The City and The City: Reflections on the Cetis 2014 Conference
Posted by Brian Kelly on 30 June 2014
The City and The City
The City and the City is a novel by China Miéville. As described in Wikipedia the novel “takes place in the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully ‘unsee’ (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away.“
I read the novel earlier this year. When I saw it in a bookshop over the weekend I thought of the parallels with the Cetis 2014 conference: two plenary talks which occupied the same space but which described the ‘unseeing’ of a shared history.
Cetis 2014: Building the Digital Institution
“lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matter”
The Cetis 2014 conference, which had the theme Building the Digital Institution: Technological Innovation in Universities and Colleges, took place at the University of Bolton on 17-18 June. As described by Mark Johnson in his blog post about the event the conference “attracted 100 delegates from the UK HE and FE sectors eager to talk about the impact of interoperability, cloud computing, e-books, systems integration and learning analytics“. Mark went on to add that “the conversation has been more eager, imaginative and focused than in previous years. This was helped by the two keynotes“.
Mark was right to draw attention to the two keynotes which opened and closed the conference. After the conference had been opened by Paul Hollins scene-setting presentation, Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at JISC gave the opening plenary talk in which he described “Innovating for the Digital Institution“. The following day Audrey Watters closed the conference with her talk on Un-Fathom-able: The Hidden History of Ed-Tech.
These talks generated much discussion on the Twitter backchannel, during the conference and afterwards. I welcomed both talks for helping to stimulate such discussions but for me, although the two speakers occupied the same physical (the lecture theatre at the University of Bolton) and virtual (the ed-tech development environment) spaces, they seemed to reflect two very different spaces.
Audrey Watters talk on The Hidden History of Ed-Tech provided examples of how the history of technological developments is written by the victors which depicts a misleading picture of the past. As Audrey described in a blog post about her talk:
[this] lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters.
It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation — where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, that is, not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future).
I agree that such things matter. Indeed a year ago I had responsibilities for the preservation of UKOLN’s digital resources which aimed at ensuring that a record of our work in helping the development of the digital environment across the UK’s higher and further education sector was not lost. And since Audrey suggested hat there was a need for multiple recollections of the history of ed-tech developments to be published in order that historians in the future will be better placed to document the history I will provide my thoughts, with links to supporting evidence, on Phil Richards’ plenary talk.
Innovating for the Digital Institution
Phil Richards’ talk on “Innovating for the Digital Institution” was very useful in summarising Jisc’s plans for innovation in their new environment. Phil explained how the changes were based on the recommendations of the Wilson review. The Wilson Review (PDF format) described how “There is a common view that it has played a pivotal role in the UK as an enabler of innovation and early and widespread adoption of ICT …. There is no comparable body within the UK, and internationally its reputation is outstanding as a strategic leader and partner” and went on to add that “JISC is unique in the UK, providing what many stakeholders have described as a “holistic approach” to the sectors’ needs, from research and innovation, to core services, resources, advice and training“. However the review went on to comment that there had been “some criticism of the breadth and complexity of JISC’s activity, and of its structure, processes and governance arrangements“.
Phil’s slides are available on Slideshare and, as shown in the accompanying images, provided the reasons why Jisc needs to innovate, reflected on the Wilson review and outlined approaches to innovation in the future.
As can be seen from the video recording of the plenary talk it seems that Jisc needs to innovate in order that Jisc will be able to survive as an organisation, since the move to commodity IT means that Jisc will face competitors in the educational technology environment.
Jisc Moves Away from Open Standards
In the moves towards reducing the range of activities which Jisc works on Phil highlighted a move away from working with standards, and highlighted the NHS as an example of a sector in which large sums of money had been invested in the development of interoperable systems based on open standards which had failed to deliver.
In the future Jisc will seek to focus on “innovative, successful learning technology without standards” and cited Sugata Mitra’s ‘hole in the wall ‘ work as an example of successful self-organised learning which we should seek to emulate.
This criticism of an standards-based development work was very radical in a Jisc environment in which for Jisc development programmes such as eLib and the DNER/IE, a strong emphasis had always been placed on the importance of open standards.
I should mention that back in 1996 I was a contributor to the eLib standards guidelines and in February 2001 contributed to the Working with the Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER): Standards and Guidelines to Build a National Resource document (PDF format). In September 1997 in a talk on talk on Standards in a Digital World: Z39.50, HTML, Java: Do They Really Work? I gave an uncritical summary of the importance of open standards in development programmes. However in June 2005 in a talk on JISC Standards: A Presentation To The JISC I highlighted the potential limitations of open standards.
But using a few slides which are presented to a small audience is, I feel, not an appropriate way to seek to change policies. At the time Jisc made use of posters which contained the slogan: “Interoperability through Open Standards“. Marketing people have a tendency to attempt to reduce complexities to such simple statements. There was a need t help develop a better understanding of the limitations of such views.
Along with colleagues working at UKOLN, CETIS, TechDis, AHDS and OSS Watch we published a number of peer-reviewed papers including “Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites” (2003), ” A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes” (2005), “A Contextual Framework For Standards” (2006), “Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards” (2007) and “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access” (2007). The first paper explained how:
The importance of open standards for providing access to digital resources is widely acknowledged. Bodies such as the W3C are developing the open standards needed to provide universal access to digital cultural heritage resources. However, despite the widespread acceptance of the importance of open standards, in practice many organisations fail to implement open standards in their provision of access to digital resources. It clearly becomes difficult to mandate use of open standards if it is well-known that compliance is seldom enforced. Rather than abandoning open standards or imposing a stricter regime for ensuring compliance, this paper argues that there is a need to adopt a culture which is supportive of use of open standards but provides flexibility to cater for the difficulties in achieving this.
This paper was based on the work of the Jisc-funded QA Focus project which ran from 2002-2004. As described in the final report the project was funded by the Jisc to advice Jisc on the conformance regime which should accompany standards documents for Jisc development programmes. The project recommended that rather than mandating conformance with open standards “JISC should mandate that funded projects address QA issues at the start of the project in order to consider potential problems and the most effective method of avoiding them. JISC should also remind projects of the need to implement QA within their workflow, allowing time at each stage to reconsider previous decisions and revise them if necessary“
In his opening address, JISC CETIS Director Adam Cooper emphasised that the impetus behind this meeting was a sense of growing dissatisfaction amongst many involved in standards development and implementation within education. Where the original intentions of more-or-less formal bodies such as the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers Learning Technology Standards Committee (IEEE LTSC), the IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS GLC) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) were laudable, there has been an increasing feeling that the resource put into supporting these standards has not always borne the hoped-for fruit.
A report on the meeting highlighted the issues which had been raised in the position papers presented at the meeting, which included barriers to participation, development and adoption and the importance of supporting an open culture and community engagement in technology development and standardisation:
There is broad agreement that community engagement and openness are key factors in the development of LET standards (Hoel, 2010). Niche software developers, many coming with an open source attitude, have been especially strong advocates for open standards, arguing that their use will enable innovation to flourish. An increasing level of interest and engagement of people from open source communities will naturally drive the standards process to become more “open”.
The importance of engaging with developers to help validate open standards and provide encouragement in the development on applications and services based on open standards has, in the past, being addressed by Cetis in Cetis ‘code bashes’ (see Engaging Developers in Standards Development; the Cetis Code Bash Approach) and the DevCSI work which was led by UKOLN.
To conclude, it would appear that Jisc have recognised the arguments which Cetis and UKOLN, along with several other organisations, have been making since 2003: we can’t have an uncritical belief in open standards.
The publication of the Open Standards Principles is a fundamental step towards achieving a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and breaking our IT into smaller, more manageable components
But the emphasis on the value of lightweight standards reflects the advice which the former Innovation Support Centres have provided to Jisc in the past.
What seems to be missing from the new Jisc vision, however, is the community involvement in the open development of further open standards. Perhaps there is an assumption that no new standards are expected to be developed? This would be a mistake, I feel. My Cetis colleagues Phil Barker and Lorna Campbell ran a workshop session at the Cetis 2014 conference in which they asked LRMI: What on Earth Could Justify Another Attempt at Educational Metadata? As Phil described in a report on the workshop session “We really love metadata, but [had] reached a point where making ever-more elegantly complex iterations on the same idea kind of lost its appeal. So what is it that makes LRMI so different so appealing?” Phil went on to conclude that “the general feeling I had from the session was that most of the people involved thought that LRMI was a sane approach: useful, realistic and manageable“.
It would be unfortunate if Jisc and the wider community were to miss out on the benefits which emerging new standards such as LRMI can provide for the education sector. Fortunately Cetis will be continuing to work in this area.
The Jisc Forest
In addition to describing the Jisc moves away from open standards Phil went on to explain Jisc’s core areas of work. As recommended in the Wilson Review Jisc are now focussing on a small number of areas in which they hope to make significant impact.
The areas of work are agreed with the Jisc co-design partners: RLUK, RUGIT, SCONUL and UCISA. In 2013/14 these areas were Access and identity management; National monograph strategy; Summer of student innovation; Digital student; Open mirror; Spotlight on the digital and Extending Knowledge Base +.
Following on from this work five additional new areas of work have been prioritised with four areas being mentioned in Phil’s presentation: (1) research at risk; (2) effective learner analysis; (3) from prospect to alumnus and (4) building capability for new digital leadership, pedagogy and efficiency.
Phil used a forest metaphor to describe this new approach: in the eLib days in the mid to late 1990s it was explained how Jisc were encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom in order to help build capacity across the sector and help ensure that there was abroad understanding of the value of the networked environment across the sector. However in light of funding constraints there will be less experimentation and less risk-taking; rather key areas of particular relevant to the co-design partners will be identified which will form the focus of development work in the future.
As can be seen from the Storify archive of tweets posted during the talk this metaphor caused a certain amount of confusion. During the questions I asked a question based on this metaphor. To paraphrase what I said then “If Jisc are now building a forest containing five types of tree, who will develop the flowers, the shrubs and the hedges? And what would happen if, in three years time when institutions can chose whether of not to buy in to Jisc’s offering, they feel that the flowers, the shrubs and the hedges provide better value for money?“
Towards Orciny – the Rumoured Third City
In The City and The City it is rumoured that a third city, Orciny, exists in the interstices between one city and another, unseen by occupants of both which has a hidden history. Is there a edu-tech city to be found beyond the forested Jiscdom?
I personally do not feel that the Jisc vision as described by Phil Richards will provide a environment in which those involved in ed-tech will feel at home. For me the future needs to be based on listening and engagement. As Mark Johnson put it “we should hope that the critical debate about those technologies, their implementation and development serves to give us permission to ask the questions about education that urgently need to be asked“. Those who wish to be involved in the discussion and in facilitating the discussion must not hide behind statements such as “people above my pay grade make the key decisions“.
This vision of the future is not based on a proclamation that “We are the UK’s expert on digital technologies for education and research” but on facilitation and support: the experts, I feel, are embedded across the sector and don’t work for a single organisation.
But I think it is also inevitable that the edu-tech future will be more fragmented. In the past the broad Jisc family could provide a leadership role across a wide range of areas. But the refocussing of work will mean the missing void is likely to be filled by a range of service providers, advisory bodies and consultants. I feel that Cetis will have an important role to play in that space. I hope that this will involve continuing to work with institutions, other bodies across the sector and with Jisc itself – but without buying in to the Jisc vision of the future!
As I said earlier I enjoyed the two keynote talks at the Cetis 2014 conference which did succeed in stimulating discussion and debate. If you didn’t attend the conference video recordings of the plenary talks and the accompanying slides are embedded below and are also available form YouTube and Slideshare. I’d welcome your thoughts on these contrasting talks.
Phil Richard’s plenary talk on Innovating for the Digital Institution
Video recording (on YouTube):
Slides for Phil Richards’ plenary talk (on Slideshare)
Audrey Watters’ plenary talk on Un-Fathom-able: The Hidden History of Ed-Tech
Video recording (on YouTube)
Slides for Audrey Watters’ plenary talk (on Slideshare)