A Tale of Two Jiscs: Reflections on CETIS13, FutureLearn and the JISC Diaspora

This week I spent an enjoyable and stimulating couple of days in Birmingham at the CETIS 2013 conference. This was tempered by the knowledge that key national services like UKOLN and CETIS itself were looking ahead to new challenges, a euphemism for closing down due to withdrawl of funding. In this post I'll reflect both on what I learned from the conference, and on the impact and timing of these changes.

[This is going to be quite intense, so here's a little game for you to lighten the mood: If you are visiting Aston University, see if you can find the building and window where the inspiring quote from Einstein shown above appears!  Also, here is a YouTube link to funny cat videos in case you need to take a break to calm down from time to time.]

I have long been fascinated by JISC, which has delivered a fascinating mix of full production services (JANET being probably the most instantly recognisable), best practice advice created by community practitioners coming together, and what can only be described as "throw enough mud at the wall and some of it will stick" projects with hugely ambitious agendas. You may not recall individual projects, but be assured that when you download Open Source software, Open Access publications from institutional repositories, mash up Open Data, and share Open Educational Resources in MOOCs - JISC was there first. In many cases, JISC was farsighted enough to forsee requirements in the research and education sector that have subsequently turned into significant businesses in themselves.

But we are entering a new era, necessitated by funding reductions, changing student demographics and frankly an unwillingness to see "R&D" type activities (of which a large proportion can be expected to fail) facilitated through top sliced central funding. The most immediately obvious change here has been that we have swapped JISC for Jisc, saving a few bucks by making the Shift key last a little longer. Behind the scenes, a lot of people who have been working for JISC on its various centres and services have been having meetings with their local HR departments about redundancy and redeployment, and some have been transferred over to the new Jisc legal entity via TUPE.

These goings on are, sadly, mirroring many conversations taking place within institutions right now, as the realisation slowly dawns that the rolling back of UK Higher Education's post-92 expansion may well be permanent. The disruptive influence of the Internet (Clay Shirky's grandstanding notwithstanding) is also now starting to make its presence felt, with the development of for-credit MOOCs and partnerships with firms offering test centre facilities such as Pearson. In the UK, FutureLearn in particular now looms large over the sector - but will it be saviour or executioner? In any case there is little or no time for discussion and compromise if FutureLearn is to compete effectively with Udacity, Coursera and edX.

And here is the crowning irony - FutureLearn should have been the primary topic of CETIS 2013, instead it was the elephant in the room. So much of what so many of the participants have been doing leads inexorably to something like FutureLearn. Instead, we are breaking up the very services and facilities that are best placed to advise the sector on its transition to being "open by default", and in the urgency to get to market there is a very real danger that FutureLearn will be a pale me-too copy of the US MOOCs. Hence the JISC Diaspora, as we see former staffers with the relevant domain expertise being snapped up not just by canny UK institutions (greetings to Amber Thomas at Warwick ;-), but also by "foreigners" (hello to Nicole Harris of TERENA!) and with much more to come - notably as CETIS, UKOLN and OSS Watch are dismantled.

You might well say "fair enough, but what would you do in the same position?" I think the economic argument is actually a little more complex than it might at first appear - sometimes attack is the best form of defence, and there is undoubtedly a case to be made for strategic investments to improve our information literacy, get more people coding, increase the visibility and uptake of UK research, and expose more people to key technologies like High Performance Computing. But should Jisc try to do all these things and more? Probably not. And is it possible or desirable to maintain the status quo? Probably not.

However, what I am personally deeply sad about is the bridge burning aspect of these changes - once the key people from an organization like a CETIS or a UKOLN or an OSS Watch are gone, it's not a trivial exercise to recreate it. I hope that the members of the JISC Diaspora will still find ways to come together and collaborate, and that the moonshot projects will continue one way or another.  As Martyn Harrow says, JISC is the envy of the world - I hope we will be able to look back in years to come and say the same of Jisc.


  1. True dat. The recent ideology behind quality, independent, "Tech in Ed" funding, dissemination and practical advice is suddenly not so compatible with that of the government, its backers and cheerleaders. And sadly ironic, as these things are needed more than ever. As an example, many schools getting into serious financial difficulty because of signing up for bad IT contracts - the net result of which was a large amount of money gone, staff good at their jobs except understanding complex IT financial contracts retired or removed, and educational disruption. {wistfully sighs} If only there was an organisation which could have advised, and provided schools with crucial information on dealing with these contracts, before millions of pounds was signed away...

    For a long time, it's also been a "by default" role of the JISC; reducing the instances of people in UK Higher Education making a bad - and very costly - mistake with choosing a technology, or tech approach. Pointing at that mud you mentioned, the bits that fall off the wall, and saying "You probably don't want to do that yourself". Unfortunately these are the things that sometimes can be measured, but sometimes can't; the academic who encounters some good dissemination, underpinned by JISC research, and quietly thinks "Oh heck. In that case, we shouldn't go down that road ourselves." That invisible, "bad decision averted" cost saving that no-one knows about because the bad decision was never made.

    An example of this could be the current wave of bad education journalism around MOOCs, a tsunami of sparkles ridden by unicorns which avoids awkward issues such as how the investors of MOOCs will make a profit (sustainable), or whether MOOC pedagogy is actually sound. Those kinda important things. But along comes CETIS, one of the services you mentioned, with a calm and collected report that discusses these issues, filling a MOOC advice gap / void / chasm for academics.

    (And if MOOC journalism and dissemination is largely bad, then the 200+ articles and pieces I've had to read/endure on Gamification these last few months would make anyone despair. Badges, badges, badges, badges, but awkward issues such as how gamification is implemented/grafted onto an existing system, and how the (any?) performance increases are scientifically measured, are very rarely discussed. And, for the love of Cthulhu, they need to be.)

    Take away the projects which throw mud at a wall for everyone to see if it sticks or not. Take away the advice and dissemination. Take away the good people, the 'Orange Irreplacables' who leave. Or stop, cut or hinder their funding, which is pretty much the same thing. And quality information voids appear, to be quickly filled by salesmen of dubious, inappropriate, poor quality and above all horrendously expensive software and technologies.

    The saddest irony of all being that JISC doesn't actually cost that much at all, and never did - you couldn't even design a bloody submarine, let alone build (a small part of) one, for what it costs to fully fund JISC, or Jisc, or jIsC or whatever it is now, for a year.

  2. Quote - "And here is the crowning irony - FutureLearn should have been the primary topic of CETIS 2013, instead it was the elephant in the room."

    Indeed, and, as this living and growing elephant loomed large in the room, the bones of the dead in the elephant-graveyard were picked over...

  3. "Once the key people from an organization like a CETIS or a UKOLN or an OSS Watch are gone, it's not a trivial exercise to recreate it"

    That should be in bold 72pt or something - it is an important lesson and one that'll cost even more to fix.