Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: December 2008

Operating Systems animations and other resources

Back in 1998/1999 I supervised a couple of project students (who have gone onto bigger and brighter things) in the development of some multimedia resources to support a course in operating systems. The most recent version of the course is available here.

I taught the course from about 1995 through 1999. I seem to recollect that I got to use the resources we developed once, before handing the course onto others and taking on other roles. Some of the resources, the animations, are still being used almost ten years later.

The rationale and background for these developments is outlined in a paper that never did get accepted anywhere – we only submitted it once. I do think some of the conclusions are a little out there, but we had put a lot of work into it. There were also aspects of the approach that were gutted by subsequent teaching staff.

The main purpose of this post is to provide a permanent place for the animations so that they can be listed in Merlot. The previous location on an institutional web server is no longer working and with the current changes going on there is unlikely to be a permanent institutional location anytime soon. So here they are.

Aside: The animations are implemented as Flash animations. WordPress doesn’t allow uploading of these. So I’ve used the Internet Archive for the first time.

Plans for implementing rotating banner image

Problem: Implement a rotating banner image on this blog which is hosted by This means I cannot install any WordPress themes that automatically support bnner rotation (e.g. the Mandigo theme suggested by Will Taylor.

There is a known approach that relies upon you having some disk space on a server that will let you run a PHP script. I’d like to avoid using that approach.

Instead, my hope is to cobble something together using Flickr, Pipes and a bit of CSS. The following is an attempt to outline what steps are necessary to test this out.

Flickr constraints

First stop is to see if the conditions of use on Flickr will allow this. Yep, the Flickr Community Guidelines seems to indicate that you can use your content on other sites, just make sure that is a link back.

So, I should be able to show a flickr photo in the banner as long as there is a link back to the page on Flickr it comes from.

Modify CSS to get image from pipes

Next step is to see if I can modify the CSS of the theme I’m using to include a banner image, and then perhaps to include a banner image from a Pipes.

Use pipes to extract a single image from a gallery

Next step, would be to figure out how to write a pipe that will extract a single image from a Flickr gallery. Once that’s working figure out how to loop through the contents of the gallery so that rotation through the images is achieved.

Figure out the link back to the flickr photo page

If that’s all working I need to figure out how to provide a link back to the original flickr page. A banner image in a blog header usually returns back to the home page for the blog. Thinking perhaps some additional text with the name of the image could be included with a link back to the flickr photo page.

Rotating banner images in WordPress – the last missing puzzle piece

Update: The old server that I used to use for my website and also to implement the rotating banner on this blog, is down. It will likely to be down for quite some time.

When I moved by website from my long-term personal server to the one bit of functionality that I lost was the rotating banner image.

Kaikoura Ocean Range Sunrise

The image of the sunrise just north of Kaikoura in the banner above is static. It’s always the same. Back on the original website I had a collection of 40+ images that, thanks to a small perl script, would cycle through each one. As of late 2008 you can still see this in action on this page – just hit the refresh button to see the banner image change.

I’d like recreate this effect on this site. But I have to do it without server side scripting and I should also probably do it to maximise the benefits of Web 2.0. I’ve got some ideas about how to do this using Flickr, Pipes and JSON or similar. These ideas will have to be reality tested. However, the first thing I should do is check to see what others have already done.

Ahh, it appears that there is the need to pay for a CSS customisation to enable this. 4 cents a day paid via PayPal. The approach outlined here and requires a server somewhere that will allow you to upload a PHP script. Essentially the approach I was using on my original server.

Not very Web 2.0. Will experiment with Flickr and Pipes, do a bit more searching. Can do some testing without requiring the CSS customisation upgrade.

Update on the website move – google rankings

In mid to late October 2008 I moved my long-term personal website to this blog, the early story is told here. One of my concerns voiced in that original post was to maintain by Google ranking. Here’s an update.

The first “problem” is the way that Google provides search results. Depending which country you are in the ranking will be different. When I originally reported that my personal website was #7 in a google for “david jones” this was based on a search from within Australia. I didn’t test what other countries saw, though I believe it was fairly high.

This is somewhat of a problem for comparison purposes as my new site is hosted by which, from a quick search that found nothing and a large assumption is located in the US. Update: The US assumption is correct – data centers in Dallas, San Francisco and San Antonio. Given the different locations, doing a direct comparison might be somewhat questionable.

Searching from within Australia this blog comes up as result 177 for “david jones”. From a US-based search it comes up as number 12.

What tree is this?

What tree is this?

The above tree is sitting in our front yard. It’s grown a lot over the last five years and is developing in a really nice way. The trouble is we have no idea what type of tree it is. Do you? Can you help us identify this tree? Our google searches have failed. Click on the above photo to see larger pictures

A couple of years ago we noticed it developed some flowers that grow in a bunch off stems which hang down from the branches. The flowers are yellow inside but have a dirty red/maroon outside.

What tree is this? The flowers

Then just in the last few weeks the tree has developed woody looking seed pods which hang down the same way as the flowers.

What tree is this?  The seed pod

An introduction to Linux Systems administration – 1st and 4th editions

Cover of 3rd edition

For various reasons I’m in a process of capturing some ancient history before it potentially gets lost in the great cyberspace rubbish bin.

The most recent find/rediscovery has been the Fourth edition of An Introduction to Linux Systems Administration. This text was used for the Systems Administration course I used to teach. The 4th edition is from 1999 and was the last time I taught the course all the way through.

Ahh, the good old days.

Sadly, the text hasn’t been maintained to the same level nor have subsequent versions of it been openly available.

Sadest of all is that none of the 140 links returned on Google are to a site associated with the course for which the book was created. The university for that course is no longer getting any of the free publicity and attention it once got.

Back in 2003 alone, a PDF of the fourth edition was downloaded over 65,000 times.


In its hey day this was a much read text, used by a couple of other institutions and even translated into other languages. A quick google search “an introduction to linux systems administration” used to show 140 hits including this one that has a nice, short review.  The following couple of images (click on them to see larger versions) are screenshots of user comments I’ve discovered on the open web (saved as images for posterity).
Shell script comment   Sys adm commentMisc other comments received by email included:

I just ran across your On-line book … called, ‘An Introduction to Linux System Administration’. I skimmed through it and was very impressed with the book. I especially like your writing style which I feel aims to explain difficult abstract topics in easy to understand language and tries to ease student anxiety levels. … In reviewing my 50+ collection of other books on the same subject, I feel that most other authors know the topics they are writing about well enough for their own understanding, their occupations and even to publish a book. However, it takes real super stars to be able to take abstract concepts and make them seem concrete enough for a person of average intelligence to understand. I commend both of you for a job well done!

Heading back further

Cover for 1st edition

Thanks to Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine I’ve been able to locate the first edition of the text – circa 1996.

Available here as a PDF.

It is official – a best publication for IS in 2007

I don’t like to brag, but you don’t get this sort of thing all that often.

Last week I was in Paris for the ICIS’2008 conference. The main reason for going to the conference was to receive an award.

It turns out that the The Anatomy of a Design Theory by Professor Shirley Gregor and myself has been voted as one of the 5 best publications within the Information Systems discipline by a group of senior scholars.

That goes with being the paper of 2007 for the Journal of the Association for Information Systems.

Thanks Shirley.

I was going to include a photo the little plaque we each received but that was perhaps taking things a bit too far.

Sunday (Dec 14) – Welcoming guests and Notre Dame

Today we were due to receive visitors who were going to stay with us for the next few days. My PhD supervisor (and fellow ICIS’2008 attendee) and her husband were due to arrive around 10:30. So Sandy and I spent a lazy morning inside reading and waiting for them to arrive. Of course, we hadn’t provided all the necessary instructions and had them waiting on the sidewalk for a bit before getting inside.

Inside Notre Dame de Paris

After the visitors were settled our plan was to head to Notre Dame de Paris using the second day of our ticket on the tour bus. This was a good thing given that it was still raining. I should make a point that “rain” in Paris is not like the sub-tropical rain one gets in Rockhampton. We’ve never seen much more than a very light drizzle but combine it with walking a few kilometres, a low single digit temperature and the occasional gust of wind and it is not all that comfortable.

Even on a wet, windy, cold December day the crowds at the cathedral were quite large. We only spent some time inside the cathedral and did not both climbing the stairs – yet another line. Instead spent some time wandering around inside. Even with a lot of people it was an experience.

Notre-Dame de Paris an altar?

All the standard cathedral stuff was there. Chapels, statues, windows, altars etc. But the history of a building started in the 1100s and which has hosted a range of events adds something. Of course there were also tourists ignoring various rules (e.g. flash photography) and the odd homeless person enjoying the warmth.

Notre-Dame de Paris

After one complete lap around the cathedral and sometime sitting in the pews it was time to head outside again. We spent some time browsing the “high class” shops selling the cheap, standard souviners that you see all around Paris. One of these days we will complete our list of purchases to palm off on the folk at home.

After that it was back on the tour bus for a drive around town until it returned to the Champs Elysees and a walk back home to the apartment. The early return was required because, alas, it was time to pick up the real reason we came to Paris, ICIS’2008.

Sunday night was the opening reception. We collected Shirley and John from the apartment and made our way to the Palais de Congres for the opening reception. A lot of people in a room with the heating turned up and one free drink did not make for an environment in which a long time was to be spent.

joan of arc at the Notre-Dame de Paris

After a minimal amount of time 6 of us retired to a local Indian restaurant for quite a good dinner. Then it was back to bed, early, as two of the 6 had presentations to give in the morning.

Saturday (13th Dec) – Must be the Musee D'Orsay

After our big night out at Lasserre Saturday morning saw us walking down to the Musee D’Orsay.

The Grand Palais

So once again we traipsed down the Champs Elysees, which is starting to feel like an old friend and perhaps just a bit boring. Perhaps it is time for us to broaden our coverage of Paris beyond just this little bit. But not today. Part of the walk takes us passed the Grand Palais

As with the Louvre there was a line to get through security, a good 10/15 minute wait and then only three or four folk in front of me for tickets. Both Sandy and I have commented that visiting these places during peak times must involved some horrendous numbers of people and long, long waiting times. Even in Winter, most of these places are fairly busy.

sacre couer from musee de orsay

The Musee D’Orsay is an old, big, train station converted nicely into a musuem. It includes a lot of paintings and sculptures and by the end, having only seen a subset of the total, both Sandy and I were cultured out. Though I must admit that some of this was due to jet lag, a lot of walking and some aches and pains. One nice place to sit and relax was a small break in the paintings which gave a view outside towards the Sacre Coeur.

A Monet?

So, obviously there had to be some photos taken of paintings. One which I think was a Monet, but I could be wrong. And of course the one below is a little more obvious in its origins. Of course Sandy thinks that the most memorable painting, much to her chagrin, was the L’Origine du monde. In Sandy’s defense it is quite a striking painting and it was essentially the last one we saw before we left.

vincent van gogh

On leaving the Musee D’Orsay we discovered that it had started to rain. Given the low single digit temperatures and that we were a good 5Km walk from home, this was not a welcome development. As it happened one of the bus companies that do a fixed route around Paris had a stop at the Musee d’Orsay and we got on that to get out of the rain and be taken home.

The excitement machines we are led us to have a late and large lunch. The premise being that we’d eat lots now, go back to the apartment and have an early night. The onion soup I had for an entree was very nice. The rest of the meal wasn’t up to that level. Sandy in particular lucked out with a cold rack of lamb for her main course.

Somewhat disappointed we returned to the apartment, stopping off to buy some red, bread and other necessities and then spent the rest of the evening reading before retiring early. Tomorrow visitors are due to arrive.

A night at Lassere

Friday night we were booked in to eat at Lasserre. A two-star Michelin restaurant of the haute cuisine style.

blurry night time eiffel

Given we were still dealing with jet lag we headed out a bit early for a walk to the restaurant and needed to waste a bit of time. So we had a chance to see the Eiffel Tower at night and to really enjoy the lovely weather.

Even then we still arrived a bit early and had to wait in a small alcove. We weren’t all that worried as it was warm. Of course, a place this up market did have a dress code – the men had to have a jacket. I was obviously not the first crass person to arrive as they did have a collection of jackets to borrow.

On the way to dinner

Our reservation was for 7pm, which is quite early for Paris and we were the first folk to enter the dining room. The decor was very nice, but somewhat ruined by having a crew of (it seemed) 20+ wait staff all staring at these strange individuals entering their domain.

Dinner commenced with the sommelier asking if we wanted an aperitif. At this stage it’s worthwhile to describe that I don’t have a taste for wine. Though Paris is probably a good place to develop it and Lasserre is meant to have one of the best cellars in Paris. This probably explains why the sommelier looked so annoyed at our choice of Riesling – one of the cheaper available options. While not showing appropriate appreciation for his trade and the cellar we were happy with the choice and I actually enjoyed drinking it.

Sadly I forgot to bring the phone so there are no photos of dinner. We chose the degustation menu. The following description is developed from memory and going by some details from the website. May not be 100% correct, but you’ll get the gist.

  1. Three canapes – these seemed to be served to everyone.
  2. A soup with beans, pumpkin and foie gras.
    I’m not a soup person, but I enjoyed this.
  3. A scallop and oyster dish. The oysters were served with leeks.
    From the menu, the description was “Scallops and nuts, green apple, leeks with oysters”

    Again, I’m not traditionally a seafood person. But this was very nice. Perhaps it has to do with the quality of seafood that is inflicted upon folk in Rockhampton. That may also be an explanation for the wine. A few of the reds we’ve had since this night have been purchased cheap from the local shop and I’ve found them to be more drinkable than some of the stuff at home.

  4. Next was a foie gras dish with a variety of fruits and sauces – very nice.
  5. The duck dish was next. Had a fillet of duck with a small “pie” – duck leg meat and various other bits and pieces wrapped in pastry and then all served with a sauce.
  6. Next was a cheese dish. A big slab of what Sandy thinks was a French version of parmesan – if there is such a thing – served with a variety of pastes.
  7. And so now commenced the desserts. First was a raspberry and vanilla cream concoction served in a small glass – bit like a shot glass. From the menu this appears to have been “Raspberries, litchi and rose petals flowers candied, granity with green chartreuse”
  8. Next, was three different types of chocolate. Which we believe from the menu was “Chocolate grand cru variation with mikan tangerine”.
    At this stage we were struggling with food.
  9. At this stage our recollections of the night start to diverge and we can’t agree on what was last. I believe we had yet another small dessert. But can’t remember what.
  10. It was certainly an experience. Something I would recommend everyone do. I don’t think either of us will be rushing back to eat at this type of restaurant again. To put it prosaically, I’m not sure the cost benefit ratio is sufficient. In the end the meal cost us pretty close to $1000. A once in a life time experience.

    champs elysees

    Should point out that while we were the first in, we were not the first to leave and by the time we were leaving the place was pretty full. Given that we were also very full by this time we walked back to the apartment. This was essentially straight up the Champs Elysees at night – about 9:30 or so. The Champs Elysees at night in December is one of the things to see. Sadly the photos are taken with the iPhone, so not the best quality but you get the idea.

    There were a lot of folk out. More so than we had seen in the day. Friday night shopping and going out was obviously in full swing.

    arch de triomphe at night

The Dreyfus Model – From Novice to Expert

This presentation by Dave Thomas talks about the Dreyfuss Model of Skill Aquisition and how it applies to software development. However, the ideas and insights seem to apply to a number of other contexts, in particularly learning and teaching at Universities. I certainly found a lot of points that resonated.

The content in this presentation is expanded upon in this book which is also available here.

Our first afternoon in Paris

After our flight we spent the afternoon of the 12th wondering around Paris, seeing what we could see. The plane was mostly to look at the Champs Elysees and the Eiffel Tower.

arc de triomphe

Walked along the Champs Elysees to the Arch de Triomphe, all not very far from where the apartment is. We’re we feeling somewhat hungry by this stage, time for some lunch. Ended up settling for one of the places close by, which are undoubtedly of the type to pander to tourists that haven’t ventured too far from the sights.

We can’t complain. I had a brilliant Steak au poivre and pommes frites. Very, very nice. Sandy had some sort of salmon dish, the fish melted in your mouth.

Full of energy we decided to climb the Arc de Triomphe and see what we could see. Your certainly get a good view of Paris from the top. Provided an opportunity to understand where things lay. The following shot of the Eiffel Tower was taken from the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe

You get to the Arc de Triomphe via an underground tunnel that goes underneath the round about that runs around it. It’s an experience in itself simply to stand and watch the traffic as it goes around. It certainly appears that the Australian round about rules don’t apply. There are no lanes – choose your own. And you give way to any folk to your right. Which means cars do stop on the roundabout to allow for in coming traffic. I guess that cessation of motion causes the odd bingle. And we happened to catch the end result of such.

a bit of road rage - paris style

After this we headed down the Champs Elysees and through some other streets to get to the Eiffel Tower. The grand plan being that we would go up the top and perhaps partake in some ice skating. The following shot was taken on the way there. During this journey, the closer we got to the Eiffel the greater the concentration of hawkers trying to make money selling souvenirs.

The Eiffel Tower

Once we arrived at the Eiffel tower the grand plan to head up the top was thwarted by three factors. First, and foremost, was that it was cold. Too cold for Sandy she was not looking forward to being out for too much longer. Second, was the line. Even on a winter’s afternoon the line was quite long. Lastly, by this stage we were getting pretty tired. 30+ hours of travel was starting to take its toll so sadly, we wussed out and started walking back to the apartment for sleep.

The Intrepid Polar Explorer and Friend

By the time we were getting back near the Arc de Triomphe the moon was up and so we had the opportunity for the following shot. After this we stopped at some small stores in a “square” just near the apartment and purchased some coke (to go with the 12 yo Scotch) and some bakery products for food. Retired to the apartment for an early dinner and then to bed.

ArchDeTriomphe and Moon

Singapore to Paris

After much shopping (mostly winter clothes – much needed and used already) and a bit of time in the QClub – time to get back on a plane for the 13+ hours to London. The upgrade to Business didn’t come through but the nice check in lady from Brisbane had put us in the next best thing. A row of seats behind a partition that meant we had enough room to our legs out straight. Very nice. Both Sandy and I slept a reasonable amount for this type of thing. Watched a number of movies and basically waited for the flight to be over.

The highlight for me as about halfway into the flight when we were over the middle East somewhere. Having a window seat I looked out to see clouds below shining in a full moon. Just above and to the left of our plane were two contrails from other planes. One of which I could see their navigation flights flashing in the distance. The moon was shining on these and making them glow. Very nice. Pity the camera was lodged up above and the scene only lasted for a few minutes.

On arrival at Heathrow (Terminal 4) we had to make our way to the new Terminal 5 that has been in the news for last bags (thankfully ours made it through no worries). However, we did have a long walk through various cold and draft passage ways to get to the bus for Terminal 5. What followed was a good 15 minutes on the crowded bus. The time taken did generate some negative comments from the locals.

Once inside Terminal 5 things went okay. Very noticeable that it is a new terminal. The security process is fairly quick and well though out, however, it is somewhat different from previous experience (e.g. you don’t take your computer out of the bag for screening) and the novelty seems to slow folk down. At this point I could also make disparaging comments about whinging Poms who did not seem happy with the process, but I am now more culturally aware and realise that this sort of generalisation is fraught with weakness. Of course, all the way through this process there were signs along the lines “Don’t talk nasty to us as it won’t help you get through any quicker you whinging pom”.

Inside the terminal there were lots of nice shiny and large duty free stores including some with very nice deals on alcohol. However, we didn’t have time to partake as by the time we visited the facilities we were being called to our gate. A gate that happened to be down stairs and out of the way. The size, location and lighting did not bode well.

The process for getting on the plane, once the boarding pass was checked, was to go outside onto another bus (remember this is a winters morning in London – 1 degree and wet – though not raining). After a 10 minute drive we’re back outside climbing up into a Airbus 319 that is parked with others away from the terminal. Thank god it wasn’t raining. At this stage it was then another 20 minutes before we started moving, another 20 minutes taxing before a 40 minute flight to Paris.

The flight went well in Paris quickly. A reverse of the Heathrow experience in terms of bus and terminal. Pick up a bottle of 12yo Scotch and pass through customs – quick look at the passport and through.

Now came the big test. Would our bags have made it through Terminal 5 and all subsequent change overs. It wasn’t looking good, waiting, waiting. One of the baggage service folk came over for a talk, but no, we’re not the ones they were after. A few of our other colleagues from the flight were milling around looking worried. Just as it was looking bad, out comes our bag. There’s a win. Things might be looking up.

Next to go through security. Four stations either side of an open hall. No line, people walking through. Do we walk through? Why not. Yep, all the way through, no checks.

Now comes the task of ringing our landlady. First set of phones would not work. Credit card, coins (had to get change for Euro coins) and phone card did not work. Bugger. This might not work well.

Move onto another set of phones. Ahh, this one takes coins. Put 1.40 euro in the phone, make the call and wallah – talking to Mme Rivaud. Organise to meet her out front of the apartment building in an hour – but the phone cuts out before we could say goodbye. Lets up she doesn’t take this the wrong way. The funny thing is, the phone gave me back 40 euro cents. It only like the $1 euro.

Outside for a taxi and a hope that the written directions will be sufficient for him to get us there. A 40 minute drive and we’re deposited outside the apartment. At which we have to wait for 10 minutes or so for the landlady to turn up

Waiting for Mme Rivaud

Not all that bad, get a chance to walk around the neighbourhood, but it is cold. Sandy’s putting her “cold” boots on when the landlady arrives. Shows us the ropes, helps us settle in and then were alone in our little French apartment for the next 7 days.

Struck Oil to Singapore

For the purposes of informing my family and keeping a record for my faulty memory I am going to blog, where possible, Sandy’s and my trip to Paris for ICIS’2008. This first installment is from the start of the travel in Struck Oil through to the QANTAS Club in Singapore Airport.

The day started early. Awake in bed thinking about getting up. Zach came in about 10 past 5 and the packing started. They day went down hill from there. Getting packed and the kids in the car went okay, pretty well. Then we got to school to drop Anna off.

A misunderstanding around the appropriate sharing of a scarce resource between two minors led to a dictatorial response from the paternal side of the family that only served to exacerbate tensions with the eldest child. Creating a far from harmonious note on which to part company for 10 days. Sorry Bear.

On arriving at child care, the plan was to phone a taxi to pick us up from my parents place (where our car is resting whilst we’re away). At this stage it appeared that I’d left my phone at home – possibly the first of many things left at home.

Further investigation, after some less than acceptable language, revealed that the phone had been included and the taxi could be called. Of course, at this stage I proceeded to give them the wrong address for Mum and Dad’s. Which meant that it would be somewhat difficult for the taxi driver to arrive on time. With time running out (not really, but it felt like it) we forced mum to get out of her pyjamas and act as driver to take us to the airport.

Okay, we’re there. Just check in and everything will flow. But it didn’t. The guys at the check in counter couldn’t check us through all the way to Paris. Apparently our upgrade to business class on one leg hadn’t come through. They could only book us through to Brisbane. Which meant we had to pick up our bag and take it across to the international airport in Brisbane.

We arrive in Brisbane, get off the Dash 8 and wonder into the domestic airport to pick up our bag. We didn’t hurry as it normally takes some while to arrive. We didn’t think it would be quite so long. Due to the delay, we waved goodbye to the train that takes you from the domestic terminal to the international. 30 minutes until the next plane. With the time getting very close to problematic.

We do finally get in. Though we do get an “express” card to get through customs quicker. Not that we really needed to worry because the plane was at least an hour late leaving Brisbane due to “the late arrival of the in-bound airplane”.

Having checked the flight details a couple of days ago I expected we’d have a QANTAS Airbus, a 320 or such like. Instead we had a 747-300 which going by the external look is quite ancient, in fact it looked like the tail had a dent in it. The internals of the plane, once we got on, reinforced this. (According to wikipedia the 300 was “sold” between 1980 and 1985.) And it went downhill from there.

The menu we were provided to provide an overview of the food we’d be provided did not match the food which we received. The Q Entertainment Guide which is meant to inform about which channels which movies would be on, didn’t match the reality of the entertainment system. The ancient nature of the entertainment system (and I imagine its configuration) meant you needed the guide. The system did not tell you which movies were on which channels. You were simply told that there was Movie Channels 1 through 7, not what was on them. Gotta love flying QANTAS.

The one advantage was that the apparently bigger plan meant that there was room. Sandy and I shared 3 seats between us.

So a few hours in Singapore airport was spent eating (not memorable), shopping (somewhat memorable) and sitting the in QANTAS club writing this. Sandy has just headed out to buy some sneakers as the boots she has on don’t work well after podiatrial swelling.

High Voltage Disney

One of the laughs of Singapore airport was the Disney promotion. Just near where we were eating was this big, fake Disney set up. A stage of some sort with a cartoon pirate ship nearby. The pirate ship had a pirate Mickey standing on it, eye patch and all. Fairy lights all over it, very “nice” and lots of folk taking their photo in front of and on it.

You could climb up onto the pirate ship to have your photo taken near Mickey. Near here was the mast with fairy lights draped down the mast to a height where kids could touch the lights. Thankfully, from a health and safety perspective, there was a rather nice sign warning of the high voltage nature of the fairy lights.

Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer – implications for learning and teaching

Peter Drucker

I came across this quote from Peter Drucker, who according to Wikipedia was known as the father of modern management

Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer

This resonates with me and my experiences within universities. In particular, in connection with trying to achieve anything with academics. Folk who generally take the concept of “volunteer” to the extreme.

It particular resonates with me as I increasingly see attempts made to apply project-based, plan-driven attempts to implement major change within universities. For example, we’ll improve learning and teaching at the university by having a large scale review, evaluated by a small panel of experts, who will develop an objective, that will be handed over to a project group, who will roll this out.

This ignores the importance of engaging academics and their tendency to be volunteers and, in particular, volunteers who don’t volunteer.

There will be no widespread, sustainable improvement in learning and teaching within a university unless the institution adopts approaches that encourage and support the academics in volunteering to engage in the process.

Require them to volunteer and they won’t.

A time to rethink enterprise helpdesk systems and management

As part of my current work I provide support to academic staff using a learning management system. The reactive part of this support is funneled though an organisational helpdesk that is run along fairly common IT helpdesk processes and uses a fairly common enterprise helpdesk application.

For me the reactive part of this sort of support involves solving peoples’ problems. In most part, it is a communication problem requiring helping the person understand how the reality of the system and how it operates does not match what they understand and what they are trying to do. In some of these instances, the people who are having these problems are stressed and frustrated.

Something they thought was going to be simple, didn’t work. Possibly that something is important to them and they fear negative ramifications if it doesn’t work (e.g. a teaching staff member in charge of a large course where assignment submission has just gone down). Perhaps their best laid plans are now in tatters.

All of this brings me to the view that the act of providing this type of helpdesk support is a communication activity. A critical success factor is how well you communicate with the client in a way that puts them at ease, assuages their fears and frustration, and solves their problem. It is primarily an act of communication between two people.

Which makes me wonder why the current IT helpdesk application I’m forced to use actively makes effective communication horrendously difficult? Why does this application provide so little support for ensuring that the communication is effective and more importantly is perceived by the client to be positive?


My current explanation is that the folk who select and implement these helpdesk systems are central IT units. Generally, IT units that have been infected by the ITIL disease and all the burdens that brings with it. Point of order – it might be argued that Itil isn’t all that bad, perhaps, but the way most IT units implement it is. They tend to end up focused on stats, SLAs and management of client dissatisfaction rather than on actively helping the client.

Because of this focus, the helpdesk application vendors know that they have to provide support for what the IT units want. After all, it’s the IT units that will make the decision to purchase. Since the IT unit places emphasis on stats and management of the helpdesk, that’s what the IT applications place emphasis on.


An example of this emphasis is the amount of screen space on the interface that is set aside for communication activities as opposed to management activities. On the web interface of the system I’m looking at there are two boxes with about 20 characters for a summary of and the details of the problem reported by the client. The rest of the page is taken up with “management” stuff. This includes 10 or tabs to related pages that contain “management” stuff.

If the client attaches various files to their original email (e.g. screenshots) you have to visit one of these additional tabs, select the appropriate file, click on view and have a Microsoft application to be able to view it. It takes more work to view the information provided by the client.

What’s worse, the way the system is configured the client gets canned, badly formatted email messages as the default form of communication. Emails that come from the helpdesk system and make it incredibly difficult for the client to know with whom they are talking. In addition, if I use my web browser most of the content of what I send is sent without any line breaks.

I compare this experience with a commercial helpdesk system with my experience with an open source system (RT). The vast majority of the interface with this system was devoted to showing the communication and it made communication easy.


There looks like there is scope to do research around the importance of communication to client satisfaction with helpdesk systems and support. Flowing from that, how well do existing helpdesk system support this and how should would you design a better, more appropriate helpdesk system. Would such a system also require changes to processes and management of this process by IT units? Would such changes bring benefits? What are the information systems design theories that could be developed from this?

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