Technology in HE

I was vaguely watching a live chat on the Guardian website on Friday regarding the impact of new technology on academic research, curious about what their ideas and opinions would be. Whilst the majority of the discussion related to other stuff, several people commented on IT restrictions, comments like:

“Does anyone else feel like they are constantly *hacking* the institution – constantly, CONSTANTLY, finding alternatives so I can do and use what I want. I *never* use the University’s official stuff/software/approaches because I just couldn’t work that way. They suck. Control and power and lack of trust.”

Whilst I understand the frustration, it seems they never consider the reasons why IT departments do some things the way they do. That maybe there are valid reasons. It seems it’s far easier to simply assume that it’s about trust, or lack of understanding, a power thing or simply because we want to annoy people. The thing is what works perfectly for you on your own computer may present a host of problems when you scale things up to 1,000 or 10,000 machines. For example, lets take Google Chrome.

I know lots of people at institute would like a different browser from Internet Explorer. I use Chrome myself (or more accurate Chromium) and it is indeed a slick, quick, well made piece of software. But you start to look at it in terms of deploying it to hundreds or thousands of people and you start having to consider various issues that have probably never even crossed the mind of the academic that just likes how it looks.

1. How do you go about applying security updates? Normally these are done automatically but you don’t want that happening for managed software. Can you separate out the security updates from feature updates. And considering how fast new versions of Chrome come out (on version 14 currently I believe), do you want to keep moving to new versions every couple of months?

2. You need to deploy a different version of Flash player from the one IE uses and keep that up to date with all the numerous security updates it suffers from.

3. You can’t install to the normal location at my institute. And the Chrome profile – where does that go? My profile currently comes in at about 150MB in size, which isn’t much but would have taken up ALL the space we provide for students to store their work for the whole 3 years of study. And you can reach that level in just a few months thanks to the ‘feature’ that stores the text of every webpage you visit!

4. How do you support all the add-ons? Useful as they are, the more you install the greater the potential to make Chrome act strangely, especially as they aren’t produced by Google and it’s much harder to judge quality.

5. What about other software or services that require a web browser – how will they work with Chrome.

6. Apart from some useful extensions what improvements does it really give someone (and please note that the latest versions of IE do very well on speed, resources and security).

I’m sure there are more.

People see us as restrictive and so go off and do their own thing without telling us. How are we supposed to help if we don’t get asked? And even if we do know and would like to help, we often don’t have the time, money or staff to do so. So those people going off and doing their own thing need to consider what they are really asking for, what the implications may be and that maybe we have a valid reason for doing things the way we do. Reasons such as security implications, data protection issues, money, support overheads, method of deployment and duplication of functionality. Maybe if they understood all those things they would be better placed to help make IT at their institutions better with informed choices and feedback…

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