On 14 March 2006 we found ourselves back at the Birmingham International Convention Centre (ICC) for the 2006 JISC Conference. The annual conference  is both an opportunity for JISC to platform the variety of activities it funds and for delegates to learn about the full range of JISC's work by participating in seminars, debates, workshops and demonstrations. This report tries to capture the air of the event through a series of session snapshots.
The conference got rolling with the traditional welcome by JISC Chairman Sir Ron Cooke. Sir Ron talked about the current JISC e-Strategy, which is fundamentally unchanged since last year, but is also dynamic and adaptable in the changing ICT landscape, with regard to infrastructure, user requirements, funding and international collaboration. The JISC vision encompasses three domains (e-Learning, e-Research and e-Administration) and three areas (network, content and the information environment). For the network, the new SuperJANET 5 will be appearing in late 2006. For content, the JISC has established JISC Collections to increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness of JISC procurement activities. Within the information environment, there is a commitment to improving interoperability, access and security, etc. There were notable mentions of repositories being widely available and cohesively managed, and of the e-Framework, providing the next generation of the e-Environment and offering, potentially, seamless interaction between systems and services.
Sir Ron also touched on the changing financial pressures put on JISC and the JISC community by the reduction in Learning and Skills Council funding. The implications of these pressures were already apparent to delegates. This years conference was a somewhat downsized affair in comparison to last years event with only 600 delegates walking the boards. Also one of the biggest talking points throughout the event was JISCs decision to go environmentally friendly with the provision of brown paper shopping bags instead of the usual delegate bags. The end result was a steady rustle throughout the conference rather than the usual murmurs.
To close, Sir Ron asked how Higher Education ICT could and should have input into our economy and community, and where JISC can influence this, citing research and learning environments as one example.
Liz Beaty, Director of Learning and Teaching, HEFCE, talked about how ICT is changing learning environments, introducing the notion of the 'permeable campus'. Learners are increasingly moving away from physical learning spaces. The vision of lifelong learning encompasses personal learning environments that place learning as a continuing process, aligned with our work and life, and no longer an isolated activity. This kind of learning delivery needs to be designed and managed and can be seen to challenge traditional HE expertise and authority. The question of how such informal learning can be accredited is another challenge, as is how to control and manage plagiarism, copyright and ownership issues (rights enforcement vs. free sharing). If learners increasingly own and manage their own content and ePortfolios, what impact does this have on the learning environment? Increasing ICT usage could disadvantage those for whom facilities and skills are not so readily available. Moreover, staff development and professional standards for teachers must take ICT on board. Intermediates, librarians, learning technologists etc. have a significant role in ICT provision and uptake by educators.
Liz went on to talk about some HEFCE activities:
HEFCE are committed to embedding ICT in teaching and learning, for staff, for students and for sharing and communicating. The HEFCE e-Learning strategy is a 10-year vision in partnership with HE Academy and JISC. Its vision is dynamic, ready to adapt to changes in technology, education and society.
After refreshments and a quick tour round the exhibition the programme moved on to the morning's parallel sessions.
Bob Powell, JISC Sector Support Manager and Steve Bailey, Records Manager, JISC
Very much a be-suited management-oriented group, this session looked at the 'third domain' of e-Administration. This was defined, by Bob Powell, as the co-ordination and control of ICT systems to carry out business processes. In the e-Administration and e-Management area there are currently no 'off-the-shelf' solutions offering all of these business functions and JISC has committed to establishing and identifying a common set of processes and standards in this area.
Steve Bailey talked in more detail about the role of records management in improving the management of core records and processes within this e-Administration domain. Where e-Learning and e-Research offer more high-profile, visible, processes, e-Administration is no less complex and important to the effective running of an institution, particularly with the complexity of modern institutions, the growing pressure to be 'lean' and the public scrutiny to which institutions are now subject.
Examples of e-Administration functions include admissions, registry, records management, communication and repositories. Three records management concerns were discussed:
Steve outlined the accepted concept of the information lifecycle and some of the intrinsic issues: Creation (metadata; file formats) - current use (access; purpose) - semi-current use (retention; future purpose) - disposal. Digital preservation and curation are key considerations in this, as is the importance of a managed consistent approach. As an example, Steve outlined some risks inherent in data duplication, including inconsistent information, version control and wasted resources.
Some JISC activities, significant for e-Administration:
The discussion yielded some interesting comments, including a concern about using the word 'control' and the need to engage Management who might see e-Administration as something for administrators to deal with.
There followed a tasty lunch with lots of vegetarian options preceeded by the demonstration sessions.
Jackie Carter, Team Leader - Learning and Teaching Materials Delivery, MIMAS and Steve Rogers, Service Co-ordinator, EDINA
The JORUM demonstration answered many questions about how the service works and activities planned for future releases. Although time was tight, Steve Rogers covered all workflow activities, from contribution and publishing to cataloguing and review, using a Flash movie to illustrate how the submission process worked. Future JORUM releases will include a metadata watch, preservation activities, and cultural change activity.
Rachel Ellaway, e-Learning Manager for Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh; Dr William Kilbride, Assistant Director, Archaeology Data Service/ Arts and Humanities Data Service Centre for Archaeology and James Reid, Projects Manager, EDINA
This two-pronged demonstrator session covered some of the most recent e-resources JISC Collections has released.
Rachel Ellaway gave an introduction to PathCAL, a set of Web-based tutorials designed to help undergraduate and postgraduate medical (and related disciplines) students understand basic pathological principles of disease. Rachel started her presentation with an overview of how PathCAL can be used to support teaching activities and enrich the student learning experience in a range of settings and a quick demonstration of some of PathCAL's key features. She then went on to discuss some of the issues relating to collections strategy and the choice of JISC Collections as a service. For example should JISC be building resources the community needs or giving the community improved access to resources that are already out there? In the question and answer session Rachel touched on the potential new dimensions that new ways of working, like academic blogging, can bring to e-resources.
The second set of e-resources showcased were JISC's geospatial collections. William Kilbride began by explaining what exactly geospatial resources comprise of. A simple definition might be 'a lot more than Google Maps!', in fact a lot more than maps in general. He explained that the geospatial community is, in comparison to some other e-resource areas, fairly advanced. This sophistication (for example they have their own language - GML (Geography Markup Language) means that one key area of work is in attempting to integrate with other resources and enlighten the rest of the academic community about geospatial potential. Much discussion of how this can be done is carried out in the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC). They are working on a set of definitions for 'the way mapping services should speak to each other'. Other issues that are at the forefront right now are rights, access (what do we do with all our older data?) and the budget restraints placed on such a diverse community. Improvements in the current infrastructure might be one possible means of allowing scholars to share and exploit datasets. James Reid went on to talk about the Geospatial Interoperability Project. James pointed out that although it's great that people are using the API from various services to create new and interesting outcomes it is important to remember that the Google Maps API is in fact proprietary. Web Map Service (WMS), Web Feature Service (WFS) and Web Coverage Service (WCS) are the emerging geospatial open standards in this area. It is based on these 3 standards that the current geospatial demonstrators have been developed. However there remain a number of issues that need to be resolved: security, IPR, metadata, scalability, the expense of datasets and the difficulties involved in technical implementation. James concluded by saying that full use of open standards is easily achievable and certainly desirable. What is likely to happen is that a service-orientated or mix-and-match approach will eventually take over.
Robert Kiley, Head of Systems Strategy, Wellcome Trust
Robert Kiley from the Wellcome Trust gave a short demonstration of a project to digitise the backfiles of a number of medicine-related journals to create a critical mass of freely available digital content, delivered through PubMedCentral (PMC). Publishers have agreed to the digitisation, in exchange for the access provided by this process. In addition, the Wellcome Trust insisted that publishers agree to deposit digital content into PMC, in their specified XML format, with a maximum embargo period specified by the Wellcome Trust.
These digitised journals are now available for searching and browsing in PMC, along with added value services such as linked references, cited by information and links to related data.
In the second part of his session, Robert talked about the Wellcome Trust open access policy which is mandating that outputs of Wellcome-funded research must be deposited in PMC. Their philosophy is that maximising access improves research quality. To this end, the Wellcome Trust will give additional funding to pay for publication in open access journals.
Future activity includes a UK version of PubMedCentral. The Wellcome Trust is also working with Sherpa on flagging Wellcome-compliant publisher archiving policies through their Romeo database. Robert finished by reiterating that 'No amount of advocacy is enough'.
Rachel Bruce, Programme Director, JISC, Dr Leslie Carr, School of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton and Professor Alison Littlejohn, Professor of Learning Technology, University of Dundee
Les Carr outlined some of the uses and challenges of repositories, going beyond the over-extended view of a database for any content to look specifically at repositories of research output, primarily eprints. He outlined the role of repositories in the scholarly communications process and stressed the importance of the global audience that repositories can reach via the Web, thereby increasing the impact factor of researchers' output. He talked also about the confusion between open access 'gold' where the traditional publishing model is changed to make publications free at the point-of-use, and the 'green' strategy where authors deposit their work into a repository. Benefits of repositories include increased access, increased impact, convenient managed storage and increased personal visibility via the auto-generation of author's publication lists and CVs. Les pointed to previous and ongoing JISC- funded work in the repositories space through the FAIR and Digital Repositories Programmes. The main issue for repository uptake is in uptake by researchers. Without senior management buy-in and mandatory deposit, a repository is unlikely to be well-populated by an institution's researchers - statistics show that only 15% of the available material is deposited when deposit is not mandated.
Allison Littlejohn talked about the CD-LOR (Community Dimensions in Learning Object Repositories) project, funded within the JISC Digital Repositories Programme. This fascinating project is looking at the development of online communities of practice within e-Learning. Allison pointed to the success of hobby-orientated communities, for example in computer gaming, and similarly to research-led communities. The project is examining educational theory in order to establish the barriers and enablers to community development. It is also looking at examples of informal, formal, library and classroom-based repositories. Allison talked about the three learning frameworks defined within educational theory, outlining some of the issues that arise in practice:
The project has identified some dimensions of communities including their scope, subject discipline, educational sector, the purpose of sharing, the type of material being shared and the business model, e.g funded resource or classroom-based.
Out of this work, the project will identify some of the barriers and enablers encompassing the socio-cultural, technical, pedagogical and organisational issues with a view to creating guidelines to inform future development.
Finally, Rachel Bruce outlined new funding within the area of repositories. Rachel talked about previous and current JISC funding in the area of repositories (FAIR, X4L, DeL and Digital Repositories) and firmly established the importance of the repository layer underpinning the key domains of e-Learning, e-Research and e-Administration, working alongside middleware and network services. The new funding for repositories amounts to £14m available for work between April 2006 and March 2009. Calls for proposals will be issued in April and September 2006, and April 2007. The overall aim is to improve the digital content infrastructure through curation, interoperability and discovery. Some indication of the funding areas was given and included funding for local repository creation and innovation and, at a national level, money for improving interoperability, infrastructure, shared services and improving repository knowledge and skills. A network of experts for repositories and a project, by the RDN (the Resource Discovery Network, re-branding as Intute from July 2006), to offer a UK repository cross-search were two specific examples.
Dr Liz Lyon, Director, UKOLN, Neil Beagrie, JISC/British Library Partnership Manager and Heather Weaver, Information Services Group Manager, Research Councils UK
This session on supporting digital curation to safeguard research data was sadly under-attended. Perhaps this indicates that the people creating and using electronic materials are still not paying enough attention to the curation of the e-resources into which JISC and other bodies are pouring creation funding. It was an interesting session, with presentations from Liz Lyon (UKOLN), Neil Beagrie (BL/DPC), and Heather Weaver (CCLRC). Time was once again very tight. Liz mapped curation stages and activities against the process that underpins e-research, with particular reference to the UK eBank project that focuses on the provision of open access to datasets and enabling linking of research data to publications and derived learning propducts . Neil highlighted the importance of collaboration and identified a wide range of collaborative partnerships critical to different preservation and curation research activities, and Heather Weaver spoke on the Research Councils' activities in supporting curation in research outputs. Her presentation identified clearly the preservation and curation policies of the different RCs and also introduced the CASPAR, CLADDIER, and SCITATE projects (although the latter is actually the CCLRC institutional repository).
Jon Mason, e-Framework Editor, University of South Queensland, Australia and John Paschoud, JISC e-Framework Working Group, London School of Economics
Jon Mason, from the Australian Government department of education, science and training (DEST), began this session by attempting the difficult task of defining the e-Framework. He explained that the e-Framework initiative aims to produce an evolving and sustainable, open standards based, service-oriented technical framework to support the education and research communities. In short, it hopes to achieve technical interoperability across education and research. Although the majority of work to date has been carried out by DEST and JISC it is intended that over time other international partners will also come on board. The e-Framework initiative is a fairly ambitious project, Jon pointed out that agreeing on a definition had already taken several months and that reaching consent on a technical vocabulary was sure to take even longer. Currently the key guiding principles of the e-framework were:
Jon finished up by urging people to look at the new e-framework Web site once it was launched in May and if interested to join the JISC e-framework mailing list.
After Jon's overview, John Paschoud offered a more 'from the ground-up' vision entitled 'Never mind the Framework: Here's the real world'. He pointed out that an initiative like the e-framework would automatically receive opposition from IT departments for a number of reasons. For example: Many departments currently have autonomy and feel that it is 'their' infrastructure, interoperating sometimes goes against these beliefs. Some also argue that they have no 'techies' to create interoperable or open source systems. John's retort to this was that they shouldn't have downsized and replaced them all in the first place (and that the skills deficit should be replaced by re-skilling the existing staff force!) and that they are weary of disruptive technologies. He also pointed out that there remains within the academic sector an undercurrent of feeling that other universities are competitors. John finished by saying that these arguments that interoperability was purely about collecting merit badges were wrong. The Internet is what makes us want and need to interoperate. He sees the e-framework as being like 'building aeroplanes in the sky'. Sounds like the e-framework is exciting stuff!
With the title of "How technology is changing scholarship", Cliff Lynch, Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information, talked about the increasingly creative use of computational methods throughout the scholarly world. He drew particular attention to the humanities where technology is being taken up, both in research and within cultural organisations. He used the example of digitisation, where providing enhanced access to images can enhance scholarship through an increased audience able to provide contextual information about the images. Other examples included new and sophisticated ways of capturing, sharing and annotating performance. He also talked about Lorcan Dempsey's notion of 'netflow', where personal workflow is increasingly digital.Ubiquitous connectivity and access, through wireless capabilities and cheaper storage, mean that a learner might carry around a large personal electronic library on a laptop. Rather than dumbing down education, Cliff saw this and new computational technologies such as text mining as a necessary means of dealing with the wealth of material now available to us. To end, Cliff stressed the important role of digital curation and preservation in managing this growing core of digital information.