UCISA18 Conference notes

Introduction

I attended the UCISA18 Leadership Conference in Bournemouth from 7th – 9th March 2018, on behalf of LMN. I have attended many UCISA annual conferences since 1998 in a variety of different roles; this was my second conference since retiring from active duty as a service director, giving me a different perspective on the events. From the point of view of LMN, I was interested to see sector trends of relevance to our members; to get some feedback on the operation of the UCISA London Group; and to see whether our push to encourage FE and Sixth Form Colleges to join UCISA was visible in the conference.

The latter point is easy to answer: despite an offer of bursaries, no LMN FE or SFC members attended the conference. (There were a number of representatives of FE Colleges at the conference but they came from Scotland.) The feedback from the number of people who replied to the invitation – and declined to accept – was that they simply could not afford the time away from their institution, or their line manager did not think they could afford the time away. The background – generally – was the very small teams in most FEs and SFCs dealing with the same portfolio of IT services as larger institutions with larger teams. By comparison, many HEIs were able to send 2, 4 or even 6 delegates (UCL and Jisc each sent eight). At least 22 London-based HEIs (and members of LMN) sent one or more delegates.

Sector trends

Anyone who has been to a UCISA Leadership Conference will be familiar with the format: adjacent to the main hall in which the plenary sessions take place will be the Conference Exhibition where the Exhibitors (who make a major contribution to the costs of running the conference) set out their stalls. Spread out through the Exhibition are the tables on which the tea, coffee, fruit juice, water, biscuits, cakes and lunches are served. If you want to eat and drink during the Conference, you perforce must visit the Exhibition. It can be quite daunting especially if – like me – you no longer have a budget and hence are not in the market to buy anything. It is fascinating to see what is on offer but, short of taking pity on Exhibitors who seem to be ignored, or asking slightly nostalgic questions about something you used to rely upon, you risk wasting the time – and the giveaways – of the sales people who quickly discover that you are not buying.

I did – eventually – work out that I had something to sell: an offer to potential sponsors of the UCISA London Group meetings but what was more interesting in looking across the range of vendors exhibiting their wares was what it says about trends in the (commercial) IT sector. One of the many things that UCISA does, with its mix of educational institutions and corporate members, is provide a kind of dating service for buyers and sellers (it does not operate in the space of franchising or demand aggregation that LMN used to inhabit). The Leadership Conference is one of the primary venues for this activity.

What did I notice this year? Vendors at the UCISA conferences have, historically, fallen into three main categories: suppliers of equipment; suppliers of software; suppliers of advice and support. One way of assessing the trend is to compare this year’s line-up of 65 vendors with, say, the line-up ten years ago at the UCISA 2008 Leadership Conference in Glasgow (60 vendors). Ten years ago the dominant presence was suppliers of equipment (networks, servers, desktops) and the software to run on it (operating systems, user applications, corporate systems). Advice and support, in 2008, was a smaller presence. Fast-forward 10 years to this year’s conference and the strongest impression was just how many of the software suppliers are now offering their systems as managed services, outhosted services, software-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service.

The dreaded “cloud” word was everywhere to be seen. Why “dreaded”? Because “cloud” is an obfuscation, originally used in network maps to describe parts of the network in which it was not necessary – or maybe possible – to describe the internals other than to know that data went in and data came out. In its current incarnation as a marketing term, it seems to imply that one need not worry about the internals but this disguises the reality of most “cloud” services: you are putting your data onto someone else’s equipment in someone else’s data centre. (You don’t need to be a Facebook user to realise that you really do need to worry about what happens to your data once you have passed it across into that friendly-looking cloud operated by those nice people you met at a conference.)

Many big names from 2008 are still there: Blackboard; Cisco; Dell; Fujitsu; Google; HP; Logicalis; Toshiba (others are also available). Some well-remembered names from 2008 weren’t there this year: Eduserv; IBM; Microsoft (preferring to use resellers); RM; Sun Microsystems (swallowed by Oracle); Viglen (amongst others). Some of the new names this year reflect the emergence of the managed-service providers: Amazon Web Services; Box.com; Civica; CoreAzure; CoSector (swallowed up ULCC); ExLibris; LinkedIn Learning; Pythagoras; VIRTUS Data Centres (partnered with Jisc). Many others are also available, see

https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/events/2018/ucisa18/exhibit_profiles.

For the UCISA pitch to its exhibitors, see

https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/events/2018/ucisa18/briefing.

Relevance to LMN Members

One of the unique selling points for LMN when it was the network provider in London was the value it could add to members – on the one side – by framework agreements with its suppliers and to suppliers – on the other side – by reducing the cost to market by providing a route to around 110 potential customers. A considerable portion of LMN’s strategic reserves arose from this activity, particularly in cases where it could operate as a channel partner for services such as VBack and Message Labs.

The best LMN can offer in the short-term, via the UCISA London Group, is to provide opportunities for suppliers to sponsor the lunch and possibly a speaker at the Group meetings. To this end I spoke with a number of potential suppliers at the conference and passed their details along to UCISA for follow-up. I approached a range of suppliers from network hardware (Huawei, with some innovative approaches to Wireless LAN coverage), through desktop hardware (HP, with an interesting range of all-in-one and mini-workstations), software (Blackboard, which is expanding beyond its well-known VLE system) to Logicalis (which used to be a major partner for LMN but has had a low profile in London for some time). There are a number of other prospects that UCISA will be following-up.

What is clear from walking around the UCISA Exhibition is just how crowded and confusing the market has become in the managed-service space and this is an angle that LMN might wish to pursue on behalf of its smaller members: how does one assess the value and – especially – the safety of moving services and data offsite? Is there a need for Quality Assurance? What about shared procurement in cases of services not covered by the Purchasing Consortia?

Conference sessions

The full programme, including many links to PDFs of the presentations, is at

https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/events/2018/ucisa18/new_programme

As is always the case, I could not go to everything, so here are some observations on the sessions that I was able to attend.

Sessions about UCISA

David Telford (UCISA Chair) welcomed everyone to the conference and introduced the new UCISA strategy through 2022 with a snappy video. He also mentioned the importance of the various UCISA Groups. [Comment: we need to encourage our FE and SFC colleagues to engage with these groups, especially Corporate Systems and Infrastructure.]

Adrian Ellison spoke about the new strategy. In relation to Goal 4 – to make UCISA more effective – UCISA has taken on new staff and has proposals at the AGM with a costed plan for new activities. Adrian mentioned the UCISA London Group supported by LMN as the “first of the regional groups”. He gave some further details at the UCISA AGM, mentioning that LMN paid the membership fees for FE/SFCs in London. UCISA is looking to expand the idea to other regions, maybe using different models, e.g. IT Directors meetings, with other regional engagement options under consideration.

In relation to Goal 1 – to be an expert voice in use of digital tech in education – there is work to refresh the UCISA brand. UCISA wants to be honest, inclusive, relevant. There will be a review of membership categories with an aspiration to strengthen support for individuals and juniors, also FE (he mentions the Scottish FE delegates to the conference). UCISA is launching a mentoring scheme and is asking for volunteers.

At the AGM, some constitutional amendments were approved and agreement was given to an ambitious programme of capital projects, using £558,000 from UCISA’s strategic reserves. More details about UCISA’s activities are in the papers presented to the AGM, particularly the Trustees report:

https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/about/agm

The programmed sessions

In a busy programme with a number of parallel sessions, it is always a challenge to decide what to see. The full programme, including uploads of the presentations, is at

https://www.ucisa.ac.uk/events/2018/ucisa18/new_programme

All of the main sessions appeared to be videoed and there were also two photographers taking snaps of everything that moved. The catalogue of the conference videos is at

http://ucisa.mediasite.com/mediasite/Catalog/catalogs/ucisa18 [registration required.]

One of the strong themes of the conference was around the rise of AI, and its potential use in education (e.g. chatbots for service desks). A couple of sessions left me with strong impressions. Other sessions were notable for the themes they introduced. Across the whole programme, there is a lot of material that colleagues who were unable to attend UCISA18 might recommend for re-use at a London Group meeting.

Conrad Wolfram on “Fixing education for the AI age”

Link to the PDF of the presentation

This was a keynote address sponsored by Ellucian. Conrad Wolfrom has a couple of web sites (listed at the end of the PDF) that demonstrate his approach, based on decades of working, going back to Steve Jobs and the Next computer that had Mathematic bundled in with an ambition to “emphasise the prose of maths not the grammar”. Wolfram’s AI software sits behind the Apple Siri system.

The primary thesis of the talk was that machines have now taken over the task of computation, previously the domain of mathematics. Thus, an education system that continues to train pupils and students in computational techniques (everything from simple arithmetic through geometry, trigonometry, algebra to quadratic equations – all the things I spent so many hours learning in the 1970s) is redundant. What pupils and students need is to learn how to think through and define problems that computational machines can help to solve. His goal is to make high-level computation available for everyone through natural language access to systems.

His critique of traditional education approaches to maths is quite sharp. He talked about “the survival skills needed for the computational age” and asserts that maths in school is not preparing pupils for computational thinking. He gave an example of a process: define questions; translate into math; compute answers; interpret results. At present, pupils appear to spend most of their time learning how to do the calculation; they could use computers for that. He suggested that we need to redefine the maths curriculum assuming computers exist as we need problem-solvers not human computers. Learning coding is an essential skill for writing down ideas to solve real-life problems as opposed to solving quadratic equations, which is not useful (something I used to wonder about when I was learning them at high school in the 1970s).

Wolfram demonstrated a number of his software techniques. The session is on video and is worth a look.

Cyber-security: Henry Hughes (Jisc)

Link to the PDF of the presentation

Henry said that his focus is on the cyber-security “landscape” and that it would take a two day workshop to cover it in any detail. He therefore focused on UK Education and Research during last 12-18 months with some look ahead.

Henry mentioned that the Gov’t national cybersecurity strategy 2011-2016 had an allocation of £900m; the new 2016-21 strategy has £1.9b allocated. The buzzwords for the national strategy are “defend, deter, develop”.

Much of what Henry covered is well-known but a number of points stood out for me. On a survey of major hazards (a link to the responses is in the presentation linked above), phishing is at the top, then ignorance, followed by insider attack. On the question of whether security awareness training is compulsory 43% in FE and 46% in HE make it compulsory for staff but the figures for student training are very low (8% HE, 10% FE). On a table of top attacks (in the presentation) an interesting statistic is that DDOS is on an upward trend: it can go up to 55GBPS, would take down an organisation on 1GBPS or 10GBPS but attacks seem to drop away during holiday periods and tend to peak during 0800-1600 GMT. The traffic looks like it comes from abroad but the suspicion (based on these timings) is that it is triggered within UK. Henry’s prognosis is that we need to be much better at threat analysis, should plan for more frequent briefings on the threats. [Comment: maybe a standing item at UCISA London Group meetings?]

Jisc’s priorities are: staff/student awareness and training; vulnerability and patch management; clear roles and responsibilities; practice and rehearse processes; designing security into systems.

On the question of how to get across to students the importance of cyber security, Henry recommended a THE article:

How can colleges help keep students safe from cybercrime?

The session is on video.

Room 101: Chris Dixon in chair

This was an amusing session, with three contributors (Andrew Male from the University of York, James Smith from Birkbeck and Simon Cox from the University of Southampton) talking about the things in their experience of IT that they would like to consign to Room 101 (after the BBC program). It was illuminating in the sense of giving some hints about the sorts of things IT professionals complain about when they don’t think their users or suppliers are listening.

Unreasonable requests and the “just say no” syndrome

The first suggestion was a scenario that many in the audience recognised: a member of the organisation, not part of the IT department who suddenly appears with funds to spend on IT and simply wants the IT department to say “yes”. These requests often come in late on a Friday, or at the end of the budget year when there is an “underspend” to be dealt with at short notice (often it seems, manifesting as urgent requests to purchase expensive apple kit).

People expect a “yes” but the syndrome is “IT says no” and therefore gains a reputation for being unhelpful. In the case of someone who has decided that the solution to their department’s “problem” will be resolved by “simply” entering into a contract for an out-sourced system (like a Marketing CRM, or a Research Management System), the fact that IT asks all the normal corporate systems questions (e.g. where is the business case? how will you run a procurement? how does this fit with our data protection policies or systems architecture or forthcoming GDPR obligations?) seems to them to be obstruction.

In one example, colleagues wanted the on-line presence to be “more like” google and amazon. When asked “why?” the response was “because they are good”. The notion that a user interface is not the same as a corporate operating environment did not seem to register.

Some of the panel wanted to consign this drivel to the room but after a debate about the tactics used to try to get IT to say “yes”, the audience decided that what should go into Room 101 was the “Friday afternoon e-mail demanding an instant response”.

Suppliers making promises they can’t keep

The proposal was triggered by one of the panelist’s experience with suppliers who say “everything that can be done in the interface can also be done in the API”, which turns out to be a lie. Other examples with suppliers of software and hardware were also mentioned. Typically, IT talks to the account manager who says, “I’m not technical” then gets the runaround to various people who claim not to be technical. This went from the account manager to the support manager to various consultants; when lawyers were mentioned, the case was then passed to the international escalation manager.

Bizarre business cases invoking armageddon

Another suggestion in this segment was business cases, which “should be thing of beauty”. But then, upon further reading, there is an “armageddon scenario” in the case, e.g. “if we don’t do this, then disaster will happen” e.g. “can’t pay staff”, “can’t admit students”, meaning that the work needs to be done “in a week”, thus trying to jump the business case ahead of all other proposals.

The suggestion was that if a software license is running out, it should have been known for a year, likewise if hardware is about to fail; if the OS is no longer supported, should have known for 20 years, if the payroll system fails, the normal solution is to run last month’s payroll, therefore the armageddon scenarios should go into the room 101.

After some discussion, the audience was minded to put the “crap suppliers” into Room 101.

People who refuse to use collaborative tools

The scream of frustration from an IT professional who has implemented a range of tools for use at the workplace such as making calendar invitations via the on-line calendar to see who is available or using a collaborative google doc instead of a word doc circulated via e-mail or using a google group to manage the meetings and documents or even going so far as to use google chat. No matter how many attempts are made to push people towards the use of these systems, it seems that many people refuse and there are even “digital strategies” that seem to encourage people to use any old tools. Hence hours are wasted, documents are mashed, communications confused.

It’s not OK not to know anything any more

Once upon a time, without access to Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was OK not to know. People now jump for google on their phone whenever a question is asked (e.g. who was the Chinese Emperor in 300BC?) for which they have no answer. Why not send the notion that it is not OK to not know to Room 101?

Printers

Printers seem to know how urgent the job is and mangle the output accordingly, or the printer decides to ask for new Cyan cartridge when trying to print only B/W. Even using pull print doesn’t solve the problem because the other printers know what is going on, talk to each others over the network: it is a conspiracy. Why not send all printers to Room 101?

After a discussion, the audience decided to put them all in.

There were some other suggestions from the audience: language used at work but never at home (“concerned”, “sub-optimal”, “content”); committee-based decision-making instead of proper governance; IS/IT people who discuss great new changes but hope “not until I retire”; the person who says, “I can buy that from PC World”; presentation kits that are different in every room?

[Comment: whilst amusing, this is also an interesting approach to unpicking how IT “culture” works and might be useful in a London Group session.]

The session is on video.

Regina Murry and Andy Nagle from Microsoft on “democratising AI”

The title on the programme was about how to “prepare” for the future of education and technology but the content was all about Microsoft. This was the session where I started to wonder why no-one had proposed to put PowerPoint into Room 101. Microsoft is working on an AI system to populate a PowerPoint presentation by looking at key words and then grabbing material “off the internet” that might be relevant e.g. images or links, then throwing up slide template options based on the selected images.

This seems to be directed at users with “blank page syndrome” who need a “method of getting started”. For me it seemed to be a short step towards fully-automated “death by PowerPoint”, completely substituting AI in place of planning, researching, thinking-through and then deciding if anything thrown up on the screen would actually be useful.

Another example they showed was a “Resume Assistant” that ties in with LinkedIn.

Hmm.

The one seemingly useful thing they showed was called “seeing AI”. An application running on an iPhone that was developed by a visually-impaired MS person can recognise things that the iPhone is pointed at and describes them.

They went on with various futurology type discussions. The session is on video.

Other sessions that may be of interest to UCISA London Group

  • Building and using ChatBots to lessen the load – Chris Dixon, Head of IT Partnering and Innovation, Lancaster University
    Link to the PDF of the presentation
  • From 0 to 80,000 hours, implementing lecture capture at scale – Ben Steeples, Development Manager (Learning Technology), University of Essex Link to the PDF of the presentation
  • Sitting by the dock of the laptop – Pete Walker, Head of Support and Simon Speight, Devices Team Manager, University of Bristol
    Link to the PDF of the presentation
  • WIT and Wags – Heidi Fraser-Krauss, Director of Information Services, University of York and Claire Priestley, Director of IT, City, University of London Link to the PDF of the presentation Also on video.

John Robinson
Company Secretary
August 2018