30 May 2006

iChat with ASU

Sessions between Japanese language students at UC and English language students at ASU in Nagoya are completed for this Semester.

The four video chat sessions between Aichi Shukutoku University (ASU) and UC have now been completed, successfully.

UC Japanese lecturer Yuko Kinoshita has written a piece on the experience for the Divisional Newsletter that reflects all the Technical Services Unit needs to know about its reason for existing:

“At the beginning of the first session, none of us knew what to expect. All the technology appeared to be ready to go - thanks to George Bray, who looked after the technical side of this project. However, we were not sure how students would react to this new exercise, and still didn’t know how well the technology would work. We worried that the students might find it awkward to talk to strangers and the discussion would not happen. We also worried that the topics might be too difficult for them to handle.

“But the results were brilliant. The students on both sides just jumped into it as soon as we started the session, and they talked away for the whole two hours. Considering five minutes is quite a long time to talk to a stranger even in our own language, this was marvellous. They occasionally slipped away from the topic and started talking about the weather or their favourite music. However, they were still talking in the language that they struggle so much with in a normal classroom environment, and were also learning about a person who lives in a very different environment from theirs. This too was a precious cultural experience that they so rarely can taste.

“I have never seen students speaking so much Japanese, so spontaneously. They often struggled with words, but they kept going. Even the students who are normally unwilling to speak Japanese in class were talking with their Japanese partners for the whole session. Also it was notable that students did more thorough preparation for this project, compared to discussion classes in previous years, in which they discussed those issues in Japanese with their classmates. This probably means that the students were more motivated in these iChat classes, as it brought them a real experience of speaking with native speakers. I also observed the students’ level of confidence building up over four sessions. We are hoping that everyone can maintain the enthusiasm and the confidence they discovered through these classes, and stretch themselves even further. Although we cannot run the iChat program next semester due to conflicting schedules, Harry and I have more plans to make the technology work for us in the classroom - hopefully we can find more ways to enhance the classroom experience for our students.”

Thanks must go to the Technical Services Unit team, particularly George Bray, for making this work. Thanks also to UC Network Management Team, Geoff Rozenberg; UC Network Security Manager, Matthew Sullivan; the Deputy Head of the Division of Communication and Education, Leah Moore; and to the Communication Learning Resource Centre (for providing the venue and putting up with the intrusion!) and particularly Annabel Beckenham, Chair of the CLRC Committee, for her support. Harry Norris and Yusaku Oteki made it work at ASU.

A photo says it all:

Student from ASU, Nagoya (centre), video chatting with two UC Japanese Language students (inset)

See the UCTV website for a (silent) movie and some additional photos of one of the sessions. The movie is silent so that Journalism student could turn it into a story if they wanted to.

[See UC Monitor Online story]

TSU Short Staffed

Staff shortages at the end of the Semester test the resources of the Technical Services Unit

On several days over the past few weeks up to half of the full-time staff of the Technical Services Unit have been or are on personal or other leave. Since this period at the end of Semester One is among the busiest of the year, there is an impact on the ability of the TSU to deliver services to the Division. Of particular concern is the TSU’s lack of resources to support teaching and assessments in media-oriented units in Creative Communication and Professional Communication.

One casual staff member has been contracted to help out, but it is not easy to find casual staff with the necessary skills and experience to be immediately productive without support. Traditionally casual staff are also students or sessional staff, but at this time of the semester they are often too busy to take on extra work with the TSU when we need the support.

Because of the cyclical nature of the demand for services, it might be prudent for the Division to consider developing an extended pool of potential casual staff and train them up to help out at times of peak demand: particularly the beginning and end of semesters and other teaching weeks. Whether the casual staff are recruited and managed by the TSU or the Schools requiring the support needs to be discussed.

With recent retirements there is also an opportunity for the Division to reassess the way its resources are managed, but there are also the challenges of managing changes in experiences and expectations as new people take over from those on whom the Division has relied for such a long time.

15 May 2006

Leasing IT Equipment

Leasing IT equipment will change the way we operate as a Division.

On Wednesday 10 May 2006 Director of Financial Services gave a presentation on leasing of IT equipment. According to the Director VCAC has approved that the University move from owning to leasing of eligible IT equipment, effective immediately. A paper copy of his presentation is available on request.

Under leasing arrangements, the leasing company (Macquarie Bank) pays the vendor for equipment acquired by the University, and Macquarie charges the University a lease payment every three months for the period of the lease (normally three years). At the end of the lease the equipment goes to the Bank through its Macquarie Technology Services (MTS: formerly known as Reboot) group. MTS resells the equipment to make the Bank’s margin on the arrangement. At the end of the three-year period the cost of the equipment to the Division is almost exactly the same as it would have been had the Division purchased the equipment outright, except that the payments would be made quarterly over the life of the equipment rather than the full cost being paid upfront as is done now. Leased equipment is not on the University’s Asset Register and not subject to depreciation and is therefore easier for Financial Services to manage.

Eligible equipment covers desktop and portable computers, printers, photocopiers, network equipment and servers. While media equipment was not included in the list, it is open to the Division to approach the leasing company through Financial Services to discuss leasing of other items like video projectors, production equipment and studio infrastructure. Last year about 40% of the Division’s IT Infrastructure Fund loan was spent on media equipment.

If an item of leased equipment is lost or stolen, the Division will have to pay out the balance of the lease. Any repairs not covered by warranty will be at the Division’s expense. Leasing does not cover Operating System and application software, except where the software is part of the original purchase. Any upgrades will continue to be the Division’s (or the University’s) responsibility. In some cases original packaging, documentation and disks that come with a leased device will have to be kept in storage and given to MTS at the end of the lease with the equipment. The Division will need additional storage space to keep the required material.

As existing eligible equipment that was purchased outright is retired and replaced with leased equipment, in the first year of lease payments the Division will pay lease payments equal to one third of the capital cost of the equipment leased (only one third of eligible equipment will be leased in the first year, the rest is still owned outright). In the second year two thirds of the eligible equipment will be leased: and by the end of the third year all eligible equipment will be leased.

Assuming that the Division leases the same amount of equipment it currently buys, as much will be spent on lease payments from the beginning of the fourth year on as would have been spent each year in outright purchases: that is, assuming there is no difference in the amount of equipment used by the Division in four years’ time because of leasing, in four years’ time the Division will be committed to lease payments about equal to that which it now spends each year on capital purchases (there will however be savings in the first three years, and there should not be any requirement to replace a piece of equipment after three years when the original item is handed over to MTS so if the equipment is no longer required a saving could be made there).

Leasing does not provide additional funds for purchasing more equipment; it just spreads the cost over a nominated life for the gear. What is lost is the flexibility to vary expenditure on equipment year by year by, for example, reducing the number of new computers purchased in a lean year by keeping old computers for four years instead of three. There is also no longer a store of old equipment that can be sold, or repurposed to provide, for example:

  • postgraduate students with computers, or
  • staff using Macintosh computers with access to Callista (or Finance One), or
  • old gear to host dynamic websites, or
  • additional capacity for streaming television services.

These are all things the Division does now that won’t be an option if the equipment is all leased. From a Technical Services Unit point of view leasing is an advantage to us since the TSU is no longer required to look after old equipment and support a variety of services running on older equipment: for the same amount of money there will be less of a variety and extent of equipment and services available. Financial Services will handle disposal, but overall it is difficult to determine how the management of leased assets will differ from managing purchased assets. Certainly some current issues with disposing of old equipment will disappear, but there is uncertainty about how work is involved with any new procedures to be introduced.

It is expected that the IT Infrastructure Fund will disappear next year, 2007. Financial Services is preparing a submission to VCAC proposing that the money the University now spends on the Fund each year ($700,000?) is distributed among the Divisions in their budgets. Since the Division of Communication and Education repays its IT Infrastructure Fund loan each year, in theory this means that each year from 2007 the Division will receive sufficient funding to spend as much as it does now from the Fund.

Lease periods can vary from the three years suggested for IT equipment, but a condition of the lease is that the original manufacturer’s warranty on the equipment has to cover the lease period plus three months: in the case of a computer this would mean negotiating a non-standard warranty arrangement with the supplier (not impossible, just an added complication in the process).

Financial Services is proposing to establish an IT Procurement section to manage the leasing of IT equipment that will, among other things, be responsible for negotiating discounts with suppliers for standard configurations. Financial Services would pass on any savings to the Divisions in the form of reduced lease payments, but it seems these arrangements would be the same if equipment is leased or purchased (after all, the suppliers still get paid the full amount up front, either by the Bank or the University).

Since leasing has been mandated by VCAC (according to Financial Services), the best option for the Division might be a gradual transition to leasing over a number of years by continuing to purchase some equipment but leasing more each year. The IT Infrastructure Fund loan for 2006 is approved and can be spent to purchase equipment outright, or Financial Services has raised the prospect of being able to use the IT Infrastructure Fund loan in 2006 to service lease payments. The Division can purchase outright equipment that can be repurposed for non-core uses after its initial job is done, or equipment like installed media studio gear that is normally kept long after its warranty expires and it maintained by outside providers. The approach could be reassessed each year to see how the benefits of leasing compare with outright purchase and purchasing decisions adjusted accordingly.

02 May 2006

IPTV Success

Potentially among the largest broadcasters in the world??

Satellite television services received at the University of Canberra can now be seen throughout Australia on GrangeNet, and even internationally on broadband research networks. A very special thanks is due to the members of the Network Management Team for their pivotal role in making this happen.

[See UC Monitor Online article]

iChat sessions

Success with intercontinental communication and learning.

As this report is being completed, students from UC should be chatting with students from Japan’s Aichi Shukutoku University (ASU) via video chat links. The first of four planned video chat sessions between students from the two campuses, it has taken some effort to get the system in place to allow the connections to be made. Thanks are due particularly to the ICT Services Network Management team, the Deputy Head of the Division, the Communication Learning Resource Centre (for providing the venue), and particularly to our Service Delivery Manager for his perseverance.

[See UC Monitor Online article]

Print and Photocopy charges

Multifunction devices continue to take over from traditional printers and photocopiers.

The Library has upgraded its old photocopiers with multifunction devices, and is introducing a system that will allow students to print directly to the devices as well as use them for photocopying. The cost per impression is the same whether a student prints or photocopies, so the Library is reconsidering the current disparate pricing for student printing (15 cents per impression) and photocopying (10 cents per impression).

An analysis of the costs for the Division shows that, from the figures available, a cost of 10 cents per impression for printing or photocopying on the Division’s MFDs would return sufficient funds to pay for the rental of the devices, the paper and the click-charge (covering toner, maintenance and parts for the devices over their expected 5-year life). Where student print to printers, further analysis of the numbers shows that at 10 cents per copy the Division will still cover its costs, but with only a slight margin.

In 2003, VCAC agreed to “introduce the ‘user pays’ principle for all student printing to make the costs of student printing equitable across the University by Semester 2, 2003 or as soon as logistically possible” (Resolution No. VCAC 2003/07/07 [part]). As such we will need to charge the same as the Library is charging students.

I propose that the Division supports a common charge of 10 cents per impression for printing and for photocopying to printers and multifunction devices in the Division, matching the Library’s proposed charges.

Websites on Divisional Server

More centralisation: Divisional websites.

Some 40 websites have been identified on the Divisional web server that will need to be migrated to the University’s Web Content Management System before the Divisional web server is decommissioned towards the end of this year. Any websites requiring specialised technologies to operate that are not available from UCOnline will be migrated from the Divisional web server to other Divisional servers as required before the server is decommissioned.

Divisional staff will be contacting people responsible for websites still active on the Divisional web server to see what they want to be done with their websites.

Staff Home Drives

Centralisation of 'common' services continues.

Early in April 2006 the Division developed a Project Mandate proposing that ICT Services take over the hosting of staff home directories from the Divisions. It appears that all academic divisions have agreed with this proposal and ICT Services is currently investigating the scope of the project in order to seek approval and the funds necessary to implement the proposal. The transfer could happen within the next three months if all goes well, which would be good for the Division since our own Network Attached Storage device, DCENAS, is due to go out of warranty in September this year and is currently not working correctly (Dell is working with the TSU team to overcome the issues with the device).

ICT Services propose to limit the storage for each member of the staff to 2 gigabytes (GB). This will be a “soft” limit up to 3 GB, which means staff will be warned if they are storing more than 2 GB of data, but will be allowed to store up to 3 GB.

Currently the Division hosts network home directories for 665 accounts. This includes all staff and staff-like entities past and present. Of these 665 accounts, 23 are currently over 3GB and 37 (in total) are over 2 GB. The largest is 32 GB, but 265 accounts contain no data (average is around 460 megabytes (MB), with a total of around 300 GB in total storage used).

There are several options in dealing with the 37 accounts that have more than the 2 GB proposed under the ICT Services plan:

  1. Advise the owners of the accounts that no more than 2 GB can be stored in their Home Directories, and limit storage to a maximum of 3 GB
    Many staff have legitimate reasons for storing large amounts of data in their Home Directories, where the data can be professionally managed, backed up and archived. Any legitimate University files should be part of a system that allows for professional management: documents stored on local hard disk drives are prone to loss and may not be available for others to access for official purposes if needs arise.
  2. Suggest that ICT Services provide an average of 2GB of storage per account, with no quotas
    ICT Services may find that users will save so much data that collectively the storage required exceeds the capacity provided. It then becomes an administrative issue to identify the large accounts, contact the users and ask them to reduce the amount of data they are storing, and following them up. The Division currently manages its storage on this basis and the manual process can be time-consuming and is not always effective.
  3. Pay ICT Services to store the additional data for Divisional staff exceeding their quota
    This option would be difficult to scope and manage: ICT Services is unlikelyto agree to put in place a manual process to identify high users and manage their quotas.
  4. Provide Divisional staff with additional storage if their quota is exceeded
    The Division can provide additional, professionally managed online storage on request using existing or planned specialist Divisional storage. The TSU would be happy to manage the manual process required to deal with the requests from the limited number of people for whom this is an issue.