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Annual Planning and Annual Development Reviews

Over the last month or so we've been busy with our annual planning process. This is when we invite the service owners across the university to put forward proposals for work in the 2013-14 academic year.  Development Services have the task of giving a rough estimate of how much effort might be required for each proposal, so that the service owners, college registrars and heads of support group can decide what would make the best use of our time.

This year we have tried to make the annual planning more "light touch".  For my management team, this means that we have given each project a simple estimate of Small, Medium or Large, rather than trying to assign a precise figure.  This makes a lot of sense, as the proposals are usually quite general at this stage and a detailed estimate would require far more time spent in understanding all the details of the potential implementation.  It also means that we can get the estimates done sooner and produce a first draft of the pote…

EDUCAUSE - Anticipating the future

Several EDUCAUSE sessions tried to guess how changing trends in both society and in IT will affect the future of Higher Education.  One such was the second keynote session, which combined two presentations and a discussion on the theme of how the worlds of academia and work combine for students.  The point was made that only a third of post-secondary education takes place in universities (in the USA), with the other two-thirds happening in the corporate world.  On a more prosaic note, it was also noted that many students have to work just to support themselves during their degree, which can constrain when they are able to engage with their courses.  Both speakers suggested that a more flexible model of education may be needed, sometimes (often?) in collaboration with corporations.

I wonder what my academic friends would say to this notion.  Many of them are strongly opposed to the idea that university education should primarily about preparing people for the world of work.

Other "…

EDUCAUSE: Learning analytics and business intelligence

Learning analytics and business intelligence were major themes at this year’s EDUCAUSE conference. I attended a couple of sessions to see how other institutions are using these technologies and to learn more about these areas for myself. Our learning technologists are all engaged with these ideas but I personally didn’t know much about it so this was a good opportunity to learn something about it.

John Doove gave a very interesting overview of several small projects funded by SURF, the Dutch equivalent of JISC. These were deliberately experimental, aimed at bringing people together to see what they could do. The results were both varied and neat and will form the basis for further work. This gave me a good overview of the sort of issues that learning analytics can investigate:

Project 1 gained insight in the use of Learning objects (e.g. short instructional videos), showing that use of certain materials correlated to successful student outcomes.Project 2 compared course evaluation…

EDUCAUSE 2012: day one

I'm at the EDUCAUSE conference in Denver, learning about how other universities are using their IT.  This conference is a broad church, covering everything from corporate systems to learning technologies, with sessions on leadership and user engagement as well.  It's a useful forum to informally assess how well IT at the University of Edinburgh compares to other institutions around the globe (particularly in North America).  On the whole, we seem to be pretty good.

The sessions on the first day were a bit of a mixed bag.  Clay Shirky gave a good opening talk about the power of open data in a connected world - the sort of thing he covered in his TED talk but covering more material.  The main point I took from his talk was that you can't judge what value people will put on your data before you make it available, because you don't know who will be interested in it for what reasons.

The best talk was about change management at the University of Kansas.  Which sounds a bit …

A new team for student systems

We (meaning the Applications Division of Information Services) have been in discussions with the Academic Registry to find a new way of working together.  It looks like the outcome is likely to be a joint team, combining staff from both divisions, to work on the core functionality of our student record system (EUCLID).  The new team will be colocated and will work together on the design, implementation and test of EUCLID projects.

Some of the people involved are also looking at using Agile development techniques for some of these projects.  For example, we might ensure user representation on all projects, following an approach we used in a recent project for Finance.  We might base our requirements and prioritisation around "user stories".  And we might organise build work in short cycles with a higher emphasis on testing (both automated test suites and user testing).

We have used Agile methods successfully on a couple of other projects in IS Apps and already intend to exten…

Customers, users and other myths

Evey project we undertake has a sponsor.  This may be someone in Academic Registry, in the Finance Department, a College, or any other area of the university.  The sponsor is the person who requests the project and in some cases also provides the funds to make it happen.

Until recently, we called this person "the customer".  Which made sense in one way, as they were requesting and possibly paying for the project.  Calling them the customer encouraged us to focus on satisfying their requirements and steered us away from a purely IT-based view of the world.

Of course, these people were usually senior managers and usually did not actually use the systems we were building or buying.  The users, or sometimes "end users", were a different group entirely.  Although I've never met someone who called themselves an "end user".

The downside of these terms is that they aren't accurate and they obscure the requirements of the systems rather than illuminate them…

Time to say "thank you"

When writing this blog, I'm always tempted to write about a current project, or a new IT technology, or some aspect of the service we provide.  This belies the fact that a lot of our job is about people, whether they are the people who use our systems, the people we work with in other parts of the University, or the people in our own teams.  One of the most important aspects of my job is to support my staff as they do the actual development work.  As development staff, we tend to immerse ourselves in the current interesting (or frustrating) problem, then the next project.  We focus on how we can improve systems, or processes, or ways of working.

That is why this week I organised a small social evening to say a personal "Thank you" to everyone in Development Services for the work they have put in over the past year.  This was a time for looking back rather than forward, for considering the whole rather than the part, and for taking stock.  More prosaically, it also brough…

Starting a new academic year

We always plan to have the IT systems run smoothly at the start of the academic year.  This is the time when many new students first come to the university and find their way around, when personal tutors discuss their students' academic plans, and when the new systems we have implemented over the previous year come into full use. 

It is usually this last point that can throw a spanner in the works.  This year, we installed a new learning environment, replacing the aging WebCT with Learn 9; we applied the annual upgrade to the EUCLID student record system (which is needed to cope with changes in government regulations, let alone improvements in functionality); we rolled out the first version of software to support personal tutors; we upgraded several databases from Oracle 9 (which is no longer supported) to Oracle 11, and we continued to upgrade our Cold Fusion servers. Although we test each of these systems, we can be caught out when staff and students start to use the systems in…

Start of semester problems

I was perhaps tempting fate with my previous post on this blog, as we had a crash on our student record system yesterday, in the middle of Freshers' week.  As the staff were mainly using the Personal Tutors system at the time, they saw this new system as the problem, and indeed we were investigating that as a potential cause ourselves.

In fact the new system was not the problem.  The cause of the crash was actually a change we made to the database parameters back in May in order to improve the performance of a search operation on the student hub - the part of the student record system that gives academic staff information about their students.  Although we tested the change at the time, it was not possible to exactly duplicate the usage we see at the start of the new academic year.  It turned out that the high load on the student hub, combined with the high load on other areas of the system, was overloading one area of memory and causing the whole system to back up.

We changed the…

Enhancing Student Support: Personal Tutors

Our new system for Personal Tutors system launched last week, as part of the University's Enhancing Student Support initiative. From now on, each student will have a Personal Tutor who will help them get the best from their courses, become more confident learners and meet the challenges and opportunities of University life.

Applications Division have implemented a simple IT system to support scheduled and ad-hoc meetings between undergraduate Students and their Personal Tutor or Student Support Team.  Both tutors and students can record notes of their meetings, which will then be available to those parties to view.

From our perspective, this project was made challenging by the tight timescales and ongoing discussions about the requirements.  The Personal Tutors system will affect staff and students throughout the university and was initiated late in the academic year, which left us little time to find out how people wanted it to work.  Different people had different ideas about wh…

Load testing and MyEd

One disappointment in the run-up to the new semester was that the upgrade to our university portal failed its load test.  In other words, when we tried running ithe new version with automated tests that simulated the number of staff and students who would be using it in real life, the time it took to display the login screen was too long to be acceptable. Hence we decided to delay the upgrade.

The good news is that we have found the cause of the problem and we have a fix. So we should be able to give staff and students the enhanced version sometime around the middle of the semester. 

An underlying point is that these tests are an important part of our quality assurance process. The portal is used every day by thousands of people and the poor performance we were seeing would have significantly affected their work.  We can take some satisfaction from the fact that we did catch the problem before putting the new system live.

Ideally we would have run the load tests earlier so that we wou…

Expanding and recruiting

The annual planning process that we go through every year is intended to match the projects the university wishes to implement to the resources available.  This year continued a trend for more projects to be requested, including many that are needed simply to comply with external regulatory changes or to replace systems that have reached their end of life.  There are also several large projects that come with extra internal funding.

The outcome was that we needed to increase our numbers substantially in order to meet these requirements.  This led to some complex negotiations in the high reaches of the university.  I'm thankful that I haven't had to be involved, but frustrated at the length of time it took to resolve the issues.  Still, the good news is that we now have permission to add 13 new posts to Applications Division.

The adverts are now on the University jobs site as well as www.jobs.ac.uk .

VLEs and other student systems

This time of year is always busy for Development Services.  By the end of July, we have to install any new systems needed for the start of the new semester in September.  This gives us a month of "normal running" which we can use to fix any unexpected problems, before the students start using the systems in earnest.  Our aim is to give the students the best service possible - ideally they should barely even notice all the IT that is making their life easier.

Each year brings its own particular focus for us.  Two years ago, the emphasis was on student administration systems, adding extra functionality alongside the new student record system.  Last year, we were busy integrating IT following the merger of the University and the Edinburgh College of Art.  This year, the focus is on the systems that students actually use directly.

Chief among these is the upgrade of the main Virtual Learning Environment.  We have run WebCT for several years.  Now we are replacing WebCT with Learn,…

Views from the schools

This week I had several meetings with computing and e-Learning staff from the academic schools.  I find these meetings really useful to learn what matters to people who are using (or in some cases not using) IS systems in conjunction with their own applications. 

First up was the Technical Peer Group for the university web site.  Here I gave a short summary of our preliminary investigation of whetheer Drupal would be a suitable CMS for the university's central web presence.  I'll write more about that another time.   We also had a presentation about how the university is adapting to the new law on cookies and privacy.  The meeting finished with a short discussion about getting central university data in order to create staff profile pages on school web sites.  We have yet to provide a supported API for this, so some enterprising school staff have found their own way to access the data they need.  This illustrates why a centrally supported interface is a food idea - it would mea…

Open data for the University?

It’s been an ambition of mine, since I started in Applications Division three years ago, to create a set of reusable interfaces onto the university’s core data sets, so that any university systems could have a consistent set of information about our courses, our people, our buildings, and so forth.  We’ve already taken some steps towards this goal.  Now I’m seeking requirements from learning technologists across the university as to what information they might need to provision and integrate their e-learning systems.

This is happening under the benevolent governance of the Distance Education Initiative (DEI).  The idea is that a course organiser can select a range of tools for her online teaching course, from a range of those available, with advice from their friendly learning technologist.  The DEI “data hub” will then provision those services with accounts for the people involved in the course, including students and tutors.  If people join or leave the course, their accounts will b…

Listening to users

At today’s meeting of the project board for the Office 365 for Students project, the main topic of debate was when to switch over from the old mail system to the new.  All the technical work is currently progressing well and we expect to be ready by the start of the new semester, so this shouldn’t be a constraint.  The issue is when would be most convenient for the student community.

The message from the school and student representatives on the board, backed by the User Support Division, is that we should wait until the new (calendar) year.  At the start of the academic year, students are focussing on settling into their new accommodation and their new courses.  For first years in particular, they will have more pressing concerns than a switch to an new e-mail system.  They will be using the student e-mail system already to receive important messages from the university and we don’t want to disturb this communication path.

The next option we considered was switching over in the midd…

Office 365 in Dundee

At the end of March, the University of Dundee hosted a meeting to share their experience of migrating to Office 365.  Representatives attended from several universities and colleges in Scotland, including a group of us from the University of Edinburgh.

Dundee have taken a different approach to us.  They have migrated all their staff and students to Office 365 for e-mail and e-diary only.  We are only migrating students (excluding postgraduate research students) and we are giving them access to all the Office 365 services.  Dundee started from a position where their mail service was poor, whereas ours is very good (at least for staff).  So the comparison between the two institutions is not straightforward.

Even so, this was a very useful day for us.  Dundee explained how they had handled migrating e-mail accounts and mentioned some of the problems they had to address en route, which was helpful.  Microsoft gave an update on the service provision.  Then Salford Software, who Dundee emplo…

The role of a project board

On Tuesday morning, I will be convening the first meeting of the project board for our "Office 365 for students" project.  This is the first time I have convened a project board; I'm more accustomed to leading or managing the project team, reporting on progress updates and issues.  As the board convenor, this time it is I who will be receiving reports, offering guidance and checking overall progress.  It promises to be an interesting experience. It is already helping me understand what the members of a board look for in reports and papers.

I should perhaps mention that Development Services are not implementing this project.  As the system is outsourced and in this case all the integration work will be done by the IT Infrastructure division, my section is not directly involved in the project team.

Not all our projects have associated boards.  Many projects have a single sponsor, or are quite small and self-contained.  Boards are needed for larger projects that affect man…

Towards automated deployment

Currently, whenever we deploy a new application on the university's IT infrastructure, we follow a detailed quality assurance process.  This involves several different teams.  The actual deployment is performed by the database/system adminstration team.  If we developed the application ourselves, or if it needed significant integration with other university systems, then the software development or software configuration teams will be involved.  The corresponding support teams will check that they have the documentation and knowledge that they need to start supporting the application once it is "live".  The project mangers co-ordinate everything.  And this is just the teams in Applications Division; our colleagues for whom we are implementing the system will be doing their own checks and making their own arrangements.  So deployment takes quite a bit of effort and time.

What we would like to do is to make this process easier, quicker and more reliable.  To this end, we h…

The secret of good estimation

At this time of year, the various departments of the university are planning their activities and budgets for next year.  Applications Division provide the IT component of many new projects, so we are asked to estimate how much time and money will be required or a wide range of proposals.  Most of these proposals are at preliminary stages, with only outline ideas of what will be required.  Given this uncertainty, You might ask what is the secret that lets us produce accurate estimates for all these proposals?

The truth is: we don't.  Of course, we look at our project record to see how much effort was required for similar projects in the past.  This data gives us a guide to the costs of different types of project, such as software procurements, infrastructure upgrades, and software development.  The data also helps us allocate the expected effort across the different teams that will be involved.  But we often don't know exactly what a project will entail and there is usually a l…

Time out: co-mentoring

A year ago I completed a year-long course run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.  This course brought together 18 IT and library managers from universities across the UK and Ireland, made us look at who we are, what we value and how we work, and then gave us lots of pointers for how to lead our teams and projects more effectively.

This week we all gathered for a reunion and for meetings of our "action learning sets".  These sets are groups who help each other with problems we encounter in our jobs.  Sometimes these are practical problems; sometimes they are about relationships with other people; sometimes we just ask the others to help us understand our own thoughts and feelings.

I'm blogging about this because everyone in my action learning set has found it hugely valuable to have someone we can talk to who will give us their honest response, in an atmosphere of trust.  The fact that we are all from different institutions mean that our reactions are not t…

Preparing for a post-PC world?

Martin Hamilton has posted a thoughtful piece about the impact of the current IT trends away from the desktop PC and towards cloud computing.  I've been musing about how these changes might affect us as service providers.

The move towards staff and students using their own devices to access our services is well established.  We have a policy of providing services via the web whenever we can, giving people access to our services "anywhere, anytime".  The EASE system provides a single authentication point for common access and is integrated with Shibboleth as well.  There are still university systems that don't fit this model, perhaps because the vendor doesn't provide the option or because a university department has bought their own system without considering the wider picture, but we are moving in the right direction.

In some cases, the move towards outsourcing services can make this harder.  The big players all have their own authentication systems and want use…

Reboot: three years on

I've decided to revive this blog, after a three-year hiatus, to post news and thoughts about my current role as Head of Development Services, in the IS Applications Division, at the University of Edinburgh.  My aim is to give some visibility to what goes on "behind the scenes" (or should that be "behind the screens"?) and to reveal the sort of issues that face IT in a Russell Group university.

My current job is quite different from my previous role at the National e-Science Centre, which was the topic of the previous incarnation of this blog.  Some issues, such as virtualisation and cloud, are common to all IT jobs these days, but the emphasis of my current job is on support and administration systems rather than research.  One important difference is that I must stress that all the posts here will not represent the official position of the University of Edinburgh in any way.

To start off, let me point you at an interesting comparison of the "student exper…