IT Forum: Neil Williams, University of Derby

At IT Forum this week, I ran into an old friend, Neil Williams, Head of IT and eLearning Development at the University of Derby. It was a great opportunity to discuss some of the issues raised throughout the week with somebody facing issues at the business end of IT. We've spent a week looking at IT products and features, and meeting Neil gave me the chance to discuss how this relates to the real world challenges faced in a typical university.

I started our conversation by asking about the title of one of our sessions this week:

Be secure OR get work done?

In Neil's experience, this question gets right to the heart of the issue - it highlights a source of conflict between IT people and users - in Neil's case, the academic community of the university.

  • The IT people are driven by the need to enforce security and compliance - ensuring that they meet statutory needs such as data protection and Freedom of Information.
    So they will want to lock down everything. In Derby, if you're not a student or member of staff, you can't access IT resources - things like e-learning content, electronic library materials. One of the problems this creates is "grey users" - associate lecturer, visiting lecturers - who don't exist in the HR system, and therefore don't exist in the connected directory.
  • The academics want to engage with students with new social networking tools, they want to share information, they want to develop blogs and wikis. And so, if they don't have the flexibility they need delivered by the IT systems, they will go and create what they want on personal websites and social networking websites.
    The end result could be that intellectual property that belongs to the university - for example, course content - or personal data is published outside of the control of the university. Or essential information to the running of a course is not managed and recorded within the university's IT system. For example, if a discussion group is run on a personal website, and that discussion forms part of course assessment decision, then the danger for the university is that it may not be able to access the information at a later point when it might need it - and so that needs to be available to the university on an on-going basis.

Neil's view on this dilemma?

"Well, it puts me in a difficult position - because they are both right. It's unlike the corporate world - where you say 'this is the way it will be, live with it'. Whereas in HE the role of the academic is to explore new ideas, and to push the boundaries. But sometimes we just can't move the IT infrastructure fast enough to keep up."

Derby's Research and Innovation Group

Neil's response was to create a Research and Innovation Group within his team. Their role is to engage with the academic community in the university, to trial new technologies in partnership. In the last year, they have been looking at blogs, wikis, video streaming and podcasting - all technologies which the lecturers wanted to adopt, or were adopting within their courses. Creating the group has helped, not least because the academics feel more listened to, and that they have somewhere to go with their needs. The other positive outcome is that by working more closely together helps both sides understand the needs of the other. For example, Neil sees a greater understanding from the academics about way that the IT Team work. For example, the IT team have to make decisions within a framework that allows for scalability and resilience in their solutions, which may not concern an individual user.

One of the contrasts that Neil has found since moving to HE, from the commercial sector, is that many people in the academic world have strong opinions about specific technologies. This is partly led by the computing departments, who are looking at technology all of the time. And partly because there is so much inter-institution collaboration, they see more examples of what is happening elsewhere, and want to adopt those ideas within their work. This kind of collaboration doesn't happen so often in the business world, because of the element of competition between companies. The result is that people will see a specific technology product, and ask for it, rather than have the functional requirement as the starting point ("I want Moodle version 1.6" rather than "I want a way of delivering structured content to my students which allows them to pace their own learning, and helps me with assessment"). People are coming with the solution, not the requirement. The situation that leads to is difficult for the IT team to manage. There may be 10 academics who want to use blogging, but they all have their own strong views of which blogging tool they want to use - and the IT support can't suddenly adopt 10 - they have to pick a single platform which meets most users' needs.

What have been the tangible benefits?

Neil sees that the group have delivered faster deployment of new technology. And the academic community who are involved have a growing recognition of the value of integration with the corporate IT systems. For example, integration between the student record system and the VLE means that academics don't need to create student lists, staff lists or course lists. But if they put it on an external system or website, then they have to manage the issue of granting access for appropriate users.

There has also been a change in the way that the IT team think about service delivery. Rather than a traditional approach of controlling the whole end-to-end process of an IT system, there's more allowance for individual flexibility and contribution. For example, the IT team recognise that they shouldn't define the whole start-to-finish design and structure of the corporate SharePoint, without allowing users to add their own content and data sources. It allows users to add their own value to the work.

Be secure AND get work done?

So I asked Neil, to deliver these, where have compromises been made - have costs risen or security reduced?

Neil's honest answer was that costs have risen.

"We've delivered more flexibility and innovation. But that's sometimes difficult to explain, because it's tricky to describe some of the nuances of the flexibility that is being delivered. At a higher level, they look at the big blocks - the Student Record System, the VLE etc. But what is happening is within those blocks. How do you explain at a strategic level the investment benefit of enabling the VLE to allow branded course delivery, which a particular faculty may be passionate about."

Neil recognises that from a security perspective, they system is still more locked down than the users may want. But there's an imperative to contain the environment in order to contain the cost of running the whole IT system. Part of the move to the latest Microsoft solutions is to allow better policy-driven management, and increased virtualisation. The aim is to allow more flexibility without having to compromise on security or quality of service delivery.

As Neil puts it

"Vista migration planning is happening now. It is a large investment, but some of the technologies that it will enable, like virtualisation, will help in carrying the argument to the budget holders of the value of the investment."

What next?

One of the issues for all HE institutions is that more and more students are turning up with laptops. What does that mean for your IT?

"We don't see a big demand for connections for laptops within the IT system on campus, but there is massive demand for connectivity in halls of residence. Currently we don't allow non-university equipment to connect to the network, except in the halls. We'd like to change that because it will provide a better service to students, and perhaps provide better support for other devices, like PDAs. We plan to have the network infrastructure upgrades in place to allow this to happen, which will then allow the IT team to connect non-university equipment in a controlled manner. So we can detect a newly-connected device and check that is has up-to-date anti-virus etc. It's not something students are currently loudly demanding, but by doing it now, we're enabling more flexibility and we'll be ready when the demand appears."

A bigger issue for students is the lack 24x7 support - for example, if they cannot access the VLE at the weekend, they can't get immediate support. This is a growing issue, because more of the academic courses are moving to online delivery, assessment and workflow. Neil's team are looking at ways to resolve this, but it could have significant cost implications for the university. However, it's an issue that affects other institutions, so there may be a way to work across institutions to resolve this.

"Another student-centric issue is how much do we engage with the students lifestyle in their places - their Facebook, their other social networking sites. The implications for the university affect many things. For example, how the email systems is run and managed for students. Can we assume that students are using your email? Or do you need to go to where they are, and use their personal email?"

And the end result?

My final question for Neil was about the future - where does he think the current plans will get them?

"In one or two year's time, I expect that we'll have a number of interesting emergeing technologies - virtual classrooms, blogs, wikis, audio, video - in place. And they will be understood and used by a significant proportion of the academics, who value it because of the pedagogical benefit. Moving the passion for these tools out from the small core of academics who are at the leading edge and allowing a culture change."

Questions? Comments? Add them below, and either Neil or I will have a go at helping...

Comments (1)

  1. David Bryson says:

    I can recommend another feature Neil didn’t mention which is that the University on all 3 sites has WiFi access for students and staff, only area this doesn’t reach is our 1960s towers in the main site. Everywhere else we have WiFi so if I mention when teaching a website students with laptops can access the site and bookmark it and follow along.

    The WiFi works seamlessly with the network logins all students and staff have for other aspects of the University portal UDo for LapTop PCs, Macintosh and portable devices like the iPod touch, the sites also allow access to WiFi Cloud for visitors.

    The difficulty Neil has is that staff have looked at different ways "of delivering structured content to my students which allows them to pace their own learning, and helps me with assessment" and often tried all the different solutions including on their own web spaces and asked for what we perceive as the best current solution.

    The difficulty we all have is the rate of change in systems, social software, web2.0 we can’t have everything at once but everything is being offered to us and like children in a candy store if we see something we like we want to try it out. The real difficulty is scalability of technologies and this is where the added cost and the difficulties in implementation arise.

    Higher Education staff are also traditionally non-conformist and as a Mac OS X Leopard, moodle (You did mention the m word this time!) using member of staff I know I will be always asking for more than I can get but if you don’t ask you don’t get.

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