Defending University ICT teams

There has been a minor flurry of activity in the local edublogosphere (it’s a word) with three widely applauded posts from Martin Weller, Mark Smithers and David Jones about the problems with university ICT teams. (I guess more precisely it is the problems with university ICT policies and practices but tomato/tomato)

And look, to be honest these are probably some things that I’ve said myself on many occasions and I know I have heard them from my Ed Tech colleagues just as often. My main problem with the posts is that I think that significant parts of the arguments come very much from the perspective of the academic in an ideal world and dismiss the day to day practicalities of the organisation.

Martin and Mark both approach the issues through the prism of the following seven complaints.

  • 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

Right off the bat I noticed that the first two and the final two are variations on a theme – ‘I, as an academic, can’t do whatever I want, whenever I want within the university ICT system’. 

Ok, sure, it’s not that simple and they make some particularly valid and important points about the drive for innovation, the need to be able to try something and fail (particularly in the pursuit of knowledge) and breakdowns in organisational communication. Martin stresses that “it is about how universities have created the environment where academics and IT are now in a rather dysfunctional relationship”.

Mark expand on the points raised by Martin and offers a few concrete examples of policies and practices that cause frustration and David goes on to introduce a little bit of theory that supports the value of individualised solutions in innovation.

I absolutely agree that a service provision unit such as an ICT team should do as much as possible to meet the needs of its users. A few questions leap to mind at this point:

  • Who are the users?
  • How do they prioritise the competing needs of users?
  • How do we untangle needs vs wants?
  • Who pays for it?
  • Who supports it?
  • What other factors constrain the I.T. teams?

Universities exist for research and education – so academics are clearly at the heart of the purpose of the institution. All three writers acknowledge that there are legitimate security concerns that must be addressed but there seems to be a disconnect between the things that impact the university and those that impact the lecturer. It’s someone else’s problem.

In my role as a education technologist, I sit at the intersection of all of these groups and I have seen two specific issues in the last year that are very much the lecturer’s problem when it comes to implementing new technologies. One relates to the risk of privacy breaches of student data (which can be as minimal as their email address), particularly when using online services hosted overseas. Under Australian law, for every breach, the person that signed up for the service directly – often the lecturer – is liable for a $300,000+ fine and the university is up for $1m+. For each breach. (So 100 students = $30m fine for the lecturer alone)

The second issue falls under competition and consumer law – third line forcing. In a nutshell, a service provider (the university) can’t mandate the use of services provided by a third party. In English, if you put a link to a Pearson quiz into the LMS and make it 20% of the grade, you’re breaking the law. Allowing students an alternative makes this acceptable and this is why we can’t make any textbook mandatory – just highly highly recommended.

These are important not just for the financial and reputational well-being of the university and the academic but for the rights of the students. It’s not sexy but its important.

As a former senior manager of a university IT team, I was a little surprised that Mark downplayed these kinds of things – although I guess they are more legalistic, even though the relate directly to tech. (Also, different countries, different laws etc etc)

To cover some of the other questions briefly:

I’ve had a few academics come to me to help them implement projects tied to specific tools that sales reps have gotten them excited about. Because sales reps are approaching academics more and more and they aren’t always the most reliable people for identifying whether their product meets the academics T&L needs. So the first thing that I do is rewind the conversation to the desired teaching and learning outcomes and then review the best options. Academics are human and are just as susceptible to the charms of a sales rep as anyone else. Sometimes the Ed Techs and ICT teams have the bigger picture perspective needed.

University and College/Faculty ICT teams don’t just sit around waiting to say no to people. There’s ongoing support to manage and scheduled projects/upgrades to implement. This is all tightly budgeted for and these people are generally always working on something. So when a new projects come up, time and money has to be found to support them. Even then, it’s rarely just a matter of installing a piece of software and moving on – how does it play with the rest of the system? Does it need to connect to other parts of the system?, does it require other things (e.g. a particular version of Java) to work?, if the uni system is updated and the software isn’t, will it collapse (and vice versa)?, what if some part of it isn’t working – who is responsible for trying to fix that? More confident academics might feel competent enough to take that responsibility on but many more will just assume that this is the role of the ICT team. Who trains the students in how to use it – what if they have problems and need support? None of these things necessarily need to be a barrier to implementing something new but I feel that they have been downplayed or ignored in the other posts.

The last thing that I want to do is to paint a picture that nothing new can or should be done and I think there are a number of areas where there is common ground.

The needs of teaching and learning, academics and students should be a high priority in university organisational culture and reflected in ICT team activity wherever possible.

The needs and responsibilities of the organisations should be better understood and appreciated by academics and students.

More effective communication and greater transparency of systems and processes will help both of these things. User Experience needs to be a bigger part of the design too.

We work in a holistic, learning ecosystem where everything is connected and we can be far more effective by using these connections and the expertise that we all possess, both academic and professional staff.

Innovation is a key part of developing knowledge and failure is an unavoidable consequence sometimes. We should still strive to reduce the risk of failure wherever we can though by drawing on the collective knowledge available.

New processes should be explored for supporting innovation so that the best potential tools and pedagogical approaches can be used and risks minimised. They should be evidence based as far as possible but have the flexibility to allow for trail blazers. The potential impact of new tools and pedagogical approaches (in terms of transferablility, contribution to scholarship?) has to be a factor. A “beyond-the-pilot” mindframe is also needed for these kinds of projects, so that after successful testing there can be a clear pathway and resourcing for a move into a wider, production environment.

Flexibility is important in terms of what environments and tools are available for teaching and learning (and research – see even here I must admit that this has barely been on my radar) but there needs to be agreement and acceptance of what can and can’t be supported.

None of this is particularly “sexy” – it doesn’t lead to big flashy announceables or bragging rights at high level conferences and dinners but I think it is important for us all to work together more effectively and with greater understanding. There are always going to be all kinds of personalities in our organisations and some will be less helpful than others for no good reason but I still have to believe that the vast majority of us work in tertiary education because we believe in it.