“Good central location”

Map

This is my fourth role in a central department and every single one has been an experience. I don’t consider myself an expert and I’m still trying to ‘do it right’. So I thought I’d write down some tips for developing a successful working relationship.

A bit of context

I am the manager of the Extended Classroom Support team which is in the Academic Technology department which is a dept. in IT Services. My team supports the use of teaching and learning (T&L) technologies in our Extended Classroom suite, Moodle, Mahara etc. for all staff and students within the University. We do 1st and 2nd line support, training, guidance and consultancy. We work closely with our colleagues in the technical team who are responsible for the technical support, maintenance and updates for our technologies and others. I am as central as you can get.

Within departments we have Academic Technologists who are employed by the dept. to support their use of T&L technologies and are completely independent to us. We call them Super Users as they have heightened responsibilities and access to the technologies we provide. Although we group them as Super Users they are all very different in the level of responsibility they have, their goals and objectives, knowledge and experience. Some call this organisation ‘hub and spoke’ and to some extent I suppose it is.  We try to strike a tricky balance of not stepping on their toes but being there when they want us. 

For me, this is the largest ‘hub and spoke’ set up that I have been a part of. At my previous institution there was only one other dept. who had their own Academic Technologist equivalents. We also used a different VLE in which developments are limited/non-existent. At Warwick we use Moodle, which gives the impression of flexibility and easy customisation. What it doesn’t say in the marketing materials is there are huge sacrifices to be made if you want flexibility and customisation. This results in a lot of requests that we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t fulfill. At my previous institution, the VLE was what it was and you worked with it. The VLE is still relatively new here too, only 6 years old, so every dept. is at different levels of use/depth. This means we have a broad spectrum of users to support.

Participate in the community

The Warwick campus is spread out and it’s not the kind of place where you just bump in to one another. Since I began this role I’ve wanted to develop our community of Super Users so that they have a space to share knowledge and experience with one another. We organise events and have an online community space in Moodle with forums for discussions and knowledge sharing. A community only works if people participate in it.

Work in partnership

Many see central depts. existing solely to serve. That is a very reductive mindset. Yes, we provide a set of services but we can do much more than that. If you can see us as more than the people you go to when you have a job you can’t or don’t want to do, then we can start to actually work together. If you see our relationship solely as transactions then we’re not working together we’re working for you. Little of value will be achieved through this.

Understanding

We need to understand one another. We do a lot to try to understand depts. so underestimating how we work, our constraints and our challenges will help to build a relationship. 

Transparency

One complaint I hear is “we don’t know what’s going on”. Rest assured, if we had something to tell you, we’d tell you. However, I have been endeavoring to make our thought processes, procedures and plans more transparent. If we share something with you, please read it. If you know something is coming, tell us. 

Everyone has priorities, they may not match yours

This is the most difficult challenge of a central department, balancing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder I work with thinks theirs is the most important. When you’re looking after 30+ depts. you have at least 30+ priorities to balance, add to that your own priorities and the priorities of the institution, and you end up with more priorities than you can ever take in to account. A clearly considered rationale behind requests will help us prioritise effectively. However, that doesn’t mean yours will always be top of the queue!

Patience

We can’t do everything we’re asked. There are only so many hours in the day. We’re trying to do the work we know we need to do, the work you want us to do and the work we didn’t know was coming. You may be frustrated with our pace but we’re doing the best we can.

Shouting the loudest

Linked to the above and partnership, if you’re not happy with the pace, shouting louder won’t help. There are reasons, whether you think them legitimate or not, behind everything. Shouting louder, rallying and calling us out in public won’t make anything happen any quicker and it doesn’t engender collegiality.

Work WITH us

If we can’t meet your needs then help us advocate for more provision, time or resource. Support is more effective than complaints. We need voices to back up our arguments. Help us do something about it.

Power plays

I’ve seen this a lot. Person A isn’t getting what they want so finds person B who is higher up in the dept. Person A asks person B to email person C, who’s higher up the dept. they’ve been dealing with, to add pressure/hope for a better answer. Often, this escalates until high enough people, who often have no idea what they’re asking for, apply enough pressure. It’s not helpful and actually ends up being incredibly disruptive. It’s a ploy used to shame and pressure people in to doing things. It’s not collegiate, it doesn’t encourage trust and it certainly doesn’t make you popular.

Control

Like you, we work and rely on other teams to do what we do. They suffer the same pressures as we do. I can’t tell them what to do and when. All I can do is present an argument. They have their own priorities and work to do. We work in partnership and have (I hope) developed a balance between give and take. 

Feedback is welcome

Let me caveat that, constructive feedback is welcome. If you don’t tell us, we can’t improve.

Have a little faith

Honestly, we are doing our best. We’re not twiddling our thumbs. We’re working to improve things, we just can’t do it all at once.

Share the love…

Academics are for life…

not just for Christmas. That should have been the title of the presentation I gave to the IT Services department at Leeds Beckett University last December. Instead, I called it “It’s all Academic”. Serious title regret.  I was asked to talk to the department about how to work better with Academics.

First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Sally Bogg for the invitation and to the organising committee, Mark Wood, Rob Moore, Tracy Russell, Matt Page, Ian Pette, Kieron Piercy and Tanja Lichtensteiger, for organising by far the most entertaining internal conference I have been to. The programme was informative, with excellent speakers, and incredibly fun. It was clear the team put in a huge amount of work and they completely pulled it off.

Take a look at the #ITSEvolving2017 hashtag to see the conversations delegates were having. My slides are available here and the results from the in-session polling are here. Fill your boots.

The reason I called the presentation ‘It’s all academic’ is that to me, it is. Universities exist because students want a degree. Students get degrees by learning and demonstrating that learning through assessment. To learn they must be taught and someone has to assess whether they are worthy of a degree. That is where academics come in. If there were no academics there would be no students and without students, there would be no University. We would, therefore, all be out of the job.

You will never please everyone

Fact. If you work in any kind of service or support role accept it. Move on. You’ll feel better.

An unrealistic, but effective, list

If I were a consultant who made their money speaking at conferences, peddling my 5 step programme to effective working relationships, I would have arrived at ITS Evolving with a definitive list of dos and don’ts to earn my scratch.

I’m not a consultant. I don’t get paid to speak. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything. I share my thoughts based on my experience only. But for fun, I made one up.

Unrealistic list

If you do all (the very tongue in cheek) things on the above list you will be well-liked by everyone, not just academics. But over here in the real world, we know that list is unrealistic. See my previous posts I am the harbinger of doom and The silent majority vs the deafening minority. There are legitimate things that get in the way:

In the real world

Academics are for life, not just for Christmas

There were some *ahem* interesting responses to my question “what do you find most difficult about working with academics”. We’ll leave “window lickers”, “old” and “lizards” to one side for a moment as the first is a disgraceful way to describe anyone, the second a lazy stereotype and the third makes no sense at all.

Word-cloud ITS Evolving 2017

To boil them down, academics are stubborn, arrogant, resistant to change, haughty, unrealistic and demanding. I will allow you to decide whether this is an accurate description based on your own experience.

I will share something with my IT colleagues, sometimes their behaviour is justified. You’re trying to do your job and guess what? They’re trying to do theirs! Given you often conflict with that, it’s hardly surprising that you are at loggerheads occasionally. That is no excuse for the rudeness of course.

If you don’t like academics, go work somewhere else. As I say at the start of the post, if there were no academics there would be no University. Learn to work with, not against them. Accept their existence or jog on.

Academics are sceptical by profession

It’s their job mate. They spend their days analysing and drawing conclusions. It’s hardly a surprise that these people will expect some evidence behind your decisions. They have a superhuman ability to smell bullshit so you better know what you’re talking about.

Their scepticism around technology is not unfounded. We are constantly reading about data and privacy issues in technology. Educational technologies are not immune to these issues. Technology can be seen as an exploitative tool of management. Check out Audrey Watters and any of Neil Selwyn‘s books for some excellent analyses on the issue.

Academics are under enormous pressure

They have ever increased (rarely decreasing) responsibilities. They are constantly being measured (module evaluations, NSS, REF, TEF et al) and monitored. They have job insecurity, a lot are hourly paid some are on probation for 5 years. Give them a break people. They have a lot to worry about.

Academics are not IT professionals

What do you want from them? Want them to maintain your SSL Cipher Suites and protocol versions over lunchtime? Yes, a basic level of capability is absolutely necessary but be reasonable people. Your job, the thing you’re paid to do, involves having expert knowledge of IT. Academics are here to teach. That’s why Universities exist.

Guess what? Not everyone likes technology as much as you! Technology is not neutral, it’s incredibly emotive. What IT depts. do has an effect on the daily lives of every person at University. Switching from one email client to another may be an insignificant change to you but to others, it’s a huge change.

 

Academics are people

There is no special formula you can apply. Academics are not a homogenous group. They are all different. They have good and bad days. Some of them are not very nice. But you know what? I’ve met plenty of very unpleasant IT professionals in my time.

All they want is to know what the hell is going on and to talk to a human being. Is that too much to ask?

Academics have different priorities

To me, this is the main reason IT and academics don’t get along. It may not be a priority but often IT depts. spend resource and time on support departments like HR, Registry and Finance, whilst teaching is pushed to the back of the queue.

They want you to support them with the most important part of their work. Working with students. Teaching. Helping students to learn. They want systems that enable, facilitate and improve that process. They don’t care about a new finance system.

The realistic list

The Realistic List

I don’t think there is anything revolutionary or unachievable on this list. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult either, yet, we continue to have this same conversation. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know I don’t get it right all the time but if we all try, that’s a start.

All the IT team at Leeds Beckett can do is try and they have taken the first step by acknowledging a problem and being open to change.

P.S. I’m still looking for an IT Department that will take up my idea for IT <> Academic shadowing. As Tenessee Williams put it

“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.”

P.P.S. I used ResponseWare for my in-session polling and it was a painful experience. Opening and closing the poll was hit and miss. The essay question in to word cloud didn’t display and on the whole, it was stressful. But it was appreciated by the audience, so I wouldn’t avoid using polling again. I’d just prefer to use something like PollEverywhere.

ICT vs. Educational Technologists

Relationships between departments, in any sector, can be difficult and HE is no exception. But this came as a bit of a surprise to me whilst enjoying a tipple in the evening at the UCISA Support Services Group conference. Apparently some ICT staff are not keen on the educational technologists at their institution.

I’ve used the name educational technologists though I know full well there are hundreds of different job titles. You may call yours digital education developers, learning technologists, elearning technologists, technology enhanced learning advisers, online content developers and so on.

I’ve never felt any animosity (or any extraordinary animosity) from my colleagues in ICT. There is the usual “that’s not our job” tension but that’s nothing unusual. Perhaps I am oblivious to it or we never work with people who feel this way. I imagine it is an equal mix of the former and latter. So it came as a shock to hear how negatively the Ed Techs are thought of by ICT staff in some institutions. So I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about why this might happen and how we can avoid it.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are busy

ICT departments are incredibly busy places to work. They have a very broad customer base who pull them in a number of directions. Students, academics, professional services etc. are all vying for their attention. Not only that but they actually have to maintain all of the systems as well as put new ones in. None of these things are easy. We should remember and be mindful of that.

Dear ICT: We are busy too

There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Educational technologists float around messing about with new fun technologies. That we spend our days thinking up ways to make ICT’s life more difficult. I assure you we don’t mean to. Whilst we occasionally get to do fun stuff we are most often bogged down in supporting staff in how to use the VLE. Most often training staff on the basic functions.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT are under pressure

I have already mentioned the pressures that a diverse customer base causes ICT. Often it is whoever shouts loudest that gets heard. How many times have staff emailed your ICT Director to complain they weren’t being dealt with quickly enough?

Dear ICT: We are under pressure too

Technology in education has become more and more important. The TEF puts innovation at the heart of teaching. For some reason institutions think by sticking some technology in to teaching it will somehow become innovative. We all know there is no quick answer. Therefore, ed techs are seen as the people to transform teaching. That we can make everyone innovative with a click of our fingers. Unfortunately, we have to start making a significant change. To do that we need to have the infrastructure in place and ICT, that’s where you come in.

Dear Ed Techs: Stop asking for seemingly random stuff

To ICT it probably seems like our requests come out of nowhere. Sometimes they do. We know our rationale. We remember the conversations we have had with staff and students on the subject. We have looked at the alternatives. But ICT have a process they go through and trying to avoid it, because it’s usually long-winded and laborious, is not going to get it done any quicker.

Dear ICT: Let’s not argue

Sometimes it would be nice for us not to have to argue. Filling out your long-winded paperwork and endless meetings. Unless you plan on sitting down and testing all the options I’m sure you’re going to go with whatever we suggest anyway. Also we know our users so we may not go for the shiniest thing with all the features we might just go for what we know they’ll use. That may seem odd to you but we have thought it through I promise.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a limited budget

Although ICT budgets appear huge to an outsider they are not and they are usually allocated for specific projects. Enterprise infrastructure is expensive. So when you roll up with “its only 2k” that may seem insignificant but it’s not. It’s a lot of money when every penny has been carefully allocated at the start of the year. Find out when the budget run is and try to get your requests in as early as possible.

Dear ICT: We don’t have a budget

Our team doesn’t have a budget for technology and licensing. That doesn’t seem to be something the University thinks would be helpful. So we rely heavily on ICT. When we say we have no money, we really mean it. Let’s work together to secure an ‘innovation’ fund. So when we ask you for stuff there is some money set aside already.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT don’t want to install stuff just because it’s cool

We all want to play with the latest thing. If anything that’s kind of our job but ICT have enough to do. They can’t just install stuff because we think it’s cool.

Dear ICT: We need a way to play with the cool stuff

Technology changes quickly. Educational technology changes quickly and we need to be able to move with that change. If it takes a year to get something installed it’s often out of date by then. What would be great is if we could have some way of installing things, testing them and, retiring them if they are not well used or rolling them into production if they are.

Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a process

ICT sometimes appears to be being difficult for the sake of it. I know that is not the case. Many ICT departments use a framework called ITIL which help to process the vast number of tasks they have to complete. It also helps to prioritise what they are doing, when they do it and who does it. ICT go through a demand management process. They get so many requests they have to prioritise and schedule them.

Dear ICT: We can’t do it without you

We are not able, nor should we, nor would you like it, if we started building up servers and installing anything we like willy-nilly. Nor do you appreciate it when people buy stuff without your knowledge. So we need you to do stuff for us. Trust me there are times where we’d much rather just do it ourselves but we can’t. We have to go through you.

You know we need you.

Dear Ed Techs: What you think is important may not be top priority

Sometimes there are pressures on their time and activities that have to take priority. We may not agree with them but we have to be mindful that our priorities may not always be aligned. Take a deep breath and don’t chuck your toys out of the pram. Try and work within the existing systems rather than outside them. You’ll probably get somewhere much faster.

Dear ICT: Please acknowledge that teaching is important

I have acknowledged the diverse needs that constantly pull on ICTs time. But I will finish with my biggest frustration. That you don’t acknowledge that teaching is important and ultimately why we are here.

If teaching is terrible students won’t turn up. If students don’t turn up we won’t have jobs. Yes I know that the finance system, HR system and WiFi are all important. They underpin everything. But if a lecture theatre computer is broken that’s not a big issue in the grand scheme. But it’s a massive issue for that member of staff and those students. Acknowledge that when they call you. Fix it quickly. Don’t leave it for days.

Dear ICT: Let’s work together

You play a crucial role in the University. What you do, day-to-day, affects everyone. There are few departments who have such an impact on people’s lives. We rely on you. So let’s just start working together. Let’s talk about how we can work together. What we need from you and what you need from us. What we can do together to make a difference. Let’s stop focusing on problems and start finding solutions.