CIS replaces heavily criticised ITS
by Mei Leng Yew
Returning students will already be familiar with the University’s long struggle to provide a reliable IT service. However, this may change following the University’s recent extensive upgrades.
Formerly the Information Technology Service (ITS), the department responsible for the provision and maintenance of the IT network is now the Computing and Information Services (CIS). This is part of the University’s five year “IT Vision and Strategy,” first drawn up in Dec 2007, after the Council’s Audit Committee raised “significant concerns with the University’s current approach to managing IT.” The Committee also found that the existing system consisted of “confused lines of accountability and authority and the absence of a strategic approach in supporting current needs.”
The student population have also expressed dissatisfaction with service and frequently-cited complaints include being unable to log onto the DUO blackboard system, the email system crashing, students unable to access pass lists or exam marks, limited opening hours on the IT Service Desk, problems with the online enrollment systemand poor compatibility for non-Windows/non-Internet-Explorer users.
Last year, a Facebook group named “Durham Uni ITS… EPIC FAIL!” attracted hundreds of new members as students rushed to vent their frustrations following a spate of unscheduled downtime and extremely slow loading times. ITS was also criticised for what was perceived as a slow reaction to the situation, and for their limited customer service.
It is these issues amongst others that the University hoped to resolve when the IT Vision and Strategy documents were written. The intention was that “by 2012, the University will have World Class IT provision which will enhance research, teaching and learning and administration, the student experience and management and administrative activities.”
This ambitious goal would be deemed accomplished if by 2012, the following three requirements had been met: 1) Delivery of high quality generic IT to all users; 2) An outstanding support structure that is dynamic and responsive to change and needs; 3) Supportive IT governance and IT management.
A number of steps have since been taken, including centralisation. In March, many IT staff within individual departments and colleges found their roles and positions changing so that they now work more closely with the then-ITS staff. Director of University IT Leslie Beddie, who now bears overall technical responsibility said: “This [new] IT support structure allows us to look at what we provide and how we can work more collaboratively with all our users to better understand and respond to their needs.”
This is a move which the University hopes will fulfill their “aspiration to have a single unified and integrated infrastructure.” It should also lower costs, by “reducing duplication” and by the “release of time spent on IT-related administration in departments and colleges.”
Other changes have taken place which more directly affects the student experience. Mrs Beddie said: “We have introduced Online Student Enrolment and Registration, eliminating paperwork and cutting down on lengthy queues. We have also improved IT facilities and services in the Library for students, including laptop loans.”
CIS have also installed IP telephony, reintegrated IT support for corporate applications, upgraded the interactive Smartboards in teaching rooms, bought a VHS-to-DVD copying unit, expanded some aspects of service to Mac users, introduced double-sided printing and expanded wireless coverage across campus,
Mrs Beddie added: “The last 18 months has also seen us engage more actively through termly updates, the new Student IT Forum, which is attended by both the DSU IT Rep and the DSU President, and the provision of IT ‘starter’ information to new students joining the University.”
CIS has also made support more accessible via the internet. @durhamuni_cis, @durhamuni_esol and @learntechdurham are three Twitter accounts used to keep students updated on queuing times at the Service Desk, planned downtime, etc.
For example, on June 25, @durhamuni_cis reported: “Callers into the IT Service Desk are having difficulty getting through and will be kept on hold for an indefinate [sic] period,” due to an incident affecting calls. It was only on Sept 6 that the following was tweeted: “The issues affecting calls into our switchboard & IT Service Desk have been resolved and these services are working normally.”
While keeping users updated is laudable, a browse through the Message of the Day archive shows that such incidents were not uncommon this year. On March 15, ITS began “experiencing network issues over the last 36 hours which have affected a number of our internet based services, including Outlook Web Access. The service which has suffered the most noticeable impact however has been duo.” Staff worked into the evening to fix the issue but normal service only returned two days later.
A power outage also affected Hild Bede College and the School of Education in April, while a problem arose within the internal telephone system of hill colleges in May. Other disruptions are detailed online.
Speaking last year, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Anthony Forster acknowledged that the IT Vision “was and remains a very challenging objective.” With 2012 almost upon us, we will soon find out if the University’s ambitious 2007 IT Vision has been realised.
Mrs Beddie is already looking further ahead, “The development of the IT Strategy for 2012 onwards has begun and we are assessing and building on what we have achieved so far. The DSU President is a member of the review group and we will be meeting to discuss best ways to gather student input into the next phase of the Strategy.”