December 2014

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]