The Library as the Natural Home for Emerging Technology…

I was back in the Library today after waaaay too long away to give a staff development session on things related to virtual machines, docker, “digital application shelves”, Jupyter notebooks and reproducible educational materials. (We also tried a bit of consensus humming… :-)

In conversation afterwards, we briefly chatted about the Library as being a possible home for providing such services, then over coffee with Richard Nurse riffed fleetingly on the idea of a Digital Skills Lab, which is a phrase that has been sitting with me all day since…

In my second public outing of the day, a conversation with Stpehen Downes for his e-learning 3.0 MOOC, I riffed on Docker and notebooks again, and whilst chatting after that event riffed casually on the notion of using Docker as a means of delivering personal productivity apps / information tools, and why the Library, rather than IT, might be better suited to supporting such an offering…

Between the two, I tried to hijack a server we’ve acquired to explore some infrastructure experiments to support delivery of Institute of Coding activities that the OU has a work package to deliver and give it to the Library… Here are some quick thoughts relating to a possible case for the defence I may have to make tomorrow…

  • to explore useful infrastructure offerings for supporting coding related education, we need to consider: 1) the environments that are user (learner and/or researcher) facing; 2) the architecture that lets us scale that offering;
  • the original server was supposed to satisfy both need, but the lack of resource to develop the scaling infrastructure part was blocking the end-user development work;
  • grabbing a server, situating it in the Library, and calling it a Digital Skills Lab development server makes a statement about the sorts of things we might want to use it for. Specifically:
  • utility of running experimental Jupyter notebook servers so people can start to explore their own use of notebooks, notebook environment customisations using extensions, etc;
  • utility of  running a local lab docker hub “digital application shelf” and docker machine to let folk check out and run pre-built “digital applications” (i.e. prebuilt Docker containers) taken off the shelf;
  • utility of running a local Binderhub to let folk explore building their own pre-configured computational environment + and distribute it as a live environment with notebook content that exploits that environment;
  • developing a lab mentality as a space / server where folk can try stuff out, and bring queries and requests as well as volunteering in their own ideas;
  • situating it in the Library means it’s not a STEM computing thing: it’s accessible all faculties;
  • more specifically, taking it out of the Computing Department and STEM Faculty makes a statement that we’re trying to offer computation stuff to people in general, not provide a computing environment for computing people per se; that is, we can explore, and maybe even help develop, a different set of expectations and use models for “code” – not necessarily writing big programs, but perhaps just finding the single-line-of-code-at-a-time that helps you complete a particular task.

Anyway – that was today… we’ll have to see what tomorrow’s email returns bring to see how much trouble I’m in!

PS By the by, waiting for a boat home, a most enjoyable piece by Tim Harford appeared in my streams: Why big companies squander brilliant ideas. Heh, heh… ;-)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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