OUCS Annual Report
6. Information and Help
Apart from the basic infrastructure services provided by OUCS (eg see 2 above), OUCS has a key responsibility to provide information and advice, given its accumulation of expertise. This applies to all computer users, and especially to IT staff distributed among departments, faculties and colleges. This help is provided in a variety of ways, including responding to individual queries (Help Desk), providing formal training sessions and seminars, creating and disseminating information, and providing ad hoc assistance and advice as needed. These are described below.
The formal Help Desk service (also known as the Advisory service) is the front window to OUCS, providing the opportunity for users to bring any and all queries relating to their use of IT. This includes queries directly associated with their use of OUCS services and facilities, but also relating to their general use of IT (where OUCS has indicated that it provides support). It receives queries in person (10am-4pm daily), by email, and by phone. Queries have continued to rise during this year, though not at the rate heretofore experienced [figure 47 & figure 48].
Much effort has been expended during the year to introduce an automated problem logging system, using Computer Associates' Advanced Help Desk software. This will provide assured referral and follow-up of problems, identification of common queries or trends, and statistical analysis of usage by type of query and status/affiliation of enquirer. It will also expedite verification of enquirer status, which will be vital in 1999/2000, when non-qualifying enquirers must be turned away, but IT staff will be given priority treatment (as recommended by the Review of OUCS, 1996/7). The advent of choice by formula-funded departments of the University, from 1-Aug-99, concerning subscribing on behalf of their members to the Help Desk service, has also occasioned a careful review of the definition of the service provided, and of the service levels being provided (see descriptions in Leaflet L20.
This process has all been very expensive, in management time and in capital costs to set up suitable computer and other systems. It has also been quite disturbing for those who provide the service, who pride themselves on the quality of the help provided - something that has been much admired by enquirers here and by colleagues at other universities. We can but hope that its goal, to stem the tide of ever-rising numbers of queries, by diverting them to local support staff, will be realised. The greatest fear was that (possibly marginal) undergraduate student enquiries would overwhelm more legitimate academic use (though this seems a distant prospect, based on this year's data [figure 49]). The other goal of this arrangement has been to ensure that queries are answered by someone closer to the academic discipline, who would have an understanding of the academic priorities of the relevant department.
There are 3 staff members fully occupied with meeting the current flow of queries, assisted by small portions of a large number of other staff who share the load with their other duties; in addition, many queries are handled by staff with relevant specialist expertise, to whom problems are referred.
The new Help Desk software, Advanced Help Desk (AHD), went into service on the Advisory desks on 31-Jul-98. This system was based on an older version of AHD than had been originally proposed. The new version had been expected in early 1998 but did not materialise until December. Staffing difficulties meant that development work was severely restricted and therefore this new version did not go into service until June 1999.
Both personal visits and telephone calls to the Advisory Service were logged throughout the year but email has not yet been integrated into the AHD system. Micro Consultancy (the other component of the new Help Desk Service) started logging using AHD on 4-Dec-98. Other support services have also been logging enquiries through AHD - Network Control (from 2-Nov-98) and Operations (from 19-Oct-98). Also, individual members of staff may log calls from their office workstation; however, this facility has not been widely utilised, due to initial limitations of AHD.
In anticipation of the new Help Desk Service, all users were asked to identify themselves using the University Card. A new "Front Desk" was introduced to facilitate this identification process, and the Help Area was reorganised to accommodate not only the Front Desk but also the Micro Consultancy service (see section 5.1 above).
Users without a University Card, or with only a Bodleian reader's card (which does not identify status), were strongly encouraged to obtain one. With reliable identification of status and affiliation it is easier to determine who uses OUCS for help and advice [figure 49 and figure 50]. Postgraduates and staff make most use of the service, with the Humanities dominating the picture.
Advisors received training (from other member of OUCS) during summer 1998 not only to use AHD but also to improve their skills in dealing with common PC problems. In July 1999, additional training sessions were provided on "assertiveness" in order to prepare advisors for the new regime in which ineligible users would have to be turned away.
The registration service not only registers all users for the various OUCS services that require it (increasingly, offering Web interfaces so that the process can be self-service), but also ensures that OUCS has current and correct data on staff, students, visitors, etc from the University Offices, and maintains OUCS' own database of individuals. It also assists users with queries relating to their accounts, eg passwords, email quotas, disk quotas, expiry and renewal dates, etc. The numbers of accounts held on OUCS services continues to grow, though there has now been some moderation to this growth (not surprisingly, since now such a high percentage of the University population makes use of our services) [figure 51].
The introduction of the Herald Email service made it highly desirable to register all new undergraduates for email accounts on Herald. In cooperation with the University Card Office, all new undergraduates were pre-registered on Herald, with registration details being delivered in bulk to each College. All but one College participated in this scheme; so far, despite attempts at persuasion, and the obvious advantages to students and departments of all students having common email facilities, we have not succeeded in getting it to participate.
The bulk registration of new undergraduates dramatically reduced the queues for the Registration Desk in the first few weeks of Michaelmas Term. Postgraduate student registration was also simplified by requiring all students to obtain their University Card prior to registration. During summer 1998, in addition to the work required to process Herald accounts, there was a significant amount of database development in order to integrate the Email relay servers more coherently with the User Registration Database. However, all development work came to a halt after the beginning of Michaelmas when a key member of staff left Oxford. The rest of the year was characterised by documentation and consolidation as tasks were distributed amongst new and existing staff. Despite these staff problems, some notable achievements later in the year included the introduction of a prototype IT Support Staff Register, Web interfaces to the Registration Database for use by OUCS staff, and a Web interface for users to determine eligibility to use the new Help Desk Service.
OUCS provides a very extensive range of IT training courses [figure 52], which are constantly reviewed and adapted according to changing technology and demand. They are free of charge and open to all members of the University and Colleges. Numbers attending continue to increase sharply, though it must be noted that the capacity of OUCS' 3 teaching rooms (numbers of computers and hours in the day) has now surely reached its limit [figure 53]. In common with many of the general help services that OUCS offers, training courses are used mostly by academic staff, then postgraduates, undergraduates and finally others (visitors and college staff) [figure 54 & figure 55].
A significant development during the year was the introduction of the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL). This is a European (now world-wide) initiative, which is being promoted in the UK by the British Computer Society. It became clear to OUCS that this syllabus and qualification was likely to gain widespread acceptance within society as a measure of basic IT skills, and that there was a close match with most of the basic courses which OUCS already ran. Oxford thus became one of the early sites to set up training and testing. As with most pioneering efforts, this has involved a considerable amount of work with the BCS and with the National Computer Centre (NCC) to assist with this development, in particular with the software for testing.
A pilot project for the ECDL was run during the year; 66 people enrolled on the ECDL, 404 tests were taken, of which there were 315 passes and 35 certificates awarded. This pilot demonstrated the viability of the course and tests, and that there was a ready "market" for it within Oxford University. As a result, the decision was taken to make it a standard feature of our basic IT training courses. A special intensive ECDL course was run for final year students in week 8 of Trinity Term, 1999. And all the OUCS introductory courses are being redesigned so that they fit the ECDL syllabus more precisely.
We experienced some staff departures at the end of the year, and as a consequence of the delay in replacing them, some of the programming courses could not be run in Trinity 99.
Other developments in courses continued as usual, with periodic reviews in the light of demand and changing technology. For instance, with the installation of the Herald email service, a new course was developed. Some other courses were renamed to emphasise that they were essential to attend before the more advanced courses. For example Introduction to Word Processing became Essential Word Processing Skills. This seems to have helped in avoiding people assuming that they knew more than they really did as prerequisites to the more advanced courses. The advanced Word courses were also renamed.
Teaching takes place in 3 well-equipped rooms, with 40, 15 and 15 computers, and each with suitable projection systems. We endeavour to keep at least the largest room as up to date as possible; since new releases of key software are issued at least annually, we cannot afford to let the equipment fall behind by more than 3 years, so the facilities are reviewed each year and upgraded wherever necessary. Replaced equipment is recycled in less demanding areas, so that overall we are still able to keep to a 4 or 5-year replacement policy.
In accordance with this policy, the computers in Lecture Room A were replaced in July 1999 and the old ones cascaded to the LaRC. The old LaRC machines went to the Data Centre and to other staff.
The LaRC has continued to prove an invaluable adjunct to the formal teaching facilities and sessions provided by OUCS. Usage has grown [figure 56], but more significantly has been more used for learning than as a general resource. This was boosted by extensive use of the ECDL learning material installed there. Many of the computers in the LaRC were upgraded (by using machines cascaded from the teaching rooms), in particular to make them capable of running Windows 95 (versus Windows 3.1). The LaRC is run by one FT staff member, augmented (especially after hours) by several casual staff (usually postgraduate students).
Support for distributed IT Support Staff has developed in a number of areas although resources are still limited. A prototype IT Support Staff Register was developed but, in the first instance, only the Help Desk eligibility test makes use of it.
A more regular schedule of lunch-time seminars was established which are widely publicised to all IT Support Staff. When practical, these are repeated the following week in an early morning slot for the benefit of College IT officers who are often required to be in College at lunch time.
A bid for additional funds for ITSS Training and Development was not successful, despite full support by the IT Committee. These funds were to have provided a small training fund and a full-time ITSS Development Officer who would develop existing services, set up an ITSS Resource Centre and manage 2 or 3 short-term posts as part of a Graduate Trainee programme. It is intended that OUCS divert some existing resources in order to develop ITSS support but the Graduate Trainee Programme will not be set up.
New staffing arrangements in OUCS have provided a minute secretary for the ITSS Group (as well as the IT Users' Group and the Colleges' IT Group). The 4th Annual ITSS Conference was organised by the ITSS Group (in conjunction with OUCS) on a theme of "Professional Development". 198 IT Support Staff attended the event at St Catherine's College on 24-Jun-99.
OxTALENT was established in Jun 1997 to promote the more effective use of IT in the education process at Oxford University. It provides a forum for staff members to interact with each other and to learn about how to enhance learning and teaching through the effective use of IT. In particular it does this by bringing leading exponents of the art from around the University, and from other universities (some from overseas), to lead seminars or deliver lectures.
An email discussion list keeps those who join informed on news and events. The OxTALENT web site is a vehicle for disseminating and accessing information across the subject areas, locally and globally, and can be found at http://www.ox.ac.uk/it/groups/oxtalent.
OxTALENT is overseen by an informal steering group, which draws its members from academic departments and the support services throughout the University. OUCS provides one full-time staff member to act as executive officer for this Group.
Over the two years since OxTALENT was launched (June 1997) participants in its various activities have been drawn from some 55 University departments and units and 9 Colleges. During 1998/9 some 288 people attended OxTALENT events.
During the 1998 Summer Vacation, OxTALENT ran a Web Competition to foster and encourage good practice in the use of the Web for learning and teaching, attracting 15 entrants. Prizes were presented by the Vice-Chancellor at a ceremony in Michaelmas. The HCU Poetry Site (http://info.ox.ac.uk/jtap/) took first prize, and went on to win the prestigious National UCISA Award in the Teaching and Learning Category.
In Hilary Term 1999 the OxTALENT Web Posters event ("Show and Tell") was organised to enable people with innovative Web sites for learning and teaching to demonstrate them. 17 entrants participated.
Apart from the series of occasional lectures, a series of seminars was organised in Trinity Term 1999 on the theme Design & Development of Multimedia and the Web for Teaching & Learning, with presenters from Oxford, Oxford Brookes and Warwick universities.
In collaboration with the Academic Staff Development Committee, OxTALENT arranged Oxford's participation with Oxford Brookes University (from October 1999) in the national EFFECTS project, led by Plymouth University. EFFECTS (Effective Framework For Embedding C&IT using Targeted Support) is a three year project with the aim of embedding C&IT into the teaching of a wide range of disciplines.
OUCS produces a substantial quantity of printed and Web-based documentation and publications. The emphasis continues to shift more and more towards the Web, where there are now some 14,000 pages of information, much of it produced by the relevant section within OUCS. The top OUCS pages, and the oversight of the whole, are managed within the Training and Information Group.
There is still an important place for printed material, and a series of leaflets to advertise OUCS services were written in the summer of 1998 and distributed with details of students' Herald accounts to all new students; bundles were also despatched to departments and colleges.
In some cases, material to accompany training courses is produced in-house, but sometimes it is more cost-effective to purchase materials from outside the University. It is becoming possible now also to make use of standard books for many of the basic courses (previously, the quality has been quite poor, but is now improving).