UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

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“For every £1 spent, £6 was generated for the economy”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 3 May 2013

I recently read the following:

The research … set out to quantify and qualify the economic effects of the £14bn spent on xxx in the UK every year. Using data from 17 countries over a 14 year period, Deloitte was able to demonstrate that, for every £1 spent on xxx, £6 was generated for the economy – something that amounted to a £100bn effect on the total GDP, and which led the report authors to write “We need to think differently about xxx – as an industry, important in its own right, but also as a fundamental driver of UK competitiveness” .

I read this in the 100th centenary issue of the New Statesman, a weekly left-of-centre weekly publication.

What do you think the subject is? I’ve obviously left out the key words, so try and guess before reading any further.

Might it be education or perhaps a specific aspect of education – further or higher? Maybe its concerned with research activities? Or perhaps it could be about the culture heritage sector? Or, in light of discussions about funding for public libraries, perhaps a campaigning body has provided an economic analysis of the financial benefits provided by public libraries?

In fact the missing word was ‘advertising’ and the study was commissioned on behalf of the Advertising Association. Yes, suggested the article, advertising could hold the key to getting the UK economy out of its current difficulties.

I read this article yesterday after attending an enjoyable Jorum Steering Group meeting in a sunny Manchester. During the meeting steering group members were asked to split into groups and provide a longterm vision for the future of Jorum, which will be fed into a forthcoming Jorum planning meeting.

The initial suggestions were very positive, based on a commitment to openness in higher education and the benefits which could be provided by a centralised service for the sector. However, perhaps due to recent scars, I suggested a less optimistic vision. Although members of the steering group might have liberal left-of-centre personal beliefs, such beliefs, and their application in an educational context, appear to be out-of-sync with the more general move to right.

Image from the New Statesman

Perhaps, I suggested, Jorum needs to be prepared to continue to be sustainable in a changing political and economic situation. One particular example I gave was that Jorum should consider the possibility of providing advertising as a means for generating income.

I was surprised to hear that this suggestion was felt worthy of consideration by others.

As Scott Wilson pointed out recently there probably isn’t an immediate need for Jisc-funded services to generate income in this way, since “HEFCE spending on Jisc core is down from £40.7m in 2012/2013 to £40.6m in 2013/2014“, currently a small amount although “According to the 2013 funding guidance letter, Jisc is expected to reduce the income drawn from HEFCE over the following three years (2014/2015 FY to 2017/2018 FY) as other funding mechanisms (such as subscriptions) come on line to replace it“.

Might this be a direction in which the sector moves? And although we might expect responses such as “I don’t like advertising on Web sites” and “there should be more funding for education” to be instinctively made, if the alternative is redundancies, might this be a preferred alternative?

I should add, by the way that the article in The New Statesman was a sponsored advertorial.

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Posted in Finances | 1 Comment »

Commercial Exploitation of Content and the Instagram Story

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Dec 2012

Licence Conditions for this Blog

Creative Commons licenceOn 12 January 2011 I described how Non-Commercial Use Restriction [had been] Removed From This Blog. This post explained how:

The BY-NC-SA licence was chosen [in 2005] as it seemed at the time to provide a safe option, allowing the resources to be reused by others in the sector whilst retaining the right to commercially exploit the resources. In reality, however, the resources haven’t been exploited commercially and increasingly the sector is becoming aware of the difficulties in licensing resources which excludes commercial use, as described by Peter Murray-Rust in a recent post on “Why I and you should avoid NC licence“.

I have therefore decided that from 1 January 2011 posts and comments published on this blog will be licenced with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence (CC BY-SA).

Later that year, on 24 October 2011 in a post entitled My Activities for Open Access Week 2011 I described how the licence conditions had been liberalised from CC-BY-SA to CC-BY. The post provided the background to the changes of the licence conditions:

… the share-alike clause can also provide difficulties in allowing others to reuse the content. Although I would encourage others to adopt a similar Creative Commons licence I realise that this may not also be achievable. So rather than requiring this as part of the licence, I will now simply encourage others who use posts published on this blog to make derived works available under a Creative Commons licence and limit the licence conditions to a CC-BY licence which states that:

You are free:

    • to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work
    • to make derivative works
    • to make commercial use of the work

Under the following conditions:

    • Attribution — You must give the original author credit.

These developments reflect a more general move towards the minimisation of barriers to the reuse of content, not just by others in the public sector but by the wider community. Such policies can help to stimulate growth in the economy by ensuring that resources are spent in development activities and not in negotiating licences. Such approaches are well-established in the software development environment in which open source software products are freely-available for everyone to use (large companies, such as Microsoft, thus benefit from using open source software products such as the Apache Web server). In the area of content, Peter Murray-Rust has argued that Scientists should NEVER use CC-NC. This explains why.

Commercial Exploitation of Content

Whilst there is a growing, but by no means universal, understanding of the benefits of allowing commercial exploitation of content, moves towards licences which grant commercial companies the right to commercially exploit content uploaded to their services tend to generate anger, as we have seen from the recent changes to the terms and conditions for users of the Instagram photo-sharing service. “Instagram makes you the product” argued Josh Halliday in The Guardian whilst TechCruch reported how “The Backlash Continues: Zuck’s Sis Doesn’t Seem To Like The Instagram Changes Either“.

But there is another angle to this story. Another TechCrunch article entitled “Quit Instagram, They Said. They’re Selling Your Photos, They Said.” poked fun at the outrage whilst in an article entitled “No, Instagram can’t sell your photos: what the new terms of service really mean” The Verge provided a more measured summary of the changes in the terms and conditions.

Yesterday Instragram responded to the storm in the blogosphere in which they acknowledged mistakes in the announcement regarding the changes: Thank you, and we’re listening. The post addresses some of the concerns which have been raised:

Ownership Rights Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos.

Privacy Settings Nothing has changed about the control you have over who can see your photos. If you set your photos to private, Instagram only shares your photos with the people you’ve approved to follow you. We hope that this simple control makes it easy for everyone to decide what level of privacy makes sense.

The real change related to how Instagram would seek to make money, both to cover the costs of providing a global photo-sharing service, as well as to make money for the company:

Advertising on Instagram From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation.

Personally I’m quite happy to make use of a service such as Instagram for free. I also acknowledge that the company is neither a charity nor a public-sector organisation and has a legitimate need to make money. It has provided notification of changes to its terms and conditions which clarifies how it will seek to make money from “innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram“.

I am also willing for others to commercially exploit content which I have released under a Creative Commons licence which does not exclude commercial use. I wonder if those who are unhappy with Instagram’s terms and conditions will apply the same arguments to content released under a CC-BY licence? Yes, such content could be used in ways you may not approve of. Accept this – and avoid applying discriminatory licence conditions. Open source software developers learnt this lesson long ago.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that if anyone wishes to respond to this post by using the “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” cliché, you should read the Powazek post on I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet which describes how:

There are several subtextual assumptions present in “you are the product” I think are dangerous or just plain wrong that I’m going to attempt to tease out here. Many of these thoughts have been triggered by Instagram’s recent cluelessness, but they’re not limited to that. I also want to be clear that I’m not arguing that everything should be free or that we shouldn’t examine the business plans of the services we consume. Mostly I’m just trying to bring some scrutiny to this over-used truism.

Many thanks to Wilbert Kraan for alerting me to this post last night. The post could, of course, have pointed out that the absurdity of applying the cliché to use of Creative Commons content.

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Posted in Finances, openness | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Will Cookie Legislation Mean That Ads Will Become Prevalent?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 14 Feb 2012

Today I launched Firefox for the first time in a long while in order to make use of a Firefox plugin for analysing cookies.

Since the browser was open I used it, rather than Google Chrome which is now my preferred browser, to view one of my blog posts. I found myself looking at a Valentine’s Day advert which was embedded at the bottom of the blog post.

I don’t normally see such ads as they are not displayed to logged in users. The advertisements are used to cover the hosting costs for the blog, and I don’t feel that it is unreasonable for WordPress to recoup their costs by providing such ads. The WordPress store states that:

We sometimes display discreet advertisements on your blog—this keeps free features free!

The ad code tries very hard not to intrude on your design or show ads to logged-in readers, which means only a very small percentage of your page views will actually contain ads.

Since I am normally logged in to WordPress I don’t see ads provided on other blogs hosted on either. Which suggests that a cost-free solution to avoiding ads on blogs is to sign up for a account and ensure that you are always logged in – that would seem to mean that you will have an ad-free environment, but you don’t need to create a blog.

However I suspect that people won’t be motivated to subscribe to a free service simply to remove an ad. After all, ads are common on many web sites and we tend, I feel to ignore the less intrusive ads.

It should also be pointed out the ad providers are aware of the risks of serving too many ads to visitors or of serving inappropriate ads which is why there will be cookies associated with ads. Such cookies can bring benefits to the visitor, by keeping a record of the numbers of ads being served. And just as many users won’t sign up for a service to avoid seeing ads I suspect they will be reluctant to click on Accept cookies messages whenever they visit web sites.

Of course, we could simply configure our browsers to discard any cookies which are being send – which will probably mean that we are treated as a new visitor each time we open a page on a web site and are presented with a steady stream of ads.

I wonder if the cookie legislation will adversely affect the user experience, with users having to choose between clicking on Accept cookies on not every time they visit a web site or rejecting all cookies and having lots of ads to view on commercial web sites?

Am I along in regarding most use of cookies I encounter as benign and wishing that the EU had spent more time in drafting an EU directive which addressed misuse of cookies whilst leaving the user interface environment which is currently enjoyed by large numbers of users alone?

Posted in Finances, Legal | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Evidence of Personal Usage Of Social Web Services

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 Jan 2011

Gathering Evidence on Personal Use of Social Web Services

A recent blog post on “My information consumption habits or how having a smartphone changed the way I work” by Aaron Tay alerted me to tools which can be used to provide an insight into personal usage of various collaborative and communications tools. As the title of Aaron’s post suggests such analyses can help to confirm, or perhaps identify, changes in personal working practices.

Evidence of My Use of Twitter

We may think that we know how we use various tools, but might we be mis-remembering? The MyFirstTweet service tells me that I posted my first tweet on 14 March 2007 : a boring post about filling in my expenses – just like everyone else, I had no idea of what Twitter was about and what benefits it might provide. However I might like to think that I quickly spotted Twitter’s potential and have been a regular user since then. However the Tweetstats service gives a different picture:

Interpreting the Evidence

It seems I made little use of Twitter during 2007 (peaking at 25 tweets in August 2007). It was only in January and February 2008 that I made significant use of Twitter, with 105 and 130 tweets. But this was not sustainable and there were no tweets in the following three months (although this, I subsequently discovered, was incorrect due, I suspect, to a failure for the tweets to have been archived).

Ignoring the uncertainties of my Twitter usage over the missing period it seems that regular Twitter postings began in July 2008 – and from the archive of my tweets on the Backupmytweets service I discovered that this seems to have been when use of Twitter at events and event hashtags was starting to take off in the JISC environment: “AT the JISC Innovation Forum, Keele Univ., listening to Sarah Porter. #jif08“.  And looking at the Twitter statistics for my colleague Paul Walk I see a similar trend, with little usage in 2007, but growth beginning in February 2008, around the time that I started to make significant use of the service.

Incidentally there was a gap in the data for September – November 2008 which made me suspect that my apparent lack of usage from April – June 2008 was due to a glitch in the system, and this was confirming by looking at my Twitter archives from which I can see that I had posted to Twitter during these months. Indeed April 2008 was the month I attended the Museums and the Web 2008 conference and first started to make intensive use of twitter at and event, as illustrated by my social tweet after arriving at the conference. So having started writing this post based on an assumption of the importance of gathering evidence I’m now having to flag the fact that evidence can be flawed (I assume the missing data might be due to the teething problems Twitter servers experienced due to growth in usage).

Since 2008 I have tweeted every month. But this evidence suggests that for over a year after first using Twitter I hadn’t found a particular use for the service. Perhaps this is likely to be the case for other social networking services – there is a need for there to be a significant user community before the benefits can be appreciated. Or, alternatively, perhaps there was a need for better Twitter tools to be developed. Initially I made use of the Web interface, but in July 2008 I was mainly using the Twhirl desktop client and by November 2008 TweetDeck was my preferred desktop client (and, from the archive of my tweets I found that on 8 July 2008 I commented thatTweetdeck 0.15.1 beta is much better than 0.15 :-)“).

Reflections on Implications For Use of Other Social Web Services

The above graph suggests that in the case of Twitter it was only after two years of first using the service that it became embedded in my working practices. I wonder if this pattern will be reflected in my uses of other Social Web services. And if this pattern is replicated across other early adopters of services what might the implications be for the service providers? Perhaps such patterns will demonstrate the importance of building a critical mass of users quickly and the need to ensure that funding from venture capitalists is available to fund the service while its usage if still low?  But what of developments funded in the public sector? Is a two year funding cycle which may be typical long enough to build up sufficient momentum to demonstrate the value of services whose effectiveness may be dependent on large numbers of users?

Posted in Evidence, Finances, Twitter | 9 Comments »

When Should You Consider Use of Cloud Services?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 21 Dec 2010

The recent speculation about the death of Delicious and it subsequent rebirth, possibly under a new owner, has given rise to discussions about when use of Cloud Services in an institutional context are appropriate. For some, the answer may be never. I have heard people say “I’ll never use Google to index my Web site; I don’t have access to the source code, so I can’t fix it if it goes wrong“.

This is nowadays probably regarded as a fairly extreme position, but how should one go about answering the question: “When might use of a freely-available Cloud Service be appropriate for use in an institutional context?“.

For me the answer is simple: “Always!“.  Or, to refine this answer slightly: “Use of freely-available Cloud Services should always be considered for use in an institutional context“.

In part this is a response to the need to be seen to be making cost-effective use of tax-payers money.  Although this has always been the case, as we have seen from the Daily Telegraph’s recent FOI request the media is looking at how the public sector spends money – to be paying for the development and support of a service within the institution when there are free alternatives available could lead to questions as to the appropriateness of such decisions.

In addition to the need to be seen to be aware of the financial considerations, freely-available Cloud Services also provide an opportunity for evaluating options and identifying popular features and patterns of use. And following on from the question of the features provided by services there is also the question of the community which can have an important role to play in social sharing services. This is an area in which a service hosted within an institution may fail to gain a sufficient user base in order to gain the benefits of network effects.

Of course there will be a need to consider the sustainability of possibly options.  As I described in a post on Lessons From Delicious’s (Non)-Demise this issue seems to have been the top concern when Niall Sclater made his point: “@mweller @psychemedia delicious. i rest my case.“.

But considerations regarding the sustainability of services in nothing new in the IT industry.  In my time in the business I have worked on computers which are no longer made (IBM and ICL mainframes, VAX minicomputers, Apollo and Sun workshops, BBC and Commodore micros, etc.) and have seen software come and go.  Such concerns can affect large-scale enterprise software and business developments (Blackboard buying WebCT, Oracle buying Sun, etc.) . But now we are also seeing political and economic factors affecting the sustainability of institutional services.  We have already heard recently the news that “Welsh universities to merge” – and we can’t realistically expect that there won’t continue to be significant changes across the sector.  So although we might be able to speculate on the risks of commercial providers of such services (such as Yahoo’s failure to develop the Delicious service and, in retrospect, the failure to accept Microsoft offerto buy the search engine company Yahoo for $44.6bn (£22.4bn) in cash and shares“) we also need to be honest about institutional risks. So if we wish to speculate that, for example, Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Yahoo services could lead to cherry-picking and closing down services which compete with existing Microsoft services we might also speculate that proposals to install services in-house are being proposed in order to justify the continued existence of the unit providing the service.

There are risks in using Cloud Services; there are risks in purchasing commercial software and there are risks in deploying services in-house. This is nothing new.   What is different today is that we are no longer in a period of growth – so we will need to be prepared to understand and address the risks of institutional provision of services.  I do feel that “use of freely-available Cloud Services should always be considered for use in an institutional context” – and whilst this does not necessarily mean that such services should be deployed we will need to have exit strategies in place for in-house alternatives.

Posted in Finances | 4 Comments »

Universities in Wales Told to ‘Adapt or Die’ But How Should They Adapt?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Dec 2010

Yesterday’s headline on the BBC News Web site was blunt: “Universities in Wales told to ‘adapt or die’“.  The article went on:

Education Minister Leighton Andrews has told universities and further education colleges in Wales that there will be fewer of them by 2013.

Mr Andrews told the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ conference higher education institutions must “adapt or die”.

He warned their future funding would depend on a willingness to “progress swiftly to merger and reconfiguration”.

The minister went on  to inform an audience in Carmarthen that “the higher education sector’s failure to respond to reconfigure and collaborate as the government intended was costing it money“.

What are the implications for those working in the IT and Library departments in Welsh HEIs? And what are the warning signals which are being sent to HEIs in England and Wales?  There seems to be two key themes:

  • Centralisation
  • Embracing change

I think those working in IT need to be seen to be responding to such drivers. And, despite the downsizing in numbers of institutions, there can also be opportunities:

There will be fewer HEI’s in Wales by 2013 and fewer vice-chancellors. That does not mean fewer students or fewer campuses.

But the opportunities provided by continued to support similar numbers of students may not be reaped by those working in support services:

[The minister] repeated the findings of a PriceWaterhouseCoopers review which showed HE in Wales spends 48% of its budgets delivering teaching and research but 52% on support services.

So there’s a need to challenge such findings or to demonstrate tangible benefits provided by the 58% of the budget used by support services.

Hmm, should Welsh library services be the first to respond to the need to demonstrate their value? Haven’t Welsh academic library services being provided the political and economic driver to respond to yesterday’s post in which I argued that Library data which is currently being gathered by Library services and submitted to SCONUL, but then only available to subscribers and only available in PDF format, should be made freely available?

How will Welsh service departments, such as Library Services, IT Services and Web teams react? Doing nothing is clearly not an option. Of course whilst the small numbers of Welsh Universities provide an opportunity for the government to explore ways of reducing levels of funding, the close-knit sector  can also allow those working in service departments to respond more rapidly than would be the case in English Universities.

Support services in Welsh Universities have a well-established communities and events, such as the annual HEWIT conference where earlier this year David Harrison gave a talk on “2010… so that’s it for IT Services … or is it?” (MS PowerPoint format). In addition there is the Wales Higher Education Libraries Forum (WHELF) grouping of Chief Librarians and Directors of Information Services drawn from all the higher education institutions in Wales. From the WHELF blog I learn that WHELF activities include:

  • Raising the profile of services and developments in Welsh HE library and information services in our own institutions, in Wales and beyond; Influence policy makers and funders on matters of shared interest;
  • Implementing collaborative services and developments for the mutual benefit of members institutions and their users;
  • Working with other organisations, sectors and domains in support of the development of a cooperative library network in Wales and the UK;
  • Providing mutual support and opportunities for the sharing of good practice through meetings, mailing lists etc;
  • Providing staff development and training opportunities for member institutions;
  • Collection, dissemination and evaluation of statistics from member institutions.

The first and final bullet points would suggest the WHELF might be an appropriate organisation to push the opening up of statistics in order to raise the profile of the work being done in Libraries.  But on the other hand might organisational inertia prevent such a grouping from responding quickly? Sarah Wickham yesterday suggested (in a prsonal capacity) an alternative approach:

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 both provides a right of access to information held by public authorities (including individual HEIs, but not including Sconul) as well as requiring authorities to publish information pro-actively through their publication scheme. A request for the raw data could be made under the Act to each institution. A requester could then analyse the data for dissemination as a service to the wider community …

I can’t see any other information I would expect institutions may wish to withhold – other than the budgetary if for the current financial year where occasionally an argument may be made for witholding (although exemptions all subject to the public interest test).

The wider community will be looking to see how our Welsh colleagues respond!

Posted in Finances | 2 Comments »

“We are a country in crisis. A country at war.”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 27 Nov 2010

Nick Poole didn’t mince his words in a blog post which summarised his keynote talk at yesterday’s UK Museums on the Web 2010 conference: “We are a country in crisis. A country at war.

The opening paragraph went on to give the political context to his views “We have a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that culture should be funded by the taxpayer“.  This is not the type of comment you’d normally expect from the CEO of a public sector body, Collections Trust!

Having opened with this gloomy summary of the current environment Nick went to outline how the museum sector should resp0nd:

we have to use every tool in our armoury, and use them with the wisdom we have acquired in the past decade.

•    Fund imaginatively
•    Collaborate Creatively
•    Aggregate smartly
•    Build Openly

Imaginitive, creative, smart, open. These are the themes of our conference today. These are the qualities we must bring to designing this new future of ours.

Nick feels that technology is now embedded across the sector.  But this perceived maturity, rather than highlighting the importance  of IT innovation, is being used to marginalise  it and, it seems, focus simply on mainstream service delivery:

The place of technology is no longer at the margins of the museum. Our role as technologists is no longer to explore, to investigate, to discover. Our role, from today, from now is to deliver.

Is this a desirable approach? And are such views relevant for the higher education sector?

In many respects Nick is correct.  Following the initial use of the Web as a publishing medium the Web 2.0 revolution has provided a platform for much richer, interactive and user-focussed services, and the use of Social Web services makes it easier to deliver such services in a cost-effective ways.  I should add that UKOLN has been involved in support museums, libraries and archives in exploiting the potential of the Social Web through the series of workshops and presentations we have delivered across the cultural heritage sector for a number of years.

Job done? All that’s left is to persuade the risk averse local authorities to liberalise the policies regarding access to Social Web services (and the reductions to local authority funding will help that).

I think not.  Indeed as Nick said “We are a country in crisis. A country at war. We have a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that culture should be funded by the taxpayer“. To which I might add “a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that higher education should be funded by the taxpayer“.

Is this really a time when higher education (to position the discussion in our sector) when there is no longer a need “to explore, to investigate, to discover“?

Back is 1989 essay Francis Fukuyama published an essay “The End of History?” which was interpretted by some as an argument that a time of radical change is over and we had reached a plateau of political stability. Following 9/11 such views were widely debunked.

Are we at a time when we can predict “The End of IT’s History?“. The technology wars are over: Microsoft vs a whole range of software vendors over the years, the PC vs the Mac, the cathedral vs the bazaar, open source vs closed source, open vs closed. We now simply need to make use of commodity IT services in order to deliver our core mission, with the economic crisis providing the opportunity to recognise the need to accept this new reality?

In some areas this is true.  Running one’s own institutional email service is no longer regarded as something institutions need to do, as Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield has pointed out on her blog and at high profile talks on several occasions.

But the commodification of IT in some areas does not mean that this is true in all areas. Similarly the mainstreaming of a set of technologies today does not necessarily mean that significant  changes  won’t happen again in the future.

Adam Cooper touches on such issues in a post on “Whither Innovation?“.  Adam asks a similar question to Nick’s:

Whither innovation in educational institutions in these times of dramatic cuts in public spending and radical change in the student fees and funding arrangements for teaching in universities?

but reaches a different conclusion:

It seems to me that innovation always follows adversity, that “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Adam describes how the innovation theorist Clayton M Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe ways “apparently well-run businesses could be disrupted by newcomers with cheaper but good-enough offerings that focus on core customer needs (low end disruption) or with initial offerings into new markets that expanded into existing markets.” Adam goes on to argue that “Disruptive innovation threatens incumbents with strategy process that fails to identify and adopt viable low-end or new-market innovation. In our current context of disruption by government policy, this challenge to institutional (university) strategy is acute.

We are at a stage in which a high profile CEO of a public sector body will use the emotional language of “We are a country in crisis. A country at war.” to stimulate discussion and debate – and I very much welcome the way in which Nick has stimulated this debate (you just have to look at the evidence of the way in which Nick’s blog post was discussed on twitter earlier today to see that his post and the imagery he used stuck a chord with many).

For me the higher education sector, too, needs to be “imaginitive, creative, smart and open“.  But, unlike Nick, I feel that there is a need for technologists (developers) with our institutions to explore, to investigate and to discover – approaches which were recognised in yesterday’s news that “Bristol University ChemLabS celebrated by JISC Times Higher Education Award“.  Sarah Porter, JISC’s head of innovation and one of the judges for the awards pointed out that “By focusing on innovative approaches to using technology to improve learning, the project has had measurable, demonstrable impact on the attainment of students of chemistry at the University of Bristol“.

If we lose the experiences possessed across the sector and the culture of experimentation and creativity which is fundamental to the higher education sector we will surely condemn ourselves to a sausage-factory mentality, processing students and researchers using the centralised learning and research environments.

But perhaps the differences between Nick’s comments and  my views are more to do with the different sectors in which we work rather than any significant divergences of opinions.  Replace ‘museums’ with ‘higher education’ in Nick’s  conclusion of the way forward and I’d be in agreement:

The reality is that if we are really going to deliver a Digital offer for museums that is globally competitive, we must pool our resources, collaborate creatively, aggregate smartly, build openly. Individually, we will not do what needs to be done. Together, we can achieve anything.

So let’s be “imaginitive, creative, smart and open” and identify the areas for commodification and recognise the battles which were fought and lost – and the areas in which diversity and innovation are needed.

Posted in Finances, General | 5 Comments »

Asynchronous Twitter Discussions Of Video Streams

Posted by Brian Kelly on 22 Nov 2010

Twitter Captioned Videos Using iTitle

Martin Hawksey’s software for using Twitter to provide captions of video continues to improve.  At UKOLN’s IWMW 2010 event we used the iTitle service to mash together videos of the plenary talks with the accompanying Twitter stream. As you can see from, for example, Chris Sexton’s opening talk at the event, you can go back in time to see not only what Chris said (nothing new in providing a video of a talk) but also what the audience was tweeting about at the time – and you can also search the tweets in order to go directly (once the video has been downloaded into the local buffer) to what may be regarded as crowd-sourced video bookmarks – for example a search for “finance’ shows that at 9 mins 35 seconds into the video there was a comment that “Does anyone seriously think HR, Finance, Payroll and Student Record Systems can be run as Shared Services??! #iwmw10?“.

Asynchronous Twitter Captioning

That is an example of being able to replay the Twitter discussions which took place during a live event. But what if you wanted engage in discussions of a recorded presentation? Back in June 2010 Martin published a blog post which described uTitle, a development to his Twitter captioning service in which “Convergence @youtube meets @twitter: In timeline commenting of YouTube videos using Twitter [uTitle]“. In the post Martin said that “Having looked at synchronous communication I was interested to extend the question and look at asynchronous communication (i.e. what was said about what was said after it was said)“.

An example can be seen from the uTitled video of the When The Ax Man Cometh video, which was originally published on Seth Odell’s Higher Ed Live webinar and featured an interview with Mark Greenfield. I felt that this interview, which Mark has described on his blog, would be of particular interest to those of us working in the UK’s higher education sector as it raises challenging questions about the future of Web and IT services in higher education (and note I should thank Martin for processing the video using uTitle and Seth and Mark for giving permission for the video to be used in this way). In particular it asks the audience to consider the implications of idea’s published in a book on A University for the 21st Century written by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan:

  • Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.
  • Universities are under increasing pressure to spin off or sell or close down parts of their traditional operations in the face of new competition. They may well find it necessary to unbundle their many functions, ranging from admissions to counseling to instruction and certification.

Although this book was published way back in March 2000 the view that “Universities are under increasing pressure to spin off or sell or close down parts of their traditional operations” is particularly relevant to those of us working in higher education in the UK in 2010.

So if you do want to join in a debate (as opposed to simply passively watch the video) you can add comments to the post on the Higher Ed Live Web site or you can use uTitle to give your thoughts  in real time using your Twitter account. An example of the interface can be seen below in which, in response to Mark Greenfield’s assertion that “For profit companies can adapt more quickly then Universities” I respond “If true, don’t we need to accept need top change rather than accept as inevitable“.


Rather than discussing the content of Mark’s talk in this post I’d like to give some comments on the use of Twitter for making asynchronous comments about a video clip.

The first comment is that if you do this as you watch a video your Twitter stream is likely to be confused.  Unlike use of Twitter at an amplified event you will be tweeting on your own, and you will not be taking part in a real-time conversation with others centred around an event hashtag.

Also, unlike a live presentation, it is possible to pause the video while you compose your tweet – and even fast forward to see how the ideas in the talk develop and then rewind and give your tweets. On a pre-recorded video we can benefit from the 20/20 hindsight which is not possible in real life :-)

I am also uncertain as to how people will feel about adding comments to such a video, especially those doing this when no comments have been published – there might be a concern that you will look stupid making a comment which the speaker addresses later on.

I should also add that when I made my two comments I used a second Twitter account in order to avoid spamming my Twitter followers within strange tweets.  (Note that as the account had not been validated by Twitter at the time, the tweets were not being displayed in the Twitter search interface – Martin retweeted the tweets in order to ensure that the uTitle display contained some comments).

I’d like to conclude by asking two questions:

  • Is there a demand for a service which provides captioning of pre-recorded videos?
  • Should Twitter users claim second Twitter accounts which can be used in conjunction with automated agents (such as uTitle)?

Posted in Finances, Twitter, Web2.0 | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Dazed and Confused After #CETIS10

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Nov 2010

“Never Waste A Good Crisis”

On Monday and Tuesday I attended the #CETIS10 conference on “Never Waste a Good Crisis – Innovation & Technology in Institutions“. I’ve always enjoyed the CETIS conferences I’ve attended and found that they have provided a valuable way of keeping up with developments in the elearning environment as well as the equally important task of cultivating professional relationships and making new contacts.

But how might I summarise my feelings after two days at the National College for School Leadership, Nottingham, this year’s venue for the conference? If I where to look for a film title to describe how I felt on my journey home if would be “Dazed and Confused”. But not, I should hasten to add, due to any problems with the conference organisation (the venue – which was new to me, was great; the evening meal, this year, had no quirky servings and the organisation was up to its normal high standard).

Rather it was my recollections of the enthusiasm for change which I can recall from many participants and speakers at the first CETIS conferences I attended and the reality of the changes the sector is now facing – changes which were highlighted in three occurrences which took place during the conference – the opening keynote talk; a webinar on “When The Ax Man Cometh” which I heard about shortly before the conference started and the Daily Telegraph’s article on “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate“ which was published on the second day of the conference.

“Will Universities Still Exist in 2030?”

I recall Oleg Lieber, the recently retired CETIS Director giving an opening talk at a CETIS conference in which he asked the audience to consider whether higher educational institutions as we know them will still exist by 2030. The audience, which consisted of those involved in innovative approaches to elearning, was encouraged to feel they were playing an important role in instigating significant changes within the sector, with an implicit assumption that such changes were for the good and that those who were at the leading edge who we well-positioned to exploit the new opportunities provided in a changed educational landscape.

It now seems that large-scale changes to higher education will arrive well in advance of 2030, but the changes will not be driven primarily by technological development becoming embedded across institutions; rather the changes will come about by changes in funding caused by reductions in funding and increases in student fees. These are the significant changes (which will be implemented in a short period of time), with the changes which technological innovation can provide now having to be contextualised within a radically changed funding environment and corresponding changes in user expectations, with students, for example, looking for the value provided for their fees they have mortgaged their future for.

“DIY University Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education”

My dazed and confused feelings began during the opening plenary talk given by Anya Kamanetz which was based on her recent book on “DIY University Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. As summarised by Christina Smart on the JISC E-Learning Focus blog :

Recent years have seen a drive towards higher participation rates in both the UK and US … but above 40% participation rates problems occur. Issues around massification, cost shifting (where governments push the costs onto students), and student loans are all at play. There is also the influence of Baumol’s disease, where disciplines like the performing arts, are unable to make efficiency savings by reducing teacher to student ratios.

Anya argued that the combination of cost, access and quality made a compelling “case for radical innovation” in higher education. Shifting towards open content, socialisation and accreditation could result in that radical innovation, and Anya expanded on the benefits of Open Educational Resources, Personal Learning Networks and open accreditation approaches. Citing developments like Mozilla drumbeat’s P2PU – School of Webcraft, Anya described how “professional networks can bypass the need for diplomas”. She concluded with the prediction that new business models for HE would emerge, as mp3 players and digital music had transformed the business model of the music industry.

But what is a “case for radical innovation”? How about:

  • We have too many students studying at higher education.
  • Self-motivated students can learn without the need of a formal educational infrastructure.
  • The benefits of technology in enhancing learning are unproven – with Baumol’s cost disease being used “to describe the lack of growth in productivity in public services such as public hospitals and state colleges“.

I met Anya before the start of the conference and, over dinner, Anya mentioned how she has been described as a socialist in the US. But these views are often used from a right-wing perspective – and this caused my initial feelings of discomfort and unease.  I should add that I’m not saying that I’m necessarily disagreeing with such views, which are worthy of further discussion and unpicking. I suspect that, in part, my unease may reflect personal experiences (first in the family, from the working class town of Bootle, to go to University, which provided me with new opportunities) ; political disagreements with the notion that what may be good for self-motivated students (such as those who have benefitted from attendance at fee-paying public schools) will be forced on those who will benefit from learning provided by traditional institutions (whether such learning is mediated by technology or not) and professional concerns regarding the questioning of the benefits of technology (again, I’m not saying that such questions shouldn’t be asked).

In the question time after Anya’s talk I tried to articulate my concerns, but found it difficult to do so. Perhaps I might summarise my feeling by saying “There may be some merits in the issues you have raised and there is a need to gain evidence, in particular to understand the particular circumstances in which such approaches may be beneficial and those in which it can be harmful. But let’s not not take the political decision to radically change higher education based on these types of arguments across the entire sector“. Anya wasn’t of course, suggesting this – but her talk came at a time in which higher education (an, indeed, the broader public sector, is being subjected to large-scale experimentation.

“When The Ax Man Cometh”

Coincidentally after having dinner with Anya and together early arrivals at the CETIS conference on the Sunday night I came across a tweet which informed my that Mark Greenfield, director of web services at University of Buffalo was about to give a live webinar on “When The Ax Man Cometh“. I came across Mark following my post on “When the Axe Man Cometh – The Future of Institutional Web Teams” which discussed the implications of outsourcing of institutional Web teams. Mark used the Ax(e) Man metaphor in his webinar and accompanying blog post – and I should give acknowledgements to Deborah Fearne who described how “The Axe Man Came” and took her job in Web development earlier this year.

The 40 minute video of the webinar is worth watching particularly by those working in institutional Web management teams and those who may have an interest in discussions around out-sourcing.

Some of the notes I write whilst listening to the video:

The topic being addressed: Where will higher ed be in a decade? Will our jobs and departments even exist? And if that axe is coming, how can we survive the cuts? [Note the interview itself starts 6 minutes in].

For-profits can adapt more quickly than HEIs [Is that true? Is that necessarily true? Isn’t the implication that HEIs need to be more adaptable rather than we need to our-source?]

The reality of HE today is that the axe man is coming, especially in IT sector.  There are systemic problems in high education (e.g. costs of tuition fees for students and related issues which Anya raised in her talk). The view that ‘It will be OK when economy recovers’ is wrong.

The axe-man has already started working with examples being given including academic programmes being cut by 30%; outsourcing (in Australia) entire IT departments to India; etc.

The cuts may also be manifested in large-scale increase in services using existing numbers of staff e.g. online learning in one US University is planned to grow by 10 fold, but without any new staff – the work will be outsourced to commercial sector.”

Many courses are the same as they were 100 years ago – but there are new models which can be used: e.g. courses which can be taken anywhere and are no longer constrained to an individual institution

Open learning environment provided by OER resources will help the development of the DIY-University [Hmm, so the JISC OER programme could be used by those with vested interests to undermine the mainstream approaches to the provision of higher education service.]

There’s a need to ask what the core mission of a University is. We can unbundle various University functions. HE is ripe for unbundling. [Note these ideas are taken from A University for the 21st Century by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. In his blog post Mark summarised key points from the book:

    • Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.
    • Universities are under increasing pressure to spin off or sell or close down parts of their traditional operations in the face of new competition. They may well find it necessary to unbundle their many functions, ranging from admissions to counseling to instruction and certification.

Universities aren’t primarily in the IT / Web business- so these functions can be unbundled / out-sourced. You need to justify why it exists at all.

Mark suggested the need for Universities to get “back to basics” [Note this phrase has right-wing connotations in the UK].

Those involved in the provision on institutional Web service need to defend what you do: “You need to be able to justify your existence”.

You should quantify why what you do matters. Decisions may be made just on salary costs of $60,000 pa – average salary cost in US Web team at Buffalo University (but overheads adds to this). Be proactive and not reactive. – e.g. identify costs of bad Web user experiences. Articulate success stories and efficiency gains – e.g. it has been many years since we printed class schedules. Think about the ROI of Web projects. and identify the potential value of a Web project before Web project starts.

Recession has fulled rethinking – but has been bubbling away for 10 years or so. The tipping point will arrive in 4-5 years time: from 2013 college parents will be Generation X and start to question the ROI of sending children to University? Aren’t there better ways of learning cf use of open courseware.

There is a need to follow what’s going on and learn from changes in other sectors- e.g. newspapers which failed to spot the implications of Craiglist on income froclassified adverts.

But such changes can also provide new opportunities, if you accept and embrace change and look for those opportunities.

I feel the issues Mark raised in his webinar (and accompanying blog post). I have made similar points over the years – back in 2006 I gave a talk on “IT Services: Help Or Hindrance?” at the UCISA Management Conference in which I suggested that one possible future for IT Services departments would be “to surrender to the changing environment and leave departments to make use of Web services such as GMail and Yahoo to provide institutional email and groupware facilities“. But back then I was using this as an argument for IT Services department to be more agile and user-focussed rather than making a serious proposal for large-scale out-sourcing – and in any case subsequent arguments that institutions should be exploiting Social Web services have been based on the out-sourcing of the IT components, freeing staff to provide additional services to their users. Loss of an IT infrastructure would, I feel, leave institutions vulnerable, and unable to exploit opportunities which IT can provide to support local requirements. The danger is that today’s cool GMail service (which, admit it, many users prefer to institutional email offerings) will quickly become the slow-moving enterprise service which is frequently criticised today.

I would also add that Mark’s comment that “Those involved in the provision on institutional Web service need to defend what you do: ‘You need to be able to justify your existence’” relate directly to a workshop I ran in Glasgow last Friday on “Institutional Web Services: Evidence for Their Value“. So yes, this is a valid point, which the UK HE sector is addressing.

“Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate”

Whilst the video of Mark Greenfield’s webinar is worth watching and sis useful in stimulating debate, in contrast the Daily Telegraph’s article on “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate“ was a poorly argued polemic based on flawed use of statistics. I spent 15 minutes over lunch at the CETIS conference pointing out that, yes it’s true “University Web Sites Cost Money!“. I added that the average annual spending on the maintenance of a University Web site is £60,375 (per annum) cited on the article seems very cheap then you consider the wide range of services provided across institutional Web sites “ranging from the important promotional and marketing aspects which are designed to attract new students and research income, disseminate information on the value of the work carried out within institutions to the public as well as support collaborative and communications activities within the institution and will partners across the UK and beyond“.

Other people have made similar comments, with Piero Tintori giving the following response to the Telegraph article:

No one University is spending millions on web development. The average investment is actually very low in comparison with other industries / sectors.


As the web is the number one way of recruiting students and research you could say that the investment is too low. What this article really highlights is that Universities aren’t investing enough on their web presence.

In a blog post Ranjit Sidhu described why he considers the Telegraph article on University website costs and value as unbalanced:

The article in the Telegraph takes one data set; expenditure on website development and places it as a cost on a single value proposition; student experience, without considering to monitise the other important purposes of the university website. We consider this to be unbalanced …

The post went on to provide an objective critique of the underlying methodology used in the Telegraph article.


I don’t normally write such long posts. But I’ve realised that writing this post has helped me to have a better awareness of what I believe and my concerns. I should also add that I am very aware of the political aspects of my comments. I also feel there are differing perspectives between North American and UK views on ownership of IT infrastructure and political considerations. I suspect there will also be generational differences in the UK between those who remember Thatcherite cuts are those whop were too young. And as a number of us discussed in the pub when we were in Nottingham, unlike today’s Government, Margaret Thatcher was lower-middle class and initially had a cabinet of Tory wets.

I also tend not to write such political posts. But this is where I am concerned that the opportunities for new approaches to learning identified by Anya Kamanetz won’t be regarded as ways of providing richer and more diverse ways of supporting learning experiences – rather the ideas of the DIY University will be used as a means of further reducing funding for the sector and disadvantaging those from working class backgrounds. And the arguments surrounding out-sourcing made by Mark Greenfield will similarly be used as a blunt instrument, rather than in exploring optimal ways in which higher educational institutions can adapt to a changing environment, whilst retaining the expertise needed to exploit local opportunities an requirements.

And returning to the CETIS conference and the suggestion that you should “Never Waste a Good Crisis” – I also feel that you should also never waste an opportunity to discuss whether Universities are wasting millions on their Web sites, whether we should be outsourcing our Web and IT infrastructure and whether HEIs can be replaced by the DIY-U. But remember that for some, the answer to these questions will be “Yes” – and not even a “Yes, but no, but yer, but” :-(

Posted in Finances, General | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

University Web Sites Cost Money!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 16 Nov 2010

Did you know that the average spending on the maintenance of a University Web site is £60,375 (per annum)? This figure was announced by the press today. “Wow, that sounds cheap!” will be the response for those who know about the wide range of services provided across institutional Web sites, ranging from the important promotional and marketing aspects which are designed to attract new students and research income, disseminate information on the value of the work carried out within institutions to the public as well as support collaborative and communications activities within the institution and will partners across the UK and beyond.

But if, however, you read the headline “Universities spending millions on websites which students rate as inadequate” and spotted that this was published in the Daily Telegraph you will realise that a different spin has been given, with the article seeking to demonstrate inefficiencies in higher education in order to justify cuts.

This is clearly an article which has been written with a political agenda. But is also also true to say that it is not unexpected – indeed at the Mashed Library event in Liverpool a few month’s ago I mentioned to Tony Hirst that we should expect to see right-wing papers seeking to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in order to gather information which can be used against the sector. And this has come to pass with the article announcing:

Using Freedom of Information legislation the Telegraph discovered eight examples of universities spending between £100,000 and £280,000 on one-off website redesigns, as much as five times higher than the average spending.

Of course a one-off Web site redesign will increase the annual expenditure; as pointed out by a spokesperson for Cranfield University “this was the University’s only major redesign of the website over the past 15 years and that the large one-off investment saved money in the longer run“. Indeed a failure to invest in a Web site redesign could lead a University open to criticisms for failing to respond to user needs for enhanced functionality; richer content; simpler interfaces and the range of other requirements which those involved in Web site management will be well-aware.

The Daily Telegraph article was published a few days after I facilitated a one-day workshop session on “Institutional Web Services: Evidence for Their Value” which was hosted at the University of Strathclyde. In the introduction I described how the workshop was part of a JISC-funded activity led by UKOLN which was seeking to develop “ways of gathering evidence which can demonstrate the impact of services and devise appropriate metrics to support such work“.The launch workshop explored questions of “How can we demonstrate the effectiveness and impact of institutional Web services? What metrics are relevant? What concerns may there be?

We are now seeing that a failure to gather evidence will leave Universities open to charges of inefficiencies. As I am currently attending the CETIS 2010 conference I haven’t the time to write any more on this topic. But I would welcome suggestions on how those involved in providing institutional Web site can demonstrate the value of the services they provide. Over to you.

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

Posted in Finances | 19 Comments »

Gathering and Using Evidence of the Value of Libraries

Posted by Brian Kelly on 5 Nov 2010

“Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”

Last week I attended the MashSpa event which was organised by my colleague Julian Cheal. My contribution to the event was to co-facilitate a session on ““Sixty Minutes To Save Libraries”: Gathering Evidence to Demonstrate Library Services’ Impact and Value” . The session attracted participants primarily from the academic and public library sector. Unfortunately the session was held in a small and overcrowded room and so it wasn’t possible to break out into the four or so groups which we had initially intended and so there was only a single topic which could be discussed. However the participants seemed to be in agreement with the approach which myself and Nicola McNee, my fellow co-facilitator, took which was to argue. perhaps rather dramatically, that in order to try to save libraries from the cuts we should be gathering and using data which can be used to demonstrate the value (including the financial value) of library services.

I was pleased that participants appreciated the importance of gathering and using hard evidence in order to be able to justify services. Although the importance of anecdotes and stories was appreciated (with the Voices for the Library service being acknowledged as particularly important for those working in Public Libraries) it was acknowledged that in today’s political and economic environment we need to be able to gather and use hard evidence and data.

But did we succeed in identifying ways in which evidence could be used to demonstrate the value of services provided by Libraries? Looking back at the notes taken by my colleague Marieke Guy it seems that there was an awareness that in some areas academic libraries have not been engaged in collected evidence. However in other areas such as gate counts, opening hours, etc. SCONUL has been collecting data from academic libraries. As described on the SCONUL Web site:

SCONUL has been collecting and publishing statistics from university libraries for over twelve years, with the aim of providing sound information on which policy decisions can be based.

Further information is provided which informs readers that “All UK HE libraries are invited to complete the SCONUL Statistical Questionnaire, which forms the foundation of all SCONUL’s statistical reports and services. The questionnaire details library resources, usage, income and expenditure for any academic year.

However, as was discussed at the session, the SCONUL data is not publicly available. It seems that the SCONUL Annual Library Statistics is published yearly – and copies cost £80.

It was felt that closed access to such data was not only counter to moves towards openness and transparency with the public sector but also meant that developers were not in a position to explore the data and provide analyses and interpretations which may not be included in the SCONUL reports. There was a recommendation that a case should be made to SCONUL for opening up access to these statistics. It was also suggested that since institutions collate this information themselves individual institutions may chose to publish their data openly.

However in subsequent discussions about data on access to ejournals there was a concern that opening up access to usage statistics could lead to publishers deciding to increase subscriptions for popular ejournals. It was also pointed that providing evidence of ejournals with low levels of usage could be embarrassing (e.g. if academics had requested the library to subscribe to ejournals of particular interest to themselves).

The dangers of data being misinterpretted were also discussed. It was felt that there is a need for data to be analysed within its context of use – decreasing numbers of physical visitors to the library may be compensated by increased use of online services.

As well as the discussions about evidence of use of various library services it was also felt that it would be useful to gather evidence of ways in which those working in libraries were working  which could be used to inform political debates. We found, for example, that a significant monitory of attendees at the Mashed Library event were taking time off work to enhance their professional development – although it was recognised that such evidence  could be used in various ways (“to demonstrate levels of commitment” vs “removing staff development budgets“)

“Are UK Public Libraries Expensive to Run?”

Coincidentally (or perhaps not!) last Sunday John Kirriemuir published a post in which he asked “Are UK public libraries expensive to run?“. John pointed out that “in the UK for 2008-09 the cost of public libraries came to a shade under £1.2 billion“. Is this expensive? John pointed that that “at approaching 62 million people, less than £20 each per year for every citizen of the UK“. That is equivalent to:

A starter, verdue and a dessert at Pizza Express. The basic Sky TV package. A fraction of the cost of seeing one Premiership football match. 16 litres of unleaded petrol. 6 or 7 pretentious drinks in Starbucks (it’s just coffee). A pair of cinema tickets with drinks and popcorn. Just half of the cost of an adult ticket, on the gate, for Alton Towers. Any of those.

John then went on to point out the additional costs which would be incurred by attempted to reduce the expenditure on public libraries.

To take an extreme position closing all public libraries in order would not produce savings of £1.2 billion pounds since:

  • That’s 25,000 less employed people paying tax
  • …and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
  • The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
  • …as will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
  • …and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
  • There’s the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that’s more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.

Closing libraries also means people have to pay more for information, knowledge and communication services. That ranges from a person chatting to housebound relatives online, to a senior finding travel and bus information, to someone learning a foreign language to add to their CV, and thousands of little examples in-between. There’s no enquiry or reference desk, no staff or librarians to answer those information queries any more. Close public libraries and the costs of information pursuit and communications are shifted directly onto those least able to pay for these things.

It would be possible to pick holes in these figures, and of the dangers of making comparisons, as the post does, in between the costs of Trident and public libraries – if sectors of the public are concerned of the costs of the former, couldn’t the associations backfire?

However I feel that there are benefits to be gained by opening up the debate more widely.  And it was pleasing to hear earlier today that John has been invited to contribute to a discussion of the future of public libraries on a programme to be broadcast on the BBC’s World Service.

What Next?

What should the next steps be in gathering evidence which can be used to demonstrate the value of services provide within the sector? Should we be seeking to open access to relevant data – or should we be concerned that such data might be misinterpretted or highlight short-comings and deficiencies in the services we provide? And how should we use the evidence and the data? Should we be looking to move the discussions out of the blogosphere and into the public arena, such as the programmes broadcast by the BBC? Or might this be counter-productive? Perhaps we should stay quiet under the recession is over?

I’d be interested in your views. And since John Kirriemuir’s interview on the BBC World Service will take place in two week’s time, we have an opportunity to help him make even more persuasive arguments.

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The Cuts: Implications For Our IT Environment

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Oct 2010

The Future Is Bleak

At last, after a long time waiting, we’ve heard the news. The government’s Comprehensive Spending Review has been announced – and the future is bleak. Very bleak As described in page 52 of the Spending Review document (PDF):

overall resource savings of 25 per cent, comprising 40 per cent savings from reform of higher education and an average 16 per cent savings from the other areas of the BIS budget, with relative protection for science and key elements of adult skills funding.

And it’s worth noting that such reductions are dependent on the Browne recommendations are passed (p. 54 box 2.3 para 2.).

It’s not just the future which is being decimated – the children who are still at school and wondering what awaits them when they reach the age of 18, the students and researchers who are currently at university and the large numbers of staff across our institutions who are facing a time of uncertainty. We will also losing our past – the investment which has been made across the educational sector, the skills and experiences large numbers of teaching and research staff possess, the research centres, departments and, let’s not mince words, the institutions whose survival is under threat and, of relevance to this blog and readers of this blog, the digital services which have been developed and exploited to support teaching and learning and research.

What Might We Expect?

However rather than address the broader issues I’d like to give some thoughts on the implications for those involved in development  activities and the provision of online services. My predictions for the remainder of the Government’s term of office are:

Social Web Services: I’ve recently described the trends of services such as Facebook (Planet Facebook Becomes Less of a Walled Garden), iTunesU (What Are UK Universities Doing With iTunesU?) and YouTube (How is the UK HE Sector Using YouTube?). Facebook does now seem to be widely used (with Facebook Groups, reviewed recently in the Guardian, likely to increase its usage in new areas), even if this is not necessarily acknowledged, and iTunes Edu and YouTube Edu are being used by the early adopters.  I predict that these will all be mainstream services across the sector (indeed UCAS ran a day’s Social Media Marketing conference Monday which covered topics such as “Facebook: How to maximise the exposure of your institution“, “ Why Twitter should be a key part of your institution’s marketing strategy“, “YouTube Education/iTunes U” and “Social media ROI – what’s in it for me?“) and the doubts regarding commercialisation and technical considerations will be marginalised.

Google Apps:  The University of Sheffield uses Google to provide an email services for its students and has recently announced that the service will be expanded to members of staff.   Expect this trend to continue as universities look at the costs of providing such services in-house and question what benefits are gained.  Issues such as the Data Protection Act will cease to be regarded as an obstacle to use of third party email services.

Personal Learning Environments:  A growth in use of Social Web services, Google Apps and other Cloud Services will see an appreciation of the importance of Personal learning Environments (PLEs) with student using a variety of services to support their learning.

Importance of Mobile Devices:  With users looking to make use of the mobile devices they own and institutions concerned about the costs of providing PC clusters the importance of mobile devices would seem to be inevitable.

User is King: With students paying significantly more to attend University, the relationship between the institution and the student will change.  The institution will no longer be the provider of an IT infrastructure to grateful users; rather the institution will be expected to be much more responsive in supporting student needs.

The Demise of the Institution?:  At the CETIS 2007 conference Professor Oleg Lieber speculated on the demise of the institution. In the opening talk he quoted Illich:  “Society created institutions to serve society. But they have become counter productive to their original intent… they now exist to benefit themselves rather than the betterment of society“.    This speculation was based on IT developments rather than the funding crisis.  But if it would be wrong to suggest that higher educational  institutions will disappear the authority and power of HEIs will diminish.

Decoupling of Links Between Staff and the Institution:  As academics, researchers, developers and support staff will be uncertain about their careers we can expect increasing numbers to wish to make use of Cloud Services which will provide continuity of access if they move from their current institution.

Amplified Events: The trend towards amplified and online events will grow and concerns that “it’s rude” will disappear. Speakers will be expected to allow their presentations to be streamed, with the argument being made that since the tax-payer has paid for such talks transparency and openness requires them to be made widely accessible. Environmental factors will also support such arguments.

Tensions Over Openness: Although the government is encouraging greater openness and transparency which would appear to reflect the interests of many of those supporting open access to, for example, research publication, scientific data and educational resources, financial concerns may result in institutions seeking commercial exploitation of their resources and moving away from opening up access to their resources.

Deletion of Existing Services: Existing online services will be shut down.  There will be pressures to ensure that valuable data is not lost.

These are my initial thoughts on the implications of the cuts.  In some respects they describe trends which may be obvious  – for example Andy Powell has recently commented on the  “trend towards outsourcing and shared services, with the outsourcing of email and other apps to Google being the most obvious example“, “the whole issue of student expectations“, “the whole growth of mobile – the use of smart-phones, mobile handsets, iPhones, iPads and the rest of it”  and “the emerging personal learning environment (PLE) meme … where lecturers and students work around their institutional VLE by choosing to use a mix of external social web services (Flickr, Blogger, Twitter, etc.) again encourages the use of external services“.

I think the future will be very different from today – but, despite misgivings we may have, we will need to accept many changes in order to survive.

These are my thoughts. Do you agree?  What have I missed?  How should we respond?

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When the Martians Come (in the Guise of Coalition Forces)!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Oct 2010

Back in November 2007 I gave talk on What If Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything? at a meeting for  Intute staff.  My contribution was summarised by Alun Edwards in a post on Motivations for participation. However for me the most memorable aspect of the event was the breakout session in which a facilitator invited Intute staff to imagine that “The Martians have landed and taken away the services you run“. She (I think it was  a female facilitator)  then invited the participants to “Decide what the key aspects of your service are which you should try and retrieve and what aspects you are happy for them to have”.

I can only remember one of the responses to this question. One group suggested that “The Martians can have the Intute Web site. The most important part of our service is our metadata and the community which creates and maintains the metadata” (I hope I have remembered the details correctly).

I felt this was a very perceptive suggestion coming, as it did, at a time before Cloud Computing became mainstream thinking.

Sadly for Intute the Martians have already arrived, as Angela Joyce, Linda Kerr, Tim Machin, Paul Meehan and Caroline Williams  recently described in an Ariadne article in their reflections of the history and achievements of Intute, which informed readers that “Intute [is] begin[ing] to wind down the service in its current form“.

And although the first set of Martians may have already captured Intute the main fleet is still to arrive with the battleship “Comprehensive Spending Review” due to arrive in London in about a few day’s time.

Early reports inform us that the Martians are equipped with ray guns which are capable of reducing budgets by up to 40%!  And although we have been producing our “Impact Statements” which are said to minimise the impact of the budget-reduction rays we know that, as another species has put it, “resistance is useless” since the Martians have formed a coalition with their former foes.

It is therefore timely to revisit the suggestions made at the Intute meeting in what now seems like another era. Which services should we let the Martians have and which are worth fighting for?  I have previously suggested that event Web sites might be the first to go.  I’d welcome other suggestions.

Posted in Finances | Leave a Comment »

Scenario Planning For Institutional Web Managers

Posted by Brian Kelly on 4 Oct 2010

It´s not too long before the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review takes place – and current speculation suggests that higher education is due for cuts between 20-40% over the next three years.  Whilst I’m sure that institutional Web management teams are currently developing plans for coping with the new spending regime (and the University of Southampton’s ECS Web team blog has recently announced how it intends to cope with voluntary severances for two members of staff) I thought I could help such activities by outlining some thoughts on possible scenarios for institutional Web teams over this period.

1. Gentle downsizing: Changes in staffing levels in institutional Web teams will be addressed by early retirements.  There’s no real need to be worried.

2. Outsourcing of Web teams: Web teams will be closed, with staff facing redundancies, to be replaced by outsourced provision of activities previously carried out by Web teams. Staff in the institution will be responsible for managing the contractual agreements with outsourced providers.

3. Greater use of outsourced Web technologies: Staff in institutional Web teams will move away from using internal CMSs and make greater use of externally-provided services.

4. Greater use of cheap labour!:  The University of Southampton’s ECS Web team blog has stated that it intends to address the redundancies which is taking place within the team: “Other tasks we may hire students for. There’s some great talent amongst our students and they work relatively cheaply, but gain experience and it looks good on the CV“.

5. Move towards centralisation: Web content providers and developers in departments will face redundancies, as greater emphasis is placed on provision of Web services from central Web teams.

6. Move towards devolution: The central Web team is down-sized and Web content provision is delegated to departments.

7. Time for growth and expansion: Policy makers within the institution agreed that the Web provides a cost-effective service. Greater responsibilities – and resources – and given to institutional Web teams.

Of course such scenarios are not mutually exclusive.  But I´d be interested in which scenario appear to be most likely – and how Web teams are preparing for the various scenarios.

For what it´s worth I think that scenario (1) is being too complacent; (2) I believe is already happening (see, for example Lucy Burrow’s talk on Partnering with third parties and vendor management at Kings College London which she gave at the UCISA CISG 2009 conference); (3) I think is not only inevitable but also, in many cases desirable, as discussed recently in the context of event Web sites; (4) whilst seeming threatening to Web professions can provide benefits to students who, we need to remember, will also be suffering from changes to students grants;  (5) seems to be happening in the case of IT Service departments in a number of institutions; (6) could happen if a smaller central Web team resulted in departments taking responsibilities for Web work which cannot be done by a shrunken central Web team and (7) whilst appearing unlikely reflects the ideas given by Ranjit Sidhu in his IWMW 2010 plenary talk in which he reminded the audience that the Web is a much more cost effective way of recruiting overseas students than traditional approaches.

I´ve given my thoughts on these scenarios. What are your thoughts?

Posted in Finances | 7 Comments »

Should Event Web Sites Be The First To Be Outsourced?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Aug 2010

I noticed a recent tweet from Nicole Harris which announced that “programme for #FAM10 now available at:“.

I was intrigued by use of a free third party Web site creation service such as Google Sites for creating a Web site for the JISC FAM10 event.

Nicole had previously written a blog post on”Counting the Costs of FAM10” in which she announced that “After a lot of soul searching with regards to the current funding cuts, I have decided that it will be appropriate to go ahead with FAM10 this year with a real focus on practical benefits for librarians and developers“.

Nicole went on to add that she “would love your ideas for keeping the costs down on what will be a face-to-face event“. In addition to thinking of ways of reducing costs of accommodation and entertainment Nicole described how she has “always been against event management companies“.  Although Nicole is not in favour of outsourcing events management she has decided to outsource the IT infrastructure for the event: “we will do all the event management in-house … using Google for booking forms, document management, presentation publication and event information“.

The FAM10 Web site provides a handful of pages about the event (programme, speakers’ biographies and details of the exhibitors), use of a Google Doc for signing up to the parallel sessions and the EventBrite service  for registration.

Nicole seems to be responding to the onset of costs across the HE sector by reducing the effort and level of technical expertise needed to provide an event Web site and process registrations.  I think this approach should be applauded.  But what is being lost and what are the risks?

The use of Google Site, Google Docs and EventBrite means:

  • The event doesn’t have the JISC branding which would be provided if the event information were hosted on the JISC Web site.
  • The event doesn’t have the JISC site navigation which would be provided if the event information were hosted on the JISC Web site.
  • There are risks of loss of data due to the dependencies on the Google services or EventBrite companies.

What other risks should be included?

But aren’t these risks relatively small?  Google, in particular, is unlikely to go bankrupt in the 48 days before the FAM10 event is held.  And although EventBrite is a much smaller company registration details are sent via email, so a backup of the registration details is available. I should add that we have used EventBrite for UKOLN’s workshops for the cultural heritage sector and have been pleased with the service. You should also note that EventBrite is free for free events, such as FAM10 and the events we have used it for.  In this respect use of the Google services and EventBrite can be used to demonstrate that the public sector is not “wasting tax-payers’ money” (to use the language of the Daily Mail) when similar free services are available.

In a recent blog post entitled “Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing” I referred to a discussion on the US-based University Web Developers forum in which it was pointed out “Web development is not a core mission of a university and is ripe for outsourcing“.

In response Anthony Leonard pointed out that “the core purpose of Universities is learning, research and public outreach, with knowledge at it’s heart” and asked “Surely the key knowledge tool of the age is the web?

Whilst I would agree of the importance of the Web as a key knowledge tool, that doesn’t preclude third parties from hosting various aspects of an institution’s Web services.  And what, after all, is to be gained from in-house development of event Web sites when there are a variety of alternative approaches.

At IWMW 2010 event Paul Boag argued that the recession provides an opportunity for institutional Web teams to identify the services they provide  which can be cut or provided in other ways. Shouldn’t Web teams in institutions be welcoming the opportunity to move away from developing Web sites for events in order to free resources to support ways in which the Web can be  used  as a knowledge tool?

Posted in Events, Finances | Tagged: | 18 Comments »

“Web Development: Not Core and Ripe for Outsourcing”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 17 Aug 2010

The headline in this week’s issue of the Times Higher Education is blunt: “The heat is on: official hints that cuts could rise to 35%“. And on the same day I read that article I was alerted to a comment published in response to the “When The Axe Man Cometh” post on the University Web Developers forum. This cited a book on “A University for the 21st Century” written by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Of particular interest was the comment that:

Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.

I was also interested to hear the implications for those working in Web teams:

The core mission of a college or university is teaching (and in some cases research). Web development is not a core mission of a university and is ripe for outsourcing.” (my emphasis)

I was particularly struck by this comment (which, although published in 2000, does appear to be much more relevant today) as it echoed similar remarks which I made in my opening talk at the IWMW 2010 event. I reminded the 170+ participants (plus those watching the video stream) that the core mission for our Universities is teaching and learning together with, in many cases, research – the provision of Web services is an overhead which is used to support these core institutional activities. My intention in making these comments at the opening of the event was to suggest that there is a need for the Web management community to transform itself.  My suggestion for such transformation, which I outlined in a post on ““When The Axe Man Cometh” – the Future of Institutional Web Teams” is for institutional Web teams to regard themselves as acting as part of a national institutional Web management community, and ensure that, by working in an open fashion, work being carried out within the institution was available to others in the sector. The rationale behind my suggestion is that by ensuring that much more sharing of ideas, experiences, successes and failures will reduce the amount of duplication of work being carried out across the sector, thus freeing time to implement innovative ideas which can help to enhance the quality of services Web teams provide to teaching, learning and research. But such approaches won’t help if we do see cuts of up to 30% being implemented over the next three years.   On the assumption that the cuts won’t all  fall on academic departments or other service departments (the library, IT services and central administration, for example) we would then have to face cuts across institutional Web teams. But will such cuts be implemented by outsourcing institutional Web development and support?  And, if so, what will be the implications of such outsourcing? Any thoughts?

Posted in Finances | 11 Comments »

LateRooms and Tripit

Posted by Brian Kelly on 18 Jun 2010

In a post on Saving Money on Accommodation I described how I often use LateRooms when booking hotel accommodation. I described how this also provides details of the discounts that one has obtained and suggested that such evidence may be useful if there is a need to demonstrate how one is providing cost effective working practices.

AJAX Interface to Laterooms servicesI’ve noticed recently that LateRooms now provides an AJAX interface which can be used when selecting one’s preferred options.  I used this recently to find a hotel near Covent Garden which had WiFi available – and was pleased to find a room at £37 pounds per night rather than £150. Quite a significant saving for the two nights I stayed there!

Since December 2007 I have been using to help in the planning of my trips. I’ve used it for 64 of my trips, which includes many of my work trips (normally for those which involve an overnight stay) together with my holidays.

Although it is a Social Web service, by default others can’t see details of your trips.  There are people in my Tripit network who can see details of forthcoming and recent trips, but I ensure that these are people whom I have met and trust.

When I was away in southeast Asia couple of years ago I shared the details of where I was staying with UKOLN’s departmental secretary – so in case of any unforeseen problems (and I was in Thailand shortly before the airport was closed due to political unrest) it would be possible to see the hotels I had stayed at.

A nice feature of Tripit is that when you enter the date and flight number for a flight it will know when you are flying to. It uses this to provide a local map of the airport  and details of the flight status. serviceAn even better feature is that, for many journeys, you don’t even have to type in the details. Instead you can simply forward an email conformation to Tripit and it will parse the information and add this to your travel details.  I used this feature for a train trip to London and the service automatically included the full details in my travel schedule, as illustrated.

As well as automatically including a map of your destination for flights the Tripit application also allows you to embed maps -again I use this so I have maps typically  showing the directions from the train station to my accommodation, my accommodation to the venue for my meeting and from the venue back to the station.

There is also an app for Tripit which I have installed on my iPod Touch so I have access to this information in my pocket.

Shouldn’t everybody who does a fair amount of travel make use of such services?  And are there other services which you’ve used which you find indispensable to support your trips?

Posted in Finances, Web2.0 | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Saving Money on Accommodation

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 May 2010

When we heard the news that  “George Osborne unveils £6.25bn spending cuts” we also learnt that “Ministers will be expected to walk or take public transport where possible“. Such austerity measures  will apply to the rest of us too.  But what IT services can we use in order to help us to save money?

Something I’ve been doing for a couple of years is to use services such as Laterooms to get discounts on room rates when I am staying away from home. I started doing this a couple of years ago while I was on holiday in Malaysia and now fairly regularly use the service to book hotels when I’m away on business.

I recently looked at details of my hotel bookings over the past six months or so.  A selection of the hotels I’ve used over that period (including some of holiday bookings)  is shown below.

Savings from use of Laterooms,com

It’s pleasing to see the significant amount of savings that have been made.  I do wonder whether we will be asked not only to make savings but also to provide evidence of the savings which have been made (just as last year I suggested that it might be useful to keep a record of the carbon cost of business trips in order to be able to demonstrate reductions over time).  But what other approaches can we take in order to save money whilst still maintaining the level of our services?

Posted in Finances | 8 Comments »

Save £1million and Move to the Cloud?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Jan 2010

University of Westminster Deploys Google Apps

Before Christmas a message on the UCISA-Announce JISCMail list provided details of a University of Westminster goes Google Case Study. The email described how:

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 went on to describe how:

As a result, 25,000 students and staff at the University of Westminster now use Google Apps Education Edition — saving the university £1 million in the process“.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the case study itself is available on Google Docs.

Should All Our Institutions be Doing This?

We know from Peter Mandelson’s announcement that the higher education sector is set to lose about £900m of its funding over the next few years –  and in an article published recently in The Guardian entitled “Universities tell Gordon Brown: cuts will bring us to our knees” Universities were warning of the dangers of cuts of the order of up to £2.5bn.  And if, as appears likely, the Conservative party returns to power it is likely that a similar level (or perhaps even greater) level of cutbacks will be seen.

So how might the sector attempt to square the circle of maintaining the quality of its teaching and learning and research in the face of such cuts?  “Impossible”, you might think – and I would agree. But how might we go about minimising the impact of such cuts? Perhaps it is time for IT Services to radically reappraise the traditional approaches to the provision and hosting of services used to support institutional activities.

I believe there are over 160 higher educational institutions in the UK.  If all of them were to migrate to Google Apps, as the University of Westminster has done, this might make a significant saving for the sector – perhaps £160m if the cost saving reported by the University of Westminster was a typical average across the sector.

The Risks

Yes there are risks. These were discussed at the Educause 2009 conference last October. Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield described a debate on the relevance of Cloud Services to higher educational institutions in a post on “Cloud computing – Hope or Hype?“. After summarising the key points Chris concluded:

So that was the debate in a nutshell. I went in firmly on the “hope ” side but tried to listen objectively, and I must say my mind wasn’t changed! The “hype” arguments came over as defensive and ill informed. She made a big thing of it just being a cost cutting exercise, but in the current financial climate I couldn’t see what was wrong with that! Many of the other issues she raised we’ve dealt with – vendor lock-in is something we’re all familiar with (hello – Microsoft anyone?). The privacy and security issues are being addressed, and the service levels of many of the vendors are better than those we’re providing – we’re just lucky that when our services go down they don’t hit the press!

I recently floated the suggestion that “Web 2.0 Changes Everything“. I think I was wrong – I think, for the UK’s higher education sector, it will be the cutbacks which will change everything for several years to come.  And unlike the changes which Margaret Thatcher brought about in the 1980s, this time there isn’t an alternative waiting impotently in the wings – it doesn’t matter which party wins the next election, the cuts will come.

And the debates we’ve had in the IT sector in the past about the dangers of vendor lock-in, the legal risks in trusting third party services with our data and the conflicts with EU data protection rules and UK legislation will, I suspect, be brushed aside. I am aware that in a post entitled Should I continue hosting blogs and wikis on campus? Stephen Downes feels that the answer is “Well, no, it’s not OK to host Canadian student data on an American server. Privacy laws are quite different between the two countries, and Canada admits students that the Americans may have an interest in spying upon“. These issues are even more relevant in the UK, with the more stringent data protection requirements across the EU, but I suspect there may be political maneuvers around such concerns such as the “Safe Harbor agreement”. It’salso worth adding that Stephen Downes’ comments were madein reponse to an initial blog post published on the D’arcyNorman blog – with Scott Leslie responding that he is “increasingly back pedaling on this: partly because it paints the issue as too black and white“.

I think we need to live with this changed environment. In an opinion piece entitled “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for higher education” published in yesterday’s issue of the Times Higher Education University of Bath vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell argued that “universities should stop assuming that everybody has to do a bit of everything“. We need to stop assuming that we need to host commodity services such as email, I feel.

And if you don’t like this suggestion, how do you propose to make a saving of £160 million? Do you really think we can sacrifice an institution (the University of Poppleton, perhaps) and hope that this will be enough for us to continue as we did in the past?

PS. There May Also be Opportunities!

I have pictured a move to the ousourcing of email and office applications as an option which institutions need to consider in light of cutbacks. But perhaps we should regard this impetus as an opportunity to enhance the services provided to our users. After all, as Chris Sexton pointed out in a post entitled “You can be a victim of your own success” following 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!

And as I described at the start of this post: “When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps“.  Giving users what they want and freeing money to support core institutional activities which can’t be provided by commercial companies – why not?

Posted in Finances | 10 Comments »

“Cuts will bring us to our knees”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 12 Jan 2010

May 1997 was an exciting time for many – the Labour party back in power after many years in opposition – and one of the key mantras back then was “Education, education, education”. And despite the many failings of the New Labour experiment we did see significant investments in education with even the Daily Telegraph acknowledging that “Education spending increased from £36 billion in 1996/97 to £56.9 billion in 2006” and giving the (qualified) conclusion of “Good“.

And during my time at UKOLN (which began shortly before the Labour party came to power) I have noticed how the public sector investment in JISC has been the envy of many of those working in higher education in other counties, such as the US, Canada, Australia and mainland Europe.

But yesterday a feature article in The Guardian had the headline “Universities tell Gordon Brown: cuts will bring us to our knees“:

Top universities accuse Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, warning that they could quickly be “brought to their knees” by the government’s spending cuts of up to £2.5bn, thereby damaging Britain’s ability to recover from recession.

Back in August 2008 I wrote my first post which warned that economic difficulties were likely to have a significant impact on the higher education sector: “In his talk [John Selby, HEFCE] praised the work of the JISC and the JISC Services, but went on to warn of troubled financial times ahead for the educational sector. The glory days of the past 10 years are over, he predicted.“Subsequent posts on “Who Is Suffering In The Economic Downturn?“, “Britain Faces Worst Year Since 1930s” and “Is It Really A Good Time To Be Asking For More IT Money?” touched on the implications of the recession on use of IT across higher education.

It’s quite clear – we can’t ignore the implications of how the recession will affect the IT environment. Will we see a move towards consolidation? Or is there a need for innovation? Will we see a great move towards use of Cloud Services to replace or complement services traditionally carried out in-house? Or our such Cloud Services themselves at risks? Will be see significant losses of staff within the sector and how would such changes affect IT development activities? And what of digital preservation – even more important at a time when services are likely to close, or a luxury which can only be considered during a time of growth?

I don’t think there are easy answers – but I will try and explore such issues in future posts. And I would be interested in your views on how cuts to the higher education sector’s budget are likely to affect IT development work.

Posted in Finances, General | 4 Comments »

The Recession Has Still To Hit the Public Sector!

Posted by Brian Kelly on 27 Jul 2009

Last week began with the gloomy headline in the Sunday Times Whitehall sharpens the knife for university cuts. The article began:

WHITEHALL is drawing up plans for deep cuts in the higher education budget that in the worst case would slash a fifth from university finances, funding officials have disclosed.

and went on to point out that:

If implemented, they [the cuts] would lead to the widespread closure of university departments and could cause some institutions to shut altogether.

A few days later the times then described how “Arnold Schwarzenegger [is] in last-minute deal to save broke California“. But this isn’t Arnold playing a heroic role as:

The higher education system, including the University of California, will be hit by nearly $3 billion in cuts

It seems that public sector organisations are facing the brunt of such cuts. Indeed the Time praises Arnold Schwarzenegger: “His greatest victory was standing firm and warding off tax increases“.

I’ve heard financial commentators suggest that the recession hit the private sector first, whilst public sector organisations were initially protected by 3 year funding agreements. But as the private sector slims down and closes unprofitable areas of their activities they will be in a better position to respond to the economic recovery, whilst public sector organisations begin to experience their financial difficulties. Indeed in a blog post entitled “Universities and financial crisis” the elearningspace blog reports that:

The Bank of Canada has declared that the recession is over. While the numerical indicators (small growth predicted) may support this assertion, reality will tell a different story for many people and institutions. Universities, for example, are only now beginning to feel the impact. University of California is starting with deep cuts. Canadian universities are facing cuts as well. Few universities, however, face the difficulties of Harvard. Hard Times at Harvard provides a rather depressing glimpse into university systems that have lost focus and direction.

Whilst I appreciate that the Times may be accused of using a tabloid headline and language in its article, I do think we need to reflect on the implications of significant cutbacks in the education sector. Especially in light of the Conservative’s recent success in the by-election and the headline on the front page of Saturday’s Guardian “I’ll be nation’s hate figure, says top Tory Philip Hammond” in which the shadow Treasury chief secretary, “anticipat[ed] an era of deep short-term cuts in public spending“.

We can’t say that JISC has failed to provide support for such a gloomy future: they did, after all, commission work on Scenario Planning which was was originated by the JISC’s Users and Innovation programme, and further developed by JISC infoNet in partnership with Netskills with the aim of “providing a sustainable online resource as well as a range of workshops for the sector“.

My scenario, based on these recent reports: “The higher education sector has to deal with severe cuts in its funding, at a time when the weaker Web 2.0 companies have gone against the wall, leaving the stronger companies well-placed to deliver services on a global scale”. How should we plan to respond to this increasingly likely-looking scenario?

Posted in Finances, General | 7 Comments »

“Britain Faces Worst Year Since 1930s”

Posted by Brian Kelly on 29 Jan 2009

Britain Faces Worst Year Since 1930s, warns IMF” screams an article on the front page of today’s Guardian.  It seems that that the International Monetary Fund has warned Britain that it will be at the bottom of the league table of major developed countries this year.

And although many will share a feeling of optimism at the recent political changes in the US, here in the UK we can’t blame Thatcher for this one.  And we can’t even blame Tony Blair – after all, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer for all those years?

So what does this means for our networked services? What does it mean for those Web 2.0 services many of us know and love?

It now seems a long time since I used the line “People say Google may go out of business, but banks could also go out of business. But we don’t put our savings under the mattress just in case this happens “. That later evolved to “People say Google may go out of business, but, as we know, banks also go out of business. But we don’t put our savings under the mattress as we know this has happened“.  Should we now be saying “Google services have gone out of business – look at Jaiku, for example.  I’ve already moved my data to the safety of my institution.  You’re foolhardy if you don’t do likewise.“?

Well if you work at London Metropolitan University you’re probably more concerned about the sustainability of your own position and your institution rather than Britain’s economic woes.  As described on the UCU Web siteLondon Metropolitan University has recently had a cut of £18 million in its teaching budget and HEFCE has confirmed that it intends to ‘claw back’ £38 million in past funding as a result of inaccurate returns on student completion rates“.

But to shrug our shoulders and say “we’ll all doomed – not just economically, but also with global warning” is a defeatist attitude I don’t go along with.

I’ll be giving some thought about what I think we should be doing (in the context of  exploiting Web 2.0 service to support the aims of our institutions). But I’d welcome suggestions from others? Are any institutions making any strategic decisions in this area? After all, we were warned about the implications  for higher education last August by HEFCE’s John Selby.

Posted in Finances, General, Web2.0 | 6 Comments »

Who Is Suffering In The Economic Downturn?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Oct 2008

At the end of the first day of the Bridging Worlds 2008 conference the speakers took part in a panel session during which the audience could ask questions related to the day’s series of talks. The question I asked was whether the upbeat nature of all of the talks I listened to was appropriate  in light of the economic downturn.  The speakers felt that the library sector should be feeling confident as there would be a continued demand for the expertise of information professionals in a rapidly changing world.  It was also felt that the skills gained by those who were making use of Web 2.0 technologies would be particularly valuable.  After all, suggested one of the speakers, there’ll be no going back to an old way of working.

I would agree with this – but who will be the providers of the Web 2.0 infrastructure?  Well a news item I could on the BBC World described how “Google, owner of the most popular Internet search engine, [has seen its] third-quarter profit climb[ing] more than 25% as more customers used Web search ads to spur sales in a slowing economy” (as also reported in The Telegraph, amongst others).

And as government funding is being used to bail out banks (no I didn’t expect George Bush and Gordon Brown to nationalise banks, either) on top of the costs associated with the “war against terrorism” and, in the UK, the draining of public sector funds to pay for the costs of the 2012 London Olympics, wouldn’t it be ‘prudent’ to seek to make use of commercial services where they can be used to support digital activities in the educational and cultural heritage sectors? After all as I described back in August in a post on the JISC Innovation Forum John Selby of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council of England) “praised the work of the JISC and the JISC Services, but went on to warn of troubled financial times ahead for the educational sector. The glory days of the past 10 years are over, he predicted“. And this was before the current financial turmoil. Isn’t a reliance on public sector funding the risky alternative which we need to assess and manage carefully?

Posted in Finances, Web2.0 | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Fahrenheit 451

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 Aug 2008

I recently attended the JISC’s Innovation Forum. One of the most interesting of the plenary talks was given by HEFCE’s John Selby. In his talk John praised the work of the JISC and the JISC Services, but went on to warn of troubled financial times ahead for the educational sector. The glory days of the past 10 years are over, he predicted.

This was probably not unexpected. What did surprise me, however, was the figures John quoted which put the carbon cost to the environment on par with the cost of flying – both at 2%.

This generated much debate at the forum, and, later on at the conference meal and in the bar. Although people questioned the accuracy of these figures, and wanted to know how these figures were obtained, there was an awareness that the carbon cost of IT is an issue which the IT secure needs to address. I should add that I subsequently came across details of a forthcoming Government Goes Green conference in which Malcolm Wicks, Energy Minister, BERR was quoted as saying that

ICT is now responsible for around 2% of global CO2 emissions. The public sector, with annual IT spending of £14bn, has an important role to play in reducing this two percent. An increased focus on sustainable procurement and efficient use of IT products are two key areas that it needs to work on and I am very pleased to see a conference dedicated on this.

At the JISC Innovation Forum dinner I found myself sitting next to colleagues from the Digital Curation Centre (DCC). I suggested, partly in jest, that although there was a clear need for continued development of networked services which are popular with the users, we had to ask ourselves where the costs of preserving digital resources could be justified. If, as we learnt from Alison Wildish’s recent presentation at the first JISC PoWR workshop, those involved in Web development activities tend to focus on the pressing needs of their user communities and find it difficult to justify diverting scarce resources to preserving resources which are no longer of significant interest to the institution, why don’t we stop pushing the notion of digital preservation. And not only will this allow the development community to focus their efforts on responding to pressing user needs – but removing archived files from hard disk drives could result in significant savings in energy.

This approach would then both help the users and help save the planet :-)

As I’ve said this was intended as a joke, over our conference meal. But we realised that their may be benefits for the digital preservation community in making such suggestions. After all, preservation is widely considered as worthy but dull. If digital preservation was regarded as something radical, might it have a greater appeal to developers? Could those involved in digital preservation work – harvesting old Web sites and even implementing OAIS models – find themselves repositioned as members of an underground radical movement, secretly preserving digital artefacts for a society which regards such activities as unacceptable. Fahrenheit 451 for the 21st century, perhaps.

Save a Polar Bear campaign posterThe following day when I suggested this, I was told that there have been discussions about strategies for digital preservation which acknowledge that there are environmental factors which need to be addressed. It seems that there have been proposals that such preservation activities should be based in places such as Greenland and Alaska where the low temperatures may reduce the need for consuming energy to keep the disk drives running at acceptable temperatures.

Now scientists may point out that running large scale server farms in locations near glaciers and the ice cap may increase the rate at which they melt. But the ideas which were bounced around at the event did make me wonder whether centralisation of networked services (e.g. running applications hosted by Google or Yahoo or running our applications on Amazon’s S3 and EC2 servers) would be more beneficial to the environment than all of our institutions running our own local servers.

And perhaps such discussion might be useful in a teaching context. Does data curation, for example, conflict with environmental protection? If so, should we forget it? Or could this approach result in deletion of the very data that could save the planet

What do you think?

And if you’d like to take part in a viral marketing campaign which seeks to make digital preservation interesting by suggesting that it might be responsible for global warming, feel free to make use of the post which has been produced. And note that a Creative Commons zero licence (currently in beta) has been assigned to this resource, so you don’t need to cite the original source. Let’s be part of an underground movement :-)

Posted in Finances, preservation | 19 Comments »