Since its last conference, CETIS (Centre for Educational Technology & Interoperability Standards) has undergone a change in status from an eight-year project funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) to a JISC Development Service. Both the remit and the organisation have changed somewhat, with a physical move from University of Wales, Bangor to University of Bolton.
This, the third annual invitation-only conference, retained the general structure of the previous event - a series of keynotes surrounded by plenty of 'breakout' sessions. However, in his introductory speech, Oleg Lieber, explained that feedback from the previous year's conference had included the view that the session reports, delivered in the plenary session towards the end of the conference, had been too long and over-detailed. In recognition of this, Oleg instructed us to prepare a single sentence, slide or picture to convey the essence of each breakout group's conclusions, and to present this sentence at the (much briefer) plenary.
The conference was held this year in Salford, Manchester, at the Lowry Centre. The Lowry Centre is a complex of conference spaces and galleries. Painted mostly orange, and with barely a right-angle inside, its architecture tends to demand the adjective 'funky', for which I apologise. As a conference venue, the Lowry is pretty good although, as is still often the case, the WIFI coverage was patchy and intermittent.
Bill Olivier delivered the opening keynote address which gave a number of insights into how JISC is planning to support innovation in education and research. He pointed out the use of the word 'innovative' in JISC's own mission statement:
'JISC's Mission is to provide world-class leadership in the innovative use of Information and Communications Technology to support Education and Research.'
Identifying two areas of tension, 'demand-pull' versus 'technology-push' imperatives and 'disruptive' versus 'sustainable' innovation, Bill attempted to layer JISC programme activities onto a diagram abstracting the innovation process. While pinpointing the problem of moving successful developments from the pilot, or prototype phase, to the status of a more sustainable, assimilated service, Bill also highlighted what he saw as the potential importance of the Users & Innovation Capital Programme in integrating development effort with community practice, via scenario planning and domain mapping.
The slides for Bill's keynote are available on the CETISwiki .
Oleg gave an overview of JISC-CETIS, now a JISC development service where previously it was a long running project. To this end, JISC-CETIS is engaging more with the JISC programmes and with the e-Framework , and will be building on the reference models recently developed under JISC funding. While engaging with these new areas however, the service has not forgotten its roots and will continue to concern itself with e-Learning, interoperability and standards.
Oleg suggested that the initial questions about the need for interoperability standards in educational technology, raised in the late 1990s, had gradually become an article of faith over the first five years of this century. However, he raised the possibility that there was now a need to re-examine not only these assumptions but the nature of educational technology itself.
Introducing the new JISC-CETIS Web site  Oleg demonstrated how it has been designed to accommodate a wiki and a series of blogs - in fact it is blog technology which generates the dynamic content of the home page.
The slides for Oleg's speech are available on the CETISwiki .
Ernest Adams, speaker and game designer of international repute gave the second keynote address. Ernest was an engaging speaker. He began by identifying two separate dichotomies in western culture which he claimed were significant in games design: the classical/romantic divide in western philosophy, and C.P.Snow's concept of the 'two cultures' which describes the breakdown in communications between the sciences and humanities. Describing how games designers strive to create romantic content by classical means, Ernest used the framework of the various historical categories of western literature. According to him, the state of the art of games bears closest comparison with the age of Icelandic Sagas.
Much of modern games design strives to create a state of 'immersion' for the player. This is still very difficult to achieve, and once achieved to maintain, for two technical reasons: the poverty of graphical display systems, and the immaturity of artificial intelligence in terms of its constraining effect in creating life-like characters. Ernest contrasted this situation with the immersive quality of movies, and the ease with which an immersive experience can be created with a book. Having said this, Ernest did quote Scott Rosenberg who identified the fact that games designers appeared to be deviating from Coleridge's 'willing suspension of disbelief', which underpins much of the Romantic literary movement, with their own 'coerced suspension of disbelief' deriving from more photo-realistic graphics.
Ernest concluded by suggesting that while modern games are a product of both technology and artistic imagination, the balance is too far tilted in favour of technology. Interactive narrative, while a feature of many games, is not well understood, and the literary frameworks traditionally used to analyse narrative may not be up to the new task. He ended with a call for new 'heroes' in games design, who could combine 'technological innovation with aesthetic sensibility'.
More on this, and related subjects, can be found on Ernest's Web site .
The breakout sessions are the heart of CETIS conferences. The general brief was simple: within the theme of each session, delegates were to review the last twelve months of activity, and discuss what should be given priority in the coming year. There were nine breakout sessions - each delegate could attend two. I attended sessions called 'Architecture of services & mashups' and 'Future of education institutions'. Both were well-attended and featured lively debates.
The first of these revealed real disagreement on where effort should be prioritised in the coming year. Suggestions ranged from looking for 'quick-wins' in the areas of calendaring and timetabling (with some claiming that there were no quick-wins in this area), to identifying and exposing simpler, non-contentious and public-facing data, with the intention of inviting 'mash-ups' in a Web 2.0 style.
The second of the two sessions I attended, 'Future of education institutions', achieved more consensus and I found this discussion to be instructive. The conversation ranged from examining the role of the physical manifestation of the educational institution in an age of rising energy costs and improved communications technology, to the virtues of blended learning. The single page summary of this session, delivered at the closing plenary, was a drawing of a hamburger, crossed-out, with the phrase 'keep it weird' printed above it. In the words of the official conference session report:
'This represented our fears that virtualization would lead to too much standardization in education, and our belief in the need to keep things informal, unique and diverse.'
A report is available for each of the conference sessions, from the main conference Web site .
Jim Farmer is no stranger to CETIS, having attended previous conferences and having been involved with some of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs). In his keynote address Jim started by identifying a list of JISC/CETIS people whose work he has cited in his native US. This was much appreciated by those listed!
Jim's approach was, as his title promised, pragmatic - much of his talk revolved around the economics of blended learning, particularly in uncovering hidden costs and drawing counter-intuitive conclusions. Referring to the UK Government's commitment to raising the percentage of participation in Higher Education from 43% to 50% for instance, Jim noted that (based on experience in the US) the cost per student of providing that education rose steeply. This seemed to defy any expectations of reduced 'unit cost' due to economies of scale. The reason, he went on to explain, lay in the increased support costs. There seems to be a threshold which is crossed in the 43%-50% range of participation, where the new participants require a greater degree of support.
Jim also described a significant change in the public's, and the government's, view of Higher Education. In the 1970s, education was seen as a 'public good' which should, therefore, be financed by the state whereas now education is seen as something which benefits individual students, and which should be paid for by them. One result of this gradual change in perspective has been the creation of the student loan industry.
Making several recommendations in the area of e-Learning for the immediate future, Jim suggested that where JISC's past policy in encouraging innovation had been to 'let a thousand flowers bloom', a more selective approach might now be called for, with effort focused on specific, key projects. One particular recommendation was to implement a 'cartridge' specification to 'achieve critical mass' and to 'save publishers from themselves'.
Oleg Lieber thanked Jim for a 'much needed reality-check'.
Networking is an important function of the CETIS conferences, and much gets discussed in the coffee breaks between sessions. During one such break I was treated to an impromptu demonstration by Selwyn Lloyd, Director of Phosphorix, of what he termed 'remote pair programming': via Selwyn's laptop and a WIFI connection, we were able to look over the 'virtual shoulder' of one of his developers as he worked, and could discuss with him the particular programming task at hand. This appeared to work very well.
Overall, this conference was an interesting and enjoyable experience, with plenty of opportunity for discussion. The annual JISC-CETIS conference will continue to be an important event in the community's year.