Friday, October 29, 2004

Student Computing Services

The following is a discussion document on Victoria University Student Computing Services, for a meeting I have with the SCS management on Monday morning.

I welceome any comments.


Student Computing Services

From: Jeremy Greenbrook
VUWSA Vice President (Education), 2005 President Elect

To: Warwick Clegg – PVC (IT), VUW
John Greenwood - Director of ITS, VUW
Craig Williams – Director of SCS, VUW

Cc: Jenny Harper – AVC (Academic), VUW
VUWSA Executive and relevant staff


Over the past six months the number of complaints received by VUWSA regarding SCS has escalated. While these complaints cover services ranging from the Student “H” drives, e-mail, to the basics of accessing student “roving profile”, the overarching issue is reliability.

Recently, student’s were emailed regarding a survey for the implementation of a wireless access network (“WiFi”) for the Rankin Brown (Central Library) Building. Also, a cosmetic upgrade of the StudentVUW portal has been undertaken, providing minimal additional benefit for the end-user (students).

The general feeling is that the priorities of the Student Computing Services are aimed at new initiatives, while the basic computing services are substandard.

VUWSA and the office of the PVC (IT) have traditionally had a very strong and constructive working relationship, resulting in consistent student representation and consultation on student computing issues. The purpose of this discussion paper is to outline the real issues student’s have, with the goal of using this strong relationship to implement noticeable improvements to the service SCS provide before the beginning of the 2005 academic year.


Computing services are an integral tool in studying in the 21st century. This is either as a direct part of study (such as design packages, or geographic information systems), or indirect part (such as word-processing, email communication, research databases, or flexible learning). Either way, a student without access to reliable computing resources is at a significant disadvantage, sometimes rendering their study impossible.

While personal computer ownership amongst students is increasing, a large proportion of students still depend on on-campus computing facilities. As VUW further explores flexible learning, these students are going to become more reliant on these resources.

The current situation sees most SCS computers in use during university hours. While a shortage of computers is a cause for concern (something that must be addressed in the medium term), the initial problem stems from the inadequacy of the current computing mainframe to handle the number of users and the volume of information flowing through the portals.

This results in a virtual standstill (or collapse) of the system, rending the service useless. Access to “H” drives (where many students’ store their school work) is varied, with internet access slowing down to an unusable state (this often includes student email access). This is becoming more of an issue, as students are required to submit a digital copy of their work for plagiarism checks. Lecturers have discretion as to weather extensions are granted, often declining extensions based on computer problems.

This service pales in comparison with other universities:
· At the University of Canterbury, profiles (including roaming drives) are supported by a stable platform. Service outages are rare, and are normally caused by viruses or service upgrades.
· At the University of Otago, profiles are fully accessible, both on and off campus. The platform is stable, and upgraded on a bi-yearly basis. Service is currently being upgraded to provide all students with gigabit speed to desktops over the next 18 months.


Coupled with reliability, is the issue of support. With a system that is constantly failing, students regularly seek support and assistance from the SCS Helpdesk. This is of little assistance to many students.

The Student Computing Services Service Catalogue states that undergraduate student computing issues are to be resolved within 5 working days. With pressure on students’ time (such as work commitments), being without access to computers for a week is unacceptable, and would like to see student’s given a similar level of priority to postgraduate and staff users. This was clearly demonstrated when the entire student “H” drive access collapsed, and had to be retrieved from backup files over a period of a week. Such relaxed targets mean that helpdesk staff are regularly fixing problems in inappropriate timeframes (while still meeting targets), causing an acceptable delay for students.

SCS Support staff are often unable to provide specific assistance to student queries, and many student queries simply fall into a black hole and are never answered. This is also unacceptable. All staff must be trained on the full SCS software and hardware issues. Also, a system of tracking student problems (similar to what ITS does for staff concerns) would ensure requests are acted upon promptly.

Once again, this service pales in comparison with other universities:
· At the University of Canterbury, fully trained staff are accessible during the hours that the university is open, and are able to fix immediate problems almost instantly. A 1 to 2 day turn around for student problems is expected.
· At the University of Otago, staff wonder computer labs and the library, providing assistance where needed.

Other issues

· Cost

Current internet charges are:

Victoria Canterbury Otago
Domestic 15c / MB 0.5c / MB $47 sundry fee
International 15c / MB 5c / MB $47 sundry fee

Students are obviously being used to make a profit, while very little of this profit is put back into student services. Student internet access should be charged at cost, or, with any profit made being put into upgrading the service. Access to article databases (which VUW subscribes to) must be free for the purposes of student research.

· Support for Clubs

Many VUWSA affiliated clubs use email addresses. To set one of these up, they used to fill out a form with an attached affiliation letter from the VUWSA Clubs Development Officer (CDO)and take it to an SCS helpdesk (with ID) and the account was set up within a week. This process can take up to 4 months to create email accounts. VUWSA staff met with SCS Manager, but little has changed.

Now the only way for accounts to be created is for the CDO to send an email request that takes about 4 weeks. The difficulty with this is that once again the CDO acts as an unnecessary middleman that creates problems when the CDO is busy or away. It also creates more paperwork and enquiries with the CDO who should be working on 'development' not 'services'.

Suggestions - ITS updates the form so that it suits their needs for clubs that wish to open an account, CDO check this. Clubs affiliation letter is recognized and accepted as proof of the clubs status. Club accounts are set up within 2 weeks of the request. Club accounts rollover each year but maybe a renewal form is requested in October each year to update signatories?
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