Global Learning Exchange: Ci meets ISS

by Manuel Girardin, IT support coordinator, Ci-UNIL

The author was part of the UNIL staff delegation that had the chance to visit the Lancaster University, in the north of England.

© Lancaster University Minecraft Server – IT Partnering and Innovation Team


The Global Learning Exchange (GLE) is an exchange program open to staff members and was set up by the International Relations Office of the UNIL and its equivalent at the Lancaster University (LU). Professional mobility, dear to the academic field, finds an echo within the professional services thanks to this brilliant initiative.

Our “Centre informatique” (Ci – standing for “Computer centre”), through the author, had the opportunity to participate in this adventure. A big opportunity as exchange of best practices and comparison are among the best ways to ensure the relevance of services we provide as IT. An IT department needs to evolve in line with technological progress and stay close to the users’ needs. Seeing what is done elsewhere allows us to question some of our assets, in order to confirm or improve them.

A more centralised IT

About 14’000 students and 4’500 staff, academic and technical members are part of the Lancaster University, numbers that are very similar to the UNIL. Within a campus located outside of the city of Lancaster (~45’000 inhabitants), members of the LU community happily move from and into a multitude of small buildings, used for teaching, research or students housing. Students (first years mainly) do indeed live on campus.

When it comes to IT services, UNIL and the LU have similarities and differences. One of the main difference lies in the way the IT budget is managed. While ours is more in the hand of the faculties and services, the Lancaster one is centralised in the hand of the Information Systems Services (ISS). Small teams may be independent and have their own budget, but most of it is concentrated within the ISS.

A centralized budget has its advantages when it comes to IT services: things such as internal billings do not exist, opening the way to administrative simplifications. For instance, softwares are bought centrally by the ISS and users can access them through a cloud paging service, via an app called appsanywhere. The concept here is attractive: an online platform, linked to a client installed on the user’s computer, allows the latter to download and install apps easily. The availability of the apps depends on the user’s profile (student, researcher, staff member, …). No licence must be entered by the users, no form must be signed or validated by an institute director. It’s simple, direct and effective.

Still, this tool is more intended to Windows PCs. This is kind of logical, when you know that 80% of our English colleagues’ computers are in fact PC running Windows. Mac users still have access to the service, but without its simplicity of use. They have to download a common installer and run it on their computer.

A centralized software purchase budget, without all the administrative procedure, allows the IT to allocate human resources to discuss prices with the suppliers or work on the user-friendly part of the service. That may be a way of thinking to improve our own software distribution service.

Windows rules

Windows runs on more or less 80% of the Lancaster University computers (35%-40% at UNIL). Our English colleagues take advantage of an ongoing migration to Windows 10 to implement mobile profiles, which is standard when it comes to Microsoft environment: usual folders (such as Desktop, Documents, Pictures, etc.) are of course still used on computers but data are in fact located on central servers. A user will find all his work data on any machine on which he authenticates with his IT account. The pros for the IT service stands in the possibility to avoid having to process “local” data, the ones that are one the computer, as in this case they should not exist. So, changing a computer is kind of easy for the user: just plug in the new one and enter your credentials. You’ll then have access to all your data. Add some more clicks for the installation of your applications and “voilà”, your computer is ready to be used. The user is on the other hand a little less free of his movements, since the administration rights of the machine are not given to him automatically.

Still, this kind of centralisation has its limit when it comes to Mac users, as there’s no mobile profile for them. And no backup service such as our Crashplan service. Mac users can use the central storage server to back up their files and folders, if they think about it. With 60-65% of Mac users, UNIL could not go in the “mobile profile” direction.

On the hardware side, the Lancaster University works primarily with the Lenovo brand. As the ISS manage the IT budget for the University, it allows them to limit the number of models offered to their users to 4: 2 types of use (laptop and desktop) and 2 types of configurations (standard and advanced). Computers are then bulk-bought. (Saint) Steve Jobs’ 4 quadrants product grid, presented at MacWorld in 1998, applies itself with the Lenovo computers chosen by ISS.

Services to students : training, service desk and mobile app !

As half of the university’s budget comes from students’ taxes, IT services to them are quite developed. For instance, our English counterparts make a special effort in the training of their users, students or staff. The basic idea is that ISS will give the basic training, with a team dedicated to the “digital skills” (2 full-time teachers, 2 part-time and 1 service manager). The point is to bring the users to an equal level, staff or students. Faculties will then take over with more advanced trainings on specific software (SPSS, Matlab, etc.). Staff members also have access to online trainings, where they eventually obtain a certification to add in their CV.

As part of the services to students, LU offers a large “Learning Zone” located in the centre of the campus. It is open 24/7 and offers online bookable work spaces to students. You may work alone, in group or take part in a digital training. Students will also find laptop on loan in this area. The “Support Desk”, opened during office hours, is located in the Learning Zone and allows students to get some software or hardware help for their personal computer. As we do at UNIL with our “Technical help desk”, students hired by ISS will answer questions of fellow students.

Students seem to like LU’s mobile app, as 97% of them use it. Probably also because they have to use it to announce their attendance to classes. This mobile app is opened to actual members of the Lancaster community, but also to visitors and future students. A modern way to communicate with them and hopefully attract a few more new students.

3 of the 9 “Learning Zone” Boxes and Support Desk (at the bottom) – © D. Spring

Centralization of printing budgets for a lighter ecological footprint ?

« Last but not least, » the Lancaster University has implemented a centralized print project, where multifunction printers (MFPs) gradually replace traditional desktop printers. The goal is to move from a University multiplying printers and contracts to external providers to a centrally managed printing service, with a single budget and MFPs that every member of the university can use, be it student, teacher, or staff. The « Design, Photography & Print » service (DPP, equivalent of the UNIL “Reprographie”) is also integrated into the project: the printing of A4 or A3 documents, on standard paper, in volume is offered as part of the central budget. The idea is to free the MFP printers from big print jobs, such as course handout, and leave this work to printing pro staff. In this area, we must recognize that our two IT departments share the same ideal: a centralized printing system offering different quality options and allowing everyone to print in any campus building. The ecological footprint is better controlled, as are the costs: the number of machines is reduced but their quality is improved, the confidentiality of the printing jobs is guaranteed with a 2 steps printing and the user only prints what he needs. The toner stocks disappear as the cartridges are sent automatically when needed and their price is included in the rental. No need to spend a fortune on a stock of toner cartridges that will be unusable anyway when the printer is changed with a new model as they will be of course incompatible! Once again, centralizing the budget in one place was a first step for our northern colleagues to set up such a service.

Inspiration and collaboration

Among the sources of inspiration, the “partnering and innovation” service gets a “we could definitely try that” mention. The idea here is for the head of the service to talk regularly with the faculties to try to understand their needs, while highlighting the last changes made by the IT. The innovation part sponsors projects made by students for the university community. Thus, was born a “meeting cost calculator” or the integration of a map of the University in “Minecraft”.

© D. Spring

Hopefully, synergies will hopefully allow us to maintain contact with our English counterparts. This is the goal and the challenge of such an exchange: to maintain regular contact to build on good ideas from the field. I can only recommend staff members to jump on the opportunity to participate to this kind of exchange.

In conclusion, this week at LU gave us new ideas and also allowed us to assert and compare our practices with those of a prime English university, which was definitely exciting! Our last words of thanks go to all the Lancaster staff (especially my sponsor Graeme and the ISS members I had the chance to meet) that took part in the organization of the GLE and permit our delegation to enjoy our stay on this beautiful campus.