We need to rethink university IT Services

Apple II

As is often the case I’ve been spurred into action by a post from Martin Weller about IT services in universities. Specifically Martin describes these complaints about IT Services:

  • Security is used rather the same way Governments use terrorism – as a means of controlling things and removing freedoms
  • Increasingly academics have no control over their machines, and cannot install or trial new software
  • Even basic tasks are often highly frustrating and time consuming
  • Support has been centralised so there is no local advice or help
  • Senior IT managers have been brought in from other sectors with little understanding of the university culture
  • Increasingly academics are circumventing official systems to buy their own machines, or host their own services, often in their own time and at their own expense
  • There is little room for experimenting with tools beyond the VLE

As a former academic and a former senior manager in IT services in one of Australia’s largest universities and as someone for whom the role of technology in universities is fundamental to the ability to innovate, I have to say that Martin is completely correct. Let’s look at each of his points.

Security

Heads of IT Services (or CIOs as they increasingly like to style themselves) view university organisations as being hard edged, a bit like banks or similar commercial organisations. There is a them and us and a firewall in between. In fact universities are porous organisations they are made of up students who use IT services but are also ‘customers’ (to use the neo liberal vernacular), full time staff, sessional staff, adjunct and visiting academic staff, and collaborative researchers from other organisations to name just the ones that spring to mind.

All of these users require different levels of access to different systems. Most of them though simply require access to the open internet. Instead, once logged on to a university network, you are already restricted. Sites may be blocked, the caching mechanisms may prevent some sites working properly and sites that rely on anything other than the most common ports may not work at all. Users of Google Apps are not allowed to publish documents outside of the organisation or use most of the Google App features available to the independent Google account holder.

There are undoubtedly a lot of attacks on university systems and security is necessary. This is not an argument for not being secure by any means. What I do argue is that the security is over emphasised at the perceived edges of the organisations when really there are a set of concentric rings containing systems requiring different levels of security.

For example there are a number of core systems that require high level protection. Specifically these are finance, HR, anything involving student grades or personal information. These need a high level of security to be applied to them. There are a then a large number of applications that should be accessible from anywhere and secured using the standard internet security mechanisms that we use on a daily basis.

Then there is simple network access to allow access to the internet where really I should just need an authentication service. Although I actually believe that public university wifi networks should be freely accessible to the public but that’s another story.

Control

The issue of control has got completely out of hand. At my university it has got to the stage that I only use my own personal laptop connected to wifi network. This is because I want to retain control over my technical environment. This is core to my ability to innovate. It does remain frustrating to work with staff who cannot install something on their environment that would be immensely useful to them.

I can understand that IT Services would like to have a standard operating environment (SOE). It makes life easier from a support point of view. What happens is that this becomes a one size fits all model of IT provision. This doesn’t suit those that want to experiment or innovate.

What should happen is that staff should be given a choice. Some staff members may be very happy with the comfort of a basic laptop or desktop computer with standard software knowing that will get desktop support if things go wrong. Other staff members may wish to only have network support. That is they only contact IT Services if they can’t connect to the network (including open internet). All desktop support is self managed.

I would actually go further and provide the finance for staff to purchase their own equipment if they wanted to on the basis that they self support.

In summary, what staff in universities need is choice. They don’t have any at the moment unless they BYOD (bring your own device).

Simplification

The interrelationship of systems makes doing basic tasks takes time consuming and frustrating. To be fair this isn’t entirely the fault of IT Services. Often competing and contradictory policy and procedures across sections of a typically bureaucratic university structure make simple things hard to achieve. Having said that there are often little or no user experience (UX) methodologies applied when design and implementing new IT systems. This leads to basic problems with usability.

Support

I can understand the drive to provide centralised IT support and I do think that there is a role for this kind of support. I don’t use such support but I know others that are happy to ring up with an issue and have a support technician access their computer using remote desktop technology to fix an issue.

I also appreciate that there are times when a staff member would rather have a local IT support person.

Another option that is starting to be used at some universities is the use of a drop in location that operates like an Apple Genius bar where people can come and get immediate support for mobile devices.

Again, it comes down to choice. It would be nice to be in a position where things just worked then maybe we could actually afford to have a choice.

Corporate Refugees

There is a problem with what I call corporate refugees; those that have come into universities from other organisations and attempt to impose their own view of how their previous organisations work on the university.

This is a problem that doesn’t just affect IT but also marketing, communications, web policy and other areas. The problem is that such people often come in at high level having achieved success in other organisations that are completely different to universities. The things that made them successful simply do not translate. Furthermore, they have a pre-conceived idea of what a university is or does and refuse to learn. They try and implement policies and procedures that simply frustrate and anger university staff who are both critical and creative thinkers.

Even a simple thing like enforcing a university branded desktop wall paper and screensaver will annoy most academic staff and yet some brand manager will have insisted on it because that’s how it worked at the insurance company they were at last.

The effect is a reinforcement of the corporate university in which policies of control and restriction that are useful in a bank or other commercial entity become employed in organisations that are fundamentally about knowledge generation and sharing.

Now I’m not saying that universities shouldn’t hire the best people available from wherever. Clearly they should. What I’m saying is that staff that come into universities to run strategically important things like IT, marketing, web etc need to make a determined effort to understand the nature and culture of the organisation they work for and what the overall aims and objectives of a university are. The senior academic managers responsible for hiring at this level need to ensure this happens.

Self Service

As someone who already manages their own IT including their own web services I’m not averse to self service, however what I would very much like to see is a university with a cloud computing service like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure to allow staff to spin up server instances and run their own applications within the university rather than external to it. At the very least this should provide some level of continuity and recovery capability. Speaking of which, a line clearly needs to be drawn between applications that have become critical to the delivery or learning environment for particular courses or programs and those that are temporary, experimental or explorational.

What I’m saying is that we need a balance between creating innovations in teaching, learning and research quickly and easily and then moving a subset of those into a production environment which is scalable, recoverable and supported. We don’t have that at the moment.

Innovations and going beyond the VLE

For me the crucial problem with the regime of control and restriction is that it curtails opportunities for innovation. It assumes that a one size fits all will suit everyone across a widely complex organisation where needs differ markedly from user to user. It doesn’t allow for new and different approaches to be taken. As a result we end up in a situation where the lowest common denominator solution is adopted for the sake of those not comfortable with technology. They continue to not use technology because they don’t like technology and those that do want to use technology remain constantly frustrated. Meanwhile the world moves on.

Summary

University IT Services are currently acting as a severe brake on innovation in the provision of core university functions. There are many reasons for this and many symptoms, some of which are outlined above.

It’s time we rethought the provision of IT Services in universities. I’m not hopeful though as control of IT in universities lies with those most invested in maintaining its current model.

As a result we will continue to see staff using services outside of the university which is where a lot of the really interesting stuff is already happening.

Feature image licensed Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) by Marcin Wichary https://flic.kr/p/5HWvNd

 

4 thoughts on “We need to rethink university IT Services”

  1. Instead of AWS or Azure, the Uni just needs a room full of servers and a VM infrastructure system (VMWare, OpenStack etc). But what it really needs is good support from Uni IT services. I have access to a VMWare cluster system and can create VMs on demand, subject to quotas, but if I hit problems it takes ages to get support because of understaffing. I’ve been waiting two weeks to find out why a VM can’t get a network card.

    I’ve agreed with your broad argument for years – University staff should both be supplied with a supported PC environment but also allow independent users within constraints, supported by open standards. Hopefully the days of requiring ActiveX components to run web applications are long gone.

    [This is from 25 years experience at a UK university]

  2. Nice one. In your summary however, you seem to imply that IT services only currently operate like this. In my 15 years, I’ve never experienced anything other than what you describe. So I’m doubtful that the blame for this rests on a recent corporatisation of the university.. I’m inclined to believe that a university is, in its very nature, about control. A kind of controlled opposition, that absorbs the energy of thought and action that might otherwise be truly disruptive, or by applied to develop a real alternative. Once again I’m channeling Illich:

    The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education–and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.

    On this basis, I think you could do more to imagine a much more decentralised, distributed and networked university. Perhaps one in which IT, marketing and the others do not exist! Your post, and your position appears to be more comfortable maintaining, or marginally collaborating a status quo. A status that is fundamentally a problem.

    1. I agree with what you say but my post was about the current incarnation of the university and one that won’t go away very soon. I do think that the corporate university has been around for longer than you think. Certainly in Australia.

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