Friday, 27 April 2012

Plus ça change

In a couple of weeks time we'll be moving to a new building, and like many people, I'm now panicking about the amount of rubbish I've accumulated over the past few years, and what I'm going to do with it. In the interests of clearing some of it out, I decided to open a cupboard, which hasn't been opened for so long I'd forgotten what was in there, and found some very interesting reminders of what life was like in the department when we first started, 15 or so years ago.

I found a copy of our first report - published in 1998,  a summary of what we'd achieved over the previous two years, and our plans for the future. Very interesting reading!  Our aims and objectives don't look that much different, and included:
  • Develop and manage the network infrastructure to provide reliable and highly functional connectivity
  • Support the development of innovative approaches to course delivery and the technologies needed to deliver on-line learning materials
  • Provide services to users of all platforms
  • Cultivate and develop relationships and collaborations with all departments
  • Produce detailed plans for disaster protection and recovery
  • Provide informative and prompt user support
Some of the operational things we were planning included:
Learning and Teaching
 -  the delivery of multimedia to all desktops
 -  encouraging and supporting student-led computing including student ownership of machines
 -  encouraging the use of national supercomputing facilities
Administrative Computing
 - ensure systems are year 2000 compliant (!)
 - implement a new HR and payroll system

Some things leap out at you - we thought it was a good idea to include pictures of CDRoms and servers in it:

And at the back we included a series of graphs showing fileserver failures!
The number of concurrent daily log-ins in March 2008 was 2500  - now we have almost 6000 concurrent log-ins to the wireless service!

Finally, I was taken with the closing paragraphs in my introduction, and how much of it could have been written today:

Look at those phrases:
rapidly changing IT...
networked learning strategy (now eLearning)...
network upgrade...
new desktop....
extra resources...
hard decisions....
reallocation of resources....

Some things don't change much!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Just say no...

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in a consultative workshop on the HE Information Landscape Project being run by HESA.  The project is looking at data which is collected and returned to various statutory  bodies by Universities, with the specific aims of reducing the current burden, improving the quality and timeliness of data and ensuring that data meets the needs of all users. There's been a lot of engagement with the community already, and a number of key issues are starting to emerge, and yesterday was an opportunity to test them out and get feedback. The participants were mainly planners  - I think I was the token IT Director :-)  - as it was generally felt that the technology is not the issue.

We spent quite a lot of time discussing what the "burden" around data actually is. My aim would be that we should be collecting, storing and providing data only once. Staff currently involved in providing data in multiple different formats to many organisations, and writing the systems to do so, would be better employed actually doing stuff that benefits students.  There's many areas of duplication, and a suspicion that data is asked for on a "wants to know" basis, not "needs to know".  A lively discussion took place on the KIS (Key Information Set),  with the general view that although the principles behind it (giving students comparator information) has to be welcomed, it has been imposed too quickly, the data being provided has not been thought through from the prospective students' perspective, and there has been little consideration of how meaningful the data will actually be.

So, an interesting day and I did find it very useful being in a large group  of people involved in planning. My own, personal view is that as a sector we should just start saying no occasionally when asked for data, especially as our reliance on some of these bodies for funding is decreasing rapidly. Not sure whether that will catch on though....

Monday, 23 April 2012

Recruiting for Difference

On Friday I spent the whole day in a workshop looking at Equality and Diversity issues. I've been a member of the University Equality and Diversity Board since it was formed, and have watched as the University policies in this area have matured and been embedded in all aspects of University life. Now what we're doing is taking a very concentrated, in-depth look at how we can take this further. Of course, this is a huge area, so we've had a couple of meetings to look at what areas to focus on. We've chosen three:
  • Recruitment  - how we can improve our recruiting for difference for staff and students
  • Civic - How the University relates to the City in terms of Equality and Diversity
  • Policies - are the many good policies we have being put into practice.
Three groups have been set up to look at each area, and I'm leading the recruitment one. Everything is explained on our web page here, including the membership of each group. It's being facilitated by Simon Fanshawe - co-founder of Stonewall, stand-up comedian, broadcaster, writer and all round lovely person. On Friday we were lucky to have a co-facilitator, Roy Hutchins, another writer, director and performer. Great day - all three groups were present, and we really worked hard to come up with an action plan for how we were going to take this forward, especially what data we already had, what else we needed and how we were get information from the people who matter - our staff and students. Focus groups, world cafes and one to one interviews will be happening over the next few weeks. Anyone who wants to can sign up for them here. Or, you can contact me or any other member of the group directly if you'd rather have a chat, or give us information you think might be useful.

As we intend to conduct some one to one interviews, we took part in an extended role play on Friday to look at interviewing skills. Simon and Roy played members of staff with issues they wanted to get over to us, and we took in turns to interview them in front of the group. Slightly nerve wracking, but very useful.

So, I'm interested to hear what you've got to say about recruiting for difference. When you work in a department like ours where nearly everything revolves around team work, to me its a no-brainer that we need as many people with different skills, backgrounds, ideas as possible -that's what makes a good team. So, what do you think the value of recruiting for difference is - and what can we do to make ourselves better at it?

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The John Hawley Pitch and Memorial Garden

Today was a special day as The University formally unveiled the John Hawley pitch at our Goodwin Sports Centre. John was a dear friend and colleague to many of us, and Deputy Director of CiCS until his untimely death in 2008. He left a substantial legacy to the University, which has been used to fund a number of initiatives around John's love of sport including he John Hawley Trophy and the John Hawley Trophy Cabinet in the Students Union. But, the majority of the money has gone towards a new pitch which has been specially designed, with soft grass apparently, for Rugby Training.

John was a keen Rugby League player, and would definitely have appreciated this. Also unveiled today was the John Hawley memorial garden, just outside the sports centre.

It's a lovely, colourful place where I'm sure many students will sit and relax, and if the weather gets better, it should get its first customers next week when many students will be taking exams up there.

It was lovely to see John's wife Pauline and children Andrew and Jennifer there, as well as friends and colleagues, representatives from the Student Union sports societies, and the grounds staff who had created the garden.

And, John's smiling face looking down on everything from the plasma screen in the centre. He is still sorely missed.

The Glitterati meet

I spent yesterday in Didcot at the Janet headquarters at the first meeting of the Janet Brokerage Advisory Group. On the way there I was amused to see a headline describing us as "glitterati" and "thought leaders". Not sure which one I prefer. Someone in the department was kind enough to point out to me that the definition of glitterati is "plural noun - wealthy or famous people who conspicuously or ostentatiously attend fashionable events". Very funny!

The brokerage has been established using funds from the University Modernisation Fund to assist Universities in adopting cloud technologies - I've been following progress with interest as I'm also on the HEFCE Steering Group overseeing this programme.

There are obviously many reasons for moving to Cloud (and we're not getting too hung up about our definition of cloud - keeping it fairly broad).  These include improving and modernising our services, improving efficiency, cost savings, moving staff effort away from providing commodity services and into areas which add value to the staff and student experience, becoming more agile, and keeping up with the pace of innovation.

The role of the Brokerage is to make is easier for Universities to adopt these technologies, to remove hurdles, promote good practice, assist with supplier negotiations and help with business cases, partuclary around costing of services. We discussed the latter at some length, especially TCO (total cost of ownership). How many of us know exactly how much our services cost in total. Do we ever include space, power, procurement, installation, commissioning. All of these are included when we look at the cost of outsourced services, so we need to be comparing like with like.

So far the Brokerage has established a framework with 8 suppliers for data centre and  cloud based services, but has a number of other priority areas including assisting with moving to cloud based collaboration tools (mainly Microsoft and Google), tiered storage, HPC in the cloud and TCO. We also had a discussion about they could help us with virtualised desktops, so that's something to look at.

The role of the Advisory Board is to provide independent governance, to give guidance and advice and to assist with information gathering from the sector. I'm looking forward to being part of it. When I presented to the department the other day on our key objectives for the coming year, I made it clear that we have to consider all forms of service delivery  in all decisions we take about our services, and that includes cloud. So, hopefully we'll one of the brokerage's customers at some point.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Wireless developments and laptop loans

Two other great presentations at this morning’s departmental meeting which I thought were definitely worth summarizing:

Currently we have over 600 wireless access points, covering mainly teaching and social space, and other congregational areas, recently we’ve been working with faculties to cover the academic areas they have requested. We’ve done a lot of good work and cover probably about 90% of central campus where students are, but that is still only about 10% of the total campus.  We know the world is becoming more and more mobile, and we can see that in the figures of concurrent connections to the wireless network which is rising exponentially. We also know that we need to get wireless into student bedrooms before the start of this next academic year. So, lots to do! Moving forward we’re going to approach installation on a whole building basis, and revisit coverage in some areas. We also need to look at how we cover our external areas – grassy banks, outdoor seating areas etc. We’ll be looking at new standards, with higher bandwidth and the possibility of 4G coverage.

I suppose the thorny question is whether we’ll get to wireless being the primary network? It already is for our students. It would require less cabling and kit, less power and less cooling. We might even be able to deliver phone services over it. Watch this space!

Laptop loans
Last year we started a pilot laptop loan service in the IC – driven partly by the demand for PCs which often outstripped what we had, and feedback we had from students telling us they’d like such a service. We also knew it was something others were doing, and we had the opportunity because some laptops became available from a service no longer being run. It was a pilot, so we only had 10 laptops and was restricted to the IC for 2 hours at a time. Student feedback was mainly good, but they didn’t like the old laptops, or the battery life. So, this year we embarked on a real service. We purchased 66 fairly rugged laptops with 6 hours battery life complete with a bag, power and mouse. These are used for loan and teaching and the flexibility does allow us to cope with seasonal demands.  They run our Windows 7 managed desktop, a familiar environment with access to many applications, and can be booked in advance through our resource booking system. This is called myR&R which amuses me no end. I know it stands for My Rooms and Resources, but it will always be My Rest and Recuperation to me.  When we first went live with it, I tried to book some.

It’s proving to be a very popular service (the laptops) with 53% of users using the service more than once. Currently not many students are booking them in advance, but we know that will change over time.  Our next tasks are to publicise the service more, look at expanding it, and investigate developments such as self-issue and return and allowing them to be taken away from the IC.

Departmental meeting

Today we had a departmental meeting, always a good turn out, and today we had our Registrar Dr Phil Harvey, as a guest to speak to us. He gave a very good overview of our current situation in terms of student admissions and issues we might face over the coming years as some of the recent changes such as fees and the AAB numbers take effect. He outlined some of the investments we're making as part of the capital programme, particularly in Engineering, where we're investing heavily in order to grow our student numbers - about £150m on a number of developments including a new building to house specialist engineering labs, teaching space including lecture theatres and seminar rooms, and importantly for us, a large amount of student led learning space. Or Information Commons space, as we like to call it. We'll be able to build on our 5 years of experience of our existing IC, and design something even more exciting. Phil also commented on our recent social media success, which he described as me finding a league table that puts us in the same top ten as Harvard! I shall have to keep my eyes open for more.

A good Q and A session followed, and Phil then presented our ABBAs, Above and Beyond Awards, nominated by anyone in the department. Some well deserving nominees, and very difficult to chose between them, but we had a winner in each category. Gary Helliwell for exceptional work dealing with a network outage caused by a flood on Christmas Day, Tom Jenkins for his expert help and advice on all things Google, and the Drama Studio front of house staff for excellent service.

Next up was me talking about our planning statement we've just submitted. All Professional Service departments submit one each year to a standard template covering a review of the past year, key aims and objectives for the following year, and our view of the external environment in which we are operating and how we might need to react to it. What struck me was how many things we have on our "external environment" list. Here's a sample:
Consumerisation of IT
Rise in ownership of smart, mobile devices
Bring your own device and support issues
Increasing user expectations and increasingly discerning customers
Changes to working practices, more mobile, flexible, remote
Data storage demand increasingly hugely
Efficiency agenda
Increased demand for collaboration internal, national and international
Pace of change of technology
Critical nature of IT infrastructure and expectation of always on always connected
Compliance with increasing legislation, eg KIS, UKBA, HEAR
Different service delivery models, cloud, shared, outsourced

That's just a selection and quite a list. In order to respond, some key things we need to do are become more agile, more flexible, more facilitative rather than proscriptive. We need to support and promote innovation, especially rapid development, and consider all forms of service delivery. Mobile needs to be built into everything, and the student experience put at the forefront in all areas. We also need to play a leading role in the efficiency agenda, which we'll be doing mainly though our new LEAN Unit, but through other techniques as well.

I'll cover some of the other areas presented at the meeting in a separate post. This one looks as though it's getting a bit long!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Happy Birthday IC

Exactly 5 years ago today, on Easter Tuesday, the Information Commons opened its doors to students for the first time. What I like to think of as the love child of CiCS and the Library had been a long time in gestation. I think the idea had first been floated in 1999, as a solution to a common problem that we both faced, a lack of study spaces. We also knew that we lacked an integrated learning environment, somewhere where students could use books, electronic resources and PCs at the same time.

Once the idea had been born, we had to find a location, and the funding for it. Several locations were initially discussed, before the preferred option of where it is now was settled on. Funding was something we fought hard for, and its fair to say that although we had a lot of support from the students, and our colleagues in professional services, the academic community were not entirely on board at the beginning. But operating on the Tinkerbell Principle (if you can get enough people to believe in something it will eventually happen), we successfully argued our case through Finance Committee and Council and the LRC (Learning Resource Centre) reached planning stage. We had a minor setback well into planning  - funding was withdrawn whilst the University carried out a review of other options including building a smaller IC and using the cash to build a number of smaller ones dotted around campus. Luckily common sense prevailed, and we were off again, albeit with a smaller, L shaped building that would wrap around what was at that time the Careers building. During planning two additional amounts of funding were received which allowed us to demolish Careers, add  floors 5 and 6, and build phase 2.

It was so exciting watching the building go up. Here are two time lapse videos of it, from web cams we installed. You can see in the second one how the building originally was smaller than it is now, and how close it was going to be to Careers.

The building as handed over to us at 5pm on the Thursday of Easter weekend, and we knew we had just 4 days to get it open for 10am on the Tuesday. It's fair to say a lot of hard work went on. Everyone mucked in, and very long days were worked. Books had to be shelved - the Librarian did his share, and brought his marigolds to help with the cleaning. 400 PCs had to have their installation completed, and I recall lying under desks for hours.  But, we got it open, and it's been a runaway success ever since. Some things have changed - we now have a creative media suite in it for example  - but the basic premise that it is an integrated learning environment, where students can find many different types of study space, and it is for them, hasn't changed.

Here's some pictures taken exactly 5 years ago.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Culture Communication and Change

I'm at Networkshop at the moment, having just given a talk on moving to the cloud, will post about that later.
I'm currently in the closing session delivered by the University of Cambridge on Culture, Communication and Change.
They have carried out an 8 month project looking at the impact of Communication and Information Technology on people.

Today for the first time, young people are entering the world of work from HE having always used computers and the Internet.
Also, those entering retirement have access to low cost computers and high speed internet. Both groups are demanding new things from their environment, but how is our culture changing?

There are concerns and speculation in the press and science on the impact of technology on our ability to think and socialise. A common phrase, is "technology is melting our brains".
The impact of technology on how we live our lives, at home and work, young and old, can only be measured by thorough research. Also, had to be done quickly to react to press speculation.
So, they set out to get a better understanding of the role that communications technology plays in modern life, and also to look at technology use at an international level. Had teams working on the study in the UK, US, China and Australia. Interesting that they used an engineering team to do what was essentially a social science project.

They carried out interviews with experts and thought leaders and a literature review, before doing interviews and diary studies with families as well as a wider on-line survey.

So, what did they find?
Face to face communication is favoured most, and in the UK more than in other countries. 65%.
China prefers IM more than any other country, but largely due to pricing structure.
Children are big users of social networks, but they use them as part of a whole range of methods, using whatever's appropriate for the time. They concluded that communication skills were enhanced, not depressed.
Generally people do not feel overwhelmed by technology.
36% of adults and 43% of young people take steps to consciously moderate their technology use
Technology facilitates many different kinds of communication
4 in 5 people in the UK feel in control of their use of technology
60% people feel they spend too much time using communications technology
1 in 3 people has felt significantly overwhelmed by communications technology which is negatively correlate with life satisfaction
Using technology in an unmoderated way can disrupt family life (eg using mobile phone at meal time)

Lovely quote from one of the teenagers interviewed when she realised how much time spent she spent using technology "it's the Blackberry's fault though"

These are the recommendations they came up,with, lifted from the report executive summary :

Be aware
Before you can make any changes, you need to understand how you and your family are using technology. Many families who took part in the research were surprised and at times dismayed by their technology habits. Keeping a log of your family's use of technology will help you identify good and bad habits and also changes you may want to make.

Location, location, location
Think about where technology is located in the home. Parents often complained that their children abandoned family time to go on the computer or video game console in their room. Similarly, children reported feeling that they lost out on parents' attention when they were 'quickly' checking up on work in the home office. Keeping computers and consoles in a central location will allow your family to share what they are doing online, or at least all be in the same place while using technology.

Have rules
Set some boundaries about how, when and where technology is used. Our research showed that rules around technology usage reduced anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. The rules are up to you: try removing technology from the dinner table, organise a family games evening either with or without technology, use parental controls to manage use of social networks or the time spent on the family computer, or agree limits on the number of text messages sent in a day. Just remember, whatever rules are introduced, it's important to talk them through and agree them as a family - and parents sometimes need just as many rules as children!

Be a good example: teach and demonstrate the importance of balance and safety in the way technology is used. It's important for parents to set good examples, so think about your own behaviour. For example, avoid checking your smart phone unnecessarily when with your family. It's easy for children to pick up bad habits from you. In addition, children are using technology at an increasingly early age and teaching safe and responsible use is vital from the outset, it's important to make sure your children are taking the right steps to keep themselves safe.

Find your Balance
Don't be concerned by overly positive or negative hype about communications technology. Every family and individual uses technology differently. We hope that this advice helps you find a healthy balance for you so that you have control of technology and are making the most of all forms of communication whether it's by phone, email, social media or face-to-face.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

LEAN and Mean

I've posted before about how we've been looking at ways of engaging with the efficiency agenda, and in particular simplifying and standardising business processes. The main methodology we've looked at is LEAN, and following two successful pilots, the University has agreed to set up a process improvement unit which will use LEAN as the main, but not the only, technique to really make a difference to our processes. The aim will be to reduce waste, to simplify, to remove blockages, to speed things up and generally find solutions to problems.

The unit will be based in our department, CiCS, but will have a University wide remit and will sit outside of the current management structure. By basing it in CiCS, it will have the support of all the current good practice we have in business process analysis and improvement. Also, many of the solutions will require some sort of IT intervention so it makes sense for us to keep an eye on resources and priorities.

There will be two facilitator/coordinator posts, one of which is about to be advertised, and a supporting clerical officer. This is an exciting time, I'm looking forward to it really making a difference.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Social Media press release

Press releases must be like buses - non for ages, then two come at once! Another great one from our media team (obviously great as it features a quote from me), about the social media report I posted about last week. Here it is:

University of Sheffield rated most receptive for social media in the US and UK 

The University of Sheffield has the most receptive and responsive social media out of leading American and UK institutions, according to a new independent report.

Placed eighth overall, the University was also one of just two UK Universities to feature in a top 10 dominated by US institutions – considered to be world leaders in the use of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the internet.

The University scored highest for "receptiveness" which measured the extent to which each brand, or institution, is seen to be listening to comments or conversations by users and includes linking, following and referencing.

It was also highly rated in "popularity" – measured by site traffic, followers, references, fans, views and engagement with the brand – as well as "interaction" with users.

Dr Chris Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services, said: "The University prides itself on really embracing social media as a way of communicating with staff, students, prospective students and members of the public both in the UK and across the world.

"Engaging with people by responding to enquiries, starting debates and posting interesting content is the crux of what social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, should be about and it is this that has helped us come top compared to other universities in terms of our 'receptiveness'.

"The social media revolution is still only in its early days and we will continue to adapt our services to keep up the pace. We are extending free Wi-Fi across campus and in residences so staff and students can stay connected in all areas, we're adding social media interaction to our web pages and to our existing help and support channels, and have built a suite of creative media rooms in which students can create, edit and upload their own interactive content. We hope this will help us build upon the success of this study and allow us to lead the way for other higher education institutions."

The Transatlantic University Divide – the first study in the UK into social media effectiveness by Universities – examined and compared the 50 leading US and UK institutions using five attributes: popularity; receptiveness; interaction; network reach and trust.

Sociagility, who carried out the investigation, used its PRINT™ social media performance measurement system to analyse the relative effectiveness of institutions in the UK and America to identify what, if any, lessons could be learned.

The researchers claim it is essential that universities project their brands onto social media platforms as the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics shows 16–24 year-olds are the most connected age group in history and that social networking is their number one pre‐occupation online.

Harvard University, where Mark Zuckerburg studied and created Facebook, topped the chart.