arrived in Galway this afternoon. I don't particularly like flying, but accept it as a way to get to places I need to go to. But, I really don't like flying on planes with propellors instead of jet engines! They're noisy, the planes rattle, and I don't understand how the plane can go fast enough to fly. The fact that it does fly is irrelevant. It was a bit of a shock to land in Galway in snow! Apparently it was a bit of a shock to the people here as well!

As the plane was 90 minutes late, we went straight to GMIT for a look round their learning centre and general IT facilities. I've posted before about how we nearly got there in the planning stages of the IC. What I hadn't realised was how much in terms of design the two buildings had in common - not just the copper cladding , but the strip windows, the northlights and some internal features. We had a great tour round, and a good discussion about how the two buildings operate. Lots of things in common, even though our two institutions are different. Some very different things though, including web content monitoring which they take very seriously here, and we don't do at all - nor do we want to!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Off to try the Guinness

Off to Galway in the morning to give a talk at IUISC on the changing way we deliver services to students. I'll be using the Information Commons as an example, and I spent most of the weekend putting a presentation together. I'm not a great believer in death by powerpoint bulleted lists, so mine will be mainly photographs and pictures. Only 115 slides and 70MB - lots of stamina needed!

Had an Executive meeting today where we covered a lot of things - an agenda for our User Group later this week, how we're going to manage printing across the campus, particularly to MFDs (or photocopiers as I like to call them), and lots of learning and teaching matters including a proposal to move to central timetabling either at University or Faculty level.

Most of rest of day spent trying to clear inbox, without success - still has 6000 mails in it....

Next post will be from Ireland, hopefully after I've sampled the Guinness!