UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Reflections on 16 years at UKOLN (part 5)

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 Jul 2013

Overview of This Week’s Posts

This week I’ve been posting my reflections on working at UKOLN over the past 16 years. In the first post I described my early involvement with the Web, dating back to December 1992 and how the approaches I took to promoting take-up of the Web across the sector informed my job as UK Web Focus after I started at UKOLN in 1996.

The second post summarised my outreach activities, and this was followed by a post which reviewed my research activities. Yesterday I summarised my work with UKOLN’s core funders and used the work with standards to illustrate the important role which JISC had in adopted a hands-off approach, leaving the work activities to experts across the community.

Evidence-based Policies and Openness

In today’s post, the final one in the series, I’ll reflect on recent work – gathering evidence in order to inform policy and practice – and how the interpretation of the evidence and the formulation of policies and developments to operational practices should be based on a culture of openness.

My interest in this area dates back to 1997 following a successful bid to BLRIC to develop and use monitoring software to analyse trends in use of the Web across the UK’s higher education and library sectors. In 2001 a paper on “Automated Benchmarking Of Local Government Web Sites” was presented at the EuroWeb 2001 conference which described the work of the WebWatch project.

More recently UKOLN and CETIS were involved with the JISC in providing the JISC Observatory. As described in a paper entitled “Reflecting on Yesterday, Understanding Today, Planning for Tomorrow” :

The JISC Observatory provides horizon-scanning of technological developments which may be of relevant for the UK’s higher and further education sectors. The JISC Observatory team has developed systematic processes for the scanning, sense-making and synthesis activities for the work. This paper summarises the JISC Observatory work and related activities carried out by the authors. The paper outlines how the processes can be applied in a local context to ensure that institutions are able to gather evidence in a systematic way and understand and address the limitations of evidence-gathering processes. The paper describes use of open processes for interpreting the evidence and suggests possible implications of the horizon-scanning activities for policy-making and informing operational practices. The paper concludes by encouraging take-up of open approaches in gathering and interpretation of evidence used to inform policy-making in an institutional context.

A series of posts have been published on this blog which have sought to gather evidence of use of various Web technologies across the sector in order to detect trends and encourage discussion on the implication of such trends.

University of Bristol confirm use of Google AppsA few days ago I came across evidence of what may perhaps become a significant trend. It seems that the University of Bristol has recently announced a decision to provide Google Apps. Via a tweet they confirmed that this service will be available for both staff and students.

Other Russell Group universities also  use Google Apps for Education. Back in May 2009 Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield in a post entitled ”You can be a victim of your own success” summarised local reaction to the decision to provide Google Mail for students at the University of Sheffield:

Formally announced the Google mail for students option last night by sending an email to all staff and students. Replies are split almost 50/50. From students saying this is great news, and from staff saying why can’t we have it!

In addition to these institutions I also understand that the universities and colleges at Cambridge, York, Loughborough, De Montfort , London Metropolitan, Leeds Metropolitan, Queen Mary College, Sheffield Hallam, Westminster,  Brunel, Portsmouth, Keele, Bath Spa, Lincoln, Aston, Ravensbourne, Birbeck, Oxford Brookes, SOAS and the Open University all provide Google Apps for Edu. Note that additional information may be found using a Google search for “google apps


We seem to be seeing the start of what could be a significant trend. And if we were to gather information on institutional use of Microsoft’s Office 365 service it would appear that core office functionality is being migrated to the Cloud. In January 2010 a post entitled Save £1million and Move to the Cloud? summarised experiences at the University of Westminster:

When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps, which lets colleges and universities provide customized versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and other services on their school domain

And yet in a recent discussion I heard two IT developers state strongly that “Google own your data if you use Google Apps“. I had to point out the Google terms and conditions which state:

Google claims no ownership or control over any Content submitted, posted or displayed by you on or through Google services. You or a third party licensor, as appropriate, retain all patent, trademark and copyright to any Content you submit, post or display on or through Google services and you are responsible for protecting those rights, as appropriate.

There are clearly many issues which need to be addressed if institutions are considering moving key services to the Cloud: reliability, security, performance, privacy, trust, copyright and other legal issues. But such discussions should, I feel, be carried out in an open and objective manner, which can help ensure that erroneous beliefs can be identified.

If brief, the evidence shows that institutions are migrating office functionality to Google (and perhaps Microsoft). The question may no longer be “Should we move to the Cloud?” but “Can we afford to run such services in-house?”  I’d welcome your thoughts on this. I’d also welcome further evidence to inform the discussions – I appreciate that not all institutions I have listed are necessarily using Google Apps for all members of the institution.

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9 Responses to “Reflections on 16 years at UKOLN (part 5)”

  1. Tracey Stanley said

    Here at Cardiff University we are in the process of moving to Office 365 – students will be migrated by Sept with staff to follow by Xmas. We’ve also moved our new HR system into the cloud, and are embarking on a programme, with the other HEIs in Wales to jointly procure a cloud-based shared Library Management System, with anticipated benefits for collaboration across the libraries. I think the drivers for us are about increasing opportunities to share and collaborate, whilst reducing the ongoing maintenance burden on institutions, and potentially freeing up staff to add value in other areas.

  2. Dave Berry said

    I’m a bit surprised that you’re only just seeing outsourcing to MS or Google as a trend, as this has been happening for a while. Here at Edinburgh we are using Office 365 for student mail, diary, skydrive and webapps. We will move staff to Office 365 next year while keeping an in-house unix-based mail system for most academic staff (because that is what the academic staff want).

    There are cross-institutional groups in UK HE looking at the legal issues related to putting data in the cloud, including the impact on data protection and freedom on information legislation.

    FWIW my impression is that the number of institutions using Office 365 is even higher than the number using Google Apps.

  3. Hi Dave
    Thanks for the message.
    Last year I chaired a session at the Google Apps for Education European User Group meeting and was aware of the early adopters of Google’s solution, However it has been unclear to me as to whether a migration to the Cloud has been limited to particular groups (e.g. students, alumni, etc.) or is a service for everyone, which has replaced previous in-house solutions.
    My uncertainties regarding the extent of migration to the Cloud for office applications may be affected by the situation here at the University of Bath. Although a report on future directions was carried out last year my understanding is that the BUCS, the University IT Service’s department, does not intent to provide institutional access to Google Apps for Education or Office 365, or indeed allow Dropbox to be used on centrally-managed systems.
    Perhaps the University of Bath will be a late adopter. I would still be interested in seeing a list of institutions which have moved or have committed to moving to Cloud solutions in this area.

  4. Dave Berry said

    It will be interesting to see whether the Snowden affair will affect people’s uptake of cloud solutions. The access to data by UK and USA security services was one of the issues discussed before we moved to Office 365. There’s an interesting take on this in the Guardian today: .

    Dropbox has elicited some discussion for us as well. The approach we are taking is to offer advice on how to manage privacy when using it,rather than try and deny people the benefits of a useful tool. We have definitions of sensitive data (which should not be put on servers outside the University) and guidance on how to encrypt data on Dropbox (and similar systems).

  5. James Clay said

    Hi Brian

    I wrote a series of case studies for UCISA/JISC back in 2008 on moving to the cloud. what was interesting then was this was in the main seen as a way of outsourcing student accounts. I do see, as you are, a move now from institutions to move staff accounts to the cloud.


  6. James Clay said

    Another aspect that needs to be considered is the use of non-official cloud apps such as Gmail and Dropbox by staff across institutions. There are implications here too.

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  9. […] work as UK Web Focus at UKOLN. In a series of posts on Reflections on 16 years at UKOLN I concluded with a post which described how “the formulation of policies and developments to operational practices […]

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