2012

As we near the year's end, time for a quick look back at the highlights of 2012.  My Twitter word cloud for 2012 above (via wordle.net) points at the likes of HPC Midlands, our work on open data and GEUG12 (the Google Apps user group meeting I helped to organize), but misses out one very important thing - winning a Times Higher Award!  

This post is all about Linux.  How did that plucky little penguin come to be the software behind Google, Amazon and Facebook, nearly all of the top 500 supercomputers, and over 500m Android phones and tablets?  Read on...





What does your research data look like, and what facilities would your researchers welcome to help them manage it?  Here are the first fruits of a survey of researchers at Loughborough.




We're hiring! We're looking for a couple of E-Learning developers to join our team, working on a range of projects including the award winning Kit-Catalogue system. Find out more at goo.gl/Hl9Rb and goo.gl/LGv7P.  The salary range is £27K-£36K, and the closing date is 10th December.


Got a policy on Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)?  Here's ours...  I'd love to hear back from people who are trying to embrace and support BYOD in their organizations.  Does what we are proposing work for you?  Have we left out anything you consider essential?  Take a look, and leave a comment below.

Many thanks to my colleague Phil Richards for all his hard work in putting our BYOD policy together with the support and encouragement of the University's IT Committee.  As the language of the document is fairly formal, I thought people might appreciate the Dilbert video above.  This shows what can happen to the unwary employee attempting to BYOD in a less enlightened workplace!


The number one question from today's prospective students - if I come to your institution to study, how likely is that to lead to a decent job afterwards?  And anyway, what courses are likely to be the most lucrative for me, and which ones should I avoid like the plague?  Thanks to an initiative called the Key Information Set (KIS), all the data you need to answer these and similar questions for yourself is now openly available.  Let's take a look...
Here's a rather fuzzy video of my session on Google Apps from the JISC Innovating E-Learning Conference 2012.  In this talk I outline the aspects of Google Apps that Learning Technologists and those involved in pedagogical application of Google's tools may not be aware of, such as the Google Apps Marketplace for Education and Google's RESTful APIs for building on top of the products - and why this will all become hugely relevant with the proposed curriculum changes to encourage our children to learn to program.




You can also view the slides themselves via Slideshare, or embedded below:




Or, since these are just a collection of web pages, why not open those links in your favourite browser?  I have collected them together in a handy companion document, embedded below.  Click through to edit or comment on this, should you wish to add your own voice.



And finally...  I will try never to say "whole bunch of stuff" again in a public talk!  Nearly used up my lifetime allocation in that one session :-)





Here's a quick teaser video for my talk at the JISC Innovating E-Learning Conference, on November 19th 2012.  Sign up now, so you don't miss out!



Open Access logo - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access












Today I'm writing about changing expectations.  We all have a particular world view or mental model based on past experiences and our internalized view of what constitutes "business as usual".  What happens when an event comes along that shakes that mental model to its core?  In UK HE we have had a whole series of such events of late, but I will single out one in particular - and it's not the new fees regime (or BYOD if you're an IT person :-)

Open By Default

The momentous change I refer to is the move to being "open by default", pretty much across the board.  Consider this edict on open access to research data from the EPSRC, that noted hotbed of radicals: (highlighting is mine)
Research organisations will ensure that appropriately structured metadata describing the research data they hold is published (normally within 12 months of the data being generated) and made freely accessible on the internet; in each case the metadata must be sufficient to allow others to understand what research data exists, why, when and how it was generated, and how to access it
Research organisations will ensure that EPSRC-funded research data is securely preserved for a minimum of 10-years from the date that any researcher privileged access period expires or, if others have accessed the data, from last date on which access to the data was requested by a third party
For more fighting talk, please see the EPSRC Policy Framework on Research Data.

Another key part of the move to openness by default is the opening up of research publications following the Finch report.  Historically it would have been difficult to track the cutting edge research in a particular area unless your institution had subscribed to the relevant journals.  You could live in hope that a few scraps of free content would be thrown your way, or maybe beg the author to send you a copy of their article.  Not ideal if you are an early stage researcher, and an insurmountable obstacle to ordinary folk.  [You might think that ordinary folk would rapidly lose any interest in published academic material if they were exposed to it - tell that to my friend who has a child with a rare medical condition and has me keep an eye out for new papers in the area by (ab)using our institutional journal subscriptions]


One might also say that there are some snakes in the Garden of Eden that is open access publication, since inevitably the traditional journal publishers are unwilling to roll over and die without a fight.  Here's a lovely video from Alex Holcombe that unpicks the much vaunted "Gold" model of open access publishing...



MOOCs, OERs and other intimidating new acronyms

Institutions like MIT, Stanford and the Open University have blazed a trail by making Open Educational Resources available.  This movement has led to new ventures such as MitX (and now EdX), Coursera and Udacity, and is itself the byproduct of a new model for teaching and learning - the Massively Open Online Course or MOOC.  Here's a nice video about MOOCs from Dave Cormier, a key figure in the movement:


This new model inverts the traditional approach to further and higher education by having huge classes with equally vast dropout rates and a peer-to-peer interaction model rather than the traditional instructor-learner relationship.  For those that want to pursue it, accreditation is now becoming a practical option, through a testing centre approach similar to IT certifications such as CCNA and MCSE.  It's telling to see both leading institutions and industry giants with test centre facilities such as Pearson embracing this new model.

Adapt to Survive?

The above notwithstanding, OER has a different sort of traction to open access publications and research data - right now there is no mandate that teaching and learning materials must be shared in the same way as research outputs, and it is expensive and labour intensive to produce course materials with high production values.  You could simply fling your existing materials onto the open web rather than sequestering them behind a Virtual Learning Environment, but this would be unhelpful and possibly self-defeating if it leaves people with a bad impression.

A case in point at Loughborough: one of our most successful OERs is the mathscard™, a simple piece of card packed with info to help A-Level students with their Maths.  Over half the schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland subscribe to the mathscard, and over 2 million cards have now been distributed.  We recently created a mathscard app, which has also been hugely successful - see below for screenshots.

mathscard app on common smartphone platforms

Perhaps more significantly, the approaches that work for online distribution and learner engagement with students that the lecturer may never meet in real life are often quite different from those that would be employed in a conventional face-to-face teaching session based in a classroom.  It isn't sufficient to simply point a camera (or a sophisticated lecture capture system!) at the lecturer delivering their traditional sage on the stage performance.  

Watch the videos from the likes of Udacity or the Khan Academy and you will see that they have been shot as short films in their own right.  They often feature the lecturer speaking straight to camera or using graphical devices such as video capture of diagrams, equations etc being handwritten.  It's a long way away from a video of someone standing in a lecture theatre talking in front of some PowerPoint slides.

The Wrap-Up

I would venture to say that the practices I have described above are second nature to academics working in certain disciplines.  For me the prime example of folk who are accustomed to sharing data sets, source code, pre-prints, presentation slides and so on has been people who are working on the technologies underlying the Internet and the Web - just look at the activities of the Internet Engineering Task Force, for example.  However, I am assured by my colleagues that there are parallels in a number of other areas.

If you are not already of this outlook, it will probably take some mental adjustment before it "clicks".  However, the benefits are not to be sniffed at.  See below for a recent presentation on exploiting openness to everyone's advantage from Brian Kelly.  Brian has many strings to his bow, including the most downloaded author in the University of Bath's institutional repository.



One final thought on openness that may be illuminating - can you imagine advocating the opposite?  Let's take that contrary viewpoint: (picture you are Mitt Romney here if it helps)
Taxpayer funded research should be locked away where nobody can get at it - there could be all kinds of trouble if people go around "researching" stuff.  You can always pay for the work to be done again if someone else needs the results...
Industry should not able to get at and exploit research outputs.  Research should be pure as the driven snow, and unsullied by crude notions of commercial gain.
Taxpayers have no right to see the course materials that they have paid for, created by the academics whose salaries they pay.
Makes its own case, really, doesn't it? ;-)




As I write this we have just learned that we have been shortlisted for a Times Higher Award for our work on the Kit-Catalogue project. Kit-Catalogue is a collaborative effort to devise software to support equipment sharing. This is in order that institutions make best use of scarce resources, whilst also bringing together people working in the same disciplines - including new and existing industrial collaborators. Find out more about Kit-Catalogue from the presentation embedded above.

My congratulations to Melanie King, Paul Newman, Jonathan Attenborough and Rachel Thomson for all their hard work on the project!

Is there something in the water?

This is the third time we have been a Times Higher awards finalist in recent tiimes - winning in the ICT category for our i2012 hybrid cloud project earlier this year, and shortlisted in 2011 for our project to implement the Google Apps cloud collaboration suite.

I think we have, albeit perhaps inadvertently, tapped into a wider shift or transition that is taking place. This places the IT department as a true partner in teaching and learning, research and enterprise - rather than simply a provider of infrastructure.

Kit-Catalogue is an excellent case in point here, and it is particularly gratifying to see that a number of other Universities have picked up the software (it's open source) or asked us to host an instance of Kit-Catalogue for them. And in fact Kit-Catalogue is already an award winning project, winning this year's S-Lab Conference and Awards in the Equipment and Service category. The S-Lab awards celebrate "Safe, Successful and Sustainable" laboratories.

Another recent piece of work in a similar vein that I am very proud of is HPC Midlands. HPC Midlands is a collaboration between Loughborough University and the University of Leicester to provide "Cloud Supercomputing" services to academia and industry. We were recently awarded £1m from the BIS/EPSRC e-Infrastructure initiative to buy a 3,000 core supercomputer system for HPC Midlands, and have been working with leading supercomputing software suppliers such as ANSYS, and strategic partners including E.ON. Find out more about HPC Midlands from my presentation to the Bull eXtreme Computing user group, embedded below:



As part of the HPC Midlands work I am keen to validate a Pay As You Go model for access to supercomputing software licenses. This is breaking new ground and will make it possible for startups and spinoffs to make use of these normally capital intensive facilities. More anon on HPC Midlands - I think there will be a very interesting story to tell about this work.

"You and me were never meant to be part of the future"

As IT people we could simply focus on what one might think of as our core competencies. Examples of this would include running a really reliable network, and following best practices regarding online security. I feel we at Loughborough do a good job of both these things, as shown by the success of our work on eduroam for JANET and ESISS, the EMMAN Shared Information Security Service. Many people took the concept of a "shared service" to imply outsourcing, TUPE etc, but I think we have shown that there is another model based on the community coming together to scratch a shared itch.

So what's all this about the light at the end of the tunnel being from an oncoming train? The problem is that our skills and competencies are starting to diverge from what the world now requires.  The growth of Web 2.0 services, smartphones, tablets and Bring Your Own Device has certainly played a major part in this change. Ironically it is Microsoft that have delivered the coup de grace through a combination of recent developments in Windows 8, and the Surface tablet. If you haven't come across Surface yet, watch this video:



What's the big deal? Well, several things:

1. In Windows 8, software is now obtained from the Windows Store - so no need for a cottage industry of software packaging and deployment (though apps can still be side loaded in the traditional fashion in some Windows 8 editions)

2. Surface has no user serviceable parts (if breaks, send it back) and will sell at loss leader pricing to ensure good sales - so no picking up a screwdriver and opening up the box, and no history of dealing with Microsoft as a "PC" supplier.

3. Windows Live / Office365 promoted heavily - customers are encouraged to move to a subscription for cloud hosted email, storage etc at every available opportunity.

4. Windows 8 is such a huge step change that most IT departments will feel compelled to skip it - but this is simply postponing the inevitable and will result in them being even more out of touch by the time the next version of Windows is released.

On this last point, here is a video that very effectively demonstrates just how different Windows 8 is from previous versions of Windows:



Clearly Microsoft feel seriously threatened by iOS and Android (both Google and Amazon's versions :-) and believe that these sweeping changes are necessary in order to compete effectively.

However, there are also astronomical risks for the company should either Surface or Windows 8 fail to perform in the marketplace. The release of Surface is particularly crucial here, as a heavily discounted yet high quality device would effectively nuke the market for almost all non-Surface Ultrabooks and tablets from Microsoft OEMs. The devices recently announced at IFA are still playing by the old rule book which attaches a premium price tag, way beyond the price of a high end laptop. However, without the income from a content/app ecosystem such as the Windows Store, it would be difficult for an OEM to justify selling their Windows 8 tablet with a low margin or at cost. This only makes sense for Microsoft themselves, and other ecosystem owners such as Google and Amazon.

The changes I've outlined above are not Bad Things per se. As an end user there are distinct benefits to close integration with Microsoft's online services. Software installation and update management has always been extremely painful under Windows. The move to a Linux/Mac style approach to package management will undoubtedly be very well received, and sealed devices such as the iPhone and iPad seem to have worked out quite well for Apple - in spite of complaints from the digerati about fixability and flexibility.

But let us imagine that Windows 8 fails to gain market share, and/or Surface turns out to be vapourware. iOS and Android are becoming more and more entrenched, with 1.3m Android devices now activated every day. There is a very real danger for Microsoft that they may have left their Damascene conversion too late - Office and Windows (and Android patent licenses :-) are the main profit centres for the firm, so a decline in sales of either core product could be disastrous. A key point here is that alienated Windows OEMs might well revive their plans to bring out Android devices in a range of form factors. Office for iPad is rumoured to be arriving shortly. Office for Android may not be long in following, driven by necessity.

The Good News Bit

This is a time of unprecedented change, and it would be easy to conclude that the central IT service has now had its day - or is ripe for outsourcing. I think that would be premature, and I hope you will agree with me that the evidence above demonstrates that there is another way.

We can take a simplistic view of the sucess of our operation in terms of metrics such as uptime, and time-to-fix on faults, but this only gets us so far. Many of these statistics are meaningless for complex research instruments such as supercomputers, for example. For me the true key performance indicators are numbers of invited conference presentations, papers co-authored and grant submissions - proof that we are fulfilling our "academic-related" remit and contributing to the intellectual life of the institution.
















Regular readers may recall that Loughborough was a finalist in last year's Times Higher Leadership and Management Awards for our Google Apps project.  This year we were shortlisted again in the ICT Initiative of the Year category for "i2012", our project to completely refresh our campus network, telephony and data centre systems and introduce a "hybrid cloud" model.  And we won!

I've put a copy of our submission into this post, and see below for some slides from the recent JANET Cloud Brokerage Conference about this work.  I'd like to take this opportunity to extend my thanks to everyone who has been involved in what has been probably our largest IT project ever!

If you're at a European University or College using Google Apps, you've probably noticed that we are holding a Google Apps for Education European User Group event (geug12) on June 15th in Portsmouth.  As part  of the sign-up process for this we thought it would be useful to ask people what they would like to see covered in the event, and have been signing up speakers based on this "feedforward".

In this post I'll quickly whiz through what we've had back from people to date. At this point we have 51 delegates signed up from 32 organizations in Denmark, France, Ireland, Malta, Poland and the UK. We can fit a few more people in though, so do sign up if you are an existing Google Apps customer and this interests you.

So, first off it transpires that most of our delegates are already running Google Apps as a production service, as shown in the graph below:
Incidentally the graphs, tables etc in this post are generated for us automatically by the Google Forms system that we use for sign-ups, so it's just a matter of clicking Form then Show Summary of Responses in the corresponding Google Docs spreadsheet to view them. 

We were very pleased at last year's guug11 event to have a good mixture of delegates from diverse backgrounds including senior management, E-Learning experts, systems integration gurus and project managers.  It looks as though this pattern is set to be repeated at geug12:
As part of the sign-up for the event, we asked people about their preferences for topics to be covered.  We put these questions in a matrix using a Likert scale type approach, as shown below:


It was quite striking that migration to Google Apps was still a hot topic even though we had a lot of people who were already running production services - as shown in the graphic below.  This is probably a reflection of the fact that some institutions are still in the throes of migrating email, calendar etc.  We also know anecdotally that there are institutions where individual Apps are being enabled over a period of time so as to not to overwhelm people with new stuff all at once.
I was also struck by the level of interest in using Google Apps as a platform to build on, and we have a couple of talks lined up in this area with Julian Lintell-Smith and Sharif Salah from the University of Portsmouth, and Ed Crewe from the ILRT at the University of Bristol.  Clearly the message has sunk in that Google Apps is much more than just the default set of user facing services.
It was probably a given that institutions would be interested in comparing notes with their peers, but I was surprised to see the extent to which it was felt to be an essential part of the event - as shown below by the overwhelming response to this question.  Accordingly we have arranged a long lunch break and a couple of refreshment breaks, and created the opportunity for people to duck out of the formal sessions by having a parallel session structure.  We hope you will find the networking opportunities useful!
In response to this feedback we have also arranged several talks on innovative uses of Google Apps at institutions, and I'm particularly pleased to have a number of European speakers including Barry Foley from the University of Cork, Maciej Broniarz from the University of Warsaw and Benjamin Six from the ESSEC Business School in France.

We talked about building on Google Apps as a platform above, but it was clear from the responses that people still felt that it was worth spending time on the ostensibly mundane issues around integration with institutional systems such as the VLE and Single Sign-On - as shown in the results below.
 

Of course, this last year the big news has been Google+, the new kid on the block, and we were sure that people would be interested in hearing from practitioners about their own use of Google+ - this was borne out  by the questionnaire responses, as shown below.  I'm particularly delighted that Alan Cann from the University of Leicester and Sarah Horrigan from the University of Sheffield will be presenting on this.  Alan's session will be a true test of the technology, as he will be coming in remotely via a Google+ Hangout.
The talks on mashups by Tony Hirst and Martin Hawksey at last year's guug11 event were extremely well received, and I'm indebted to both Martin and Tony for making themselves available for a followup session at geug12. This will cover some of the most intriguing but less well known Google technology such as Google Fusion Tables and Google Refine.  Again it was clear from the delegate responses that this was an area of great interest.
In such a rapidly changing field, we knew that people would be keen to keep up to date on the latest developments with Google products and services, and this was evident from the questionnaire responses:


However, established products such as Android, Chrome OS and the Google Search Appliance were only rated as "desirable" by delegates (as per below), implying that people wanted to hear more about the very latest developments - and upcoming attractions. With this in mind we have arranged for a roadmap briefing from Google which will be the morning keynote session. Whilst we are hoping to live stream the majority of geug12 sessions via the Google+ Hangouts on Air system, I'm afraid that this session will not be broadcast due to its sensitive nature. [We reserve the right to turn WiFi off and jam phone signals too... ;-]
As an IT manager I find that events like guug11 and geug12 are very helpful for sharing experiences and helping to inform strategy development.  It was interesting to see (as per below) that in spite of the varied backgrounds of our delegates, across the board they felt that the long term issues around Google Apps, legal considerations, and engagement with Google were key topics.

In response to this we have arranged a session with Des Burley from SGH Martineau on cloud legal issues, e.g. implications that institutions need to consider when activating Google Apps Marketplace applications to extend their domain's services. We have also scheduled a panel session to discuss embedding Google Apps in the institution, which Brian Kelly from UKOLN has very kindly volunteered to chair. And the geug12 event will close with an open house session where delegates will be able to quiz Google directly.  Attendees at the guug11 event will remember that we were handing out T-shirts for questions, and I hope to do something similar at geug12!
We had good results at last year's guug11 event from the Open Mic session, which anyone could sign up to for a short "lightning talk", and it was clear from delegate responses that this would be a useful exercise to repeat for geug12:

If you would like to give a lightning talk at the Open Mic session, please visit the signup sheet and add your details.

Finally, just to remind people to visit the geug12 website for more information about the event. You can also follow +GEUG12 on Google+ for updates on the event and to get in touch about anything.

See you in Portsmouth on June 15th!


We recently launched a new website for Loughborough students that pulls together information from key sources around the University and also from the Students Union. It's called "my.Lboro", and (surprise!) if you are at Loughborough you can get to it by visiting http://my.lboro.ac.uk.In this post I'll talk a little bit about what the site provides, cover the feedback that we have received on it, and the way that we have gathered feedback using a shared Google Docs document. I think this has been quite an innovative way to build an IT system that "grows up in public", and it would be interesting to hear from other institutions as to whether they have tried this approach.First, though, here's a video teaser of what the my.Lboro site has to offer... 




Google Scholar is well known as a free search engine for academic papers and related documents. Less well known is Google Scholar’s “Citations” feature. In return for a few minutes of your time, Google Scholar Citations will automatically track your publications, calculate your H-index and i10-index, and create a public profile for you.


Here is some documentation that I recently prepared on Google Scholar for Loughborough University staff, which may be of more general interest.




Does your institution encourage academics to use services like Google Scholar, academia.edu and Mendeley to maximise their impact? Leave a comment and let me know!



So here's a two minute video I just posted to YouTube outlining my plan to spend a tiny fraction of the JISC millions encouraging the community to open up its existing institutional code. You can vote for my idea here up until the end of March 2012.





This is a companion post to my talk with Google’s William Florance at the UCISA Using Social Media to Communicate workshop. We recorded the session, and you can watch it on YouTube via the embedded video below.



My recent blog post, A Post-PC Manifesto, looked at the seismic changes taking place in the IT industry right now - particularly around the onward march of consumer technology into the workplace. In this post I'll share some thoughts about how IT professionals and the IT department can remain relevant in this new world.

First, though, here's an infographic on the growth of Android that for me puts the whole thing into perspective. If this seems impressive, bear in mind that a lot can happen in a year. Google recently announced they had been seeing over 700,000 Android device activations a day, with over 200 million Android devices out there.