New technology – the JISC Conference 2009

Last week I attended the 2009 JISC Conference, or #JISC09 as it seems we should call it in digital arenas. The conference was all abuzz and atwitter with electronic streams of data. Live streamed video of keynote talks, live blogging of the parallel sessions and a very active twitter feed extended the reach of the conference beyond the 780 who had gathered in Edinburgh’s International Conference Centre. You can see for yourselves on the conference website or on the conference Twitter stream. It was an interesting day. My only beef would be that it is heavily slanted towards the education side – both keynote talks related to education – and thus attracts few delegates from the Research Council community.
Malcolm Read, JISC Secretary, opened the day saying that JISC were looking for pointers for their new strategy, and he highlighted issues that had been discussed in the previous day’s pre-conference on learning technologies:

  • How can national infrastructure be maintained longterm by public funding?
  • JISC should do more work on organisation of resources, particularly e-books. It should be driven more by utility than ideology (though this is in itself is an ideology, as someone pointed out in a tweet)
  • JISC should take a lead in the UK Research Data Service (How is it that the Research Councils are not involved in this?)

Tim O’Shea, the new JISC chair, set the tone of his talk by announcing that JISC was a national treasure. (Next thing you know they’ll be doing guided tours. I can just see Malcolm Read dressed up as the Queen Mother). Tim pointed out that SuperJanet 5 has 18 million users and is the fastest network in Europe. The UK Access Management Federation, with 8 million users, is the largest in the world. He rattled off other JISC successes in open access learning materials, virtual research environments (improving research efficiency and provoking new collaborations) and new developments from BUFVC (the BOB “iplayer for education”) and the Archives Hub. Finally he highlighted the launch of JISC Services – a new company to partly hive off some JISC advisory services.
Then Lizbeth Goodman gave a very different presentation. She has worked for 16 years at Smartlab, creating technology tools for learning. Her philosophy is that you should worry about people, not about money. I liked her quote from Andre Gide : Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. She takes the optimistic view that “once you can identify a real problem then a solution can be found” and wondered how much of JISC’s work can really said to be driven by this principle. Her talk, including many video clips, showed the success she has had in applying these principles to developing tools for all kinds of people, many with disabilities or disadvantages.
The conference included some demonstrations of new tools that have been developed. I saw an interesting demo of a workflow sharing tool called myExperiment and another tool called Collaborative Research Events on the Web (CREW). I recalled hearing about CREW at last year’s JISC conference so it was interesting to see how it has developed. It allows you to capture video/audio streams with timestamps so that other events or metadata can be associated with particular timepoints throughout a lecture, conference or meeting. It also has a twitter-like function.
I was also impressed with talks.cam , which is a very slick system for storing and searching details of seminars, developed by University of Cambridge. The source code is available and some other Universities are apparently interested. If it does get widely taken up they suggested there could be a case for a national service – e.g. www.talks.ac.uk. I’m not sure where that would leave the Nature Network events listing.
Netskills highlighted their Web2Practice project which is developing new guides to emergent technologies & innovative practice. These will not be detailed guides along the “click here then do this” model, but will contain advice on the sort of things that different tools may be useful for, and generic advice. They should be ready later in April. The demo showed a very nice “tube map” of the different tools, showing just how many new tools there are.
I attended a parallel session on Researchers and IT, to learn about three projects studying researchers’ use of IT and e-science. For my taste there was too emphasis on what the studies did and not enough about what they found and what it means. The eIUS project found that researchers adopt tools that provide overall benefits not just research benefits, and that personalisation and a sense of ownership are key. The e-uptake project identified a number of barriers to uptake and enablers to uptake. The project has produced a booklet called Research in a connected world. The final project mentioned a report on e-Infrastructure: tool for the elite or tool for everybody? .
Another parallel session was on e-theses. The DART portal provides links to 100,000 e-theses hosted by its 18 partners across Europe, with more partners being added soon. It is the European counterpoint to the USA’s NDLTD service. DART provides very basic metadata, taking the lowest common denominator approach. The British Library’s EthOS project was then described. EThOS launched in January 2009 and thus far looks very successful. Demand for its e-theses has been high – in 2 months they supplied 17,000 theses, compared with the 10,000 that the BL supplied via its old microfilm service during the whole of 2007/8. Finally, we heard how Kings College London have worked to integrate the capture of new e-theses into a variety of existing workflows (student administration, library etc).
I live in hope that one day we will see funding metadata included in these e-thesis services. The RIN have worked hard to develop their guidelines for acknowledgement of research funders in journal articles. I hope one day that acknowledgement of funders of PhD research will be seen as equally important.
The Final session was a talk from Ewan Mackintosh, from Channel 4. It was a good, inspiring end-of-conference talk, full of thought-provoking sound bites and interesting examples. The basic message seemed to be that the Internet has changed the game for Higher Education and we shouldn’t assume that the old ways of providing information will continue to be effective, but there is still hope if we can get our act together. He didn’t say much relevant to the research information agenda.
I spent some of the train journey home taking advantage of the free (but very slow) on-board wifi and catching up with the #JISC09 Twitter stream, or tsunami as someone called it. It was interesting to follow it retrospectively but I really must get my act together and dive in to Twitter in real time the next event I am at. I was tickled by one subversive who called himself MISC09 , with a logo that bore a remarkable resemblance to the JISC logo. He kept posting plausible-sounding names of services and projects and it took me a few Tweets before I realised the joke: Network Initiatives for Personalizing Profiles in Learner Engagement Strategies, Strategic Extensions for Managing E-Learning Networks, Acronym Naming Utility Service.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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