6. Help and Information

6.1. The Help Desk (Advisory) Service

The OUCS Help Desk offers expert advice on all manner of IT problems encountered by computer users. It is available on a face-face basis from 10am to 4pm each day, by phone during those hours, and by email at any time (though responses are only provided during normal working hours!). It is provided by a few staff committed nearly full-time to the service, plus the part-time efforts of many other OUCS staff. This ensures the load can be managed, and provides these latter staff with beneficial exposure to the range of problems that users encounter. The staff that operate the Help Desk are backed up by access to the rest of the OUCS staff, whose particular expertise is held in a database.
What has appeared as a `monolithic' item in OUCS accounts in the past, and perhaps which occasioned the attention given to its cost by the Review of OUCS in 1996/7 (see below), is in fact composed of a variety of complementary services, as follows:
  1. the visible Help Desk, providing general advice and assistance;
  2. the specialised microcomputing `surgeries' (see 5.1);
  3. help in certain key application areas, where access to specialist expertise is especially important — this includes statistical computing (complementing the Statistics Department Consultancy service), database design and use, some specialised graphics applications, and use of national data collections;
  4. general efforts across OUCS to provide advice and assistance in using OUCS facilities; this sometimes takes the form of face-face consulting, but is dominated by preparation of Web-based information and advice (as well as some training course preparation);
  5. responding to problems which appear to be caused by faults in OUCS facilities;
  6. a moderate amount of help provided by the computer room operations staff after hours;
  7. providing virus advice and help — see 5.2 (this of course should never have been included in the cost of the `Help Desk', but is a relic of the rather imprecise process that the Review Committee employed).

Overlayed on all these services, of course, are services provided to IT support staff, as we move more to a tiered help environment within the University and colleges.

6.2. Help Desk Opt-Out Scheme

This year was marked by being the first year of the new regime whereby those departments in receipt of RAWP-formula funding from the General Board could opt-out of the OUCS Help services, and receive some of OUCS' funding; except for IT staff, all staff and students (undergrad and postgrad) were required to seek help from local IT staff. In addition, all undergraduates were excluded. The scheme has had decidedly mixed results.

Out of 24 eligible departments, 10 opted out; these were Chemistry, Clinical departments, Computing Laboratory, Engineering Science, Human Anatomy, Mathematical Institute, Pathology, Pharmacology, Physics, and Plant Sciences. In February 2000, Human Anatomy opted back in. For 2000/2001 (starting on 1-Aug-00), one more department (Earth Sciences) has indicated it will opt out. Another (a Social Science) had planned to do so, but it became obvious that this was not possible, owing to the paucity of information in the University Card database — it is not possible to identify postgrad students from this one department, because they are identified only by faculty; accordingly, the IT Committee ruled that the department could not opt out.

There has actually been a significant cost to OUCS to implement the scheme: it had to acquire equipment and software to enable rapid checks on eligibility to be carried out; it had to establish a `vetting station' prior to the Help Desk to check on eligibility (to avoid the situation where someone queues for ages only to find they are not eligible — actually, this desk has also been able to deal with various minor queries). There has also been a significant impact on staff morale — these folk have for years been trained and equipped to be of help wherever they can, and it disturbs them to be prevented from doing so. There has also been some loss of goodwill, as inevitably, some users had not realised or been told that their departments had opted out, and get understandably peeved when turned away.

Another diseconomy (especially when coupled with the above morale issue) is that in many cases it is easier and quicker to answer some simple queries than to check for eligibility.

On the plus side of the ledger, everyone is agreed (perhaps not necessarily the students, or the college IT staff?) that excluding students has been a worthwhile outcome.

Of course, there has been a significant decline in numbers of enquiries. On the other hand, this actually just continues a trend already observed, so it may be incorrect to attribute this to the new arrangements. Furthermore, there has been a noticeable increase in the complexity and difficulty of the queries that have been received (coupled, perhaps, with an increase in the numbers of problems brought by IT staff). As a result (and because of the way staff resources are employed by the Help Desk), the cost of OUCS (setting aside the above start-up costs) has not appreciably declined.

It is to be regretted that due to the pressure of work in other areas (eg updating the Registration database, on which authorisation to use most OUCS services depends), it was not possible during the year to make much progress on refining the Help Desk software (AHD). This is necessary if we are to leverage the information (on types of problem, types of user) which is now being collected to improve or redirect services elsewhere in OUCS, to make it available outside OUCS, or (most importantly) incorporate email enquiries into it.

6.3. Registration Service

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 59].

During the year the Registration section provided staff to run the Help Desk `front desk' (see 6.1), and were able to combine this with addressing some of the simpler Registration queries (often resolved by pointing to the relevant Web information pages).

It also undertook the bulk pre-registration of all new undergraduates, issuing them with email addresses to use upon their arrival, and this went very smoothly. The cooperation of the colleges in issuing these in a secure fashion to students as they arrived is appreciated. It is a shame that one college still insists on issuing its own email addresses.

The Registration section has also been working on providing `fast track' facilities to IT staff; this year a system was introduced, which seems to have been very effective, for giving preferential treatment to IT staff Registration requests (eg `please change the password for this user, who has forgotten it').

A completely new Registration system was introduced, which will scale better, be more maintainable, and allow introduction of various other facilities for IT staff to manage their users themselves more effectively. It included a complete upgrade of all housekeeping tasks, the Sable/Ermine printing daemon, a Web interface, and a new security regime.

Work has also been undertaken on the framework for a secure and maintainable mailing list for IT staff, with a suitable Web management interface. The replacement (or rather, augmentation) of the informal IT Support SIG mailing list by something that is more formal (moderated, secure, up-to-date, complete) has been long awaited, but the above work should enable that to happen fairly soon.

6.4. Support for Distributed IT Staff

As indicated under Training below, OUCS is committed to providing a range of special services in support of distributed IT staff, to more fully implement a seamless hierarchy of IT support services throughout the University. Special training offerings is but one element of this. OUCS is also striving to offer them an enhanced or streamlined range of services. Some of these are discussed below.

We have implemented arrangements for `fast-track' access to the Registration services for registered ITSS. This appears to be working satisfactorily, though some improvements in feedback are being developed.

Much effort has also been devoted to developing the IT Support Staff Register; this has proved to be rather more complex than had been anticipated, because it is vital to put satisfactory mechanisms in place to ensure updates (additions, deletions, movements, etc) are as up to date as possible, and to implement automated processes for keeping the mailing lists up to date. It was close to completion by the end of this reporting year.

The Register will be used for:
  • Fast-track service to Registration;
  • Access to Help Desk Service for ITSS from opted-out departments;
  • ITSS mailing lists.
As indicated above, extra support has been devoted to ITSS training and development activities. These have included:
  • setting up of special courses;
  • investigation of CPD schemes;
  • full programme of events;
  • maintenance of a Calendar of events.

OUCS has always been very supportive of the ITSS Annual Conference (the 5th), which this year was held in the University Museum and Keble College. Once again this proved to be well-attended and a great success, and overall received high rankings in evaluations. OUCS is involved on a peer-peer basis in helping with the organisation, and also provides certain administrative services. Of course, several OUCS staff members gave presentations or led workshops.

6.5. Information Services

OUCS publishes a variety of information, in several formats. It includes publicity leaflets describing each main service offered by OUCS (these are widely distributed, especially among students, at the start of each academic year), training course notes (issued to all course attendees), the IT News printed and Web-based newsletter, and a very extensive range of Web pages describing OUCS facilities and services, and general advice on good practice in IT use. Some 14,000 Web page are currently published by OUCS.

6.5.1. Staff Movements

The beginning of the year saw the complete change of staff in this area. By October the work was being undertaken by an Information Manager and a Technical Writer/Co-ordinator. These staff call on or endeavour to assist and coordinate the range of other OUCS staff involved in the provision of information to users.

OUCS works closely with the UNIS Steering Group, and the University Offices' Webmaster. Meetings of relevant Webmasters have been set up to ensure consistency and to avoid duplication, and resolve any `demarcation' issues.

6.5.2. OUCS Web Pages

OUCS information publication activities are increasingly focussed on the Web. During the year, a comprehensive overhaul of University IT Information Web pages took place, in conjunction with UNIS and the University Offices' Webmaster. In particular, the pages under www.ict.ox.ac.uk were rewritten to fit in with the new design for the University home page.

Many pages previously under `info.ox.ac.uk' were moved to www.ict.ox.ac.uk. The `info.ox.ac.uk' address is being removed. The ITSS web pages are now available under www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ITSSinfo/training The OUCS training course dates and descriptions are now available dynamically with links to other information.

Keeping the pages up-to-date is a continuous process. It is carried out by the relevant different groups within OUCS.

One of the biggest problems when running a large Web site is the management of that information. During the year the Perforce software was installed for this purpose. This allows pages to be tracked and a history to be kept. With a Web site as large and complex as that constructed by OUCS, and with responsibility for parts of it spread over so many people, the added formality and structure that compliance with such a system brings is a small price to pay to bring significant improvements in currency and coherence.

Another complication of such a large Web site is finding the required information. New search facilities have been installed at both the University and the OUCS level to ensure that they work efficiently and give appropriate lists of findings.

Work has started to convert all OUCS Web pages to XML; this will improve again the maintainability and consistency of the OUCS Website. However, it is a major undertaking, and the process of conversion will continue for the next year or two.

An increasing amount of attention is now being given to improving access for those with disabilities to the information about OUCS that is made available on the Web. The OUCS Web pages have been scanned for unsuitable constructions, using such software as `Bobby' (see http://www.cast.org/bobby/). Improvements have been made, and more is planned.

Another Web tool aimed at improving accessibility that OUCS has employed is Betsie, which will derive a text-only version of a Website (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/betsie). This enables those with text-speech converters to make more sense of the Web material, as well as those with simpler browsers.

6.5.3. University Web Pages

As indicated above, OUCS shares responsibility for some general University Web pages with central administration, and collaborates with the central Webmaster, as well as with the UNIS Steering Group (University Networked Information System).

The IT pages were redesigned in conjunction with the central Webmaster, and a new indexing system introduced to improve searches through the whole University Web site.

The UNIS Steering Group organised a competition to generate ideas for changing the appearance of the University's home page, to avoid it getting stale. However, it was not thought that any of the entries were sufficiently different or captivating to effect a change just yet.

The University's Web site has grown to become a remarkable catalogue of current information about the University and its work. The importance of this `window in time' became apparent to OUCS and to the Computer Archiving Group, and with the sanction of the UNIS Steering Group OUCS undertook some experiments to see how a snapshot copy of the whole Website could be taken. These were sufficiently promising to warrant this actually being done, late in the year. This may well become an annual event, to give also a time series picture of Oxford University.

6.5.4. Printed Documentation

Notwithstanding the increasing focus and reliance on Web-based information, there is still considerable value in preparing certain printed publications. The principal documents produced this year include the following:
  • Introductory leaflets were produced again for Michaelmas 1999; these proved useful both to inform people about details of specific services, and to generally advertise the services offered.
  • User Guides are written and printed for the courses. As mentioned above the number produced during the year was significantly reduced due to staff shortages; however, many are being re-written during the summer of 2000. It is planned to place them on the Web after they have been printed.
  • IT News is produced nine times a year and circulated to all departments and colleges — it is also available on the Web (see www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/it/news).

6.5.5. Advertising

In a university as diverse, complex and distributed (logically and physically) as Oxford, it is vital that OUCS undertake various forms of advertising, in order that all members can be made aware of the services provided for them (sometimes at substantial central cost, so avoidance of duplication is vital).
  • Most advertising is done at the end of September, at the beginning of January and again about Easter time. Introductory Leaflets are circulated, as well as a Shop Price Lists and Training Course dates.
  • Advertising also takes place through the various University publications such as the prospectuses, departmental information for students, staff development brochures, OUSU booklets, University diary, and so on. These are continually updated as requested. It is hoped that the new publication (Oxford Blueprint) which the University will circulate to all staff, will also prove useful. It is a vexing problem knowing how best to contact particular sectors of Oxford University.
  • Posters distributed during the year advertising the ECDL proved popular, as had others when special summer courses had been run in the past. Further posters are being developed for the new academic year to help with the advertising of the training facilities in particular.


OxTALENT was established in June 1997 to promote the more effective use of IT in learning and teaching 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.ict.ox.ac.uk/oxford/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.

Due to the unfortunate sickness of this staff member for a significant portion of the year, the level of activities declined substantially. Apart from a modest amount of `networking' among users, the only significant activity was the running of the annual Website competition (again sponsored by OUCS). The awards for the 1999 competition were again presented by the Vice-Chancellor, in Michaelmas Term 1999, and the 2000 competition was launched in Trinity Term 2000 (judging was to take place in October 2000). The categories of entry and criteria were again copied from the national UCISA competition, with the local winners becoming Oxford's entries in that competition. For 2000, a third category was introduced, independent of the UCISA competition, for the best resource-based Web site.

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