2. Perspectives

In this section we attempt to present short essays on emerging trends and technologies that OUCS has been involved in over the year. We have built up links with departments and colleges and constantly look to investigate technologies in answer to our users' needs. The following sections highlight some of the areas we have been focusing on.

2.1. Reducing the Administrative Burden

Can information technology be used to reduce the administrative burden imposed on large numbers of University staff? This was the question the Learning Technologies Group (LTG) set out to answer during the spring of 2006.

The initiative began with an email sent to people signed up to receive OUCS course announcements that simply asked: would you like to explore how technology can be used to relieve the administrative burden? Within one hour we had over 40 people expressing an interest.

The next step was to go and visit a selected group of our respondents in order to interview them about how they currently approached administrative tasks. All were frustrated at how long it took doing simple tasks such as organising meetings, creating documentation and doing project management. However, from these interviews we also found that a limited number of tools and practices were already being used to relieve their own administrative burdens and generally to support staff projects. Summaries of these interviews can be found on the OUCS Client Relations Team wiki at http://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg-public/CRT.Interview_Summaries.

The information we gathered at the interviews was collated to create a generic story or scenario of administrative burdens faced by staff on a daily basis. The scenario was then used to design the workshop and provided the context for using IT tools. This subsequently helped the workshop participants understand how these tools could be used in their own projects. We chose 12 tools that we believed could have a positive impact on reducing the administrative burden for staff. These were:

  • Meet-o-matic;
  • mailing lists;
  • online calendars;
  • room booking;
  • instant messaging;
  • internet telephones;
  • news feeds;
  • blogging;
  • dotproject;
  • wikis;
  • online surveys; and
  • WebLearn.

Equipped with the scenario and a set of tools, we invited our participants to come to the Administrative Pilot Workshop at OUCS on the 28th June 2006.

At the workshop we gave the attendees lots of information, as well as practical hands-on experience of the 12 tools. Feedback received after the event indicated participants enjoyed the workshop and found the tools demonstrated to be very useful for coping with their administration duties.

We also created mini tool guides and a mailing list to allow those who attended the workshop to carry on experimenting with the tools within their normal working environment.

The final conclusion from the pilot workshop was that members of the University felt strongly about the problem of their administrative load. The information technology tools demonstrated can be used to alleviate some of the time and effort staff spend on administration but embedding tools within the wide range of environments in which members of the University work, remains a complex problem. To use a tool effectively users must:

  • make sure they select the right tool for a given task;
  • make sure they use the tool effectively;
  • make sure their working environment is not causing unnecessary administration e.g. look at existing practice and policies.

The LTG will continue to investigate the area of administrative burden with the view to improving and developing new OUCS services for members of Oxford University. We also intend to broaden the scope of this work to examine the administration processes associated with teaching and research. To find out more about this work please visit the project wiki website at https://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg-oxford/AdminBurdenProject.

2.2. Using OXITEMS to Publish News, Events, and Podcasts

Establishing newsfeeds is a relatively new mechanism for delivering information. Essentially, a newsfeed is a collection of related items of information.

So, there might be newsfeeds for:

  • this term's music events in Balliol College;
  • the latest news from Computing Services;
  • a list of seminars in the History department;
  • studentships available in the Zoology department;
  • job vacancies in the Materials department.

Many web sites now provide newsfeeds. For example, the BBC has several newsfeeds, one for World News, one for UK News, etc.

The web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ provides links to some of the BBC's newsfeeds.

There are several icons, such as , and , that are used by a web site to indicate that a newsfeed is available. If you hover over the icon, your browser will tell you the URL of the newsfeed. An item stays available in the newsfeed until the expiry date specified by the item's author.

There are many ways in which you can read a newsfeed. Usually it is a two stage process.

  1. First, you tell a newsfeed reader which newsfeeds you want to read (by giving the reader the URL of each newsfeed).
  2. Then the newsfeed reader will do the hard work of getting the items of the newsfeeds and delivering the information to you.

From time to time, the newsfeed reader will get new items. Although newsfeed readers work in different ways, the crucial idea is that when you wish to see the latest news, you do not have to visit each of the original websites to get it.

Here are some examples of how you can read a newsfeed:

  • there are web sites where you can subscribe to a newsfeed, e.g., Google, Bloglines, and Yahoo!;
  • some email clients (e.g., Opera Mail and Thunderbird) allow you to get the items of a newsfeed delivered into the email client like ordinary messages;
  • you can install a feedreader program, e.g., Awasu, NewsGator, and NewzCrawler;
  • if you use WebLearn, you can set up a resource in WebLearn that displays the contents of a newsfeed;
  • if you know how to create web pages, you could provide one that displays the contents of a newsfeed.

For more information about reading newsfeeds see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/rss/.

During 2005-06, OUCS developed a local newsfeed system (called OXITEMS) which allows authorised users to create newsfeeds. Once the newsfeed has been set up, other authorised users can add news items to a newsfeed. There is also a sandbox newsfeed where you can try out the system before making a live feed for yourself.

These newsfeeds are then available for others to read, e.g., for web page owners to include in their web pages.

So if you are involved in compiling information about departmental news, events, job vacancies, project news, … OXITEMS provides you with a simple non-technical system for keying in a news item once and yet having this item able to be picked up by websites and browsers across the University and elsewhere.

The University's Press Office uses OXITEMS as a way of presenting news on the University's home page. So you can see it in action by looking at the top right of http://www.ox.ac.uk/.

The image below is taken from http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/. It shows the output of three news items from the newsfeed used by the Press Office.

Some other examples of departments/colleges using OXITEMS are described at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/realuses/.

Besides ordinary newsfeeds, OXITEMS has events newsfeeds that are much better at handling events for your web site, than static lists usually seen. You can tailor the output using special templates and even link the event to iCalendar or Google Calendar for the site visitor. The following image shows the part of Philosophy's home page which is using OXITEMS to output the details of an event:

A podcast is a multimedia file that has been made available on the web which can automatically be downloaded to a software player, such as Apple's iTunes, and then perhaps moved to a portable device such as an MP3 player. You might use a podcast to record a talk, to record an interview with a visitor, to record supporting material for a lecture etc.

The term podcast was derived in 2004 from the words iPod and broadcast, but you do not have to have an iPod to listen to/watch these files. Anyone with appropriate software on a computer will be able to listen to/watch a podcast. And, if the file is an MP3 file, you could copy the file to an MP3 player.

OXITEMS can also be used to publish a podcast. For more details, see http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/podcasts/.

Introductory material about OXITEMS is available at http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxitems/. You can access OXITEMS by going to https://rss.oucs.ox.ac.uk/oxonly/oxitems/. Full documentation is available once you have logged in.

2.3. Academic Computing Development: Changing Landscapes

As a central service which supports individuals and groups who wish to bring technology into their teaching and research, the Academic Computing Development Team (ACDT) has been in a unique position to monitor changes in IT technology use at the University in recent years. The ACDT receives formal requests for assistance at its bi-annual call for project suggestions but also fields a steady stream of requests for advice throughout the year.

The most noticeable (though somewhat unsurprising) change in recent years has been the increasing levels of sophistication in the resources requested by users of our service. While it is tempting to assume that this steady increase in expectation has been driven by the increasingly sophisticated resources seen across the Internet at large, there are also internal forces at work here. The University has steadily increased its investment in IT support in recent years and it is increasingly common for departments and divisions to have some level of in-house expertise in web development. This has provided a much improved infrastructure for the long-term support of online projects and has meant that the skills of the ACDT are increasingly required for implementing those problems that require specialist technical skills, and for those projects intended for reuse across the whole University.

For academic staff involved in teaching, the ease with which they can bring elements of e-Learning into their teaching has been revolutionised by the implementation of and constant improvements to WebLearn, Oxford's Virtual Learning Environment. A variety of tools such as online quizzes, discussion forums and file sharing are now centrally available, can be access controlled and require very little technical expertise to set up and manage. This has massively reduced the number of requests that the ACDT receives for these kinds of reusable tools and has freed up the development time to concentrate on more innovative and subject-based projects. Of course a ‘one size fits all’ teaching package does not exist nor would this be desirable. The ACDT is still on hand to step in when a tool in WebLearn is unsuitable for a particular situation. A recent example of this is the provision of online assessment facilities for language teaching in Classics. This project developed an assessment tool which had the specific requirement to support ancient Greek.

Students are another great driver of e-Learning at the University and constantly push for better e-Learning resources and for more content to be made available online. While the jury may be out on the educational merits of some of the resources requested by students, we do know that if we do not provide these resources ourselves students are now highly capable of forming their own online learning communities, from which it can become increasingly difficult to entice them back to use centralised provisions.

The value of publishing large collections of research data on-line has been appreciated for some time now with the advantages that instant access, searching and sorting can provide to the end user. Fears about the impact of online availability on paper publication sales have faded and a second generation of research sites is now thinking beyond the provision of search interface, seeking to engage the user and also to further the publisher's own research. The recently published Roman Provincial Coinage web site (http://rpc.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/) is a good example of this; in addition to combining ten of the most important coin collections in the world, the site allows private collectors to submit previously undiscovered coin types and for corrections to be submitted in advance of the final print publication. The interface itself provides a step-up from previous numismatic sites with a ‘purse’ facility to gather and hold interesting search results during a session and the provision of interactive maps to enhance the understanding of coinage across the regions and cities.

Over the past year OUCS has focused on relieving the burden on University staff caused by administrative tasks. Requests to the ACDT for help show a shift from viewing the Internet as a means for passively sharing information to a pervasive platform for collaboration and communication. The expectations for on-line tools to save time and effort are high and happily there is now an increasing willingness to tackle the organisational and cultural shifts needed before such technology can be usefully implemented.

Much of the e-Learning and e-Research work at the University is supported by key pieces of central IT infrastructure. For example the facility to Webauth-enable web sites ensures that increasingly only one username and password is needed to access a wealth of resources across the University. It is now clear that continued development of central infrastructure must also be a priority if our online and research resources are to keep up with the expectations of both our students and our research communities.

2.4. The IT Learning Programme: New Directions in The Thames Suite

Information Technology is continually evolving and presenting new opportunities to enhance the experience of the learner. The Thames Suite of lecture rooms at OUCS has taken the opportunity to explore some of these technologies and provide a flexible learning space - both for the IT Learning Programme and also for wider use within the university.

Careful consideration of how learners actually learn has shown that often interaction and discussion forms a major role, rather than the simple transmission of information through lecture formats followed by coursework. By arranging teaching facilities in such a manner as to allow greater student interaction, learning becomes personalised and internalised. For this to happen the range of furniture and layout needs to be flexible. Group work must be possible without major moving of furniture allied with increased student interaction through the use of technology.

All rooms in the Thames Suite are equipped with interactive whiteboards. In addition to showing the usage of applications more easily (by the presenter touching the relevant part of the screen), the screen can also be annotated to show the various menu commands etc. Any notes or annotations made can be saved for future recall or printing with delivery enabled through the use of file upload to WebLearn. In addition the board can still be used as a standard whiteboard with dry-wipe markers. To complement the interactive whiteboard all rooms have at least one other projector to allow delivery of a presentation or notes at the same time as demonstration of the application.

In smaller scale learning environments it is possible for the learner to interact fully with the teacher using the interactive whiteboard, but in larger classes the logistics of people moving around becomes problematic. In this scenario an interactive slate uses wireless technology so that it can be passed easily between students and displayed on the screen from up to 20m away. This is also an enabling technology for students with mobility problems as they do not need to move to the screen to participate.

Participation is the main criteria in the redesign of the rooms as this reinforces learning. In the Isis room special oval tables allow retraction of the computer screens to allow group work to take place, and in the Windrush room computers are placed on small tables to enable a more relaxed atmosphere for lecturing and group interaction.

Continuing the philosophy of building accessible teaching spaces, all rooms have full-height adjustable desks with a computer, and integrated hearing loops, while easily accessible network and mains sockets in the Windrush and Isis rooms enable personal laptops to be used.

The teaching spaces are heavily used by the IT Learning Programme, but are also used to demonstrate the new technologies and can be booked by other departments wanting to make use of the specific tools offered. For more information contact courses@oucs.ox.ac.uk.

Table 1. Summary of Lecture Room Facilities
Lecture Rooms
Seats at computers 14 24 32 in5 seminar groups 14 café style
Seats for lectures 20 30 60 14
Dual Projector Y Y Y
Triple Projectors Y
Interactive Whiteboard Y Y Y Y
Dual Computers Y Y Y Y
Internet Access Y Y Y Y
Interactive Slate* Y Y Y Y
Double-sided whiteboard* Y Y Y Y
Hearing Loop Y Y Y Y
Voting System* Y Y Y Y
Lecturer's Wireless Keyboard* Y Y Y Y
Wireless Access Y Y Y Y
High Quality Sound System Y Y Y
Classroom Management Software Y

Y = Yes

* = On request

2.5. Testing Virtual Research Environments at Oxford

‘Dr Mary White captures a high-resolution image of a manuscript folio with her networked PDA and sends it to her institution's digital repository. Colleagues in other institutions add annotations, some of which Mary reads on the bus home.’

‘John Martin, a postgraduate research student participates in a graduate-led research seminar with colleagues in Berlin and New York, from his desktop uses personal Access Grid video conferencing and which he records for later playback on his multimedia player.’

‘Professor Wilson records his mathematical workings with pen and paper and carefully files them in his drawer, as he's always done. The pen transmits the shapes and figures it has recorded to a secure database for the benefit of others within his research team.’

Fact or fiction?

Today's networked technologies have the potential to enable each of these scenarios. Over the past year Oxford has been leading, or participating in, projects funded by the JISC which have been defining and, in some cases, piloting the use of advanced ICT for researchers. The three projects are funded under the JISC's Virtual Research Environments Programme and are:

OUCS' Research Technologies Service is involved in each of these projects, as co-investigator and/or with the allocation of staff, and has a played a coordinating role for the development and testing of VREs within Oxford. Links to all three projects and key deliverables can be found at http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/.

The JISC defines a VRE as ‘a set of online tools and other network resources and technologies interoperating with each other to facilitate or enhance the processes of research practitioners within and across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.’ (See Virtual Research Environments programme: Phase 2 roadmap, http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/publications/pub_vreroadmap.aspx For an overview article on VREs see, Michael Fraser, ‘Virtual Research Environments: Overview and Activity’. Ariadne 44 (2005), http://eprints.ouls.ox.ac.uk/archive/00001072/.) A VRE is primarily an online environment in which research is done, especially collaborative, interdisciplinary activities. VRE projects encompass different subject areas, methodologies or research cultures. Each of the three projects in which Oxford is involved serves different requirements. The IBVRE project, for example, serves the entire research life cycle of a large, global research consortium (Integrative Biology) whilst the BVREH project has focussed on defining the requirements of researchers working in a broad, almost disparate, set of subjects under the banner of the humanities. The Sakai VRE project is different in nature again, primarily concerned with evaluating the technical potential of the Sakai collaborative learning environment to serve as an interface for a research environment.

The difficulty with VREs is that, unlike for example a virtual learning environment (VLE), it is not possible to purchase or download one in a box. Indeed, part of the intention of the JISC VRE programme was to test the definition of a VRE and explore just how analogous a VRE might be to a VLE (and what relationship one might have to the other). For any given research area, it is important to establish in some detail what research processes occur, how they inter-relate with other activities, and on what data, tools, and people they depend. The VRE, whilst focussing on the online environment, has to be integrated with the entire research environment which will include libraries, laboratories, fieldwork, equipment and other objects in the physical world. It is a complex world for which there is no off-the-shelf solution. Indeed, for some research communities the recording and defining of how they do research is a novelty.

Both the BVREH and IBVRE projects began, therefore, with an analysis of the ‘day in the life of’ a researcher through interviews and observation (with a particular emphasis on recording points of collaboration), and it is from these initial reports that the priorities for VRE development were derived. For the humanities it was tools to assist in finding resources and people; communication; and collaborative document editing. For IBVRE the priorities were a secure repository for in silico experiment data; visualisation tools which could be used collaboratively; alerting tools to remain up-to-date with research publications; and a means to integrate the paper-based process with the digital. The key to the development of any VRE is to involve the research community (the end-users) at frequent points in the development process. It may seem obvious that researchers are more likely to use a system if they have been closely involved in its design but actually implementing a technical development culture which includes, for example, storyboarding, observation, prototyping, and evaluation, can be complex and resource-intensive to manage. The experiences from the IBVRE project in drawing on ‘agile’ development techniques will inform the projects to be funded under the second phase of the JISC VRE programme.

IBVRE has deployed a portal framework (uPortal) to contain tools or access to infrastructure, and to provide a set of user interfaces which match the workflows used by the researchers. The VRE is extended beyond the Web browser interface, however, by the innovative use of Anoto digital pen and paper technology which enables the mathematical biologists, for example, to continue to use pen and paper to formulate new models whilst ensuring that a digital copy is also captured, uploaded and converted to other convenient formats. (See further Management of Paper: Anoto Digital Pen and Paper Evaluation, http://www.vre.ox.ac.uk/ibvre/index.xml?ID=digitalpaper). Pen and paper is frequently used by researchers in the humanities. The BVREH Project includes, as one of its demonstrators, an evaluation of the same technology (though those in the humanities who work within archives might have to await the digital pencil). The BVREH Project is also evaluating the use of desktop Access Grid technology for multi-site video-conferencing. The need to share, discuss or annotate the same visual experience is common to both the BVREH and IBVRE projects. The IBVRE project is evaluating the Vannotea collaborative movie annotation and analysis tool, whilst the BVREH project has additional funding to develop a virtual workspace for the study of ancient documents.

Any serious VRE will have to integrate with already existing (as well as planned) research infrastructure. E-infrastructure comprises the distributed network, tools, and support operations which facilitate the research community's discovery of, and access to research resources, analysis tools, and advanced communication technologies. Since VREs often cross institutional as well as subject boundaries, the range and location of e-infrastructure is broad and includes, for example, institutional repositories, national data archives, high performance computing resources (local and international), and integrated access management systems. The Sakai VRE Demonstrator project is testing the integration of the Shibboleth access management protocol with the Sakai portal. Shibboleth facilitates single sign-on access to remote online resources without the user having to remember more than their local username/password. OUCS is also evaluating technologies to enable the simultaneous searching of multiple, distributed databases from a single point within the Sakai portal.

The three VRE projects demonstrate that the VRE is not a wholly abstract concept. The next phase of the national VRE programme is the funding of projects to deploy pilot VREs (along the lines of the methods employed by the IBVRE project). At the time of writing Oxford had submitted bids to pilot a VRE for the study of documents and manuscripts, and another to develop a VRE to support material scientists. Sustainability of VRE activities, however, will partly depend on institutional, as well as domain, support for the deployment of VREs. The via media between a series of discrete VREs for every research group and a generic VRE to serve (perhaps not very well) the bulk of the institution might well be to agree a VRE framework with a combination of institutional, domain, and shared components; which begins with the research requirements but takes advantage of existing and planned e-infrastructure (wherever it may be found); and encourages the sharing and reuse of tools, data and expertise. The scoping of an institutional VRE framework, in continued collaboration with academic departments, is a project which OUCS intends to seek funding for over the next 12 months.

2.6. What do Virtual Machines offer the University: The Role of the Virtual Machine

(Some of this text is derived from introductory information available from the VMware web site at http://www.vmware.com/)

Modern computing systems are typically overpowered for a lot of the work for which they are used. When running standard operating systems such as Linux or Windows, especially as servers, the utilisation of available processing power is frequently 10% or less of the maximum available. Virtualisation is a process by which much greater utilisation of a computing system's processing power can be achieved by providing a mechanism that enables multiple heterogeneous operating systems to run simultaneously on the same hardware, achieving 80% or more processor utilisation.

The virtualisation process is achieved by using a virtualisation operating system which provides an abstraction layer that decouples the physical hardware from the operating system allowing a number of operating systems to run concurrently on the same hardware without one operating system interfering with another. These different instantiations of operating systems are referred to as Virtual Machines (VMs). Each VM has its own set of virtual hardware (RAM, CPU, Network, Storage) upon which an operating system (e.g. Windows, Linux, Netware) and applications are loaded. The operating system sees a consistent, normalized set of hardware regardless of the actual physical hardware components.

For each VM, the resources available to it are treated as if they are dedicated to it. However, the administrator of the entire virtual infrastructure manages and optimizes resources across the entire set of VMs. Available CPU and disc space is managed by the virtualisation software in real-time ensuring the most efficient use of available resources and offering a solution to the under-utlisation of hardware.

Virtual infrastructure provides an opportunity to lower IT cost through increased efficiency, flexibility and responsiveness. We can provide new services and change the amount of resources dedicated to a software service very quickly.

NSMS is using virtualisation on an IBM Blade Centre that is currently supporting 11 blades (each blade is a dual processor server with 6GB of RAM) and shared storage via a Fibre Channel Storage Area Network. The Blade Centre is currently supporting a total of 49 VMs with capacity for more as and when required. The entire Blade Centre can be treated as a single pool of processing, storage and networking power. The virtual infrastructure allows for the automatic optimization of server utilization for the entire set of VMs (load balancing) by dynamically, in real time and without any down time, allocating VMs to Blades in a manner that maximizes the availability of CPU and RAM resources.

This capability offers the following key operational benefits:

  • lower cost of ownership as multiple servers may be consolidated onto far fewer machines;
  • more efficient use of available CPU and memory resources. These may be shared in real-time using load-balancing between multiple servers;
  • greater ease of management. Servers may be stopped, started, moved between different hardware, rolled back to a previous state in a matter of minutes;
  • high availability;
  • faster disaster recovery; and
  • faster implementation of new services through the use of pre-built server templates.

This technology is used by NSMS to support key IT services to a variety of University Departments, Colleges and associated Institutions. For example, all of the servers used to manage the University's telecommunications group run on virtual machines. This includes all the servers responsible for call logging and subsequent billing.

One area where OUCS sees great potential for growth in the use of virtual infrastructure is for research groups who need to meet FEC accounting requirements. Virtualisation makes it easy to provide IT services for a discrete hourly, weekly, monthly or annual fee. Large amounts of processing power, memory and disc storage can be made available quickly and managed for a fixed annual fee. Interested parties should contact nsms@oucs.ox.ac.uk.

One of the interesting consequences of using a virtual infrastructure is the simplification of the long term management and charging for services. When the time comes for the replacement of the Blade Centre, the current VMs will not have to be rebuilt. Once the virtual operating system has been installed on the new hardware, the VMs can be transferred unchanged to the new hardware and started up. The transfer of a VM from one machine to another is simply a matter of ensuring that the file containing the VM is accessible to the new hardware (shared storage makes that trivial). With only a small amount of extra effort, the transfer of a VM to new hardware can be achieved without any down time.

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