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The changing role of information systems and information technology in the university environment is a key factor in the way Tony Masi approaches his mandate. As deputy provost and chief information officer (CIO), Masi is responsible for McGill University Libraries, Teaching and Learning Services (formerly the Centre for University Teaching and Learning), Network and Communications Services, IST Customer Services, Information Systems Resources (which includes the Web Communications Group), Instructional Multimedia Services (formerly the Instructional Communications Centre) and the University Planning Office. He recently spoke with the Reporter about how information services and technology are helping equip McGill with a competitive edge.
What's the link between your deputy provost duties, planning and the mandate of chief information officer?
Good information and access to good information. In order to do effective planning at the university, in support of the teaching and research missions, you need to have appropriately configured information systems and a technical base that supports them. That's where the duties of the CIO come in and the overall responsibility for the technological underpinning infrastructure of the university. I see the different roles as integrated.
There has been a concerted move toward information services at McGill that are more seamless and less defined by function or department or network. Why?
When I took over the job, I saw the importance of making sure that we had horizontal teams, working across departments. It wasn't so much for whom people worked as with whom they worked. That's what creates a dynamic environment. For example, we want to make sure that we have libraries working with Teaching and Learning Services, working with Instructional Multimedia Services, to create an environment to support the classroom experience of our students. The same approach is vital on the planning side and the information systems side. Our Customer Service Unit has network people working together with software people, which has created an environment that has built bridges from administrative support to support of the academic mission of the university. I think that's unique in Canada right now.
How did the Customer Service Unit come about?
Two years ago I was looking at the organizational structure of IST Services at McGill and noticed a variety of places where people had to go to get service. I had experienced this fragmented approach first-hand. For example, when I moved into the James Administration Building and couldn't get my notebook computer configuration to work, there was no one-stop shop for solving my problem. I'm sure others have had the same experience. Working with existing directors on both the academic and administrative support side, we decided to create a new directorate whose only responsibility would be to provide good customer service. They would own a problem from beginning to end. What we've been able to do with this unit is make it a focal point for problems associated with desktop computing support, anti-virus software and connectivity problems. People call one place and get help. I think that's been a success.
Tell us about some of the other successes?
Web registration has worked very well. One of the problems with having such a successful rollout of our web registration a year ago is that it's hard to beat. Students quickly forget how difficult it was to register and change courses under the old MARS automated telephone system we used to have. Now the expectation is that our course registrations have to run more smoothly. It ratchets up expectations and that's how it should be.
What about email?
I think making email a formal means of communication between the university and students is also an important step. Although the policy was put in place last year, right now it is not being widely used. It's an important step in ensuring that we take electronic data and electronic documents very seriously at McGill. We are working closely with Archives on something called "digital permanence," ensuring that electronic documents are archived appropriately. [see www.archives.mcgill.ca/dp/] This has major implications for our infrastructure and the software that supports various documents. Our email-for-life project, which was introduced three years ago, is also getting a lot more buy in from the alumni community. More and more people are realizing the benefits of having their alma mater, rather than a commercial company, as an internet service provider for email. Of course, as more students come online, we will have to provide more storage and a better set of tools and functionality. We're working on that with our new webmail interface.
What about the benefits of identity management and the "single sign-in"?
Electronic identity management is an important issue and a big deal. With so many decentralized systems, people have multiple ways of signing in and getting access, identifying themselves authentically to the system and gaining access to data. What we'd like to do is provide a unified digital experience for our staff, faculty and students. It's frustrating for students to have to login to one system to get a course, for example, and then another system to get access to file and print services and maybe a third system if they're taking a course in a different faculty. So the single sign-in is going to be a major service we can provide over the next year or two as we move to a campus-wide web portal enterprise.
What other projects are on the agenda for next year?
We're working on a number of fronts, including standardization of services across departments, quality initiatives and hardware improvements in Network and Communication Services, Banner upgrades and rationalization, e-procurement initiatives, a data warehouse project and the development of a McGill web portal as a way of bringing all of our information together for one-stop access. It's an ambitious agenda, but McGill has shown itself to be a university that harnesses information and information technology in innovative and creative ways and we want to build on that.