Crossing the Streams: The Inside Out University (IWMW 2013)

This is a companion piece to my plenary talk at IWMW 2013, looking at the disruptive changes sweeping through the higher education sector and how moving to being open by default may help us to weather the continuing storm. I look at how we are increasingly "crossing the streams" in terms of bringing hitherto unrelated areas and activities of our institutions together, and working with a much broader range of external partners. Historically JISC would have taken a leading role in terms of steering innovation in the community. I discuss whether the new Jisc could and should attempt this once more, or whether it has lost the capability along with the staff members that it has recently shed. All this, and dragonflies with backpacks...

[Photo credit: summary of my IWMW talk, CC-BY-NC-SA by Flickr user mearso]

First off, though, I wanted to say a few words about UKOLN:

As I wrote in my recent Tale of Two JISCs post, we are at the end of an era with the termination of central funding for a number of JISC national centres, including CETIS, OSS-Watch, the Monitoring Unit and UKOLN. Readers of this article from the web community who think of UKOLN principally as the hosts and organizers of the Institutional Web Management Workshop should know that this organization has had a pivotal role in the UK and internationally in promoting information literacy and the Internet, information architecture and metadata. As Jisc put it on their website:
UKOLN led the development of the UK’s information environment architecture to support colleges and universities with expert advice and guidance on the best technologies to use for sharing and accessing digital content and related information. The information environment underpinned Jisc’s provision of access to digital content and has been influential in similar initiatives around the world.
This is a very sad time, and my thoughts are with friends and colleagues at UKOLN who have been made redundant as part of these changes. I've worked with UKOLN over an extended period, notably on the seminal Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) ROADS project, the EU 4th Framework DESIRE project, and the joint JISC/National Science Foundation IMesh Toolkit project. I've blogged about this work in Back to the Future - Resource Discovery Revisited.

I've no doubt that UKOLN's highly talented staff will quickly find other work (indeed, some already have) but this doesn't change the fact that the whole operation has been brought to an abrupt and unceremonious halt. All things must come to an end eventually, but I never imagined that UKOLN and the other services would simply be disassembled in mid flight. It's a move that I think we will come to regret quite quickly.

MOOCs and Moonshots

In many ways what is happening to the JISC services mirrors wider socio-economic developments, and it's certainly the case that my own institution and many others have been through waves of early retirements and redundancies in order to cut their cost base. In some cases this is directly attributable to falling student numbers in courses with poor employability outcomes. In others we are simply seeing Universities battening down the hatches in anticipation of even more turbulent times ahead.

This is particularly galling because we are on the cusp of so many amazing things - in my talk I mentioned a personal favourite, 3D printing of human organs. I also spoke about Google's Project Loon, which is aiming to bring the Internet to remote and poorly connected parts of the world through a fleet of balloons. If you haven't come across it, here's a video:

Now, keeping your costs under control is a laudable goal, and may well be necessary in many cases to ensure the survival of the organization as a whole.  However, I feel very strongly this should be done from the perspective of building capability - what do we want more of, how do we build upon existing skills, and how are we growing the next generation? Moreover, where are our Moonshots? (There is an in-joke here, in that JANET have a Project Moonshot of their own, which we are involved with, and which I recently presented on at the Networkshop conference)

Admittedly in some technology areas you require the resources of a Google to even contemplate a Moonshot project, but I have been very struck by the story of teenage prodigy Jack Andraka, who knew what he wanted to do and simply hustled to get the lab space and supplies he needed:

It seems to me that we should be looking for and cultivating our own Jack Andrakas.

We also need to be thinking much larger than the routine, humdrum, transactional aspects of what we do. The lesson of the last few years in IT is that any process that can be simplified and automated will be, so (like it or not) we need to be sure that all our processes and activities are genuinely adding value and contributing to what makes our host institution unique or gives it a competitive advantage.

Extinction Level Events

I promised IWMW delegates that I would scare them, which I did by talking about the potential of the MOOC to commoditise mass (as opposed to elite) higher education, the impact of the changing student fees landscape, and the likelihood of a "Jessops moment" in HE:

The reality is that many institutions are operating with next to no reserves, and a lot of others with at most a year or two's worth of cash in the bank. It is hard to overstate the precariousness of this situation, and I fully expect that some institutions will be finished off not by financial irregularities or difficulty recruiting, but simply by cash flow timing issues. A cynic might suspect that there was an underlying ideological agenda here, perhaps about rolling back the last twenty years of expanding Higher Education and invoking the quasi-mystical powers of "market forces."

The Carrot of Impact

Having given everyone a fright and indulged some of our more negative and pessimistic thoughts, I provided some positive examples from the sector's recent moves towards greater openness. The headline topics are Open Data, Open Access and Open Educational Resources (OERs). In reality, some of these have been achieved through the application of a big stick (such as the much reviled Key Information Sets and the recent Research Council mandates), but there is also what I like to think of as the Carrot of Impact.

If done right, Green and Gold Open Access, research data publication and Open Educational Resources can be a very effective way of promoting your work as an academic. One of our most successful OERs wasn't even digital until recently - the Mathscard revision aid, sent out to over 2 million pupils at over 75% of UK schools and colleges. We recently launched an app version of the Mathscard, as shown in the screenshots below:

Ironically, as UKOLN is shut down, we see that its staff have the highest impact profile of all University of Bath. This is due in no small part to UKOLN staffer and IWMW organizer Brian Kelly sharing his expertise around the "Google Juice" needed to game the search engine algorithms. My intuition is that Brian will now earn his old salary several times over by selling his consultancy services to those self same institutions that were unwilling to contribute towards the running costs of an organization that they saw as irrelevant.

JISC Case Studies

We have often heard from other countries that the UK's JISC is the envy of the world. When I was originally invitated to speak at IWMW 2013 I had simply planned to report on some recent JISC projects that we had been involved with, and to draw some lessons and conclusions. Along the way, JISC morphed into Jisc, and essentially pulled out of not just the national services I have described above, but also the bulk of the innovation projects that had given rise to its national and international reputation. Hence what follows here could be viewed principally as a requiem, but I think there are also some pointers to what Jisc could and should be doing in the future.

We recently completed our project in the JISC Course Data Programme, which saw us create an open data machine readable prospectus using the XCRI-CAP standard (itself developed through JISC projects). This project brought together IT Services, Academic Registry and Marketing and Communications at Loughborough, along with our commercial partners Terminal Four (makers of our Site Manager Content Management System) and Rock Kitchen Harris (developers of our prospectus mobile app). The results of this work are shown below, and you can read more about the project in my Open Course Data Final Project Report blog post. Crucially, we were one of some 60 institutions all committed to producing an XCRI-CAP open data feed. This will have been the first piece of "official" Open Data for a great many participants.

Our recent MEGS-KT project was another example of unlikely bedfellows. This work was about creating a community around renewables (known as "Green Energy Heroes") that brought research and industry representatives together. It saw some 80 small to medium sized firms participating alongside University academics in face-to-face symposiums and online via LinkedIn and Twitter. Here's an example from the lecture series featuring Carl Benfield, the Managing Director of Prescient Power, a local SME specialising in renewables. In this talk, Carl takes us on a whistlestop tour of renewable power sources and gives us his personal perspective on technical challenges and barriers to more widespread adoption:

We are just moving on to the next phase of this work, which features a Moodle based shared service Virtual Learning Environment for students studying a range of renewables courses offered across Loughborough, Nottingham and Birmingham as part of the Midlands Energy Graduate School - see below for a sneak preview of what this will look like.

Another project that I have been involved with, although in a more peripheral way, has been trying to align the technical standards and platforms of the joint Biomedical Research Units involving Loughborough University, University of Leicester and University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust. The BRUs were funded by the National Institute for Medical Research, but this crucial bioinformatics work has been led by the JISC BRISSkit project, based at the University of Leicester.

BRISSkit identified a key set of open source packages for functions such as cohort and consent management, data capture, room and resource bookings, tissue sample management and data warehousing / discovery - and built interfaces that let them work together as an integrated whole. The diagram below shows how the BRU studying Cardiovascular disease is using a number of these packages, such as CiviCRM, MRBS, caTissue, i2b2 and REDCap. Note also the links to GP patient record systems, biobank samples and potentially genomics - e.g. through the 100K Genomes project.

As I noted in my talk, I have a particular interest in applying High Performance Computing (HPC) to this work through my role leading the EPSRC funded HPC Midlands supercomputing centre, another partnership between Loughborough and Leicester. Imagine if we could successfully apply machine learning and Bayesian analysis to the problem of correlating a) symptoms reported by patients to their doctor with b) hospital referrals, c) interventions and d) outcomes - informed by both large scale formal use of next generation sequencing technologies, consumer grade genomics such as 23andMe, and our developing understanding of blood based biomarkers for disease (see Jack Andraka). Exciting times!

Crossing the Streams

I have presented a few case studies above that I have had some personal involvement in. The recurring theme here is about JISC (the old JISC, that is) using its position and status to drive significant innovations that would be unlikely to happen without an authoritative voice taking the lead.

It could be argued that the UK's mental model has changed (or needs to change) to a much more entrepreneurial mindset that eschews the old fixations with authority as a proxy for class, and that we no longer need a paternalistic "voice of authority" to nudge us in the officially sanctioned correct direction. In the future we might expect that in most cases groups will spontaneously come together and disband according to need - without the carrot of periodic small dollops of central funding to stimulate activities that would otherwise not take place.

My response to this is that JISC's singular successes have actually been pretty squarely around the technocratic nudges ("we know what's best for you") and associated cat herding. A very notable example of this is the Institutional Repository, now taken utterly for granted but just a few short years ago considered to be a completely crazy left field idea. JISC sponsored a number of key institutional repository related projects, including contributing to the development of the EPrints software and the SWORD protocol. JISC's vision and foresight in supporting this work ensured that UK research would have a significant and lasting impact through the new medium of the Internet.

But increasingly we are crossing the streams in terms of mixing research and enterprise, teaching and learning with MOOCs, open access and open data and other forms of business and community engagement - and looking out for those Moonshot projects I mentioned earlier. Can and should the new Jisc be aiming to shape the agenda to the extent that the old JISC did? I think so, although it was significant that when I put this to my audience (through a Google Docs crowdsourcing document) many folk essentially said "stick a fork in 'em, they're done".

However, I also think that this thought leadership cannot be done in isolation, and this is where the new Jisc needs to broaden its outlook to include closer ties with other key players such as the Open Data Institute, the Technology Strategy Board and the Bioinformatics community. Does this mean that the new Jisc should never fund another service like UKOLN or CETIS? Absolutely not, but its inescapable that there is a tricky balance to be struck between projects (both small and large) and the significant ongoing operating costs of centres like these. Ironically even as the experts in the field are cast asunder, the case for providing a coordinated programme of central advice and support around areas such as Open Access, Managing Impact and Research Data Management has never been stronger.

The Inside Out University

I'll close with a note on the title. Regular readers of this blog will know that the Inside Out University was inspired by former UKOLN Director Lorcan Dempsey's thoughts on the Inside Out Library. Lorcan in turn drew inspiration from the Irish author Seán O’Faoláin:
People should think not so much of the books that have gone into the National Library but rather of the books that have come out of it.
I recently invited people to extend this line of thought to the University, but nobody was brave enough to take me up on the challenge. So what was I looking for? Not necessarily a straightforward adaptation of O’Faoláin's text.

For me, a key role for Universities is to develop the capability for critical and analytical thinking in students - something we now need more than ever before in an era of soundbites and 140 character communications. Universities are also increasingly the catalysts and clearinghouses for the next wave of technological development. These are things that we should celebrate and encourage. University should not be simply a place that you go in order to juggle a mountain of debt with an increased probability of gainful employment.

And if you made this far, here's a copy of my slides from IWMW, which is where you'll find the backpack equipped dragonfly...  Comments welcome!

Martin Hamilton

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