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Privatisation and Centralisation Themes at JISC 10 Conference

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 April 2010

The JISC 10 Conference

I had an enjoyable couple of days on Monday and Tuesday at the JISC 10 conference, held at the QEII Conference Centre in London. The main event took place on Tuesday 12 April, with an opening and closing plenary session with a whole host of parallel sessions, surgeries, demos and networking opportunities during the day. Those who arrived on the Monday had the opportunity to attend a pre-conference debate. The conference programme is available on the JISC Web site, which also provides access to video recordings of the plenary talks and other sessions. In this post I’ll give some comments on the online networking infrastructure which played an important role during the event and summarise my thoughts on the main themes discussed by the plenary speakers.

The Communications and Networking Infrastructure

Use of Ning

I have already provided some thoughts on the JISC10 social network – as I suspected people were willing to sign up to this Ning environment (there are now 248 registered users – out of about 750 delegates who physically attended the conference) and, in many cases, upload a portrait but, as I suspected, little discussion on the site: here was only one forum discussion posted with one response, little participation in the Ning groups and only two blog posts, both by one of the event organisers, despite the fact that any registered user could publish a post. An exception to this is, perhaps the photo area. We starting to see a small number of participants uploading their photos to the social network – but even though only a handful of people have uploaded their photos so far, there are still more photos to be found on the Ning environment than jisc10-tagged photos on Flickr (although one person has used the jisc2010 tag on Flickr).

Use of Twitter

Instead of using the centrally-provided environment for discussions what we found at the event was intensive use of Twitter by conference attendees and the remote audience. According to the statistics provided on the Twapperkeeper archive of the #jisc10 tweets there have been over 1,900 tweets since 31 March – with the tag trending globally at one point on Tuesday. And at 12.45 @LisaHarris (who, according to her Twitter biography “teaches online marketing at the University of Southampton”) pointed out that#JISC10 is trending above #conservativemanifesto :-)“. That tweet itself was widely retweeted, thereby providing a positive feedback loop which helped the trending of the hashtag!

Histogram of numbers of tweets with #jisc10 tagThe WTHashtag service provides somewhat different statistics. From this service I have embedded a histogram showing that the tweets started in significant numbers on the first day,as participants were either travelling to London for the event or attending the pre-conference debate.

The WTHashtag also provides a summary of the top 10 contributors. These are @dajbconf (97 tweets), @llordllama (95), @diarmaid (87), @damyantipatel (69), @beckacurrant (62), @digitalfprint (58), @paullowe (56), @m_hopwood (55),  @mariekeguy (51) and  @simonhodson99 (41). I must admit to being surprised at the small spread across these top 10 contributors.  Since the service reports over 2,800 tweets from 479 contributors it would appear that there were large numbers of people tweeting at (or about) JISC10 conference and not just the small numbers of early adopters we saw in previous years (when the twitterers were dismissed as ‘twits’ in the welcome address!).

My thoughts on the communications and social networking environments at the JISC10 conference: participants are willing to signup and provide brief details about themselves. Those with an awareness of the importance of making contact with others may be consciously providing a photograph of themselves, while those  who are aware of the importance of dissemination of their areas of work will be summarising their work activities and (if they want to enhance their ‘Google juice’) will also be providing links to the relevant Web sites and perhaps also to live RSS feeds (an approach I took on my Ning page).

However the evidence seems to suggest that the participants appear to want make use of their ‘own’ communications infrastructure and to communicate with their own networks – and Twitter is the technology they use to do this. So we might observe that there is an organisationally-provided social network, which contains JISC branding although provided by a third party service rather than say, making use of a service provided by JISCMail or the Cloudworks service developed by the Open University. However the communications and personal networking infrastructure is more closely associated with the individual participants, with the only organisational involvement is, perhaps, only concerned with the naming of the hashtag.  This is, perhaps, an over-simplification, and I’m not addressing various other networked technologies which may have been used, such as those related to the streaming video and communications across the event organisers (many of whom could be seen clutching their mobile phones during the conference!) However I feel such observations may be useful for those involved in planning the JISC 2011 conference.

The “Debate” on Day 1

Dicky Otlet, JISC Communications Manager, introduced the pre-conference debate on “A perfect vision – technology priorities for higher education“. The abstract for the session informed us that “This question time style debate considers this blueprint in the context of higher education and looking beyond 2012, asking what can we expect the future of education with technology to look like and how can we ensure JISC continues to be relevant to the needs of the Higher Education (HE) sector for the next decade?

Before the debate started Dicky told the audience that, following comments I had made about the limited use of networked technologies at last year’s JISC conference to support user engagement, they had decided to make use of electronic voting devices during the debate. I was pleased to that the JISC Communications team were willing to experiment in this way at their high profile conference. However I think there was a general feeling that the questions the audience were asked to vote on were flawed – how could the audience, for example, fail to vote yes for a question along the lines “Should JISC consider providing Cloud Services for data storage of research data?“. Another leading question was along the lines of “Should the community be providing cost-effective cloud service to avoid unnecessary duplication of resources at a time when funding is under threat?” My colleague Paul Walk pointed out that this was a very leading question and suggested that if an alternative question was posed along the lines “Should the community be providing user-focussed services which are developed in response to local needs and requirements?” we would expect a different response.

Perhaps next year the debate should encourage more polarised opinions, in order to avoid what some twitterers felt were stage-managed opinions from the panelists. I feel that last year’s ALT-C 2009 conference panel session on “The VLE is Dead” was more successful in being both entertaining and allowing the panelists to express and argue from diverse perspectives.

Privatisation (of the Networking Infrastructure)

Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor at The Open University gave a captivating opening plenary talk on “The learning journey: From informal to formal” (slides available in PDF format). This talk went along very similar lines to the talk he gave at the ALT-C 2009 conference, shortly before he started in his new position at the Open University.  Martin successfully used his nationality (Australian) and his previous post working for Microsoft in the US to inform us that he was prepared to receive criticisms of his vision for future directions for higher education, as his background is not one that is normally favoured by a British educational technological audience (the reference to working for Microsoft is obvious, and last summer he used his nationality with respect to the Ashes series).

Martin’s views on the importance of the Social Web were well-received by many of the educational technologists at ALT-C 2009 and JISC10. He used that statistics on the large numbers of downloads from the Open University presence on YouTube and iTunes to demonstrate the importance of these delivery channels to the  Open University – and also pointed out the marketing benefits that this can provide, with potential students who listen to such podcasts being likely to subsequently register for an Open University course.

Privatisation slide used by Martin BeanBut although such views are now fairly mainstream amongst many of the eLearning 2.0 crowd who I know and whose blogs I read, I found it interesting that, after his initial (justifiable) praise for various successes in the JISC community Martin explicitly spoke about not only globalisation (Google, perhaps) and massification (increase in student numbers and life-long learners) but also privatisation.

The ‘privatisation’ word has been a red flag to many in the UK HE community, since the days of Thatcherism.  It was therefore interesting to hear him explicitly raise this topic, and to hear him say that this was an area in which the UK was lagging behind the US and Australia.

At the WWW 2006 conference which was held in Edinburgh I can recall raising concerns which have been raised consistently in the UK regarding dependencies on commercial companies for the provision of services to the public sector – and getting blank looks from techies working outside the UK. The following year, at WWW 2007, I had an interesting discussion on this issue with researchers working in Canada.  We had similar political opinions, but it seems that ownership of IT technologies is not regarded widely as a political issue in public sector organisations in North America.  So perhaps Martin is correct – the UK is lagging behind other countries in our views on the role of the private sector in the provision of various aspects on the networked infrastructure for use in teaching, learning and research.  Maybe those of us on the left should be arguing for public sector ownership of the transport infrastructure, but we more willing to embrace commercial provision of applications and infrastructure?

Centralisation (of the Networking Infrastructure)

Bill St. Arnaud gave the closing plenary talk on “The critical role that JISC can play in helping society reduce its carbon footprint” (slides available in PDF format). This was another stimulating if rather gloomy talk, this time on the inevitable dangers to the planet due to global warming. Bill argued, providing lots of evidence and links to background reading, that the priority should be for reductions in carbon emissions, rather than for energy efficiencies (as the latter approach can result in greater use and therefore carbon emissions).  His suggestion for universities was to ensure that the large amounts of energy consumed by data centres comes from zero carbon emission energy sources.  So rather than locating data centres in cities they should be close to wind farms and hydro-electric courses of energy.  We heard examples of approaches which are being taken in Canadian Universities.  And we also heard that Google are also taking this approach.

The Debates for JISC11

My “Delete a petabyte; save a polar bear” post was intended as tongue-in-cheek. But as I suggested above that there’s a need for more polarising and controversial topics to engage an audience in debate at next year’s JISC conference I wonder if topics inspired by the two plenary talks might help in avoiding the middle ground? What are your thoughts on “Help students – privatise the networks“; “Outsource to Google and save the planet“;  “Relocate the IT infrastructure team to the windy parts of the country“.  Is this a future for higher education?

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9 Responses to “Privatisation and Centralisation Themes at JISC 10 Conference”

  1. I thought Martin’s point about privatisation was in terms of education provision (rather than service provision within the education sector) and that there was now real competition to publicly funded Higher Education – competition that he felt the UK public sector (i.e. publicly funded Universities) needed respond to? I though he avoided passing a judgement on whether privately funded higher education was a good or bad thing, but simply a fact of life (although he has emphasised that he is enjoying working in an area where ‘shareholder value’ is not the driving concern)

    Although Martin did argue for centralisation of IT services in some ways (he said something to the effect that not every University could afford to run a data centre), I don’t remember him being so explicit about privatisation in this area?

    • Martin probably did focus on the privatisation was in terms of education provision (he is a VC after all and would be expected to focus on the key issue of teaching and learning). However I would see the privatisation of the IT infrastructure as being a part of this trend. Note that there was a keynote talk at the UCISA CISG conference last year in which one speaker from KCL spoke about the move towards the outsourcing of IT. I would agree that he was being descriptive (and he explicitly mentioned the significant benefits that the OU had gained from use of iTunes and YouTube), but I don’t feel that there is a universal acceptance of such views amongst IT practitioners.

  2. paulmilne said

    Here’s a polarising opinion – in light of declining oil and other fossil fuels, and the inherent low exergy of wind and solar power, the most sensible thing to do is to scale back the dependency of IT in higher education, and probably in life in general. We are like energy junkies who are frantically doing everything we can to keep the fixes coming. When we have to go cold turkey it will not be a pretty picture. For reference see http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2010/04/blindness-to-systems.html and previous posts where John Michael Greer explores all these ideas and makes a strong case for phased de-industrialisation.

    • Hi Paul
      Yes, I think that would be a topic which would generate interesting debate. How about inviting a debate and vote on “Global warming isn’t primarily the responsibility of Bush-supporting oil barons in Texas but west coast liberals in Silicon Valley in California and their peers in the UK IT profession” :-)

  3. Rachel H said

    One of my reasons for reluctance in seeing the IT infrastructure privatised is the way the publishers have used universities as cash cows, and tied us into deals which guarantee their continued income, even when we no longer want titles. Why wouldn’t Google etc do this once we’ve removed our servers etc in favour of their datacentres? That’s also one of the arguments we give for retaining institutional repositories.

    • During the question time after Martin Bean’s talk I raised concerns that the outsourced provision of learning infrastructure to providers outside of the education sector might result in a lack of flexibility and understanding of our specific requirements. You’re also correct to raise concerns regarding the longterm business models. However I think these issues require an understanding of the issues and ensuring that we have the flexibility to change our providers, rather than to simple avoid engaging with the providers, which has been a view people expressed when large amou8nts of money was available for the HE sector.

  4. Re: use of Twitter… there’s an emerging summary at http://summarizr.labs.eduserv.org.uk/?hashtag=jisc10 – I say “emerging” because my summary is based on the TwapperKeeper archive which is still being created, hence the discrepency in the figures between TwapperKeeper and WTHashtag.

    My summary gives a better feel for the ‘spread’ of tweeting… as well as for the words, URLs and other hashtags being mentioned – but it may not give a complete picture until tomorrow.

    TwapperKeeper currently seems to take about 2 or 3 days to create a full archive of tweets from a busy event.

  5. Hi Brian

    Apropos the JISC10 Ning SN, there were some other discussions in the groups, this one on subject repositories for example. It was fun while it lasted; but that wasn’t ‘the’ forum, though maybe it was a group forum, or perhaps it was just a bunch of wall posts or blog comments (though it wasn’t a blog). As usual there’s the problem of having too many similar types of CMC available to split or befuddle the user. I thought the JISC10 Ning was a reasonable application of the, er, application, but I think it confirms my suspicion that for small, focused online endeavours, less-is-more: anyone setting them up should be bold and choose just a couple of tools from the plethora of groups, forums, blogs, discussions, comments, walls, wires, chat and messaging systems that are on offer!

  6. […] Privatisation and Centralisation Themes at JISC 10 Conference […]

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