The Perfect Storm: Understanding the Changing Face of Technology in Higher Education (BETT 2013)

I was invited to speak at this year's BETT as part of the new Higher Education strand of the event.  My talk was all about the "perfect storm" of changes that are happening in the sector right now, and how we can respond to them.  Why the sleepy cat?  Well, when things get stressful, sometimes you just need to take a Kitten Break to calm yourself down...  [Thanks to Ray Kent from De Montfort University for introducing me to the kitten break]

(Kitten break picture from Flickr user nathonline)

You can see a copy of my slides embedded below - click on the arrows to move through the slideshow.  I've expanded on the points made in the talk in the rest of this blog post.

Are we heading for an Extinction Level Event?

There are changes taking place right now in the world of Higher Education that many people find deeply disturbing.  Film fans may remember the mysterious ELE from Deep Impact, and who could forget David Kernohan's Day Of The Mooc for DS106? (enhanced animated GIF version by Michael Branson Smith shown below)

Will upstart MOOC purveyors eat slow moving traditional education institutions for breakfast?  Or will traditional Universities succeed in devising ways to use the MOOC metaphor to bring in new students, and reach out to disenfranchised groups that might not otherwise have access to higher learning?  I think the answer is likely to be something of both, and certainly there are traps for the unwary - both in terms of the resource commitment to run a successful MOOC, and in terms of the evolution of a credit award model for MOOCs (such as the Udacity / San Jose deal) that would lead to real qualifications.

We have to ask ourselves what role the institution ultimately has in such a deal - e.g. is it reduced to a "test centre"?  This is an area where commercial operators such as Pearson (note their test centre deal with edX) have already built up a great deal of expertise.  In the UK, FutureLearn may be able to leverage much of the Open University's prior work on distance learning, but participating institutions will have to be careful to find ways of maintaining and promoting their own identities within the larger FutureLearn group - rather than simply being satellite content providers.

For all the heat and light generated around MOOCs, and the opportunity for creative disruption that they present, there is a more pressing concern for the sector - recruitment to Higher Education in the UK has been significantly affected by the change in fees regime.  If David Cameron was a doctor, you could picture him saying...

(You too can put words in Dave's mouth at

However, the reality is that we are only at the start of this experiment, and it will be important to see what the ultimate effect is of the relaxation of ABB quotas for the 2013/2014 fresher intake.  We are starting to get a picture of this from "early" 2013/2014 applicants, and as the Daily Telegraph reports, the results are grim for many of the country's leading institutions.

[Please scroll back up to the top of the page now, and take a two minute kitten break]

Open By Default

OK, welcome back.  My key message in the BETT talk and this blog post is that whilst we may be in the middle of a rather difficult period, there are many positive things going on in and around the community.  I would note in particular the move to making taxpayer funded work and information openly available wherever possible.

I have written before about this transition, e.g. in "Suddenly, Everything Has Changed", and will single out a particular section of this post for further scrutiny:
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
This text is taken from the EPSRC Policy Framework on Research Data, which itself is part of the larger RCUK activity around preservation and discovery of research data.

The Key Information Set is another piece of open data that the community is now required to generate.  This provides a summary of outcomes for each course operated by the institution.  In the screenshot below you see the average graduate salary for Loughborough Aeronautical Engineering students six months after graduating.  Will this have an effect on the course choices made by today's sixth formers?  Absolutely.

I should note that the underlying KIS data is available, creating all sorts of mashup possibilities beyond what you presently see on the Unistats website.  This theme of opening up and re-use of public data is being taken forward by the UK Open Data Institute, and I was delighted to be able to visit the ODI whilst down in London for BETT.

In the picture below, you can see Jonathan Raper, CEO of Placr speaking at the ODI's weekly ODIFridays event.  Jonathan is showing us the raw data that his firm works with for tracking live train running (apologies for the coloured bars, which are all mine):

Placr combines the live training running data with a number of other data sources to create their TransportAPI product, which is itself a building block for creating applications that need access to public transport information.  It's interesting to note that Placr is in itself likely to be quite a viable business built on top of public data, repurposing it to the point that it is generally useful, and TransportAPI may well find itself at the heart of a vibrant ecosystem of transport related applications.

So what relevance does this have to higher education?  I've blogged in the past about our Kit-Catalogue project, which is opening up data about institutional equipment as part of the M5 Universities group and the UNIQUIP project - see below for an sample search result from the M5 institutions.

If you were wondering what we mean by "open data", in this case it's essentially a version of what you see on the screen, in a format that is readily digestable by a computer program.  Kit Catalogue provides a JSON API, so our data looks like this:

[{"id":"http:\/\/\/id\/item\/239","name":"3D colour printer","manufacturer":"Z Corporation","model":"ZPrinter 450","description":"Rapid Prototyping 3D colour printer.<\/p>\n\n","contact1":"","contact2":"","image":"http:\/\/\/item\/3d-colour-printer\/239\/image\/zcorp_0094.jpg","link":"http:\/\/\/id\/item\/239\/3d-colour-printer.html"},{"id":"http:\/\/\/id\/item\/704","name":"3D Rapid Prototyping Colour Printer","manufacturer":"Z Corporation","model":"Spectrum Z510","description":"\"High-quality 3D prototypes are critical for helping you achieve your engineering and business goals. With high-definition 3D parts, you can efficiently communicate and evaluate design concepts throughout the product development enterprise. Improved design communication enables you to compress design cycles, improve manufacturing planning, shorten time-to-market, innovate new products, and even win new business.<\/p>\n\nThe Spectrum Z510 Full Color System produces high-definition, full-color prototypes quickly and affordably. Superior inkjet printing technology creates parts with crisply defined features, enhanced accuracy, and precise color, so you can print and evaluate physical models of design concepts in their nearly finished state. Rapid 3D printing of high-definition models means you no longer have to wait for prototypes.<\/p>\n\nThis unique, 24-bit color, 3D printing capability produces color models that accurately reflect your original design data. Color models communicate more information than any other type of rapid prototype, providing you with a strategic advantage in product development. Enhanced software features maximize the benefits of color by providing flexible part labeling, feature coloring, texture mapping, annotation, and labeling capabilities.\"<\/p>\n\n","contact1":"","contact2":"","image":"http:\/\/\/item\/3d-rapid-prototyping-colour-printer\/704\/image\/cvzcorporationspectrumz510web.jpg","link":"http:\/\/\/id\/item\/704\/3d-rapid-prototyping-colour-printer.html"},

When organizations are working on projects to open their data, it is critically important to maintain a dialogue with potential users of the open data, to be sure that what is being produced is useful and will be re-used - otherwise the effort that went into making it open will have been largely wasted.  We have taken great care to do this with Kit-Catalogue, but (for the moment at least) this is a fairly niche community.

The mandate to open up research data more generally creates a number of challenges, such as metadata availability - we have been exploring whether we can derive some of this automatically by linking grants, academics, publications and research data in our Symplectic Elements research management system.  Fundamentally, though, the community of data providers needs to interact with the community of data consumers.  My belief is that the ODI is going to play a crucial role in bringing the two groups together.

Hacking the Organization

Another of my key themes was partnerships that go beyond a simple producer/consumer relationship.  I like to think of this as "hacking the organization", in the MIT sense of the word. In my talk I highlighted several examples of this approach at work including the M5 Group case study discussed above, our Times Higher Award winning i2012 project, and our Loughborough Goes Google project.

I would note that partnerships are increasingly a continuum across our suppliers and strategic partners.  For example, the HPC Midlands project brings in our HPC supplier Bull Information Systems, and leading ISVs such as ANSYS and CD-adapco.  In turn, HPC Midlands provides a service to industry and facilitates greater institutional/industrial collaboration.  Another example of a deep and lasting collaboration is our Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre, as shown in the screenshot below, which has over 30 joint projects under way at present.

And Finally...

Whilst the detail of the technology itself has largely been an ancillary detail in the talk and the accompanying blog post, I thought it would be worth noting one particular disruptive change that has caught a lot of people by surprise.  This is something that I wrote about in "A Backward Weighted Bear Crawl", my review of 2012, but it's worth reiterating.  Here's a picture (screenshot from ZDNet) that is worth a thousand words:

It turns out that Google's Chromebook project, thought by many to be a niche application of little interest outside the education market, has a wider applicability.  With the demise of the netbook category, the £199 Chromebook is practically the only product in the marketplace that fills the gap - and Chromebooks have topped Amazon's best selling laptop list since last October.  This is in spite of the fact that all you can do with the Chromebook is surf the web, via its built-in copy of the Chrome browser.

Some of the changes I have spoken and written about here could be viewed as quite threatening or disturbing, particularly where the status quo and normal working practices are affected.  I hope I have provided some interesting counter-examples of positive developments, but if all else fails - now you know that you could always have a Kitten Break ;-)

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.