21 February 2006

iTunes U

One trend recently is the move to online provision of services, often for free, that used to be only available as enterprise systems (like email, web-page hosting and now podcasting).

Following on from the Stanford initiative, Apple has extended its iTunes support for audio and video distribution of lectures by inviting other universities interested in taking up the service to participate. According to a BusinessWeek article [article removed], Apple is offering universities a customized version of iTunes that allows academics to post podcasts, audio books or video content on their institution’s iTunes-affiliated Web sites. The podcasts are accessible from Windows or Macintosh computers and can be transferred to portable devices like Apple's iPod or burned to a CD. Access to the podcasts can be restricted to designated groups of users, or open to anyone to download.

It’s a DIY process where lecturers can use simple audio or video recording devices like an iPod with a recoding device or a miniDV video camera to capture their lectures, then use simple software provided by Apple to prepare the media for iTunes and upload it to the iTunes server for access by students. No local support should be required.

UC Berkeley has also recently made available a number of its lectures for free, public access.

Macintosh users don’t get RSI?

We live in a multiplatform world: take it into account when rolling out new applications or systems.

As part of the University’s obligation to implement strategies to protect the health, safety and welfare of employees at work, it has purchased the WorkPace software package designed to reduce the risk of Occupational Overuse Syndrome (OOS), neck, shoulder, forearm and back pain. WorkPace is also claimed to be capable of reducing the risk of workplace fatigue, headache, and eye strain allowing for increased productivity.

While there is a Macintosh version of the software available, neither the Health and Safety Office nor ICT Services are prepared to facilitate us providing this version for the Macintosh users in the Division. Although there is an intention to make the Macintosh version available at some point, it is poor practice to provide the software for one group of workers but not another.

It should be University policy that software made available for the campus works on all target computers and is made available at the same time.

Records management

Finding documentation in a digital world can be a challenge.

These days, email, Word documents, Acrobat files and the internet contain most if not all of the “records” of an organisation. Registry is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and paper documents rarely get on to official files in an institution-wide, properly managed way.

While the new ways of communicating information are far more efficient, finding information about what happened last week, last year or five years ago is more difficult, particularly if the staff concerned have moved on. Most “records” reside on the hard drives of staff, in their Home directories on servers or more than likely in their email messages (if they haven’t deleted them).

One particular issue in relation to managing the organisation’s records in the digital age is the production of these records in response to legal “requests”. While in the past it was just a matter of handing over some files, diaries and notes, and talking to a few people, these days emails, electronic diaries, even Instant Messaging sessions are all “requested” when the lawyers come calling.

On receiving a written authorisation from the PVC, the Division will provide all requested documents, emails, and other records from server-based Home directories and email accounts, provided they are still there (haven’t been erased or overwritten). While backups of network drive stored data are available, these have been created for disaster recovery and not for archiving purposes. It would probably not be possible, for example, using the current backup materials, to produce a document as it was stored on a particular day, if it had been modified subsequently. Should we be required to use backups to provide data to the courts, we would need to redesign our backup strategies and systems in order to be able to comply easily with such requests. It would add significant costs to our current operations if we were to rebuild the backup system as an archive.

Recovering information from local hard disk drives is more problematic, especially if someone has left the Division, since hard disks are usually erased and set up for a new user. When computers are decommissioned for sale or disposal, part of the process is to effectively remove all data from the hard drive, or in some cases the hard drive itself is removed and destroyed. The Division does not backup (or archive) local hard drives. Some individuals may backup their own data, but there is usually no official access to these backups.

The Division should seek expert advice, preferably at the University level through the UIMSC, on whether the current arrangements are adequate, and if not give the Technical Services Unit guidance on how to change its current practices in order to be able to comply with legitimate requests for access to electronic records.

email outage

University IT support is NOT 24/7

The Divisional email system (‘isaac’, also known as ‘cemail’) was unavailable between 31 December 2005 and 2 January 2006, it appears due to the lock-up of network switches in Building 9. A member of the Division’s staff contacted me at home by phone (twice) to request that the system be repaired.

Heads of Schools and Centres are asked to remind their staff that members of the TSU are not to be contacted directly on their mobiles or at home to request support at any time, especially out of business hours. When email is unavailable requests for support can be lodged by calling the cehelpdesk and a voicemail message left if there is no-one there to take the call, otherwise emails to the cehelpdesk will be dealt with at the next available opportunity during business hours.

There are provisions for University staff to be available on standby out of hours in the Enterprise Agreement: should the Division or the University want technical staff to be on call then the appropriate arrangements should be negotiated under the terms of the Agreement.

Network update

Better network services just around the corner...?

ICT Services has apparently received funding to replace network switches that have been preventing us from utilising the full capacity of our network. The next issue is their installation and configuration: while each network port will only be out of operation for around five minutes during the changeover, there have been some concerns expressed about service interruption and the impact this might have. ICT Services has apparently responded to these concerns by deciding to limit the time set aside for installations to one hour each morning. At this rate it may be many months before the switches are deployed.

With prior notification, a five minute interruption should not unduly interfere with work, so it is proposed that Executive request ICT Services, in consultation with the comedu helpdesk, to install the switches in Buildings 1, 9 and 20 (Building 5 is done) on a known schedule, regardless of the time of day. The comedu helpdesk would then make sure users were informed of the proposed outages and seek expressions of any concerns from users before the switches were swapped over.