14 April 2010

A meeting to discuss UC computing environments

Yesterday UC's Information Technology Systems (ITS) inserted a C in their name and came to communicate with a few of us who have expressed frustration over some things to do with UC's computing environment and connectivity management.

David Formica, David MacNivan, Stef Batts-Cirilli and Geoff Rozenberg came from ITS to C with Danny Munnerley and Leonard Low from the Teaching and Learning Centre and Ben Rattray and myself from Faculty of Health. Apologies for the meeting sent in from Michael De-Percy from the Faculty of Business & Government and James Neill from the Faculty of Health.

The meeting was prompted by the document I was preparing for Laurie Grealish, the Associate Dean of Education in the Faculty of Health, Things That Don't Work, that documents difficulties we are having with computing and connectivity. It is preparation for a larger proposal for some fundamental changes in policies and procedures in aspects of UC management.

Over all it was quite a positive meeting. There was the usual icey-ness with a couple of the IT guys that came along, no doubt feeling under siege, aggravated by my impatience and aggressiveness on such issues. But David was very patient, and eventually I think we broke through some of that get-to-know you business and realised we have ideas and concerns worth discussing rather than treating. It felt towards the end like we were actually having a dialog, and might be open to some more interaction in the near future.

Key points I noted where:

The notorious proxy, will be taken away in July! You beauty, here's hoping we can load files to media sharing sites, use webcams, webstream, create multiple Blogger accounts in workshops, etc.

The Content Management System used to run the UC website will remain :( looks like plan B of stripping down the content that's on the website to bare essentials and pointing into a second site we can actually manage is the best path to take. For example, Sport Studies and Nutrition have both set up open Moodle sites to act as a kind up-to-date face for their study areas.

Separating education and research from the business and admin side of things
. ITS is considering the advice from Wollongong University to separate the business and administration infrastructure of the university, from the teaching and research side. I think this would be a good move, as it may enable more flexibility to innovate and try new things on the education side, while the business and admin people can die a slow death with their legacy software/rod up their backs.

Free and open connectivity - especially wireless across campus was a longer discussion point. I see it as the more important point of discussion, as it could be the one that helps change the culture of the university from one of being about lecture halls, exclusive access and credential inflation, to one of connectivity, inclusivity and networked learning.

It seemed as though the two groups had quite different ideas of what access to connectivity meant. In my opinion, free and open connectivity to the internet for anyone who walks on to campus (and even hotspots out in regional towns) is a core service the university should be aiming to offer, as it is for public libraries and other public services (and I'm certainly not advocating Eduroam either).

The cost of providing such a service is an obvious concern. David said we pay AARNET approximately $700 000 per year for our present restricted access use. If we were to offer free and open connectivity on campus, would that data use increase given the campus is actually a long way from dense residential populations, and the culture of internet use for education is not really here yet? Geoff in ITS believes data use won't go up significantly. So could we afford to go further and offer free hotspots in regional towns? Is there a cheaper option than AARNET and their Eduroam shareholders?

The other concern raised about offering free and open connectivity is an apparent requirement by AARNET that we require sign in, and a suggestion that we track all data transferred by individuals on the network for auditing!? David MacNivan spoke to this point, and I'll need to look into it more. On the face of it, it stinks. Perhaps its better that we buy in service from an ISP who has the courage to stand up to such legislation, if it exists. Even if there was a requirement to "authenticate" (sign people in and record their use in plain English) I don't see why we couldn't still offer free and open-to-anyone connectivity and ask people to create a UC account before using. Why we should issue barcodes to people who must first sign up to $25000 of student dept before we give them access to the greatest educational device ever known, seems a bit more than simply fulfilling a server and audit requirement to track use. Are we thinking laterally enough? Students and staff can obviously use their existing barcodes if we realise we need to differentiate the quality of connection due to over use... if!

Finally, thanks to Danny's supporting comments that tried to point out some fundamental differences in outlook being discussed, we were able to put forward some sense that there is a fair bit of energy behind the notion of open access education using popular media. David indicated that ITS are open to a defining vision, and that the consultation period for the 5 year road map just authored by ITS (hoping for a link soon) is the place to pitch it. I questioned the authenticity of that consultation process - relating to many other such processes that are merely cosmetic while the deal is in fact done and dusted. David assured us the consultation was real, and he was putting money into it. He suggested we get a vision document together that aligns with the over all strategic direction of UC, and puts forward a business (and educational) case. We need to get the Associate Deans of Education championing the vision and relaying it up the chain of command.

So I've loaded the strategic plan to Wikiversity as well as the start of a Vision for open education using popular internet, with a view to linking the vision with the strategy, and outlining a business and education case.


Leonard said...

One thing that came out was that AARNET data is cheap compared with other ISPs, even though it comes "with strings attached" - i.e. need to authenticate all users. Even if data use did NOT go up significantly with the availability of free wireless, the COST of the SAME amount of data use would go up... massively.

Leigh Blackall said...

How do you come to that conclusion? I didn't get the impression that AARNET was cheaper. I got the impression that we didn't actually know! Did you work it out by number of staff and students divided by $700 000? According to Geoff, student use of data is much less than staff.. so it might be more like: number of stuff + 10% of students / $700 000.

What ever that comes to, plus the cost of meeting AARNETs requirements.. would be a fair estimate to work on I reckon... I'm sure someone has worked it out, I for one would like to see it for research purposes.

Anonymous said...

You might want to check your assertion on AARNet requiring authentication and tracking. I believe that it is more likely to be a local interpretation of AARNet passing on legal liability for users actions on to the University and the University then choosing to implement a logon regime and various other campus network security mechanisms. I think you find all carriers would pass on liability for end-user actions to the contracting company (or University in this case).

Also AARNet is the cheapest if you want fast high-volume internet with approximately 70% of all trafic unmetered (ie free access to Akami, iTunes, Microsoft, Google, Youtube, Facebook...etc). AARNet is a not-for-profit owned by the Universities.

Generally the only way to get Internet cheaper than AARNet is to use over-subscribed links (IE:Get a 50 or 100 Mb link for your uni rather than 1G or 10G)

benrattray said...

Hi Leigh,

I don't agree with your assertion that "It seemed as though the two groups had quite different ideas of what access to connectivity meant."

I think ITS staff tended to talk about what they understand as being the policy under which they work in. This is not the same as their fundamental beliefs about openness. I think its quite destructive to make that assertion. It may be true, but you don't know that, and they did not indicate any strong beliefs either way. They only indicated technical issues, and conditions under which they operate.

I think what was gained out of that meeting was knowledge about changes in the wind, as well as perceived (or real) barriers to the open vision. These are all policy based, so there are two ways forward... to investigate the legitimacy of concerns (as in AARNET regulatory issues) and potential to change wider policy and investment (and cost) implications of openness against social/marketing arguments. In the latter, ITS offered valuable advice on championing ideas and individuals of influence.

Leigh Blackall said...

@Anonymous said: You might want to check your assertion on AARNet requiring authentication and tracking... not my assertion, was that of David MacNivans supported by others from ITS.. I do intend to try and check it out.. it might be that no one has really checked it out, and the the procedure is a bit of group think. I also want to check out the costing for myself, just for my own learning, and to see if I can put a cost on the apparent "strings attached". Hopefully I'll discovered that AARnet are quite flexible, and that UC could in fact offer free and open connectivity... as you imply, it might simply be a policy or procedure (well, not simply - perhaps a lot of professional decisions to challenge). Thanks for the encouragement to investigate it.

@Ben having your fresh eyes on this is good. I admit to bringing my fair share of baggage and battle scares to the table. I have always found it difficult to talk with IT people. They use language like "business case" and "enterprise and corporate ready", I use terms like "educational case" and "social relevance".. I think the divide is real, and Danny seemed to think it was worth pointing out, but you imply it is imagined and that we may find an easy path to changing policy and procedure (so long as we can put a good case forward).. I hope you're right.

Anonymous said...

I love it. Delivered my first on-site on-line workshop at a local council yesterday, and it took an hour and a half to get just three students logged-in to the LMS. NOTHING is allowed - we must submit each and every URL for consideration to their IT team. Talk about restrictive. Thank goodness for home computers. I'm going to first engage the students at their homes and on their mobile phones and then get them questioning why they can't have the same access at work for their study. Thanks, Leigh.

Alexander Hayes said...

Here we go again.

Another organisation and another assault on the regime of it's infrastructural ineptness.

Seriously...you must be bored with the constancy of the scrums.

".... I have always found it difficult to talk with IT people. They use language like "business case" and "enterprise and corporate ready", I use terms like "educational case" and "social relevance".."

When will you out your obsession with justice.... and coin it as such.

Leigh Blackall said...

The following comes to me by email from David Formica, who was asked by an AARNET rep to relay this message:

They would like to respond to two issues raised in the commentary - access and cost:


A condition of AARNet's Access Agreement is that access be provided only to Authorised Users, defined as:

(a) a student, officer, employee, contractor, invitee or agent of the Relevant Institution; or
(b) a staff member or academic of an educational or research institution who is visiting the Relevant Institution

The reason for this condition is that:

...as a condition of maintaining its 'not-for-profit' status for the purposes of Australian taxation laws ... AARNet's activities as a provider of telecommunications services are limited to the provision of telecommunications services to entities and persons whose activities and/or objects are limited, or directly related, to education and research.

All of this means that access to AARNet cannot be provided to members of the public, other than those who satisfy the definition of Authorised User above.


AARNet's charging model is well understood, and provides excellent value for money for both researchers and educators. During the past five years, the amount of un-metered traffic covered by subscriptions has increased from 15% to 75%, and the price charged for the remaining metered traffic has fallen from $22.50 per GB to $2 per GB. Indeed, such traffic downloaded between 8:00pm and 8:00am is now also un-metered.

There may be cheaper options than AARNet, at the margin, but none of these provide the quality of service, the bandwidth or the volume that AARNet does; and none would provide the sorts of cost reductions and added value that AARNet has over the past 20 years in general, and the past 5 years in particular.

I hope this assists with a better understanding of the arrangement to which all Universities in Australia are bound.

Leigh Blackall said...

I have asked for a link to a (preferably open) document, outlining the terms and conditions of AARNET. I'm sure the statement below reflects exactly what such a document would contain, but I'm looking for it for research purposes. I can't really cite the anonymous comment from AARNET, relayed by David.

Also, my initial question regarding these terms might focus on the definition of student and invitee. Given that the UC campus is isolated from public residences, you could say that anyone on campus is either staff or contractors, students or people invited by staff of students. Of course some members of the public come on campus to use the library, attend open lectures, visit friends, or just site see, but these numbers would be relatively small.

Offering connectivity freely and openly would simply remove one small barrier for staff, students and their guests, by not having to put in a password for access. In some instances, new staff or students may be having a problem getting their password, and so an open access policy helps them. Additionally, I have seen many instances where visitors - such as our recent Guest David Jones talking about BIM, was not able to connect to the network. Our discipline invites numerous professionals and experts to talk with researchers and students, offering them a fast and easy way to connect online is of course necessary.

Those people coming onto campus who are not students, staff or contractors.. I see them as potential students, certainly people interested in the university and what it does, so offering those relatively small numbers of people access should be no trouble I'd think. Call them invitees if you like.

If offering open access does turn into a bandwidth problem, then I think we should manage the risk as it becomes known - rather than being risk averse. If data use spikes, introduce the sign in open, and ask people using the open access to first enter an email address. If data continues to peak, throttle the open access channel. If it still peaks, then return to all access by UC issued password.

All of this is simply an attempt in my mind to set our infrastructure up in a way that supports the development of open culture at UC. One of many things that could and should change for the development of such a culture. Openness would be a real point of difference for UC over other universities in Australia.

Anonymous said...

"Those people coming onto campus who are not students, staff or contractors.. I see them as potential students, certainly people interested in the university and what it does, so offering those relatively small numbers of people access should be no trouble I'd think. Call them invitees if you like."
So any freeloader can come onto campus, possibly abuse the Uni's net services, & take up pc's that may be needed by fee paying students. Not on.

Leigh Blackall said...

You see them as "freeloaders", I see them as potential students, cafe customers, tax payers, and people needing access to information... something about a healthy democracy goes in here... but I can see you're more pessimistic than me. Oh, as for abuse and pc use, all manageable. Make the Wifi free access to start, and make unsigned access limited to 20 minute sessions at a time, if abuse is noticed.

Leigh Blackall said...

Is this the Eduroam policy? Sadly I read in it the following: "2.3 Participating organisations: Home Organisation
2.3.1 The role of the home organisation is to act as the credential provider for registered staff and students
who must be over the age of 18 years of age or have parental consent to use this service."
I'm contacting AARNET to see if offering guest access is possible within this policy. I'm at another University now, and 6 months of lost productivity abounds us, trying to get visitors online.