Some final (honestly) thoughts on the whole conference – things that leapt out at me, lessons learned, that kind of thing. Then I’ll stop…
Wednesday’s highlight (unless you were only there to catch the Beatles tribute after dinner) was undoubtedly the VC Q&A (more here). Getting the ear of C-level management in a University is difficult at the best of times, so having 3 of them in a room answering questions was great to see. The only disappointment was that it didn’t last much longer – I suspect we could have kept going all afternoon.
Thursday’s highlight again involved discussion with a C-level manager, as Chris Sexton joined Sheffield’s CFO on stage for presentation and Q&A session (more here, with a personal view from Chris herself on her blog). It was good to see a Finance manager put on the spot and asked the questions we’re all itching to ask (give us good IT procurement officers!) and to get some answers which didn’t feel like excuses!
It’s tricky to pick a highlight from Friday, but in terms of personal impact I’d have to go with David Cotterill’s talk on innovation at the Department of Work and Pensions (more here). I suspect mine wasn’t the only to do list which got a bit longer as a result of this presentation!
I gained a lot from the Twitter activity that surrounded the conference (and gave a lot – 123 tweets with the #ucisa13 hashtag – I can only apologise!). It helped me connect with the other attendees (both virtually and in the “real world”, where the online connection helped me get over reservations about just walking up to strangers and saying “hi”!) and get a good feel for what was going on elsewhere in the sessions I couldn’t get to. If nothing else I would recommend to anyone going to these things to get a twitter account and follow the conversation using the relevant hashtag, even if you don’t contribute yourself.
I was quite surprised to discover that even now, in a world dominated by Facebook, negative views of social media still made it to an IT conference. To quote one (very) senior University manager on the first day “I don’t use Facebook or Twitter because I want to have a life”. The only response to that kind of attitude is to point at Paul Miller’s recently finished year abstaining from the internet – where he realised that rather than taking away from it, being online compliments our existence.
I had some interesting conversations with the exhibitors which have informed some recent debates at the office and while my swag-grabbing didn’t quite reach the competitive sports level of some others, it was good to be able to pick some useful bits up. Certainly the office won’t want for pens for a while and the Desire2Learn moose I took home for my daughter still has pride of place on her chair.
On presentations and presenting
The perils of PowerPoint were well in evidence throughout the conference. I’ve been fortunate enough through my career to only occasionally be called upon to give formal presentations, but as it has happened more frequently of late I do find myself falling foul of the usual PowerPoint pitfalls, especially the desire to use it to express my latent creative side. This is the result of an early career foray into web design and sadly my presentation design style is very much like my web design style – stuck in 2003.
It was good to see what worked not just in terms of PowerPoint use, but also general presentation style. What struck me was that when it comes to the stuff on the screen less is more, while for the standing and talking bit the opposite is definitely true.
Take the CFO and IT Director conversation session from Thursday morning, which had (including title) a mere 7 slides (28.5% of which were dedicated to Pink Floyd). View the slides in isolation and they make no sense, but what was delivered on the day was an engaging personal history with stories of tuck shops and rowboats followed by tips on good business cases. This feels like sufficient justification to embed the Pink Floyd video again…
Sadly the talking bit is the bit that takes the most time and effort (and experience) to get right; I can appreciate why people often hide behind slide after slide of text. I’m looking at you, BCS presentation.
It was the first time that I saw much use of video in presentations – something I remain unconvinced about. The lengthy videos used in the Meru presentation on Friday morning attracted significant scorn from those sober enough to be paying attention, whereas David Cotterill’s more considered use of video added real value. The main difference, I think, was how they were used. David used a TED talk to compliment his introduction of gamification, where the previous presentation had used video in lieu of actual content, which came across as lazy.
And it goes without saying, if you’re going to use video in a presentation and you’re not using your own computer to run it, make damned sure it’ll play in Windows out-of-the-box. QuickTime has no place in the modern world!
Those 3 days in Liverpool helped push along what has been a conscious effort to up my game professionally, now that my daughter’s earliest years are behind her and I’m starting to see an end to the nappies and teething. It clarified a few short- and longer-term aspirations and introduced me to a few of the movers and shakers (partly another reference to the first night’s Beatles tribute act!) in Higher Education IT.
Some final, final points
It’s easy to go to these events and hear what other Universities are up to a feel a little disheartened about being “behind the pack” – a place no one wants to be in these times of high fees and competition for students. But the reality appears to be that we’re all slightly ahead of each other in different areas – and that is where the value of events like this is, giving establishments the chance to advertise and celebrate their successes while sharing hard learned lessons that will allow the rest of us to eventually catch up – by which time the cycle will have started again.
On a similar vein, it was great to spot a theme of low-cost change and innovation. Oxford, Sheffield, Sussex and Coventry (I’m limiting my list here to those presentations I actually saw) all undertook good looking projects at little/no cost, but with tangible benefits to their organisations. The big-buck projects are the ones that so often get the headlines (new buildings, new corporate systems etc.) but it’s the smaller projects which just appear and just work that are the ones which drive the sector forward as a whole.
My main disappointment, as head of a team supporting the more academic side of computing, was the lack of discussion about IT for research activity. Research is a big part of the sector’s activity, it is HE’s major contribution to society, it effectively subsidises teaching for many and contributes to organisation’s reputation, impacting student recruitment. The what, how and when of research data management is a massive challenge, considerable headache and should be high up the risk register of any research intensive University. But we didn’t talk about it.
Thank you if you took the time to read this and my other blogs on the conference. It’s fair to say that blogging this all has been a lesson (and endurance trial) all in itself. I’ll end with a video showing the entirety of the excellent doodle wall that popped up down by the poster presentation, which captured a lot of the main thoughts and themes of the conference.