UCISA 2013 Pt 6

While continuing to speak to exhibitors was a major part of Thursday afternoon, I did get the chance to see talks from Birmingham and Coventry.

Toni Kelly spoke quite passionately (presentation here) about the work they did at University of Birmingham, first contributing to a JISC funded study titled “Designing Spaces for Effective Learning” and then the redevelopment of several teaching spaces on campus.

Birmingham "Before"

Birmingham “Before”

That quote from Toni leapt out at me straight away as it fits with my recollections of University – the library, computer labs, seminar rooms and lecture theaters were the spaces I spent the most time (and the Students Union, but that’s a different story). We care about the student experience, but I suspect (in fact I know!) there are still a lot of rooms around that look like this uninspiring “before” example from Birmingham.

The work on the study was clearly a wake-up call for Birmingham, who put carried out a space audit, redevelopment programme and established a Learning Spaces Strategy “intended to act as the driver for creating appropriate and sustainable learning environments through the considered use of design and innovation, supported through high quality management and services.” The emphasis on the words is theirs, with Appropriate, Sustainable, Innovation and Supported being 4 key aspects to the strategy.

Before we got on to the pictures of the resulting spaces, Toni walked us through some of the outcomes of the programme including, most interestingly I thought, the fact that providing a common standard of equipment in teaching spaces means that academic staff didn’t have to tailor their teaching to the space they were assigned, taking that bit of anxiety away and making timetabling a lot simpler (no word on if/how they persuaded academic staff to teach on Monday mornings/Friday afternoons – a perennial problem for timetablers!).

Having seen the previous state of the rooms we were treated to photos of the newly designed spaces. My favourite was the collaboration booths with the big screen AV provision at the end and the astroturf carpet – although this is possibly because it reminded me of the booths where I did some of my most productive work at University (although there was no astroturf, the big screen had Sky Sports on it and the bar was but a stone’s throw away).

One of Birminghams' astroturfed pods

One of Birminghams’ astroturfed pods

A lot of creative thought was also put into redesigning lecture theatres, taking the traditional layouts with (or without) tiered flip-down seats and turning them into rooms which allowed that style of use, but also enabled (and encouraged) more collaborative working. We heard a lot about the student feedback along with observations about how the use of the room changed.

What I felt was missing was some idea of the academic contribution to these changes and what they made of them after use. Unlike the learning spaces which see student-led use, spaces like seminar rooms and lecture theatres have evolved from and now dictate (to a degree) how the teaching is delivered. While the descriptions of lessons which became much more interactive sounded positive and were probably quite valuable for the students, tales of students hiding behind laptops and being active online during a lecture sounded like an academic’s nightmare.

Lecture Theatre before and after

Lecture Theatre before and after

There were also some mixed feelings in the room about furniture!

I only had the chance to see one of the Business Showcase sessions – Coventry/Microsoft’s presentation (presentation here) on implementing parts of MS’s Service Centre suite. This was quite topical for me as we’re currently struggling our way through implementing Service Center Configuration Manager.

I say struggling because we’re working in a more federated setup, so we have a lot of local colour to account for, whereas Coventry were coming at it with the intention of starting with a clean slate and getting rid of what read like a Who’s Who of system monitoring and management tools:

  • VMWare
  • Altiris
  • HP Insight
  • IBM Director
  • Solar Winds
  • Nagios
  • Zabbix
  • RMS

The presentation talked us through (at a high level) how all of these were thrown out in favour of several parts of the Service Center suite (Operations Mgr, Virtual Machine Mgr, Configuration Mgr and Service Mgr as a servicedesk). It was interesting to see Service Manager in there – apparently this was because they all hated their previous system (RMS) – but who can really claim to love their service management solution?

The headline in what was a presentation with a clear heavy input from Microsoft (right down to the tiled Metro [or whatever] style and the corny “Service Center Suite & The Power of One” line) was the cost savings. As so much of Service Center is rolled into HE Select Agreements, Coventry saved an impressive £100k/yr by retiring their old solutions:

Big money savings

Big money savings

Not a bad outcome.

I popped along to the UCISA AGM, mostly out of curiosity. I nearly volunteered for a vacant elected member post on the executive committee, but my English reserve (and Richard Maccabee [I think]) saved me the worry. Maybe next time.

The dinner was quite enjoyable – the venue was certainly something else:

Lutyen's Crypt

Lutyen’s Crypt

There were mixed views about our after dinner speaker, ex-England rugby player Martin Bayfield, with complaints of homophobic content and justifying child violence. I can’t comment on the former, but having been at a school with a proud rugby heritage (that despite my name I failed to do justice) his tales of domination on the pitch as a kid were not only unsurprising (and funny) – they were exactly what I’d expect an international player’s CV to look like!

And of course being from a *Welsh* rugby loving family any hard feelings I might have had about Martin’s many, many digs at the “provincial” national sides were soon forgotten after the result the following Saturday…

A good day ended with whisky and putting the world to rights with Phil and James from our central IT team. Indeed for some, the day ended too soon…

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