Web and Social Media

What do you think of the RGU Web Site? Do you use RGU’s presence on Facebook? Or LinkedIn? Do you follow any of RGU’s Twitter accounts, or bloggers {ha! If you are reading this then that question is answered}? What should the modern organisation project to the external world in terms of its digital presence and how should our key stakeholders be able to interact with us digitally?

These are questions we have been asking quite intensely over the past 6 months. Like many Universities, we have a web site (actually, quite a few web sites – that’s an issue) which had its last major development around 5/6 years ago, has had its content and some aspects of its look and feel spruced up incrementally since then, and was recently reworked to offer a “responsive design. We’ve also produced a set of guidelines to assist staff in the most appropriate ways to use the various social media channels.

In the intervening years there have been massive changes in the use of mobile technology in particular, and the way in which stakeholders now expect to be able to engage with organisations. It’s a while since we really took a long hard look at our external “digital presence” holistically, so we’ve asked We are AD – a digital agency – to work with us and look at our overall external presence as it is today, against best practice and our own strategic objectives as an organisation. We want to refresh our external presence to reflect today’s expectations from our stakeholders, and just as importantly set up our internal organisation so that we can keep our digital presence current in what we expect to be a continually changing technology environment.

They’ve been working with us since October, and have met with a cross section of stakeholders as well as doing an in-depth analysis of traffic to our web site and main social media sites. We expect to see their findings before Christmas, and in the early part of 2016 we’ll be preparing our plans to respond to these – will keep you posted!

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Quick update on IT

Wow, where does the time go? I haven’t posted on the Blog since February – that’s bad, sorry about that. There has been lots happening since then, so here is a quick general update.

On Wireless, we still had a few problems with the new system but we have had great feedback from students through Facebook and face-to-face and this has really helped IT Services to identify and work through some of the problems. As I said in January, we can see from our logs that large numbers of people have been able to connect and use the system successfully, but we knew from feedback that quite a few were still having problems. We’ve worked with the manufacturer and have made a number of changes to the controllers and feedback from students now is that it is greatly improved. We still have to extend the coverage to ensure that all areas on the Campus are covered, and that is now planned for the summer.

We have been looking at the “old Library” area in the Aberdeen Business School and are right now finalising plans to put in more IT workstations, a help point, AV facilities, and better group work areas for students to use. IT Services along with Estates are just in the process of finalising cost estimates, and hopefully that will be approved and the work will commence in the near future.

Behind the scenes, IT Services are working hard on preparations to move our St Andrew Street datacentre. We moved one of our datacentres last year to the shared datacentre at University of Aberdeen and now we are moving the other one. It’s going into a new facility which we are also sharing with the University of Aberdeen so by the summer we will have all of our server kit in two new state of the art datacentres, each with environmentally friendly cooling and generator backup. We are moving ourselves too – once we get the datacentre out of St Andrew St the three remaining departments will move out of there and we will have to disconnect all the IT and remove the building from our Campus network. St Andrew St has been one of our main “hubs” for IT since IT began, so this is very much going to be the end of an era!

This is the time of year when Schools and Departments submit their planning statements for the forthcoming year and we are also looking at all of the IT related project requests so that we can update our forward plans. These are all going through the approval process as I write, and once things are finalised I’ll put a summary on the blog. Some of the key areas we are likely to be looking at are:

– A major investment in our storage and server infrastructure to replace end of life equipment and increase capacity and performance;
– Improvements to our Learning tools, including an upgrade to Moodle and improvements to access to Library e-resources
– Enhancements to our portfolio of communication tools to provide new video conference facilities across the Campus, more flexible access to telephony services and integrated access to Skype communications;
– Enhancements to the Staff and Student portal (RGyoU), particularly looking at the provision of more information for students in one place, and better document management and collaborative tools for staff;
– A new system for managing student placements
– Preparation for the opening of the new Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at Riverside East

These are just a few highlights – just as importantly we plan to spend some considerable time on preparatory work for initiatives which will start the following year, but more of that later.

Connected Aberdeen

Aberdeen and the surrounding regions are widely recognised as a global energy hub and a substantial contributor to the economy. Aberdeen was the only major UK city to grow during the last recession, oil and gas exports are around £7billion annually and 11 of Scotland’s top 25 companies are located in the region.

Driven by the vibrant commercial and residential sectors, there is a growing demand for digital connectivity in the area. There is also a recognition that currently it is behind the curve in the deployment of next generation broadband and that connectivity overall is not in keeping with the region’s role as a global energy hub.

Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council are working in partnership on an initiative called “Accelerate Aberdeen” to improve digital connectivity within the City and the immediately surround regions. Late last year it was announced that Aberdeen City had been awarded over £5m from the UK Government “Urban Broadband Fund” to become a ‘Super Connected City’. This is being taken forward in a number of distinct strands and Aberdeen City Council have engaged early on with the two Universities in the city and with North East of Scotland College to ensure that they are involved.

One of the strands is called a “wireless concession” and has been launched as a public tender . Aberdeen City Council wants to see significantly improved mobile and wireless coverage across the city. To achieve this, the Council will allow the successful bidder to use the Council’s lampposts, bus stops, and buildings across the City to install the necessary infrastructure to provide 4G mobile coverage, and WiFi in key areas. It’s fantastic that the Council have recognised the importance of this to the educational institutions in the city. Between the two Universities and the College we probably have over 30,000 learners in the city – the vast majority of whom will rely heavily on good mobile and wireless coverage for communication and accessing modern digital learning resources. Anything that improves connectivity across the city will benefit the learner and research communities and their interaction with enterprises across the city.

Formally, this procurement covers assets owned by Aberdeen City Council. It might also be possible to extend this in a similar way to assets owned by the Universities and the College in order to improve coverage on our campuses, but we’ll need to wait until early 2014 to talk to the successful bidder and see what might be possible here. Will keep you posted.

Where goes the PC?

It’s now hard to read technology news without some mention of the decline of the PC – which is usually taken to mean Microsoft Windows based platforms. The latest one from Gartner indicates that global PC sales have fallen for the fifth quarter in a row, making it the “longest duration of decline” in history – down from 90 million units per quarter in late 2009, to 76 million units in the latest survey. The report is summarised on the BBC web site which includes a chart showing the spectacular rise in sales of tablet computers (iPad’s and similar) – widely agreed to be the main cause of the decline in PC sales.

It’s not just the Microsoft world – although Apple has bucked the trend, things seem to be catching up with them too .

What’s going on here, and what does this mean for future computing devices at RGU? Two things – (1) the PC format is not going to disappear suddenly tomorrow, but (2) the tablet format is definitely here to stay.

Let’s take the PC first. For years, most of the innovation was around the PC format and people faithfully upgraded their (perfectly good) PC’s every 3 to 5 years to get the latest technology and software. Now the innovation is in the tablet and smartphone space. People are still using PC’s where they need more power or sophistication in the software, but the PC they have is “good enough” for now, and instead of upgrading their PC many feel there is greater value in buying a tablet. I don’t know anyone who has actually thrown out their PC and replaced it completely with a tablet. A decline in sales does not necessarily mean a decline in use of the same magnitude at this stage and there is a whole world of software and services built around the PC platform that remains essential to everyday work life. It’s a bit like at the start of the recent economic recession – sales of new cars plummeted. People were still driving like before, it’s just that for a while they didn’t buy new cars.

What about tablets? Tablets bring a new world of opportunity in terms of their mobility, “instant on”, ease of use and long battery life to name but a few. Software similar to that available on PC platforms is available at a fraction of the price. As the power of tablets increases, they will progressively start to encroach on the functions carried out by PC’s – although the pace at which this happens will be interesting, as PC’s will grow in power as well. Have a look at the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” for some great insight as to what might happen here based on previous technology shifts.

Our overall strategy is to sustain the existing, mission critical, PC based environment and software, but position it, and our future services, to be available on a wider range of devices {see MyApps post}. At the same time, we want to start exploring new opportunities brought about by tablets as these become a greater part of the device portfolio used by staff and students.

What about Windows 8? That’s almost worth a post in its own right. There are many views expressed online, but it seems the general consensus is that Windows 8 is not a great user experience for mainstream PC use – unless perhaps you have a touch screen. Touch seems to work better on mobile devices, but for vertically mounted touch screens there are concerns about its ease of use and “gorilla arm”. And then there’s the start button, or not . . .

Remember that the Windows platform is still mission critical to organisations, 76 million shipments per quarter is still huge, and the traditional Windows 7 user interface with mouse and keyboard is still the most effective interface for everyday tasks. If Microsoft are trying to take a leaf out of Apple’s book by creating a closer integration between their Surface tablet, and the desktop – they should remember that Apple didn’t bring wholesale change to their OSX platform to achieve this when they brought out the iPad.

Moving to Windows 8 will not be a simple transition and will require significant training across the organisation in comparison with previous versions. Right at the moment, therefore, we’re not rushing to rollout Windows 8 across our desktop at RGU and will focus on Windows 7 and removing the remaining areas of XP. However, we can’t stay on Windows 7 for ever, so we will watch carefully how the Windows platform develops further and how people in general start to become more at home with the later versions.

Interesting to hear the news about Steve Ballmer and it’s effect on the Microsoft share price. . .

RGU Web – Inside and Outside

Go back 12 years or so, and RGU’s web presence was pretty much a static web site, with some core information on there but many parts of the University largely unrepresented. Around 2002, a major web redesign project created a simple content editor, a relatively straight forward overall design and the ability of a wide cross section of the University community to create and populate web pages within the overall web site. I remember clearly that our biggest concern at the time was how to galvanise the effort across the University to create the level of web presence that we were looking for. I needn’t have worried – we had made the process of putting information on the web so easy that everybody jumped on very quickly and we actually ended up with the opposite problem. We had too much information, it was not all co-ordinated across departments, there was some duplication and much content was not being kept up to date following the initial enthusiasm. If I remember correctly we had over 12,000 pages on our web site, of which probably 11,500 were rarely accessed.

Anyway, we set about a major redesign of our web site back in 2007/8, put a web content team in place and control of content and over a continuous process since then created the web site that you see today for RGU. That web site is deliberately focussed on the external world – prospective students, parents, business partners, the community and so on. Whilst creating it, we moved across / redesigned content on the old web site. However, a great deal of the content on the old web site had been created with our internal University community in mind and this remained on the old web site which was now affectionately called “www4” as it had been renamed to distinguish it from the main web site.

The next stage in our journey was to create a staff and student portal which would, amongst other things, be the new home for the internal content marooned on www4. I wrote about that portal previously.

We’ve made good progress in moving that content across – if you are a member of staff or a student, go and have a look {web link to RGyoU}. Now we are undertaking the final push to get all the remaining content areas removed from www4 and replaced with something on the Portal. After that, www4 will be turned off in the next 2 to 3 months – and that will be the end of an era.

Once www4 has been turned off, we will have externally facing web content on our main web site, and internally facing web content accessed through the Portal via your RGU username and password. We also have web based content on Moodle, but that is information that is primarily associated with our teaching and learning programmes. It’s important to avoid confusion that the right information is in the right environment (web site, Portal, Moodle), and I will be working with colleagues to make sure we have effective arrangements to oversee this.

If you want a nostalgic look at one of our www4 pages – here (ironically) is the old web page for the web redevelopment project.  But be quick – it will disappear soon!

 

Seven IT Related “Themes” for RGU

RGU has just finished the main stages of its annual University planning process. The major activity in this process is that all Schools and Departments lay out their forward action areas in the context of the overall University strategic aims and priorities. This year’s context includes a revision to the University strategy and an incremental update to the IT Strategy which I’ll share soon.

I then reviewed all the School and Departmental plans for anything that related to the use of IT and after discussion with IT Managers and colleagues on SPARG  we’ve all agreed to approach these IT requirements under seven overall major themes. These are key to delivering the IT Strategy, support the individual school and departmental plans, but do so in the context of a longer term approach which will bring greater consolidation and integration across key parts of the University’s IT estate.

At this stage we have not finalised how these will be led across the University but we have agreed that most of them should be led as key institutional change projects, with significant technology enablement support from IT, but not as “IT” projects per se. As we start to firm up on how these themes will be taken forward, I’ll provide ongoing updates and also  go into more detail in relation to each theme.

Here are the 7 themes:

Engagement Life Cycle – Student, Staff and other stakeholders.

  • Optimising key administrative processes across the University to create the best stakeholder experience
  • Ensuring that collated information about all interaction with each stakeholder can be brought together and effectively used to enhance the stakeholder experience

Technology in Teaching and Learning

  • Ensuring that the deployment and use of technology across the Campus effectively supports enhancement to teaching learning and assessment

Information and Knowledge

  • A coherent approach to where information is located and presented across web based information environments
  • Research data management
  • Document management
  • Provision of management information

Communication

  • How the range of technology supported communication can support the overall communication strategy of the University, both internally and externally

Identity Management

  • As the University activities and user community becomes increasingly diverse, an identity management solution is key to ensuring that we are able to effectively provide each person with access to the resources to which they are entitled and can manage their relationship with the University as it changes and evolves.

Use of University Services

  • This theme will expand the use of technology to make it easier for users to access to a whole range of University services using, for example, smart cards online and mobile solutions as appropriate.

Infrastructure

  • Underpinning all the above themes, there is a substantial programme of work taking place to upgrade many aspects of the underlying IT intrastructure. This will include ongoing server upgrades, network fitout of the new buildings, new wireless network, and moving into new datacentres.

 

OOPS! – Working from Home

There is a cracking article in a recent edition of “The Economist”, which is available online and in which Yahoo’s new Chief Executive, Marissa Mayer, appears to be driving Yahoo employees to come in to the office unless they have a very good reason to work from home. The memo from the Human Resources Manager is addressed to “Yahoos”. If you are cringing already, read the article!

This is contrary to the direction that most enlightened organisations are travelling in – the ability to work from home or anywhere else off Campus for that matter is increasingly one aspect of a more flexible approach to working life. Of course, there are occasions where face to face contact and participation cannot be easily replaced, but equally there are many activities which can be easily carried out anywhere.  An important aspect of our IT Strategy is to ensure that access to our core IT services can be provided easily to any location, on any device, whilst maintaining security of information and access. A key part of that is the MyApps service, which I have mentioned before and which gives  you access to your University IT resources from anywhere – at work, at home, on the move, on a Pc, on an iPad – even on your phone if you can cope with the small screen size.

The great thing about MyApps is that information and data never leaves the University servers. This is important if you are working from home and relieves you of many responsibilities. Did you know that if you use your personal e-mail account for work then these e-mails are covered by the Freedom of Information Act? Likewise, if you store University documents on your home computer, or take paper documents home, you could be personally liable for any breaches under the data protection act? There are a few things to think about if you are working from home – have a look at the page on the Staff Portal if you want a very comprehensive guide:

We’ve also published an interactive guide to data security for mobile devices under the banner of “OOPS” – “Out Of Protected Spaces” and if you are a member of staff you will already have received that guide in hard copy as well as interactively. We’ve had really good feedback from that – with many people making positive suggestions and asking very relevant questions about particular situations and also requests for additional copies. We did have one person who returned the printed cards with an anonymous note saying “waste of money”. That’s a real disappointment and completely out of step with all the other feedback we have received. Given the amount of press coverage of authorities being fined 6 figure sums of money for data protection breaches, and given the fact that this whole issue is important enough to grab the attention of the University’s Audit Committee, I hope that person has a change of heart on further reflection.

Here is the “OOPS” guide:

OOPS