In the bucolic setting of the Cotswolds, on one of the hottest weeks of the summer, 200 delegates gathered to discuss the future of online content and to examine why UK universities need a sustainable digital content strategy to deliver successfully accessible learning and research materials for the future.
Over two days, the delegates heard from a series of keynote speakers in plenary sessions and attended breakout 'strand sessions' on five different themes: Managing Content; Content Development Strategies; Content in Education; User Engagement; and Looking into the Future.
The conference took place within the context of the end of the second phase of JISC's multi-million pound digitisation programme, and the funded projects showcased their work in the reception areas with posters and video showreels. The presence of a large number of digitisation practitioners, as well as policy-makers and funders, made for an extremely vigorous and informed debate, both during and between sessions.
Catherine Grout opened the conference with a rapid overview of JISC's digital content projects and achievements, a look at the benefits for education and research, and a warning of the challenges that lie ahead.
JISC is providing a rich, varied and fascinating set of content through its £22 million digitisation programme . It encompasses more than 6.5 million items that span centuries and disciplines and includes a diverse range of media, from sound, film, images and journals to newspapers, maps, pamphlets, theses and cartoons.
This flood of online content will have a huge impact on the research of the future, Catherine argued. Most students find online material more engaging than printed material and people with access to this material will use it in ways that those who put it online can't even imagine.
There are, of course, challenges, especially around inconsistency of provision, intellectual property rights issues, and making high-quality content noticeable in all the noise of the Web. She forecast rough seas ahead, especially in terms of funding. However, Catherine noted, momentum for digitisation is growing. Gains in efficiency have been immense, gains in quality should follow and there's a genuine desire for collaboration between institutions and funders. It's a good time for investment - so long as those running the projects become even better at demonstrating the impact of their work in user-friendly ways, and prove it's worth doing.
Catherine Grout's presentation is available on video .
Robert Miller picked up on Catherine's point that 'it's grim out there' with some context on the difficult times we are in, and then gave a whistlestop tour of the San Francisco-based Internet Archive . It's a non-profit organisation, with funding of around $10m from foundations, grants, government and libraries who pay for services. Areas of work include a TV archive; 400,000 items of audio on the site distributed over 100 collections; a 'wayback machine' (a service that allows people to visit archived versions of Web sites); and 1.4 million books online, some donated, some digitised (around 1,000 plus books per day). Projects include working with NASA Images (the Internet Archive hosts and shares all of the video images and digital files in the public domain), the Asami collection (examples of early movable type from Korea), and a collaboration with the Mormons on the world's largest genealogy collection (the Internet Archive has donated equipment, and Mormon volunteers are digitising the material).
The Internet Archive has worked with Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, but only Google is still there in the field of books. Robert pointed out that libraries generally take a view of 100 years, but that's probably not the case for commercial organisations. This means that new models of sustainability need to be explored - Robert mentioned endowments, grants, sponsors and partners, but with the recession hitting, new collaborations (for example with the Mormon volunteers) may be the way forward. Another option might be a 'stimulus package', as has happened in China and Japan.
In answer to a question about the pros and cons of Google, Robert noted that the pros include wonderful tools and services but the cons include trying to take public knowledge and privatise it. Robert thought that Google was near the end of what it is going to digitise, but made the point that there's a whole lot more available in public libraries.
Robert concluded with a summary of the three elements that make a good library: resource (base), technical (instrument) and service (goal).
Robert Miller's presentation is available on video .
In an energetic presentation which caused something of a stir in the Twitterverse, Nick Poole laid down a challenge to the public sector in the face of Digital Britain: there are two options - either take a decade's worth of investment in e-content and use it to create something consumer-facing and market-competitive to show how we're contributing to Digital Britain; or argue among ourselves, spend a lot of time talking about standards and interoperability, and let digital content turn into digital landfill.
He then set out the problems the public sector shares:
Nick finished with the rousing call to action: 'we have the chance to work towards a very exciting vision, and if we don't, we'll regret it for the next 10 years.'
Nick Poole's presentation is available on video .
In a global academic culture of sharing resources and expertise, collaboration is an essential part of many Higher Education projects and this plenary session, moderated by JISC's head of innovation, Sarah Porter, brought together three experts in the field with a wealth of experience between them.
Michael Popham of the University of Oxford explained that his project, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive , involved creating a virtual collection of early Shakespeare texts and was a collaborative effort with a US partner plus Octavo and the British Library.
Susan Whitfield from the British Library is working with 8 full-time partners and 20 collaborating institutions on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) . International collaboration was always essential to the project, which is digitising the 40,000 manuscripts found in Dunhuang, a Buddhist cave temple site in western China. A crucial aspect of the project is that it is based on collaboration and not colonisation, explained Susan. The project must always adapt to local conditions, and there must always be a native language speaker as a key element of the project is about passing on skills and sharing knowledge. Full members host their Web site locally, and this creates a sense of shared ownership and responsibility.
Saskia de Vries of Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN) , which provides open access publishing for academic books in humanities and social sciences, argued that funders of research should pay for the publication of research. Looking forward, Saskia saw a hybrid model of online and print, where online texts would be free, and print would be sold.
Despite the diversity of the projects under discussion, three common threads for successful international collaboration emerged:
These presentations are available on video .
Sarah focused on JISC's contribution to the UK e-infrastructure and its work in progress, making the point that JISC's work needs to be seen in a global context. Global issues are now affecting the way people learn, teach and run their lives. Content is not restricted to the UK; it comes from everywhere (whether digitised, commercial or user-generated) and everything is distributed. Moreover, people are searching on that content from all over the world.
JISC has an enabling role, through infrastructure, policy and strategy, and practice; it intends to tackle the open agenda, sustainability, efficiency and innovation to support user needs.
Key elements of JISC's vision, which can only be achieved through active, focused collaboration are:
Sarah Porter's presentation is available on video .
Stuart's session was a rallying call for a move towards community digitisation. He argued that we need to move away from the traditional view of digitisation (concentrating on rare/unique content from major collections) because
Content will always be king, he argued, and there has always been and always will be lots of content. The important question now is how can it be accessed? We should exploit mass amateur digitisation, release new material and engage the public.
Stuart closed by saying that we shouldn't underestimate the community, and called for JISC to set up a mass observation service/community collection service.
Stuart Lee's presentation is available on video .
These sessions are available as audio .
This was a positive strand in that there was widespread recognition that digitisation is an important process, that there is great demand for it and that its uses are clear and obvious. Delegates remain enthused about the way it opens up huge possibilities in research, especially making archives easier to search and providing academics easier access to resources without the need to travel. It is also, several noted, wonderfully helpful in opening up academy to a broader public.
Delegates and speakers were full of praise for the work that JISC does in supporting digital projects. It also helps them to: consider good structures for digitising content; to ensure that their work is sustainable and transferable, and that it fits within the wider structure of their institutions.
However, these questions of sustainability and coherence were of great concern to delegates, especially given the current economic climate * and funding issues that are likely to arise. They are faced with opposing needs: they must digitise as much as possible and as effectively as possible, and they must ensure that a structure is in place to protect that digitised archive in the long term, but they also have to trim their costs, and justify all their work anew.
At the moment there seems to be a feeling that too many projects are run on an ad hoc one-off basis and that far more work needs to be done in terms of thinking about how individual projects fit into the broader remit of their institutions. Thought must also be given to how they serve the public and the needs of the future.
Solutions were put forward regarding deep infrastructure changes and potentially mutually beneficial partnerships with private publishers. The final talk of the session also highlighted the external help that is available for institutions thinking about their digitisation processes and provided some very helpful workflow models. Here too though, there was a sting in the tail with the stark warning that public-private partnerships can become very problematic and archives can even be lost should the commercial partners go out of business.
It is clearly an area that is going to need a lot of hard thought - and tough decision-making - in the future.
These sessions are available as audio .
The financial restrictions faced by libraries and librarians were high on the agenda in this strand. The discussions began with stakeholders giving their own perspectives on the issues during a time of economic crisis - librarians, publishers and researchers discussed what action needs to be taken, suggesting e-only journals, a reduction in content and staff cuts, among other ideas. Striking a balance between the cost-effectiveness of e-journals and users' wishes on the one hand and the requirement of a hard copy of content on the other may prove difficult, particularly in sectors such as art and design.
Licensing and rights issues were the key ideas at the start of day two (1 July 2009). Thoughts about best practice were shared, and there was a consensus that people within institutions often have misperceptions about copyright and licensing; if they wish to use an 'orphan work' they might discard it entirely because of the risk involved, or they might use it without seeking to clear rights, thus incurring potential liability for their institution. They may also believe that because something is available under a Creative Commons licence, it can be used freely and without restriction.
The strand concluded with discussion about how data can be mined and used, looking at projects gathering and applying data in innovative ways. It was suggested that content should be paramount, even for those working in technology.
These sessions are available as audio .
There was a clear message underpinning this strand: it is not enough simply to produce exciting digital material – it is also vital to engage users and support them in their use of these resources in academic practice.
Embedding content in learning, teaching and research is crucial but the question of how to 'hook' users into the content in the first place sparked off a debate that split the delegates into two camps. Traditionally, the content of a resource has been highlighted as the key to attracting users. A more radical approach is to look at pedagogy instead, and the argument was made that a focus on what the resource will be used for, rather than what the resource contains, is a more effective way to help teachers see that the material can be relevant and useful to their courses.
Sharing content between institutions and repurposing it should be simple but the thorny question of copyright, and the confusion many people feel towards IPR, came up as an aspect which encouraged teachers to share content. Another aspect was the quite high level skills needed to repurpose content. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are learning materials that are specifically designed to be shared. That there is a demand for them was demonstrated in the inspiring example of the Open University's OpenLearn Programme.
For the students of the future, multimedia will be their way of working and this is a pivotal moment for film and sound in education. Delegates were introduced to the work of the JISC Film and Sound Think Tank which aims to widen formal and informal participation in digital media, accelerate the use of media, improve the quality of teaching and learning and distribute the benefits of cutting-edge research.
These sessions are available as audio .
Web 2.0 and social media was a major theme of the User Engagement strand. Whether it was discussing how institutions can engage better with business and the community, or looking at how we can add value to digitised content, the speakers' presentations (and the animated discussion amongst delegates) confirmed that Web 2.0 was now a serious part of the institutional landscape.
However, this raises interesting issues regarding sustainability. It was suggested that rather than developing innovative new technologies for showcasing and adding value to content, institutions may be better off using third-party providers (particularly for social networking) with the aim of building a global community of users.
Social media was also cited as a good way of reaching out to the wider community, and looking beyond institutional walls to work in partnership with community groups – delegates heard how Manchester Metropolitan University is using this to great effect. Concerns were raised, however, that focusing heavily on Web 2.0 technology use (without ensuring the resources and skills to use it are present) could exacerbate the digital divide, and that it should not be pursued at the expense of more traditional, face-to-face methods.
The point was also forcibly made that the use of social media needed to be relevant to what projects or institutions were trying to achieve – and what users wanted. Delegates raised the issue of information overload, and called for more training to raise awareness of the appropriateness of different tools for different jobs.
What users did indeed want and use was the focus of several discussions, with much delegate interest in the benefits of audience research and metrics, particularly in how it can help with bids for funding, and the transition from project to service. This was felt to be especially relevant in an era of content consolidation and reductions in funding.
These sessions are available as audio .
If there was one take-home message of the Looking into the Future strand of the conference, it was that we cannot control change but we can adapt to it, learn from it and influence it.
The future is, by its very definition, infinite and unknown. But in hearing examples of how some Higher Education practitioners have used new technologies, delegates could build up a picture of how the future might affect them, and how to identify and grasp emerging opportunities.
The sessions covered a diverse range of topics, from the physical appearance of libraries of the future to the emergence of 'citizen science'. But within the diversity of topics there emerged some common issues that are likely to affect many aspects of the future of Higher Education:
Hold a digital content conference in the context of the current economic climate, and questions of sustainability are inevitably going to be at the forefront of delegates' minds. However, while there was certainly a consistent undercurrent of warnings of the financial rough seas ahead at JDCC09, the conference maintained an overwhelmingly positive outlook. The success of the JISC Digitisation Programme and its value for teaching, learning and research is in no doubt and, while there can be no question that some tough decisions are going to have to be made, the enthusiasm of the conference made it clear that, on the ground, the momentum for digitisation is now unstoppable.
My thanks to the team of bloggers – Sam Jordison, Milly Shaw, Carrie Dunn and Rach Colling – who helped to document the conference so effectively on http://digitisation.jiscinvolve.org/ and for providing the strand session summaries.
* Editor's note: In an attempt to future-proof this report, I have created a snapshot of the global economy for the benefit of readers unacquainted with the summer months of 2009.