Photo credit: CC-BY Flickr user slgc.
It’s the Internet’s dirty little secret, and one we ignore at our peril. There’s a reason that every new startup is the Amazon of this, the Facebook of that or the new Uber, Airbnb and so on. That’s because the incremental costs of scaling from a startup to a global concern are very different when you don’t need to take on huge numbers of staff and open bricks and mortar stores, hotels, or taxi offices. And a lot of the major product slots have already gone. These days, Amazon alone really is The Everything Store of Brad Stone’s book. Amazon even rents out its own infrastructure as Amazon Web Services.

So will we see an Amazon of Education? Will someone crack the successful online “delivery” of “learning”, coupled with robust assessment, and what will that mean for the institution? The last few years have seen quite a few concerted attempts, largely based on replicating the traditional lecture (watch a video, e.g. a captured lecture) and tutorial format (discussion in a forum), but these haven’t been hugely successful. We’ve seen huge drop out rates, and pivots from some of the leading lights. It may be telling that the MOOC platforms of recent years bear little relationship with their antecedents, such as the near infamous DS106 Digital Storytelling course. And perhaps the future of education will look more like a video game than a lecture. If that seems unlikely, watch the video below from Duolingo founder and CEO, Luis von Ahn. Right now, more people are learning a language online through Duolingo than the total number of people learning a language at school in the United States.

If the future of education interests you, why not continue the dialogue with Simon Nelson, the CEO of the UK’s own MOOC platform FutureLearn. Simon will be one of the keynote speakers at Jisc’s Digital Festival 2015 – book now, it’s early bird rate until January 5th 2015.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

Most of us now have a cupboard or two’s worth of old media that we’re keeping because one day we might want to go back to it. Floppy disks, old hard drives, audio and video cassettes, CDs and so on. But how many of us no longer posses a device capable of reading/playing that media? There’s a software equivalent too: files that you are no longer able to read. Perhaps the license expired, or the application isn’t compatible with modern hardware or operating systems. And then there are files that were locked into defunct cloud services, with no equivalent of Google Takeout – or services that simply went away one day.

So are we entering a new “Digital Dark Age”? This may well be the case if we do not take care to carefully curate our data and metadata. A number of studies show significant link rot in academic publications, but we have also made significant progress through initiatives such as DataCite’s Digital Object Identifiers, and the CLOCKSS archive network for orphaned or abandoned scholarly content. And moving beyond academia, the Internet Archive’s Internet Arcade provides a great (and fun!) example of what can be done in terms of code and data re-use when enough people are sufficiently motivated – see video above.

At Jisc we are just kicking off our Research Data Spring initiative, which is a two year project looking to close any gaps which presently put “research at risk”. Please do take a look at and vote on the ideas people have submitted, and add your own – the first round of Research Data Spring ideation closes on January 12th 2015.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

As service users or consumers, we love that the Internet removes intermediaries. Just think: one click to buy and download a new book or album, everyone now able to “publish” their thoughts and ideas to a potentially global audience, the rise of the citizen journalist and citizen science, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and so on. Future generations will undoubtedly look back at this time in human existence and recognise it as a phase change – suddenly the friction of a whole lot of stuff that people want to do was drastically reduced.

But of course there is a downside – what if that intermediary is you? We have just about gotten used to the changes wrought by the first wave of Internet based disintermediation – though do you still miss your local book shop or record shop? It’s becoming clear that there are huge areas where machine learning, cloud computing and robotics will come together and wreak even greater changes. Consider Google’s self-driving car video above – it’s hard to suppress a tear as the blind man goes for his first solo car ride. But what will all the taxi drivers do when driverless cars take off? And more importantly, what skills will our children need to learn to find work in a world where any job that can be done by an algorithm will ultimately be automated?

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

Last night saw the sector come together in London for the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) Awards. One of the most eagerly awaited categories was the Jisc-sponsored Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year - celebrating the use of innovative and strategic digital technologies in universities, with The Open University's OpenScience Laboratory announced as the very deserving winner.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc blog in November 2014]

Jack Dee and Jisc CEO Martyn Harrow with THE Awards winners 2014,
picture courtesy of Times Higher Education

As one of the judges of the THE awards, I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the shortlisted institutions and their projects in this category. I will start with the winner, and go on to give attention to each of entries, which I think epitomise some of the excellent digital work that's being done in UK higher education.

Open University

The OpenScience Laboratory from the Open University and Wolfson Foundation gives distance learners the closest possible experience to studying in a real lab by allowing them to conduct 'virtual' experiments using real data.

allowing distance learners to conduct 'virtual' experiments using real data

It strategically supports distance learning at a variety of education levels, providing resources through open access to a wide range of potential audiences. Crucially, it promotes STEM subjects by providing a glimpse of the world and work of the scientist which really engages the learner - you can see its success by the fact it has been accessed by over 10,000 informal learners, which is in addition to the more than 2,000 registered users studying on Open University courses.

The panel felt that it was a genuinely exciting project within an ambitious overall programme with a great roadmap for further development. The project clearly demonstrates the power that technology has to enable people in higher education to perform at the forefront of international practice - which is precisely our mission at Jisc.

University of Aberdeen and partners

The North East of Scotland Shared Data Centre (NESSDC) is a £1.2m joint project to create a shared data centre for regional higher and further education institutions, led by the University of Aberdeen.

creating a shared data centre for regional higher and further education institutions

Recognising that their existing data centres were environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable for future growth requirements, four institutions - the University of Aberdeen, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen College and Banff & Buchan College - came together to create a new state of the art facility where they could share services. The new data centre will save the participating institutions a six figure sum every year whilst also helping them to drastically reduce their carbon emissions.

Bournemouth University

The team at Bournemouth University and Poole NHS Trust wanted to support staff and enhance healthcare delivery during epidurals. Together, they created a fully integrated wireless prototype to guide surgical staff administering injections by determining the position of the needle. They have also developed a training package to help users monitor progress.

supporting staff and enhancing healthcare delivery during epidurals

This project could have huge societal benefits given that complications associated with epidural injections during labour are estimated to affect around 365,000 women and cost the NHS some £15m every year. The team at Bournemouth is now working with NHS Innovations South West, who commercialise new inventions.

De Montfort University

De Montfort University's IT4Free project from its Square Mile community engagement initiative is targeted at maximising digital inclusion in Leicestershire. It aims to close the digital divide through free community IT suites and training.

closing the digital divide through free community IT suites and training

Working in partnership with a number of public and private sector bodies, including HP, the NHS and The Prince's Trust, a team of academics and 50 student volunteers have given their time to make the project a success, with the students also gaining valuable skills and confidence.

International State Crime Initiative

The International State Crime Initiative is an e-testimony project from Queen Mary University of London, University of Ulster and King's College London. It is an online casebook that provides material about criminal state practices, including eye witness testimonies in the form of interviews, film, photographs and other imagery, that is available to those interested in studying these events.

an online casebook that provides material about criminal state practices,
including eye witness testimonies

The results of the project have been widely taken up and used in teaching in the UK, US and Australia, as well as by non-governmental organisations.

University of Leeds

Patients admitted to hospital with acute illness need to receive prompt, effective treatment if their condition gets worse. Recognising and Responding to Acute Patient Illness and Deterioration (RRAPID) from the University of Leeds is a programme that uses technology in a subtle way to support trainee doctors in reacting to emergency situations.

using technology to support trainee doctors in reacting to emergency situations

A suite of interactive resources have been created to support the RRAPID approach including a multimedia e-book that features video demonstrations and photographs and a diagnostic app covering a range of commonly occurring acute scenarios.

The app gives students the ability to self-test how they would respond to a given emergency, and a log book to record their experiences. This approach has had a transformational effect at Leeds and is now integrated into all five years of its medical degree training.

Outstanding practice

The jury was hugely impressed by the quality of the entries, which gave a great snapshot of the kind of innovations in ICT taking place in UK higher education. Of course only one institution can take home the trophy, but all of the institutions shortlisted and the individuals involved in these projects should feel justifiably proud of their achievements.

Motorola Moto 360 smartwatch running Google's Android Wear operating system
“He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake”
– from Santa Claus is Coming to Town,
by Haven Gillespie / J. Fred Coots

Stephen Wolfram made headlines back in 2012 when he revealed that he had been “life logging” for over twenty years. But by now many of us are doing this almost incidentally, through wearable sensors from the likes of Fitbit and Jawbone and smartwatches with health features like Motorola’s Moto360 with its heart rate monitor and pedometer – see photo above. And by dint of knowing where you are and where you’ve been, Google were able to add an activity summary card to Google Now that attempts to guess (with varying degrees of accuracy) how much walking or cycling you have been doing.

And here we find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma – by aggregating and applying machine learning to health and activity data (really, as much data as possible) and medical records, we can suggest interventions and lifestyle changes and monitor their effectiveness, potentially across a huge population – think of those billions of Android users. Marry this with cheap $99 next generation gene sequencing from the likes of 23andMe and we are really heading for a step change in public health from a move to a more proactive approach to medicine. However, the potential for abuse is massive, as we’ve recently seen in relation to alleged improprieties at Uber. As one commentator put it: “Deleting Uber? Uber won’t delete you.”

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

‘Never memorize something that you can look up’ – Albert Einstein.
Amazon recently announced the Echo, a personal digital assistant that you converse with – see the video below for some slightly contrived examples. What the Echo and competing technologies like Google Now really highlight for me is that we are entering an age where the act of remembering is increasingly passé. Not only can you find out almost anything if you can craft your search terms well enough, but information tends to come to you ambiently. You could think of the Internet, via these tools, as a sort of neural prosthesis.

It goes without saying that this trend has huge implications for the way we teach and learn, but there is a deeper issue that I touched upon in a recent blog post – we either understand how to control these technologies, or we are controlled by them. This is why I am very interested in projects like Ello, Indie and Unhosted, and in Tim Berners-Lee’s Web We Want campaign. Is it only through surrendering our personal data to the big firms famously described by Bruce Sterling as The Stacks that innovation like Echo can arise? What can we achieve through collective action, and retaining control of our data? Let’s take a bold leap into the unknown, and explore this new frontier together.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

In recent months the UK has seen several landmark reports launched on the ‘digital state of the nation’ – notably the TechUK Manifesto, the Number One in Digital report from Labour Digital and the government’s own Digital Inclusion Strategy.

The techUK manifesto for growth and jobs 2015-2020

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc blog in October 2014]

There are three common themes that keep coming up time and again, and I think are particularly relevant to education and research:

Connectivity: from superfast to ultrafast

We might once have chuckled at talk of the 'information superhighway' but it’s no exaggeration to say that network connectivity, bandwidth and latency is the 21st century’s road, river and rail.

While all of the reports voiced aspirations for the UK to become one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, the reality is that we still sometimes struggle with even basic connectivity. This is particularly apparent if you live outside an urban area, where the economics of broadband and mobile delivery weigh heavily against you.
The reality is that we still sometimes struggle with even basic connectivity
The basic connectivity gap is currently being addressed by the government through Broadband Delivery UK, which aims to reach 95% coverage at superfast speeds (tens of megabits per second) by 2017. It’s an effective leveller – but what comes next? How do we then go from ‘super’ to ‘ultra’ fast and give the UK a competitive edge?

One way that further and higher education institutions are finding they can extend the reach of superfast connectivity is by teaming up with tech-intensive firms, science parks and incubators.

From my own experiences with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) HPC Midlands, a supercomputing centre designed to drive innovation in research and industry, I know that connectivity speeds can make a huge difference.

More partnerships between institutions and public and private organisations – like those we’re facilitating through our business and community engagement programme – will further help this cause and strengthen the UK’s economic prospects.
One big idea: Gigabit connectivity is a must for the next generation of data intensive spinouts and startups. Extending the government’s Connection Vouchers as part of its super-connected cities programme to include ultrafast gigabit broadband is the next logical step.

Capability: building the skills base

There are now a whole host of initiatives to help the estimated 6.5m UK citizens who lack basic digital skills or have trouble getting online. These include DigitalSkills.com, which provides resources for teaching digital skills, a national network of over 5,000 UK online centres and Get Online @ Home, an initiative supported by Microsoft to provide affordable, internet-ready computers to eligible people.

However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done if we want to make the UK a nation of digital experts, and hold on to our leading position. As Google's Eric Schmidt said in his well-received MacTaggart lecture, the UK “invented computing both in principle and in practice” but our “track record isn’t great".
There is still a huge amount of work to be done if we want to make the UK a nation of digital experts
Institutions often have the knowledge, expertise and clout to lead positive change at a local level. For example, Times Higher Awards nominee IT4Free saw De Montfort University work with local employers, Leicestershire County Council and information technology company HP.

They used redundant buildings, donated hardware and student volunteers to create community IT suites in areas where less than 40% of the population had access to a computer. It is a great example of how ‘town and gown’ can come together to support the digitally disenfranchised.
One big idea: A skills ‘booster jab’ that helps people build their knowledge. It could expand on the current City & Guilds Online Basics assessment, which offers a basic introduction for the digitally excluded, and be delivered through the kinds of partnerships that we have seen with IT4Free.

Catalysts: supporting innovation

Many of the great technologies we take for granted today actually originated in the UK or are British inventions - such as packet switched networking by Donald Davies, the world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee, and of course the role of Brits like Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers in the invention of the computer itself.

If the UK wants to remain at the forefront of new technologies – including the Internet of Things, 3D printing and bioelectronics – we need to understand how we can best support new digital businesses as they start up or spin out.
We need to understand how we can best support new digital businesses as they start up or spin out
We’ve been working with the Connected Digital Economy Catapult (aka the Digital Catapult) and Innovate UK to try and answer this question and figure out the role institutions can play.

As well as enhanced connectivity, universities and colleges often have access to expensive specialised equipment and expertise that some businesses might find difficult to purchase or operate themselves. This ranges from wind tunnels and anechoic chambers to mass spectrometers and supercomputers. Opening up collaboration between business and education and research institutions can help support these sorts of innovations.
One big idea: Institutions and industry should routinely share information with each other about their high value equipment, and devise ways of brokering access.
This last one is something that we at Jisc think we can play a catalytic role. This autumn we are kicking off an equipment sharing pilot with ten universities for Kit-Catalogue, an online system allowing organisations to catalogue, record and locate their equipment.

We are also working with leading high performance computing (HPC) centres to make the research community’s supercomputing facilities available to industry and other institutions through a common contractual framework. You can find out more about both of these initiatives at the Innovate UK conference from 5-6 November 2014.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about these ideas and initiatives, and whether there are any others you think we at Jisc should be looking at. Please do leave a comment and let me know what you think.

This is a story about Internet censorship. Well, kind of. It's also a story about Twitter's Analytics product, which recently went on general release. And most importantly - a plug for Maggie Philbin's TeenTech charity, which works with schools, employers and young people to promote STEM based careers. All this, and sinister giant jelly babies. Read on to find out more...

With just over a week left to run before the UK Government's Digital Infrastructure Consultation closes, I thought it would be interesting to float a few ideas here to see what people think the UK should do in this space. Should we bring Google Fiber to the UK? What about Broadband Vouchers for the unemployed? Time to kill the Cookie Directive? Read on, and let me know what you think in the comments...

Just a quick post to plug my session at the upcoming ALT-C 2014 conference - "From FELTAG to ETAG - Time for Some NEET Ideas". This will be an hour long workshop following on from the UK Government's Department for Education recent consultation on the future of technology in education, and looking for actionable insights from learning technologists and other practitioners in the ALT community. I am particularly interested in ideas and experiences around engaging young people not in employment, education or training. 
Backblaze storage appliance, CC-BY Flickr user ChrisDag
If anyone remembers June 25th 2014, it will probably be because of rising tensions in the Ukraine, or footballing incidents. But there’s something else – this was the day that Google announced their Drive for Work product, offering unlimited Google Drive storage for a nominal fee to business users via the Google Apps suite. Infinite storage had previously been a unique selling point for a small number of startups with big ambitions, but now one of the Internet’s major firms had legitimized it. In the research and education sector we watched with interest, and sure enough on September 30th 2014 Google followed up with the announcement of Google Drive for Education – free infinite storage for staff and students. On October 27th 2014 Microsoft announced that they would be giving all Office365 customers infinite storage too.

In the UK we have around 100 universities using either the Google Apps or Office365 products, which Jisc has brokered national deals for through our cloud services activity. A “decent” Storage Area Network with Fibre Channel, 0.5PB-1PB of mirrored SAS storage [*] and tape backup starts at around £500K, so this potentially represents savings to the sector of as much as £50m. Good news as we head towards Austerity 2.0? But I think we will see much more radical change in the future, as the corporate IT function is increasingly “hollowed out” by these kinds of services. Watch Microsoft’s promo video above for their RemoteApp technology and ask yourself whether in the future we will get most of our Windows applications from a corporate instance of the Microsoft Store – with all those nasty software packaging, licensing and billing issues handled for us. Perhaps we have only just started to see the disruptive effect of cloud computing on corporate IT, and in years to come we may find ourselves looking back at June 25th 2014 as the day it all changed.

[*] Such as you might require to establish a Research Data service, or users’ home drives.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc Technology Foresight blog]

Janet has launched a new scheme called Janet Reach, which aims to strengthen the engagement between academia and industry. To enter the scheme, joint proposals are invited from commercial and academic partners, for innovative R&D projects using e-infrastructure facilities. We will be accepting proposals on a rolling 2-month basis - the next deadline is 31st July 2014.

Successful proposals will result in industry partners being provided with a high capacity Janet connection, typically at 1Gb/s or greater. This will give them access to a wide range of e-infrastructure resources, situated within Universities and research organisations, to carry out R&D projects. Academic partners in the scheme will be able to use their existing high-capacity Janet connection to move large volumes of data quickly between the partner facilities. By collaborating with industry on these projects, they also have the potential:
  • To raise the profile of their university through association with respected industry names
  • To strengthen their relationship with industry partners for future collaborations.
  • For long-term revenue streams – access, support and guidance on the effective use of their facilities
Industry partners will benefit from:
  • Access to a wide range of e-infrastructure resources (eg. HPC)
  • Using their high-capacity Janet connection to move large volumes of data quickly between the partner facilities
  • Increasing the potential to quickly take innovative ideas from concept to reality
  • Participating in the scheme regardless of size.
  • Sharing skills and expertise with academic partners.
Criteria for the scheme and details on how to submit proposals is available on the Janet website and all projects must adhere to state aid rules.

For a more in-depth discussion about the scheme, please contact Janet-reach@ja.net

Has your institution used Google Apps, Android, Chromebooks, Glass or other Google technologies in an innovative way? We would love to hear from you, and would like to take the opportunity to showcase your projects at GEUG14, the Google Apps for Education European User Group conference.

Following on from the well received FELTAG report, ministers Matthew Hancock, Michael Gove and David Willetts chartered the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) to follow up this work by advising the UK Government on how best to exploit technology to its fullest in education. Jisc and ALT are assisting with a public consultation led by ETAG that will feed into future government plans and initiatives. This post is a quick summary of the first month’s responses and contributions.

I was delighted to hear over Easter that we had been invited to present at the EUNIS 2014 conference on recent developments at Jisc - read on for the abstract to our talk. For more information about the conference and EUNIS, the European University Information Systems association, please see the conference website.

Last year Jeremy Yates from UCL co-ordinated a landmark survey of the UK's national academic "e-Infrastructure" facilities, which subsequently went on to inform funding and policy decisions. We are re-running the survey again for 2014, and a short report summarising the results will be presented to the RCUK National E-Infrastructure Group and the UK government's E-Infrastructure Leadership Council in early April. If you run an institutional, regional or national facility, we'd love to hear from you.

Following the success of GEUG12 in Portsmouth and GUUG11 in Loughborough, the University of York has been working with Google to organise the next Google Apps for Education European User Group meeting (GEUG14). This event will be held on 23rd - 24th June 2014 at the University of York, UK, and is open to both users and prospective users of Google Apps for Education. If you are interested in attending the event, please answer the questions below to help us deliver a programme that will be of interest/use to you.


Most of my regular co-conspirators will be aware by now that I will shortly be moving on from Loughborough University to a new job with Jisc, as their resident Futurist. But who are Jisc, and what does a Futurist do anyway? I'll try to answer both of these questions in this post, which goes all the way from jet packs and holidays on the moon to legal and contractual frameworks and information assurance requirements for cloud services. Buckle up - it's going to be a wild ride!

This poster for the 2014 International Digital Curation Conference (IDCC 2014) in San Francisco was produced by my Loughborough University colleague Sue Manuel, with Sarah Jones and Angus Whyte from Jisc's Digital Curation Centre. It summarises our recent survey of UK Higher Education institutions' planning for Research Data Management in support of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) mandate on open data. For more information on the survey, please see our summary report Metadata is Love Note to the Future and the Loughborough University RDM blog.

This post takes us from the Quantified Self to the Quantified Driver, and the Internet of Things to the Botnet of Fridges. We've been hearing a lot about the Quantified Self movement, and how in years to come our gadgets (that other thing we hear a lot about - the Internet of Things) will be quietly collecting information about us to help us plan our routines, sleep, diets, exercise regimes, and so on. A landmark interview with Stephen Wolfram a couple of years ago put this onto a lot of people's agendas. This might sound like science fiction, but we can get a glimpse of that future right now if we know where to look, particularly around fitness tracking and what I suspect my Californian readers would describe as wellness monitoring. In this post I'll look at some of the tech which is out there now, including some surprisingly well established systems, and give you my own tale from the edge…