JISC innovation forum, Keele University (part 1)

Rather than post a huge great entry here, I thought I’d do it in sections. I doubt it’ll make it any more interesting, but it might look a bit less intimidating. So here’s an account of the first morning. You can read the conference blog which has details of all the themes that I couldn’t attend and (we were promised) audio recordings of all the presentations here:  http://jif08.jiscinvolve.org/

Anyway on Tuesday morning, the event started with a presentation from Sarah Porter, JISC’s head of innovation, who began with a definition of what she meant by innovation.  Typically it’s understood as the introduction of something new and useful, such as a new way of doing something, a new product or a new service. And that is what JISC is trying to do anyway. She also reminded us that we were a very diverse group of people ranging from IT directors, to software developers. In fact the delegate list displayed 50 different job titles, so if anybody was in a position to innovate it was probably us! JISC see themselves as an “Innovation community” and the aim of the forum was to share practice. We were all very much encouraged to share ideas, make cross connections, and ultimately cross fertilise across the different JISC themes, creating with technology, using technology to support change in institutions, working across organisational boundaries.

 Why do all this? Well, the usual suspects really!  There was a need to improve practices, improve quality, respond to the changing needs of users, respond to new opportunities, and respond to the changing external environment. I’ve heard this quite often now, and  I am occasionally inclined to  wonder a little bit about why nobody is ever satisfied with the practices that they are currently engaged in!  There again, there’s no doubt that the external environment is changing, about which more below, and I do realise that we have to adapt to different circumstances. JISC are thinking more about engagement with industry and the commercial sector for example.  But, they’re also trying to build capacity, knowledge, help institutions use technology, build new services and collaborate with the international innovation community by through the provision of  advice and resources to individuals and institutions on how to develop strategy, change policy, innovate and improve practices and benefit from new technologies and of course, by investing in programmes that fund activities in institutions.

 Now, you might add a rider there, and say JISC invested in, “those institutions that had successfully bid for funding”  In fairness most have, although it would be interesting to find out how many institutions have never successfully bid for funding. That’s not to say they don’t benefit from JISC’s existence. The existence of SuperJANET, the digital libraries programme, ARIADNE, ATHENS, Digimap, the HE digitisation service, Ingenta, Netskills, the Nineteenty Century Newspapers project and other projects are available to all and it’s easy to forget that these things did not exist a few years ago.

 There are still some challenges to be faced though, not least managing incremental sustainable innovation within complex institutional governance structures, making technology sustainable in terms of making a positive contribution to environmental concerns, the tension between open agendas and sustainable business models, flexible appropriate learning and teaching that meets the needs of today’s learners, maintaining and developing excellence in research.

 Then I attended a session on “barriers to innovation” which wasn’t quite what I’d expected as it was more about a specific project to engage researchers with e-infrastructures, and more than that, very much about the methodology they had used to explore this. In fact, I think that a lot of what they had to say was very relevant to the work that we are trying to do.

 Of course the first question is “What’s an e-infrastructure. Well, it’s not something that you build. (and not something that should be confused with the JISC e-infrastructure project either) It’s more a matter of a combination of technology and social arrangements, and it is something that is fostered rather than built. Local knowledge and practice is important here, because as one of the presenters put it “when technology hits usage interesting things happen”, meaning that technology tends to get used in ways its designers did not anticipate.  Now, I think that’s something we’re finding with Blackboard, which is why I think a lot of this presentation was relevant to the teaching and learning agenda.  As one of the slides put it “Researchers need to understand what is possible, what is feasible and what is neither, and what the tradeoff between different options are”. And, I might add so do designers. 

 They then went on to outline the mechanisms they were using. Inevitably they mentioned “training” and I  particularly liked what they called “triage”. By this they meant that the demonstration (of a new technology), training and education, and consultancy are all equally important parts of the roll out. None of them are enough on their own. But you can assess which intervention is likely to produce the most effective results at any given time.

 Another technique was called “boundary spanning”. In another context it might be called job exchange, because it seemed to involve researchers working on development projects to get a sense, presumably, of what is feasible. There again exchange might be a generous term as I didn’t get any sense of project workers getting involved in research (Although they might well have been researchers in the past!) and as a large part of this presentation was concerned with research methodology, literature review and coding, that sense probably isn’t entirely justifiable.

 Then we broke up for lunch and an exhibition of lots of JISC projects. I have collected armfuls of interesting literature for us all to read!