5. Information and Help

5.1 General Help 18
5.2 Training Courses 18
5.3 Learning and Resource Centre (LaRC) 19
5.4 Publications & Information 20
5.5 Computer-Based Education 21
5.6 Registration Service 21
5.7 Support for Distributed IT Support Staff 22


5.1 General Help

The primary OUCS Help service is the Advisory Service, provided in the main User Area at 13 Banbury Road, between the hours of 10am and 4pm. The service is provided on a rota basis by a large number of OUCS staff, who thus provide a wealth of knowledge across the spectrum of services offered. At the same time, continuity is provided by two semi-permanent advisers. This service does its best to cater for every possible IT-related problem on which a user might be seeking guidance. It can be seen from Figure 24 that there have been dramatic changes in the nature of these problems, with now by far the largest number dealing with personal computers.

The level of service provided in support of software problems is indicated by advertised Software Support Categories, and by relevant portions of the University's IT Strategy, which encourages a degree of standardisation.

This service caters for people who come in person with problems. However, increasing numbers are using other means (phone, fax, email and even letters) - see Figure 25. Behind the scenes, larger numbers of email queries are now received than in-person queries, so the service needs to be viewed in its entirety.

This primary Advisory Service is augmented by the help given by the in-depth Microcomputer Consulting service (see section 4.1), by the Computer Operations staff during evening hours, by Reception, and by specialised support provided by the Humanities Computing Unit. These in turn are backed up by the range of specialist expertise provided by staff throughout the department - OUCS maintains an "experts list" on its private Web pages, to ensure that problems are referred to the right person (when they need to be referred). In due course, it is hoped to find a way for distributed IT support staff to get more direct access to this expertise.

This service is also a very important quality-control mechanism for OUCS (throwing up any deficiencies in the documentation of new services, for example), and a source of general feedback to OUCS. All calls are logged, and answers to unusual or difficult questions circulated to all staff and stored on-line. Outstanding problems are aired at internal meetings to see if the collective mind can develop a solution. It is hoped to introduce a software system to assist with this process of logging and follow-up.

During the year, OUCS started a rolling programme of training for all those involved in Advisory duties. This is both to ensure that Advisers are competent to deal with the more common queries, and to keep staff abreast of technical developments and support issues. In addition, this training encompasses a range of inter-personal skills (such as the course which was shared with the Libraries Training Group during the year on coping with difficult people). Further ideas are being developed to improve the quality of service provided even further, and to open up some of this training to other IT support staff.

5.2 Training Courses

This year there were nearly 6,600 enrolments on the IT training courses, an increase of 28% on the previous year (this year includes courses run by the Humanities Computer Unit, a total of 360 students attending 17 modules). See Table 5. Total student-hours delivered rose dramatically to over 40,000 during the year (see Figure 26). A total of 322 modules were run and this was a decrease from 338 in the previous year. The biggest increase has been in the applications area with the re-designed database courses and the new advanced spreadsheet courses proving popular (see Table 6). The attendance record is acceptable, standing at 85%.

The new networked courses, Providing WWW Information: Introduction to HTML and WWW Document and Information Management were well attended. Other new courses at the beginning of the year were Database Design, Designing Effective Presentations and Introduction to Programming using Visual Basic. An advanced Visual Basic course was run for the first time in Hilary 1996 and like the others proved popular.

With the launch of Windows 95 in August 1995, the Libraries Board decided to use this operating system as their main platform. We were not immediately able to start running Windows 95 courses since it meant changing the Ethernet cards on the teaching machines. This was achieved in February 1996 and we were able to train nearly 400 members of staff from the libraries in the use of Windows 95 by April. As a result of this special training two Windows 95 courses were developed; Introduction to Windows 95 for those who had never used any window system and Windows 95 for those who already had experience of using a windows system. These proved very popular during Trinity Term. The Windows 3.1 series of courses will continue to be run while there is a demand.

As mentioned in the last report the word processing courses had all been revamped and new advanced courses were being developed. This is now almost complete with the imminent publication of the Word for the Office and Word for Desktop Publishing User Guides.

The main event during the year has been the building of the new training room at 13 Banbury Road and equipping it with new Pentium PCs and projection system. There are now three training rooms at Banbury Road with a total of 70 machines. With the development of the building at Banbury Road, the facilities at 59 George Street were closed at the beginning of July. In order to achieve this all courses stopped at the end of June and the opportunity has been taken to install new servers and re-organise the running of the internal networks. This involves nearly 2000 usernames for the courses alone.

During July, August and September one of the training rooms was in continuous use by the Libraries Automation Service for the training of library staff in the use of the new library system.

5.3 Learning and Resource Centre (LaRC)

The LARC has had a busy though relatively uneventful year serving a similar number of users to last year. Like last year, the centre has at times been full to capacity but has always managed to cope with demand, sometimes by sending users to the lecture rooms when these are free, or more often after a brief wait.

Users are asked what facilities they require in the LaRC and Table 7 is an approximate breakdown of their replies. Many give several requirements, the most common being word-processing/email. Although very few people stated printing as a requirement, receipts for the year show clearly this is a much used resource.

Most users access more than one piece of software and working in the LaRC tends to encourage users to expand their skills, as there is so much learning material available and staff support handy.

In regard to the data on printing receipts (see Table 8), it should be noted that many users purchase their printing cards in the Shop and these receipts do not show in the above amounts. Printing is often a critical time for students and a great deal of support is given in this area with problem documents.

The number of recorded users shows a slight decrease (see Figure 27), but as before these figures can only be treated as a guide for various reasons. The Macs have been very busy throughout the year.

This year continued with extended opening hours (7:30pm weekdays, Saturdays noon - 4pm). There were consistently around 20 people making use of the LaRC during these hours (30 is the maximum capacity). To cope with these extended hours, the LaRC is staffed by graduate students, on a casual basis.

The long awaited move to Banbury Road took place in July. The new site should enable the LaRC to extend all the facilities it presently offers. Having OUCS on a single site will allow LaRC users easy access to the other more specialised services and facilities offered by OUCS, such as the Humanities Centre, Advisory, colour printing and scanning, and the Shop. Equally it will make referral of users to the LaRC by Advisory a much more viable option. LaRC usernames can also be integrated with other registrations, making it much more straightforward to assign them and to monitor usage.

Since its inception as the Open Learning Centre seven years ago, the LaRC has developed steadily, serving a particular section of users with longer term general needs than can be met by other help services within OUCS. Perhaps an indication of the type of help often given and the degree of stress being met, was when the Coordinator was given a box of chocolates, not from the graduate who had been helped, but from his wife who the Coordinator had never met - with the message that life had been becoming unbearable at home until he found the LaRC!

Building works have prevented the LaRC from opening at Banbury Road during the Summer, but it is hoped that it will resume operation during Michaelmas Term.

5.4 Publications and Electronic Information

The year's documentation effort continued to concentrate on printed User Guides linked to the OUCS courses and on the further development of a range of OUCS documents on the University Networked Information Service (UNIS). Work has proceeded on replacing a number of the system specific User Guides with on-line versions that allow greater flexibility and ease of update, and on producing additional on-line documents covering a wider range of subjects than can be covered by printed documents.

A "Pamphlets" series of short documents has been inaugurated, which give details about a specific topic, for example, setting up a PC for dial-in, buying a microcomputer. They are all available on the Web so that they can be printed as needed and easily updated. Paper copies are also available in the Help Area free of charge. The pamphlets on the Dial-in service have proved so popular that they have been printed in large numbers, rather than photocopying a few as needed.

All the OUCS documents on UNIS are regularly indexed, allowing relevant documents to be searched for and retrieved. A temporary appointment was made at the end of the year to expand on the provision of electronic information about OUCS and its services. This will include the placing of all User Guides on the Web, and we are looking at making available also the training courses with their exercise files. As more information becomes available on the Web, the Advisory service is able to point people to the relevant page to help them to solve their problems.

The OUCS Newsletter is produced on a monthly basis, with articles covering local and national computing and general IT services in addition to the normal range of news and information items covering developments of the OUCS service. The Newsletter is distributed in printed form to departments, colleges and a circulation list, and is also available online on UNIS. It is recognised that the printed Newsletter now reaches only a small fraction of our user population, so further effort has been expended on developing new information dissemination procedures to ensure that information reaches the widest possible range of IT users.

5.5 Computer-Based Education

One member of OUCS staff was redeployed during the year to make a start in providing some support for those trying to use IT in teaching and learning (help has for some time been provided in the humanities by the Humanities Computing Unit).

Most of the activity to date has been concerned with researching the need and the opportunities. This has included making a start on locating and making contact with those using or developing CBE in Oxford; becoming familiar with sources of information, materials and help in CBE (eg CTI, TLTP, ALT, ITTI); starting to collect, collate and distribute, in an ad hoc way, other information relevant to CBE use at Oxford; and starting to explore developments and issues in CBE in universities generally, including world-wide trends. It has also involved providing other support to established and potential CBE users as required.

The way forward will involve the following broad strategy:

5.6 Registration Service

The new registration system, Mirage, on its own secure IBM AIX Unix workstation, went into service in September 1995. As well as offering all the previous facilities this system allowed users to self-register using WWW pages. ADSM backup for workstations was added to the list of facilities available via self-registration.

With the advent of Ermine, a new machine was added to the Mirage system. The user population was split between Sable and Ermine. The allocations groups and members of staff were moved to Ermine and the remainder of the users, including undergraduates, left on Sable.

The number of usernames and registrations continues to rise and would have been impossible to manage without the self-registration facility (see Figure 28). Plans are being made to extend the facilities to self-registration of LaRC usernames and to add facilities for departmental and college IT Officers to do their own registration for the mailer tables and for usernames on their own machines.

When users self-register to use one of the OUCS facilities, they are automatically sent printed details about the service for which they have registered. For Sable and Ermine users, for example, this includes details about how to login, how to change their password (and why) and mentions the documentation and courses available. They are also sent a copy of the OUCS Rules, and a document about IT etiquette.

The Registration system has suffered from the problem which dogs all database systems - the accuracy of the data. OUCS has to do a lot of work on the data collected from various sources (the University Card data, Staff payroll, undergraduate admissions and the graduate office) to ensure the data is accurate and consistent.

It was with great sadness that we have to report the death of Glynis Jones, the manager of the Registration Service, on 1-Aug-96. It is typical of her commitment and determination that she remained working on the development of the Registration system until the week before she died of cancer.

5.7 Support for Distributed IT Support Staff

OUCS recognises that there are two compelling reasons to develop closer links with the large numbers of IT support staff located in departments, faculties and colleges. These are (1) to ensure that they are able to take full advantage of the services on offer, in support of the users they support directly, and consequently to relieve the pressure on OUCS coping with its 17,000 users directly, and (2) to provide them with a support framework, since so many of them are isolated, and without professional IT colleagues or management.

Little progress was possible, unfortunately, on developing a full suite of Service Level Definitions, to assist users, distributed IT support staff and OUCS alike in understanding the nature and extent of OUCS' responsibilities. However, a range of information has been made available via the Web, and this is being further expanded and enhanced (see 5.4 above).

Some progress has been made in establishing lines of communication with these distributed staff, including the creation of an emailing list and a corresponding newsgroup. OUCS also proposed that a conference be held to which all known IT support staff were invited; the organising committee consisted primarily of distributed support staff themselves, but OUCS undertook most of the administration and participated fully in the event, which was considered a great success by all. A number of suggestions arising from the Conference are now being considered; these include a range of seminars, technical training, and personal development - using traditional lectures as well as a video library system. In all of these, OUCS will doubtless play a leading role.

One of the major difficulties OUCS faces in this regard is identifying these IT support staff. It has gradually built up a number of lists (relating to specific interests), but none of them is complete, and even the union of them all doubtless has omissions. Furthermore, especially where casual or part-time support staff are used (as in many colleges), this is a constantly moving target.

Apart from making progress on the SLDs, OUCS hopes in the next year to develop and implement clear strategies for enabling distributed support staff to obtain "fast-track" access to the expertise within OUCS.