Just not getting IT? HE would say that, wouldn’t HE?

Lecture hall students ©Jirka Matousek via Flickr CCBY

The intellectual leaders of earlier civilisations, wishing to divine the future, would cast runes, and carefully probe the entrails of ritually-sacrificed animals, to try and work out what the gods had in store for us. These days we education technologists are a little more civilised. We have the annual publication of New Media Consortium Horizon reports forecasting the ed tech future instead. Always interesting, and considerably less damaging to animal life. Though arguably no more reliable, some might say. And the New Media Consortium Report: 2017 Higher Education (HE) Edition is available online for those amongst you averse to chicken entrails.

Now I always have a wry smile when I read about pioneering education technology developments in universities. I’ll happily admit that my personal experiences have undoubtedly given me a jaundiced view of Higher Education when it comes to using cutting-edge learning technologies in teaching. Probably because when I’ve worked in the sector, it often seemed to be my blood that ended on the carpet?

But, to be fair, there has been the occasional high spot too. And some excellent and creative digital pioneers in Higher Education that I have been pleased and proud to work with. Prof Stephen Heppell and his team at UEA kept me sane during the early 90s, for example, and Steve has never failed to motivate me since. Latterly Prof Rose Luckin and the London Knowledge Lab have frequently helped stretch my thinking, and impressed no end with their reports and work on AI. But by and large these folk seem to be exceptions to the rule, excellent small units operating in a wider university world that really does not quite get information technology, and its potential for learning.

The NMC Horizon Project

NME Horizon HE Report 2017For more than 15 years the NMC Horizon Project has been exploring emerging technology trends and uptake, trying to identify what is on the five-year horizon for higher education institutions. I should mention here that this ed tech fortune-telling is not limited to the university sector. There are also Horizon editions aimed at schools, museums and libraries. Each edition tries to establish which trends and technology developments will drive educational change? What are the critical challenges, and how can they help with strategic solutions?

The New Media Consortium, in partnership with the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), bring together ‘experts’ who try to identify the significant trends for the next few years. They come up with six key trends, six significant challenges, and six developments in educational technology that they believe are poised to impact teaching, learning, and creative inquiry, in this case in higher education. With timelines of one year out, two to three years out, and four to five years away.

Hack educationNow a Horizon Report is always worth a read, but it’s always worth keeping a large pinch of salt nearby. Because experts! Just how large a pinch is beautifully explained by the excellent Audrey Watters, of Hack Education fame, who has done a great analysis of the series, e.g. “I can’t help but notice that mobile technologies have been one to three years out from widespread adoption since 2006.” So I would encourage you to read both the report, and Audrey’s analysis.

Blundering along…

But I am clearly not alone in my cynicism about the HE sector and IT. Recently I mentioned my own experience of a university emailing my contract to an account I couldn’t access before I had signed the contract. And found a number of university contacts who could recount similar tales. Now admittedly these were largely about organisational administrative aspects of information technology, rather than the university classroom experience. But you do have to wonder if organisations with this sort of ethos are the best places to expose keen young student minds to the powerful potential of information technology.

Job search - we're hiringSince that encounter, two further HE experiences have added to my jaundiced views. A post of Computing Lecturer had become vacant, and though not in a position to apply myself, I thought it would be a good idea to promote it to my circle of contacts. So I went to the University website to seek it out, to send links to friends I thought may be interested.

Unsurprisingly the job adverts area of the website was data-driven – so far, so digital. But to find a vacancy you had to search for it via a webform! It didn’t seem to have occurred to the university that people may be simply browsing the site to see IF there were suitable jobs available. They assumed that those arriving at the site would already know the job existed. And they’d also need know what it was called so that they could put the correct keywords into the Search! Hmm, not so impressive. How many people do you know casually go round university websites and spend ages exploring on the off-chance they may be able to decipher the keywords for any potential posts of interest? No, me neither.

Narrowing down the problem

After a few test searches I did indeed manage to narrow down the search to the job vacancy that I knew was in there. You may be surprised at the number of lecturer vacancies there are at any one time at your nearby university. But I tracked down the appropriate page for the Computing vacancy, and captured the website address (URL) to pass on the others. Luckily I tested the link before forwarding it… to get a Sharing Violation error! The upshot being, after further testing, that I realised that anyone who DID manage to track down the relevant post was not able to pass on a working link to anyone else!

A classic example of the root cause of this type of IT error – the system is designed for the benefit of those inside the organisation, without thinking about those they are trying to reach. Clearly no potential job applicants had ever been asked to test the effectiveness of the job advertising area of the site. Nor anyone who has ever tried to draw people’s attention to online job adverts. Wrong mindset.

It is as if Argos would only allow you to search via an item’s code number, but you had to do it without the catalogue. Anyone who has been a student may not be surprised to hear that universities may not be client-focused, but it’s clear this sort of thinking needs to change if digital by default is to get off the ground.

Help desk blues

The next day I happened to be lecturing at the university at 9.00am , so being a new term of course I checked that my password hadn’t expired from home before setting off. Helpfully, if you can’t get access to your university account via email, you are offered a chance to reset your password. But no problem, straight onto my email. Only of course when I got on site at 8.45, the network wouldn’t allow me access. Quick check on my phone – yep, could still access email from outside network, but not get access to the network, or crucially to the password reset. Students start to arrive, so a quick call to the IT Helpdesk is in order. You may remember them from the last story?

Customer supportHelpful chap answers, and I describe the problem. “No”, he said firmly, “that can’t happen. If you can access your email you can log onto the network. They are linked”. I explained that I had experienced this problem previously, maybe things weren’t quite so simple for visiting lecturers? He remained unconvinced. The room was filling up with students. “A password reset at your end solved it last time” I said helpfully. Grudgingly he agreed to try.

Only to come back to say he’d tried , but wasn’t authorised to change staff passwords, just student ones. So could I ring the IT Helpdesk? I gently pointed out that I had rung the IT Helpdesk. ‘Ah’, says he, “you must have rung before 9am, and the call was transferred to me. I can only do student passwords, I’m not the real helpdesk”. By this time the 9am watershed had passed, and there was a room full of students patiently awaiting me to start the lecture. “Maybe I should try and call the real helpdesk again” I suggest? “Good idea,” he said gratefully and rapidly hung up.

So I give the students some things to be getting on with, rather than the slide presentation that I was supposed to be showing them. Then returned to the phone to ring the real Help desk. Luckily by now they were there, and I recounted the problem again.

“Can’t happen.. . ” begins the real help desk man, but I quickly point out that:
a. it had happened before
b. it had clearly happened again
c. he could have my username and password if he wished to try it for himself and
d. there was a roomful of students getting somewhat impatient for the lecture to begin.
(Of course they weren’t, they were happily engaged in exploring iPads, and talking about last night’s activities, TV etc, but I wished to convey a degree of urgency.)

“What’s your name and password, and I’ll check”, says the real Help Desk. Blithely ignoring a roomful of listening students, I have him my name and password over the phone, realising that if I couldn’t use it to gain access, the probability of them hacking into my account was around zero. Unless they tried on their phones …

Things went quiet, then he came back online. “That password has been expired.” says he, “you shouldn’t be able to access the network or your email.” Thereby establishing my key point. Avoiding a long wrangle about why I could still access my email on my phone or from home suddenly became crucial. Tempus fugit. “So could you renew my password, as I am keen to start the lecture?” I asked meekly, and within moments a new password was passed down the phone, I logged in successfully and the lecture got under way.

You’ve got to have faith…

This incident highlighted further aspects of university IT that has coloured my experience. Firstly, an unshakeable faith that their systems will always operate the way they are intended to operate, rather than the way they actually do operate. Secondly, a belief that any failure encountered must therefore be down to user error, rather than any fault within the system. And thirdly, that the hours of Help Desk support are geared to fit with the 9-5 employment of the Help Desk staff, rather than the needs of the folk that they support.

At this point I offer my sincere apology to all those folk reading this for whom this is not fair. The many support staff that begin their day well before teaching commences, and work later. Those who feel the Help Desk is a useful way of revealing problems and issues with the system, rather than a pain that just grudgingly has to be staffed. And the many, many help desk staff who are unfailingly helpful and supportive of the people that they help, even the really awkward ones. I know, because I have been responsible for two such services, and had amazing folk staffing them. But all I can say is, I only report what I have experienced at this university, and others before it. I know there is better out there, and am glad if you are part of it.

But I am not surprised that some of the near horizon technology revolutions forecast in the NMC report have kept retreating into the distance, or disappearing entirely. Universities are paradoxically home to all sorts of new and exciting innovations for the world, whilst also being among the last bastions of bureaucratic systems and processes that prevent organisational change. I’m afraid that many just aren’t getting IT…

The NMC New Horizon Report 2017: HE Edition

Hack Education review of NMC New Horizon Report 2017: HE Edition