Innovation in Online Higher Education

In an article in the Guardian a couple of days ago – UK universities should take online lead, it was reported that “UK universities should push to become world leaders in online higher education”, with universities secretary, John Denham, “likely to call” for the development of a “global Open University in the UK”. (Can you imagine how well that call went down here?;-)

Anyway, the article gave me a heads-up about the imminent publication of a set of reports to feed into a Debate on the Future of Higher Education being run out of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The reports cover

The “World leader in elearning” report, (properly titled “On-line Innovation in Higher Education“), by Professor Sir Ron Cooke is the only one I’ve had a chance to skim through so far, so here are some of the highlights from it for me…

HE and the research funding bodies should continue to support and promote a
world class ICT infrastructure and do more to encourage the innovative
exploitation of this infrastructure through … a new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content

Agreed – but just making more content available under an open license won’t necessarily mean that anyone will use this stuff… free content works when there’s an ecosystem around it capable of consuming that content, which means confusion about rights, personal attitudes towards reuse of third party material, and a way of delivering and consuming that material all need to be worked on.

The OERs “[need] to be supported by national centres of excellence to provide quality control, essential updating, skills training, and research and development in educational technology, e-pedagogy and educational psychology”.

“National Centres of Excellence”? Hmmm… I’d rather that networked communities had a chance of taking this role on. Another centre of excellence is another place to not read the reports from… Distributed (or Disaggregated) Centres of Excellence I could maybe live with… The distributed/disaggregated model is where the quality – and resilience – comes in. The noise the distributed centre would have to cope with because it is distributed, and because its “nodes” are subject to different local constraints, means that the good will out. Another centralised enclave (black hole, money sink, dev/null) is just another silo…

“[R]evitalised investment into e-infrastructures” – JISC wants more money…

[D]evelopment of institutional information strategies: HEIs should be encouraged and supported to develop integrated information strategies against their individual missions, which should include a more visionary and innovative use of ICT in management and administration

I think there’s a lot of valuable data locked up in HEIs, and not just research data; data about achievement, intent and sucessful learning pathways, for example. Google has just announced a service where it can track flu trends, which is “just the first launch in what we hope will be several public service applications of Google Trends in the future”. Google extracts value from search data and delivers services built on mining that data. So in a related vein, I’ve been thinking for a bit now about how HEIs should be helping alumni extract ongoing value from their relationship with their university, rather than just giving them 3 years of content, then tapping them every so often with a request to “donate us a fiver, guv?” or “remember us? We made you who you are… So don’t forget us in your will”. (I once had a chat with some university fundraisers who try to pull in bequests… vultures, all of ’em ;-)

“It is however essential that central expenditure on ICT infrastructure (both at the national level through JISC and within institutions in the form of ICT services and libraries) are maintained.” – JISC needs more cash. etc etc. I won’t mention any more of these – needless to say, similar statements appear every page or two… ;-)

“The education and research sectors are not short of strategies but a visionary thrust across the UK is lacking” – that’s because people like to do their own thing, in their own place, in their own way. And retain “ownership” of their ideas. And they aren’t lazy enough…;-) I’d like to see people trying to mash-up and lash-up the projects that are already out there…

the library as an institutional strategic player is often overlooked because the changes and new capabilities in library services over the past 15 years are not sufficiently recognised

Academic Teaching Library 2.0 = Teaching University 2.0 – discuss… The librarians need to get over their hang-ups about information (the networked, free text search environment is different – get over it, move on, and make the most of it…;-) and the academics need to get their heads round the fact that the content that was hard to access even 20 years ago is now googleable; academics are no longer the only gateways to esoteric academic content – get over it, move on, and make the most of it…;-)

Growth in UK HE can come from professional development, adult learning etc. but might be critically dependent on providing attractive educational offerings to this international market.

A different model would be to encourage some HEIs to make virtual education offerings aimed at the largely untapped market of national and overseas students who cannot find (or do not feel comfortable finding) places in traditional universities. This approach can exploit open educational resources but it would be naïve to expect all HEIs to contribute open education resources if only a few
exploit the potential offered. All HEIs should be enabled to provide virtual education but a few exemplar universities should be encouraged (the OU is an obvious candidate).

Because growth in business is good, right? (err….) and HE is a business, right? (err….) And is that a recommendation that the OU become a global online education provider?

A step change is required. To exploit ICT it follows that UK HEIs must be flexible, innovative and imaginative.

Flexible… innovative… imaginative…

ICT has greatly increased and simplified access by students to learning materials on the Internet. Where, as is nearly universal in HE, this is coupled with a Virtual Learning Environment to manage the learning process and to provide access to quality materials there has been significant advances in distance and flexible learning.

But there is reason to believe this ready access to content is not matched by training in the traditional skills of finding and using information and in “learning how to learn” in a technology, information and network-rich world. This is reducing the level of scholarship (e.g. the increase in plagiarism, and lack of critical judgement in assessing the quality of online material). The Google and Facebook generation are at ease with the Internet and the world wide web, but they do not use it well: they search shallowly and are easily content with their “finds”. It is also the case that many staff are not well skilled in using the Internet, are pushed beyond their comfort zones and do not fully exploit the potential of Virtual Learning Environments; and they are often not able to impart new skills to students.

The use of Web 2.0 technologies is greatly improving the student learning experience and many HEIs are enhancing their teaching practices as a result. A large majority of young people use online tools and environments to support social interaction and their own learning represents an important context for thinking about new models of delivery.

It’s all very well talking about networked learners, but how does the traditional teacher and mode of delivery and assessment fit into that world? I’m starting to think the educator role might well be fulfilled by the educator as “go to person” for a topic, but what we’re trying to achieve with assessment still confuses the hell out of me…

Open learning content has already proved popular…

A greater focus is needed on understanding how such content can be effectively used. Necessary academic skills and the associated online tutoring and support skills need to be fostered in exploiting open learning content to add value to the higher education experience. It is taken for granted in the research process that one builds on the work of others; the same culture can usefully be encouraged in creating learning materials.

Maybe if the materials were co-created, they would be more use? We’re already starting to see people reusing slides from presentations that people they know and converse with (either actively, by chatting, or passively, by ‘just’ following) have posted to Slideshare. It’d be interesting to know just how the rate of content reuse on Slideshare compares with the rate of reuse in the many learning object repositories? Or how image reuse from flickr compares with reuse from learning object repositories? Or how video reuse from Youtube compares with reuse from learning object repositories? Or how resource reuse from tweeting a link or sharing a bookmark compares with reuse from learning object repositories?

…”further research”… yawn… (and b******s;-) More playing with, certainly ;-) Question: do you need a “research question” if you or your students have an itch you can scratch…? We need a more playful attitude, not more research… What was that catchphrase again? “Flexible… innovative… imaginative…”

A comprehensive national resource of freely available open learning content should be established to provide an “infrastructure” for broadly based virtual education provision across the community. This needs to be curated and organised, based on common standards, to ensure coherence, comprehensive coverage and high quality.

Yay – another repository… lots of standards… maybe a bit of SOAP? Sigh…

There is also growing pressure for student data transfer between institutions across the whole educational system, requiring compliance with data specifications and the need for interoperable business systems.

HEIs should consider how to exploit strategically the world class ICT infrastructure they enjoy, particularly by taking an holistic approach to information management and considering how to use ICT more effectively in the management of their institution and in outreach and employer engagement activities.

There’s huge amount of work that needs doing there, and there may even be some interesting business opportunities. But I’m not allowed to talk about that…

ICT is also an important component in an institution’s outreach and business and community engagement activities. This is not appreciated by many HEIs. Small and medium enterprise (SME) managers need good ICT resources to help them deliver their learning needs. Online resources and e-learning are massively beneficial to work based learning. Too little is being done to exploit ICT in HE in this area although progress is being made.

I’ve started trying to argue – based on some of the traffic coming into my email inbox – that OUseful.info actually serves a useful purpose in IT skills development in the “IT consultancy” sector. OUseful.info is often a bit of a hard read at times, but I’m not necessarily trying to show SMEs how to solve their problems – this blog is my notebook, right? – though at times I do try to reach the people who go into SMEs, and hopefully give them a few ideas that they can make (re)use of in particular business contexts.

Okay – that was a bit longer and a bit more rambling than I’d anticipated… if you ewant to read the report, it’s at On-line Innovation in Higher Education. There’s also a discussion blog available at The future of Higher Education: On-Line Higher Education Learning.

Just by the by, here are a couple more reports I haven’t linked to before on related matters:

It’s just a shame there’s no time to read any of this stuff ;-) Far easier to participate in the debate in a conversational way, either by commenting on, or tracking back to, The future of Higher Education: On-Line Higher Education Learning.

PS here’s another report, just in… Macarthur Study: “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project”

Time for a TinyNS?

In a comment to Printing Out Online Course Materials With Embedded Movie Links Alan Levine suggests: “I’d say you are covered for people lacking a QR reader device since you have the video URL in print; about all you could is run through some process that generates a shorter link” [the emphasis is mine].

I suspect that URL shortening services have become increasingly popular because of the rise of the blog killing (wtf?!) microblogging services, but they’ve also been used for quite some time in magazines and newspapers. And making use of them in (printed out) course materials might also be a handy thing to do. (Assessing the risks involved in using such services is the sort of thing Brian Kelly may well have posted about somewhere; but see also towards the end of this post.)

Now anyone who knows me knows that my mobile phone is a hundred years old and won’t go anywhere near the interweb (though I can send short emails through a free SMS2email gateway I found several years ago!). So I don’t know if the browsers in smart phones can do this already… but it seems to me a really useful feature for a mobile browser would be something like the Mozilla/Firefox smart keywords.

Smart keywords are essentially bookmarks that are invoked by typing a keyword in the browser address bar and hitting return – the browser will then take you to the desired URL. Think of it like a URL “keyboard shortcut”…

One really nice feature of smart keywords is that they can handle an argument… For example, here’s a smart keyword I have defined in my browser (Flock, which is built from the Firefox codebase).

Given a TinyURL (such as http://tinyurl.com/6nf2z) all I need to type into my browser address bar is t 6nf2z to go there.

Which would seem like a sensible thing to be able to do in a browser on a mobile device… (maybe you already can? But how many people know how to do it, if so?)

(NB To create a TinyURL for the page you’re currently viewing at the click of a button, it’s easiest to use something like the TinyURL bookmarklet.)

Now one of the problems with URL shortening services is that you become reliant on the short URL provider to decode the shortened URL and redirect you to the intended “full length” URL. The relationship between the actual URL and the shortened URL is arbitrary, which is where the problem lies – the shortened URL is not a “lossless compressed” version of the original URL, it’s effectively the assignment of a random code that can be used to look up the full URL in a database owned by the short URL service provider. Cf. the scheme used by services like delicious, which generate an “MD5 hash” of a URL which does decode (usually!) to the original URL (see Pivotal Moments… (pivotwitter?!) for links to Yahoo pipes that decode both TinyURLs and delcious URL encodings).

So this got me thinking – what would a “TinyNS” resolution service look like that sat one level above DNS resolution – the domain name resolution service that takes you from a human readable domain name (e.g. http://www.open.ac.uk) to an IP (internet protocol) address (something like 194.66.152.28).

Could (should) we set up trusted parties to mirror the mapping of shortened URL codes from the different URL shortening services (TinyURL, bit.ly, is.gd and so on) and provide distributed resolution of these short form URLs, just in case the original services go down?

Amazon “Edge Services” – Digital Manufacturing

When is a web service not a web service? When it’s an edge service, maybe?

Last night I was pondering the Amazon proposition, which at first glance broadly seems to break down into:

The retail bit splits down further: physical goods and digital downloads, shipped by Amazon; and marketplace goods, where products from other retailers are listed (using Amazon ecommerce webservices, I guess) and Amazon takes a cut from each sale.

It was while I was looking at the digital downloads that the idea of “edge services” came to mind – web services that result in physical world actions (if you’re familiar with the Terminator movies, think: “Skynet manufacturing”;-) [It seems an appropriate phrase has already been coined: direct digital manufacturing, (DDM) – “the process of going directly from an electronic digital representation of a part to the final product [for example] via additive manufacturing”. See also “Digital Manufacturing — Bridging Imagination and Manufacturing“.]

But first let’s set the scene: just what is Amazon up to in the digital download space?

Quite a lot, as it happens – here’s what they offer directly under the Amazon brand, for example (on the Amazon.com domain):
Amazon MP3 Downloads store, a DRM free music downloads site;
Amazon Video on Demand Store – for movie and TV downloads;
Amazon e-books and docs – download e-books and electronic documents (“eDocs”);
– the Kindle store. If you haven’t heard about it already, Kindle is Amazon’s consumer electronics play, an e-book reader with wi-fi connectivity and a direct line back to the Amazon store;
– and just this week (and what prompted this post initially), Amazon bought up Reflexive, a company that among other things is into the online game distribution business.

And although it doesn’t quite fit into the “digital download” space, don’t forget the person-in-the-machine product Amazon Mechanical Turk, a web service for farming out piece work to real people.

But that’s not all – here, for example, are the companies that I know about that are in the Amazon Group of Companies:
IMDb – The Internet Movie Database (which apparently is now streaming movies and TV programmes for free);
Audible – audio book downloads;
Booksurge – book printing on-demand (just by-the-by, in the UK, Amazon’s Milton Keynes fulfilment centre is about to go into the PoD business (press release);
CreateSpace: PoD plus, I guess? Create print on demand books DVDs and CDs, backed up by online audio and video distribution services.

(Amazon also own Shelfari, a site for users to organise and manage their own online bookshelves, and have a stake in LibraryThing, another service in the same vein, through the acquisition of second-hand, rare and out-of-print book retailer Abebooks.)

UPDATE: And they’ve just bought the Stanza e-book reader.

So here’s where it struck me: Amazon is increasingly capable of turning digital bits into physical stuff. This is good for warehousing, of course – the inventory in a PoD driven distribution service is blanks, not one or two copies of as many long tail books you can fit in the warehouse – though of course the actual process of PoD is possibly a huge bottleneck. And it takes Amazon from retailer, to manufacturer? Or to a retailer with an infinite inventory?

If this is part of the game plan, then maybe we can expect Amazon to buy up the following companies (or companies like them) over the next few months:
MOO.com – personalised business card printing, that’s also moving into more general card printing. Upload your photos (or import them from services like flickr) and then print ’em out… photobox does something similar, though it maybe prints onto a wider range of products than MOO currently does?
Spreadshirt – design (and sell) your own printed T-shirts;
Ponoko, or Shapeways – upload your CAD plans and let their 3D printers go to work fabricating your design;
Partybeans – personalised “candy boxes”. Put your own image on a tin containing your favourite sweets:-)

(For a few more ideas, see Money on Demand: New Revenue Streams for Online Content Publishers.)

That said, Amazon built up it’s retail operation based on reviews and recommendations (“people who bought this, also bought that”). The recommendation engine was (is) one way of surfacing long tail products to potential purchasers. And I’m not convinced that the long tail rec engine will necessarily work on ‘user-generated’ content (although maybe it will scale across to that?!). But if you run an inventoryless operation, then does it matter?! Because maybe you can resell uploaded, user-contributed content to friends and family anyway, and several sales for the price of one upload that way?

Or maybe they’ll move into franchising POD and fab machines, and scale-up manufacturing that way? One thing I keep noticing at conferences and events is that coffee increasingly comes in Starbucks labeled dispensers (Starbucks – For Business). So maybe we’ll start seeing Amazon branded POD and fab machines in our libraries, bookstores and catalogue shops? (Espresso, anyone? Blackwell brews up Espresso: “Blackwell is introducing an on-demand printer the Espresso Book Machine to its 60-store chain after signing an agreement with US owner On Demand Books.“) Also on the coffee front – brand your latte

A few further thoughts:
– if Amazon is deliberately developing a digital manufacturing capacity to supplement it’s retail operation (and find ways of reducing stock levels of “instanced products” (i.e. particular books, or particular DVDs) then is the next step moving into the design and user-contributed content business? Like photo-sharing, or video editing..? How’s the Yahoo share price today, I wonder?! ;-)
– Amazon starts (privacy restrictions allowing, and if it doesn’t already do so) to use services like Shelfari and IMDb (though its playlists) to feed its recommendation engine, and encourages the growth of consumer curated playlists; will it have another go at pushing the Your Media Library service, or will it happily exploit verticals like IMDb and Shelfari?
– will companies running on Amazon webservices that are offering “edge services” start to become acquisition targets? After all, if they’re already running on Amazon infrastructure, that makes integration easier, right? Because the Amazon website itself is built on top of those services (and is itself actually a presentation layer for lots of loosely coupled web services already?) (And if you go into conspiracy mode, was the long term plan always to use Amazon webservices as a way of fostering external business innovation that might then be bought up and rolled up into Amazon itself?!)

There’s a book in there somewhere, I think?!

PS another riff on services at the edge, AWS satellite ground stations: Instead of building your own ground station or entering in to a long-term contract, you can make use of AWS Ground Station on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis. You can get access to a ground station on short notice in order to handle a special event: severe weather, a natural disaster, or something more positive such as a sporting event. If you need access to a ground station on a regular basis to capture Earth observations or distribute content world-wide, you can reserve capacity ahead of time and pay even less. AWS Ground Station is a fully managed service. You don’t need to build or maintain antennas, and can focus on your work or research.