Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Speaking on Web 2.0

June 11, 2007

I have been invited to speak about Web 2.0 at the “Managing New and Emerging Library Technologies – Skills for the 21st Century” event being organised by the East Anglia Online User Group (EAOLUG).

The event takes place on Wednesday at the Royal Society of Chemistry so I’m hoping for a lunch in the style of one of these molecular gastronomy chefs like Heston Blumenthal. Then again, of course, it could just involve lots of sodium chloride or be something a bit weird like potassium permanganate on toast.

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Strategic Lobsters

June 7, 2007

Yesterday I was in London, for an invited workshop on horizon scanning for strategic futures planning, courtesy of the DTI’s Office for Science and Innovation. Horizon scanning is a process of trying to anticipate the future through, to quote the Chief Scientific Advisors Committee, “the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely developments including but not restricted to those at the margins of current thinking and planning.”

This kind of technique is becoming more widely used in government circles. There has been a particular interest in it from those departments with an interest in science, especially after the BSE farming crisis and the perceived mishandling of the GM foods debate. Indeed, chatting to delegates over coffee, who were mainly from various government departments, it became clear that civil servants are being increasingly asked to move away from their traditional job of purely drafting policy. They are being asked to work in ‘delivery mode’ and act not only to manage projects, handle finances and deal with risk analysis, but also to have input to strategic decisions on future directions for government.

The event was held at a superb venue, the Founders Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Founders, one of the thirty or so Companies of the old London City, dating from the 1500s. I was interested to see that hung above the porcelain in the toilets were framed examples of dinner menus from meetings of the Founders in the 1930s. These listed delights such as Lobster casserole au Chablis, Passion Fruit Sorbet and Grouse Pudding. I was therefore pretty upbeat about the prospect of lunch. Sadly, the nice, but unadventurous ricotta and spinach lasagne that was offered to vegetarians did not quite match my expectations. Although they did serve coffee with liquorice allsorts, something I’ve not come across before.

How sustainable is open source software?

May 31, 2007

There has been a significant upsurge in interest in the use of open source software (OSS) solutions in recent years in both the private and public sector. Education, due to its specialist nature, is particularly interested in OSS for delivering IT solutions in areas where it feels that traditional, closed source solutions have not always catered for its needs. Prominent examples include the Moodle e-learning environment, the Sakai collaborative learning environment and DSpace, a digital content repository system.

One of the big debates to date has been the question of how sustainable open source solutions are likely to be in the long run. The popular image of open source is that a disparate group of software hackers come together in a fairly ad hoc manner, and, usually led by a charismatic figure (or ‘benevolent dictator’) like Linus Torvalds, produce some software. In time, the people involved will go off and work on other, newer, perhaps more interesting projects. This is a worry for education, which needs the reassurance of long-term stability. Questions arise such as who will be maintaining this code, can I read a manual, is there an O’Reilly book, who amongst my staff will understand the programming language that’s been used? These are timely questions and a project that I’ve been indirectly involved in, which attempts to deal with some of these issues, has just come to fruition. Oxford University’s OSS Watch service have announced the publication of their report, “Sustainability Study: a case study review of open source sustainability models”.

If you’re interested in OSS but have previously felt it was too ‘techie’ for you, then I’d recommend this report. My colleague, Gaynor Backhouse, did the editorial on this and I know she was keen to really tell the ‘stories’ involved in order to provide context for the issues and make them more accessible. It was an interesting project to work on, not only because of the subject matter, but also because it involved, in effect, interviewing some of the key figures in OSS development. We joke about it being ‘extreme journalism’, in the style of extreme programming, as there was an iterative process of development and checking with authors. It is, however, quite a long report (around 60 pages) but it is divided into chapters, so you can dip in and out of it as it suits you.

Taking tea with e-assessment strategists

April 26, 2007

I spent yesterday in central London at a joint meeting between JISC and the Higher Education Academy. The aim of the event was to explore ways in which the two bodies, who both have responsibilities for differing aspects of Higher Education, could collaborate strategically. The discussions focused on e-assessment: the process of using more automated and computer-based methods for measuring student attainment, progress and testing. Of interest to me were the debates around the use of new technologies in these areas and in particular discussion of the potential for Web 2.0 and social software.

This throws up interesting issues, for example, if a class works together on a wiki about a subject, how can the marks be divided up fairly? One speaker pointed out that different subjects have different views on the use and uptake of automated assessment, explaining that, for example, Philosophy lecturers have not, to date, seen the benefit of using such methods as they rely so heavily on the essay as a form of assessment. Other speakers took up this theme and argued that although this was an issue it was at least partly because too many academics see e-assessment as being all about the use of what is called in the jargon MCQ (or ‘multiple choice’ to you and I).

The venue for the event was the magnificent, neo-classical, One Great George Street, just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament (although stone throwing is not actually allowed, for obvious reasons). The venue is partly home to the Institute of Civil Engineers and they had laid on a reasonable lunch including roast vegetable frittatas and chocolate fudge cake. However, I was most impressed by an exquisite range of herbal teas from the Mighty Tea Leaf Company which came in an interesting range of flavours and each in a large muslin pouch (rather than a mere paper bag) which contributed to an enhanced brew. As far as I can see from their website they are not fair traded, so I won’t be able to justify buying them, but if you ever come across them at functions or tea shops I can recommend the green tea.

I have to say that I was rather surprised and pleased to find such attention to tea detail at the Institute of Civil Engineers, as, generally speaking, civil engineers are not renown for their appreciation of fine tea. Is this a sign of changing times?

Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, gets his revenge

April 2, 2007

At Leeds on Friday (see yesterday’s entry for more background) the main keynote speech was delivered by Dr Andrew Herbert, Director of Microsoft Research, Cambridge, who was a student at Leeds in the early 1970s. His talk was entitled, “Why everything I learned at Leeds in 1972 is no longer true” and he declared it to be, in part, an opportunity to have his revenge on his lecturers of thirty years ago. Continuing this blog’s interest in all things lunch oriented, Andrew noted that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and that in this case, given the thirty-five year wait, it was “glacial”.

His main point was that there have been enormous technological changes and much of what was being taught in the ’70s was focused on “overcoming the limitation of the machine” e.g. speed of processor, size of memory, poor quality displays, use of punch cards etc. Some of Dr Herbert’s points were more obvious, for example: the day of the stand-alone computer is over, we live in the age of the networked computer. Secondly, software is much more complex than it used to be: testing code by simple ‘desk’ review (people who work in publishing can equate this to being a bit like proofreading) is no longer sufficient. Also, we need new ways of organising and visualising the large amounts of information on our systems – hierarchical file systems have had their day.

Other things were more complex. For example, the questions affecting Artificial Intelligence research have changed – the issue now is how far are we prepared to put our faith in computer algorithms that demonstrate ‘intelligence’. What if computers can’t explain WHY they’ve made a decision?

He also made the point that we are still in the process of defining the subject of computer science and there is a need to make it clear to people today that there is a definite discipline of computing and it is not just a group of techies playing around with gadgets. He said: “we have some way to go in persuading other disciplines that we have a theoretical underpinning”. This was very interesting to me as I feel quite strongly that we need to keep the ‘science’ in computer science. And when I say that, I mean we need to keep hold of the importance of ideas and the spirit of exploration and investigation, rather than turning into a purely vocational course of study.

A modelling assignment in Birmingham

March 27, 2007

I spent an interesting day last week in Birmingham (or Brum as it is affectionately known) at a workshop on Business Process Modelling given by Balbir Barn of Thames Valley University. Birmingham has certainly changed since my youth there and the workshop was held in the completely redeveloped Brindley Place area of the city. This used to be a decaying network of stinking canals, collapsing Victorian warehouses and rat-infested walkways. It is now home to flash hotels, bars, offices and a series of conference venues including Austin Court, where the workshop took place. Lunch included chocolate covered strawberries which were extremely tasty, although probably ethically dubious given that this is March.

The workshop itself covered Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN) a diagrammatic notation for representing workflows in the business environment. This probably sounds fairly dull, but it is quite interesting in that it was aimed at higher education and is a sign that universities are becoming more aware of the methods used in the commercial sector. Towards the end of the day, one subject of debate was the likely uptake and impact of using such workflow tools in higher education settings. It can certainly be argued that there are parts of the university system that are akin to the bureaucratic functions of a business (HR, payroll, student registration, course validation). But what of more non-traditional areas like library repositories or e-learning systems? Delegates were certainly interested in debating the potential return-on-investment for groups of developers within the education community who have spent time learning and mastering these kinds of workflow tools.

Sloodle

March 19, 2007

Apparently, Sloodle is not an interesting variant of a Chinese noodle dish, which is rather disappointing from the lunch perspective. It is actually an online learning environment within the Second Life virtual reality environment. This is the latest example of how people from different walks of life are looking at what they can do within Second Life now that the site has more than 4 million residents.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Reuters have a full-time virtual reporter in SL and that various companies, retailers and universities have been busy setting up virtual offices and shops. Now, these education types want to combine SL with their existing campus learning management systems (LMS) and in particular with the popular and open source Moodle system (hence SLoodle).

The project’s proponents, Jeremy Kemp and Daniel Livingstone, argue in a white paper that traditional LMSs are rarely used to their full potential, especially with regard to the use of multimedia. SL offers a rich graphical 3D environment and can provide students with a sense of “being ‘there’ in a classroom” with other participants. At the same time LMSs could fill in some of the perceived weaknesses of using SL for teaching and learning. For example, SL is a very poor document repository and offers limited facilities for transferring teaching materials into the virtual environment. The authors propose a combination and are formally launching their ‘mash-up’ solution on 22nd March in Paisley, Scotland.

Tom Loosemore on JISC

March 15, 2007

Just one more thing on the JISC conference. The closing plenary session was given by Tom Loosemore, Head of Broadband & Emerging Platforms at the BBC. He opened his talk by explaining that back in the late 1980s, when he was supposed to be studying for his degree, he was actually spending most of his time exploring and experimenting with his university’s Internet connection.

I should perhaps explain that ‘back in the old days’ the only people who had access to the Internet were university staff and researchers. This was partly because the universities had had the foresight to install their own high-speed network (called JANET). Tom’s point was that this pioneering spirit had provided people like him with the opportunity to experiment with the latest thing years before it took off and became popular. He gave a big thank you to JISC for having the vision and taking the risks, and said, “this country would be in a worse place, both culturally and economically, if it wasn’t for you.”

What’s interesting about this is that people of my generation owe a huge debt of thanks to the Beeb. Not for their radio or telly broadcasting (although Blake’s Seven was rather good) but for the introduction of the BBC micro computer. I sincerely believe we wouldn’t have such a vibrant and creative software industry in the UK if it wasn’t for the generation of software programmers, e-learning and games designers raised and bottle-fed on the BBC micro in the 1980s.

Lunch 2.0

March 14, 2007

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to be attending the JISC annual conference in Birmingham. This is where delegates from across the UK gather to discuss all things technical for universities and colleges. I mentioned at the time that faggots and peas used to be a local delicacy but there was no sign of it yesterday. Instead, for us veggies there was a mushroom ravioli, and in the interest of research I also helped myself to some of the wild rice with herbs, which was top-hole. For the carnivores there was a Mexican chicken dish, which apparently was very nice, but a straw poll revealed it could have done with being a little bit spicier.

There were about 600 delegates at the conference this year including a strong delegation from Denmark and the Netherlands. For me it was a little bit nerve-wracking as we were launching a new TechWatch report, which I authored. The report is called What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education, and was commissioned by some of the people within JISC who are starting to tackle some of the practical issues affecting repositories and digital libraries. If you have a long train journey ahead of you and feel inclined to plough through over 60 pages of what has been described as ‘adult material’, I would be pleased to hear what you think of it.

Slow Journalism

March 2, 2007

The February edition of Prospect magazine has an interesting article by Susan Greenberg on ‘slow journalism’. She’s not referring to work-shy, scribbling fops who can’t get the copy to their irate editors in time. She means the art of producing longer pieces of non-fiction – essays, reportage etc. – which “takes its time to find things out, [and] notices stories that others miss”. Her argument is that there is a growing market for this kind of material, but that the UK is lagging behind when compared to the US publishing industry. There is still too much emphasis here on ‘literature’ as being, by default, fiction. I think she’s spot on. A long lunch and a slowly digested read of a thoughtful essay is surely one recipe for the good life.