Best Practice Award 2005
In 2000, UCISA-SDG introduced an annual award scheme to promote staff development within the IS/IT sector of FE/HE. All member institutions' centralised IS/IT service departments were eligible to make a submission based on the particular theme identified by SDG. Details of the 2005 award are given below.
Best Practices involving partnerships between centralised and distributed IT/IS support staff
Winner: Manchester Metropolitan University
The Standard Platform Partnership at Manchester Metropolitan University
Manchester Metropolitan University's submission is given in full below.
The Standard Platform Partnership at Manchester Metropolitan University
The Manchester Metropolitan University is a "new" University with 34,000 students and 3,500 staff. It is based on seven sites, five in Manchester and two in South Cheshire. It has a highly devolved structure.
The Standard Platform project was started in 1999, and aimed to introduce a standard minimum level of computing provision for students throughout the University. The idea was for central funding to provide an upgrade from existing Windows 3.1 installations to Windows NT 4 with an agreed set of applications. Faculties would be free to add additional applications on top of this platform. The project was implemented by collaboration between the central Information Systems Unit and eight Local Information Systems Teams.
Since then, the scope of the project has gradually expanded to include staff PCs, servers, and backup hardware and software, network infrastructure and a number of network services. It is now a well-established part of the annual cycle within the University, with a projected average annual spend of 1.17 million.
Information Systems are supported within the University by a variety of units.
The Information Systems Unit (ISU) is responsible for supporting and developing the network infrastructure, and for harmonisation of IS activities throughout the University. It is part of the Services Division.
The Local Information Systems Teams (LISTs) support academic, administrative and student IS systems within Faculties. There are currently seven faculty LISTs, with two of the teams split across two sites. An eighth team supports the administrative departments that the central All Saints site. These teams are line managed by the faculty (or the head of Management Information Systems), but with a professional reporting relationship to the ISU.
There are specialist IS units each supporting specific applications, such as the Finance system, the Student Records systems, the Online Learning Systems and the Library Management system.
Some individual departments also have IT technicians, although these tend to be a small minority of academic departments with very specific technology requirements that cannot be met by the Standard Platform.
This is explained in a little more detail at http://www.isu.mmu.ac.uk/general/howisisorganised.shtml
The Standard Platform
The Standard Platform applies to the majority of staff and student PCs throughout the University, approximately 5000 computers. The process starts by defining the minimum level of software, including the operating system (currently Windows XP) and applications software (currently Microsoft Office, GroupWise, SPSS, Minitab, Acrobat, Sophos Anti-virus etc). Based on the requirements of this software, the minimum hardware specification is decided, and the cost of upgrading or replacing PCs to meet this minimum specification is determined, based on the inventory information held by the LISTs.
A similar process is carried out to determine the upgrade is necessary for the site based servers.
PCs are replaced after a maximum of five years, supported by a five-year parts warranty and an in-house maintenance service provided by Media Services. File servers are replaced after three years, supported by a three year on-site manufacturer's warranty. Network equipment is replaced on a seven-year cycle.
Students are able to login from any of the University's drop-in facilities, and can access their e-mail and network drives from outside the University over the Web. Staff enjoy similar facilities, although because of the increased customisation and the amount of data and applications stored on their hard drives, login at remote sites tends to be more restricted.
Student accounts are created automatically when they join the University based on information supplied from the Student Records system, and deleted when they leave.
Over time, the core applications have expanded to include additional facilities such as print charging (soon to be extended to photocopying), automatic hardware and software auditing, remote control, Web access to network drives and password change, screen savers available for commercial advertising and internal communications, screen readers, screen magnifiers and mind mapping software.
Staff development courses for end users are delivered centrally by a team of three IS Trainers. These are specifically targeted at helping staff of the University make most effective use of the Standard Platform facilities. The training materials used are made available to the local IS teams for them to address any particular local staff development requirements. The training team also coordinates production of IS handbooks for staff and for students, and has produced a template student induction presentation for the local IS teams to customise and use as required.
The local IS teams are free to add specialised Faculty specific applications on top of the Standard Platform to meet Faculty or Departmental needs, as long as they do not remove any of the core applications. Similarly, the hardware specification can be enhanced to satisfy local requirements.
Any corporate information systems such as the Finance system or the Student Records system, must take account of the Standard Platform. This could be in the form of ensuring that the application will run on the Standard Platform, or ensuring that the design of the Standard Platform is modified to take account of the system's requirements, or a combination of the two.
More information about the Standard Platform is available on the web site at http://www.isu.mmu.ac.uk/general/standard-platform-news.shtml
The upgrade proposal for 2005/2006 can be viewed at http://www.isu.mmu.ac.uk/general/std-platform-proposal.pdf
Running the Project
General direction for the Standard Platform project is provided by the IS Meeting, chaired by the head of the Information Systems Unit. This is a monthly forum for IS managers from the Information Systems Unit, the Local Information Systems Teams, Management Information Systems, Finance, Library Technical Services, Media Services, the Learning and Teaching Unit and External Relations.
The detailed technical design is overseen by the Standard Platform Technology working group (SPTECH), chaired by the Senior Platform Development Officer from the Information Systems Unit, and attended by nominees from each of the LISTs. This group also meets monthly, and sometimes more frequently during periods of intense development. The group also has representatives of the IT technicians from those departments that do not currently use the Standard Platform, but who are actively considering its adoption in future.
More specific issues are often addressed by working parties which may be chaired by one of the local IS managers. Examples of this include "roaming users", "inventory management" and "Common helpdesk". Cross departmental collaboration has allowed the Common Helpdesk group to develop and tender for a solution to be adopted by LISTs, Library Service Teams, Media Services, Learning and Teaching, Management Information and other IS support agencies.
In October each year, detailed discussions on the content of next year's Standard Platform begin. Draft proposals are circulated to staff of the University on 1st November for comments by the end of the calendar year. By 1st February, the software and hardware specification and quantities are fixed. At the beginning of March, the Head of Information Systems submits the formal proposal to Directorate, the managing body of the University. This includes an evaluation of the previous year's upgrade. Formal approval is usually given by the end of March.
Staff of the University are informed of the outcome of the proposal so that they can update their teaching materials if necessary, and discuss local additions to the core applications with their local IS team.
The proposal includes the cost of staff development for the IS staff from ISU and the LISTs who will be investigating the following year's specification, and for the LIST staff who will be implementing and supporting the current year's upgrade.
Local IS Managers may specify enhancements to the hardware to support local requirements, for example some Art and Design students require larger file store. The requirements are funded from Faculty budgets, but are included on the orders raised centrally.
Coordination of the process of implementing the Standard Platform is provided by two Platform Development Officers in the Information Systems Unit, with substantial technical input from the LISTs. The local teams undertake the very major logistical exercise of upgrading or replacing the staff and student PCs and servers, usually out of term time or through detailed planning to minimise service interruptions. Consultancy from the Information Systems Unit is available if needed.
As soon as the roll out has been completed, it is time to begin planning for the next year's upgrade.
Benefits to the Organisation
The benefits to the organisation are summarised below:
- a high standard of IT provision is maintained across the institution;
- students are able to use facilities at any site, with a common desktop;
- far more development resource is available to design the platform and would be the case if each team had to do the job in isolation;
- the amount of duplicated effort at each site is reduced, allowing the local IS teams to focus more on the facilities and services unique to their site;
- staff at the University and in particular those providing IT based services know in advance what facilities will be available;
- staff development activities for IS staff and end users can be focused on the applications provided as part of the Standard Platform;
- common IS handbooks can be produced for staff and students, tailored to reflect local IS resources;
- bulk purchasing for upgrades and replacements allows substantial discount to be obtained;
- visibility of the cost and benefits of upgrading IT facilities is maintained;
- the design process receives substantial input both from end-users of the systems, and the support staff at the "coalface";
- the particular requirements of staff and students with disabilities can be accommodated in a more consistent manner, and anticipatory adjustments to the IS facilities can be built into the design of the Standard Platform;
- the process requires collaboration between central and local IS staff as well as other people involved in the support of Information Systems across the University. The working relationships and practices formed are invaluable for other projects that cross organizational boundaries.
Monitoring the success of the initiative is not straightforward. Most of the benefits are difficult to measure. The total cost of maintaining the infrastructure has almost certainly been reduced significantly, however the arrangements preceding the Standard Platform meant that the spend was spread across a large number of unrelated budgets, and therefore difficult to consolidate; so a comparison cannot be made. The key mechanism for benefit management is the inclusion in each year's proposal of a review of the success of the previous year's upgrade. Directorate usually discuss this in considerable detail (as well as the content of the next upgrade) before deciding whether or not to approve the funding.
However, there is no doubt that the general level of satisfaction with IT facilities has increased markedly since the introduction of the Standard Platform. The UNITE Student Living Survey recently conducted by MORI found that 47% of MMU Students described the availability of IT facilities, computers and software as "excellent", compared to an average of 41% at other Universities. The University has rapidly moved from a position of being behind most other institutions to being one of the 'leading lights' in the field.
This is due in no small measure to the collective approach adopted.