Thursday, 19 November 2009

The impact of technology on Higher Education

The piece below was originally written for Insight, Bristol's in-house newsletter for IT & library staff. It explores some themes from my #fote09 presentation, in which I developed the idea of IT department as trusted guide. I'm presenting the essay here in an effort to be more accessible.

Douglas Adams was a great technophile and visionary. In 1999 he wrote how to stop worrying and learn to love the Internet and said:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

In 1993 Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was released. In 2004 Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was awarded a knighthood, and topped a poll for Greatest Briton. Douglas was right - it took us about ten years to cotton on to the importance of this new technology. But Douglas went on to explain that we still don't understand the Internet. We're stumbling along, cobbling it together. We don't understand it instinctively. We overemphasise the risks and underestimate the benefits. It will take the generation of digital natives, those who grew up with the Internet, to make the best use of it.

The world has been transformed since 1993. Libraries have been at the forefront of this. In 1993 we had too little information. Now arguably we have too much - the volume of information sources is overwhelming! The role of the librarian is to act as a trusted guide through the maze of good and not so good sources. Teaching people about information literacy is more important than ever.

The instinctive reaction amongst some academics to Google was to decry it. But people used Google anyway - it is convenient and it works. So instead we need to harness the power of the network. If I go to from within the University then resources the library holds show up in the results, with a "Get it@UoB" link that takes me to the full text. That's working with the network, not against it.

It's fantastic that we are already doing this, but we could be doing more.

We could export our library catalogue to WorldCat, the worldwide catalogue of over 10,000 libraries. It would make our holdings visible to a wider audience, while also benefiting our own staff and students. You can already search WorldCat from a mobile phone - not something we offer ourselves.

We could deposit all our PhD theses, and many of our published papers in ROSE, Bristol's e-print repository. This provides persistent, long-term, reliable storage for papers to reference papers. They show up in any search engine, exposing the research to new audiences. This increases the impact and reach of our research, enhancing our reputation.

These examples harness the power of a larger global network to enhance Bristol. In a networked world we must think globally, not institutionally.

Should we feel nervous? Once upon a time we were in control. People would come to the IT department with requests, and if we didn't like it we could just say no. Now in an Internet-connected world it is very easy to bypass us. Anyone can get a free webmail account from Hotmail. Laptops are cheap enough that people buy them with their own money. You can get network access from your mobile phone company. File storage and processor cycles cost just a few cents a GB from Amazon.

It may be a hoary chestnut, but this threat is also an opportunity. This is an exciting time to work in Information Technology or Information Management. We should be the trusted guide that people turn to. We won't have all the solutions ourselves, but can find them. For every requirement that comes along we should assess it pragmatically, considering the risks and benefits of different solutions. Some things we'll invent or deploy entirely in house. For others we will use a service delivered over the Internet. Often it will be a hybrid between the two. There is a huge amount for us to do with such services: to customise, build on top, integrate, and train people on them.

Just understanding all this is half the problem. You could read Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology from JISC. You could read the report from Sir David Melville (former VC of the University of Kent): the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience. Both argue very strongly that higher education must embrace the web and new technology. Alternatively ask a real expert - try one of this years Freshers, who were three when the first web browser was released.

Monday, 16 November 2009

How to learn to stop worrying and love the Internet

I didn't mention it on the blog at the time, but in October I spoke at the Future of Technology in Education conference organised by ULCC. In How to learn to stop worrying and love the Internet I spoke about how universities must adapt in a global networked world. I covered many of the themes I'm passionate about and try to explore here - network effects, digital literacy, open resources, and thinking outside organisational boundaries.

I've also just heard that my proposal to speak Networkshop 38 has been accepted, so I'll be revisiting these themes in Manchester at Easter, perhaps with a more technical bent to suit the audience. In the meantime the fote video and Slideshare slides are online.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Cloud Computing, Security & Reputation

I read this piece by Bruce Schneier: IT Security in the Reputation Economy. It's a very interesting argument from one of the most respected IT security professionals around.

Bruce starts with the common position that computing is now a commodity. Price and trust as the two factors driving sales of a commodity. Many IT services are free (for consumers at least, and also in education) so that leaves trust. As IT commodiditizes further providers are incentivized to protect their reputation by improving security to greater levels than their customers would demand on their own. Why? An individual company can afford to lose their own data, but no service provider can afford to lose their customers data, as soon after they will lose their customers.

Thinking of universities as service providers, this makes me think we should give greater protection to personal data (eg student databases) than to confidential data (eg financial reports). More generally it is interesting to reflect on two recent cloud computing stories in this light.

First the disaster which befell Sidekick users. Sidekicks are (or were) a popular brand of smartphones in the US. Users had their contacts, photos, appointments etc stored on Sidekick servers, with only transitory cached copies of the device itself. In a spectacular database failure the data vanished. Originally it was announced that all data had been lost with no possibility of recovery, although some has now been found. It is a major embarrassment for T-Mobile and for Microsoft (who acquired Danger two years ago). Perhaps Microsoft will now redouble their efforts to ensure nothing like that can happen again.

Secondly, Google announced a 'government cloud' to attract US federal government customers. It will operate only from Google data centres in the US. They are aiming for accreditation under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA). There are no customers signed up yet, but it is good that Google are trying to demonstrate their trustworthiness, and in particular are taking public sector concerns more seriously. How about an EU government cloud, Google?

Bruce highlights one problem with his argument - markets only work if customers have accurate information. Therefore service providers have a motivation to hide their security problems. Not good. My problem with the argument is that IT may be a commodity, but not to the same extent as electricity or water. Switching from one cloud provider to another is too difficult. Lock-in, as ever, bedevils the IT industry.

Getting back to universities again: my purely personal view is that the case for moving student email to the cloud is now almost overwhelming, but that the trust issues (are the US/Chinese/French governments reading my email??) are currently too great for us to do the same with staff email. If Bruce is right about the reputation economy expect Microsoft and Google to work hard improving our trust in them. In a couple of years time we may think differently - especially if other Russell Group universities decide to make the switch first.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Should I buy a laptop or a netbook?

Battery life2-3 hours6-8 hours
Screen sizelarge screen, 13" - 17"
(good for presentations, spreadsheets, multitasking, anything at all)
small screen, 9"-11"
(OK for email, web, word processing, one application at time)
WeightHeavy, 2.5- 3.5 kg
(heavy enough to notice, too heavy to carry every day)
Light, typically 1.1 - 1.3kg
(light enough to carry everywhere and even run for the train)
ProcessorHigh power processor. Few things need a powerful processor, but it is necessary if you want to edit photos, edit video, or play the latest gamesLow power processor (fine for everyday use such as word processing, web, Youtube)
KeyboardFull size laptop keyboardReduced size keyboard (90% of laptop keyboard size)
DVD DriveBuilt-in DVD drive (can watch DVDs)No built-in DVD Drive, have to connect an optional external USB drive
Price£350 - £900£200 - £350

In summary:

Get a netbook if you value convenience and mobility. The light weight and long battery life mean that you can have it available any time, anywhere. However the cramped screen and keyboard mean that you won't want to use it for long periods, and will turn to a desktop or laptop for prolonged use. My personal favourite netbook at the moment is the Asus eeePC Seashell 1008HA, which has a great combination of weight, battery life, size and slim design.

Get a laptop if you want a workhorse which is comfortable for extended use. It could be your main computer and will do almost anything. You'll use it mainly in a fixed location but it is too heavy to be really portable so you will carry it with you only occasionally. You can use it for long periods, as long as you can find a power socket. Good examples of laptops: The Toshiba Tecra range (for business) or Satellite Pro range (for consumers).

There is a third category: the ultraportable. These have larger screens than netbooks, but longer battery life than laptops. They are not as mobile as a netbook but are more powerful. Until now they've been expensive (upwards of £1000) and aimed at those few top executives who can afford them. Typical examples are the Toshiba Portege range or the Macbook Air. However prices are now coming down, with models based on Intel's new and cheaper CULV (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage) chip design coming on sale.

Any portable computer will always be a compromise between mobility, functionality, and what you are prepared to pay. The important point is to decide what is important for you.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Unified Communications - a vision from the snake oil salesmen

I've been reading a report from one of the major IT market research firms on what they (and many others) call Unified Communications. They are refreshingly rude and realistic about the state of unified communications today (everyone is evaluating but nobody is deploying, standards are ill-defined, it is unclear which vendors will end up on top, benefits in hard financial terms are difficult to define). However they paint an overly rosy picture of Unified Communications by 2015.

There is overwhelming marketing hype over unified communications and it obscures how communications works. I prefer to think about Integrated Communications. Today for most people integrated communications means email, address books, and calendar. I might want to use all of those in one interface, but it doesn't mean I'll stop using all my other communications tools.

New communications methods arise rapidly, seemingly out of nowhere - think of SMS, Facebook & Twitter. People adopt a new communications method because other people they want to talk to are already using it, not because it has come bundled with something else. Gradually more communication methods will be integrated into a single interface or available on the same device (a web portal or smartphone). This will happen slowly, as the vendors can't keep up with the pace. We should take a tactical, progressive approach. We will never reach the nirvana of Unified Communications that the industry would like to sell us.

There is remarkably little pushback against the unified communications marketing spiel, but there is some. Nick Jones of Gartner (not the research firm I mention earlier) is as ever insightful and refreshing: see his blog post I hate Unified Communications.