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.
There has been a move this year in the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and HEFCE to return to the phrase ‘Enhancing Learning through Technology (ELT)’ in an attempt to link e-learning activity back to on-campus teaching. Last year the HEA published their framework for National Professional Standards in Teaching and Supporting Learning in Higher Education. They list as ‘core’ knowledge the use of appropriate learning technologies. The use of the word ‘appropriate’ allows considerable leeway for institutions to identify which, and how, technologies may be used in specific contexts. This offers an exciting and challenging opportunity for researchers and practitioners in learning technology in HE and particularly for those working in traditional universities.
Recent trends in e-learning research focus on the approaches teaching staff can take to ‘blended learning’. The integration of technology into practice requires a considered and reflective approach to course and curriculum design ensuring that learning needs and teaching aims are met. Blended learning means more than having some face-to-face and some online elements. It describes the extent to which these elements work together to give a cohesive learner experience and the choice of the best tools for the task. Litttlejohn (2007) suggests that the design and subsequent success of a blend is subject to three contexts: the technology context, the learner’s context, and the teacher’s context. The technology context includes: the technology available within the institution; the tools offered in the VLE; the other tools on campus and the availability of that technology, at work, at home and in the classroom. The learner’s context is shaped by their familiarity with e-learning tools and approaches; their opportunities for peer interaction; their opportunities for interaction with teachers; their level of study; previous knowledge; and their level of digital literacy. University teachers are currently working in an environment where the skills of students at admission vary widely and levels of competence, experience and expertise in use of technologies are ill defined. ‘Student expectations’ are often cited but are not consistent. The teacher’s own context for use of technology is equally diverse. Their starting point includes their familiarity with technology tools; the availability of e-resources in their discipline; the nature of the content being taught; the assessment criteria and mode; the support available; and their own digital literacy and skills.
A recent UCISA survey identifies that the main barrier to the take-up of new methods of teaching continues to be the time it takes to learn and use new tools, and how that fits with workload models. Once again they point to staff development and staff skills as the areas for attention. For technologists the challenge is to offer applications and tools so usable that the new learning required is minimal and to provide an ‘appropriate’ and appropriately supported technology context. Developing digital literacy skills to use in the context of higher education teaching, study, and research can be a challenging experience with steep learning curves. Staff and students struggle with expectations for collaborative working and managing information overload. With a changing demographic of staff working in higher education and new wide-ranging sets of skills amongst students, the training offered to each will shape the extent to which they succeed in a blended learning environment. The challenge for units which support, promote, and train in learning technologies has never been more real.
Back in the fledgling days of OUCS, user support consisted mainly of helping people load their punched cards into the reader or directing them to the output bins. There was, to all intents and purposes, a single computer with lots of wires coming out of it. Most users made the expedition into the computing service building to use the computer, or, if they were very lucky, booked their time on the terminal in their department.
This departmental connection is where the story of IT Support Staff really begins. Because the terminals and printers in the departments were remote from OUCS there was no one on hand to give the departmental users a helping hand; what there were, though, were enthusiastic, knowledgeable local people who became the de facto experts in the arcane rituals required to change the paper in a line-printer, or the foibles of the Fortran66 implementation. These people were most often graduate students or young researchers; what they weren’t were computer professionals. As time rolled on, it was these local hackers (for that is what they were — in the original meaning of the word) who became the departmental representatives on the various user groups that sprung up as more and more departments and users made use of the central computing facilities.
And then came personal computers.
Personal computers brought with them a different set of problems: word-processing issues, floppy disks not working and so on; and, importantly, they brought with them a different set of people to support. The academics doing calculations were still there, but they were rapidly overwhelmed by the large mass of ‘users’ having problems not with VME or VMS, but with this thing called ‘Microsoft’. And the local experts? Well they rapidly became experts in word-processing, because they were, after all, the person who everyone went to with computer problems. And still these local experts were usually active academics; but now they were trying to balance a research career with fixing other people’s computer problems.
The problem was spreading as well. Not only were departments getting personal computers, but so were colleges. In the late 70s and early 80s the Bursars’ offices in most colleges were changing (slowly) from hand-written ledgers to machine-generated accounts. These machines were not the problem; the problem was the introduction of PCs into offices and senior members’ college rooms during the late 80s. What happened when something went wrong? Well, someone in the college knew just the person to ask in their department!
What of OUCS in all this? They were still supporting the mainframe(s) — by now it was a Vax cluster — and there was little user support for PCs. This is not meant to imply that OUCS were slow on the uptake — far from it — but their role was to support central computation facilities. But it meant that slowly the departments and colleges were employing staff specifically to look after computers. The departments had a head start over the colleges; after all, they had in-house ‘support’ already. What’s more, there was a structure in place within the University in the form of User Groups where the staff could ‘get together’. The colleges had some specific problems to contend with, though, mostly in the form of undergraduates: there was a need to create computer rooms for the undergrads, and there was a need to control some of their excesses, neither of which was an issue for departments. So departmental and college computer support drifted in different directions.
By the mid-90s there was an obvious need to provide some structure for the ever-expanding cohort of IT Support Staff (ITSS). They were clearly a diverse bunch of people who supported an even more diverse user community. But they did have one thing in common: they all worked in the University environment. This need manifested itself in the first IT Support Staff Conference in 1995 and from that the IT Support Staff Group was formed to provide a focus for ITSS issues.
OUCS was well aware of the role that the college and departmental staff played in supporting users. Already OUCS was providing Unix accounts for any undergraduate who wanted one, and it was inevitable that the ‘users’ of OUCS facilities would rapidly change from being a restricted number of departmental users to everyone in the University. There was no way that OUCS had the resources to support 20,000 people on its own. Wisely, they decided to embrace the ITSS and provide facilities for them to operate in a devolved support model. To that end the IT Support Staff Services (ITS3) group was formed within OUCS to co-ordinate the various support staff focused activities.
There was still a big divide between colleges and departments. During the late 90s the number of ITSS in Colleges expanded greatly: initially there may have been one person shared between two or three Colleges; by 2000 there were more likely to be two or three staff per college. There were two main reasons for this: undergraduates started turning up with their own PCs; and conferences were starting to expect there to be some form of IT infrastructure. The departmental ITSS, though, were still supporting the same mixture of office and research IT. There was actually at that point very little overlap between the support requirements in the college and department environments. Indeed, there was little overlap between the college and departmental ITSS, and the main interaction between the two groups was at the now annual conference.
There was a third group developing as well during the 90s: the admin staff in the University Offices, Libraries, and so on were using more and more computing facilities. They had very specific needs which didn’t overlap very much with either departments or colleges. Consequently a large ITSS community grew up in that environment as well.
So what changed? Primarily it was the ubiquitous high speed network. The difference between a college and a department in cyberspace is virtually non-existent. Users expect to be able to work in their college rooms in the same way as they work in their department office; conferences expect there to be IT facilities in the place where they spend the day as well as the place where they spend their evenings; departments have to support graduates who use their personal laptop in the department and colleges have to support researchers who need access to computational facilities; and in amongst all this, everything is done electronically when dealing with the University Offices.
In the late 00s, where we are now, it was decided as part of the strategic review to rationalise the various support staff groups, committees and ‘user’ groups into one body, the ICT Forum. This body would be the champion for ITSS throughout the University whether they be college, department, or admin based. Again though, what of OUCS in this? After a couple of false starts it has settled down into its current role of providing infrastructure, supporting the support staff and providing user-facing services. The interaction of OUCS with ITSS is largely symbiotic: neither can work without the other and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
There is a wealth of knowledge amongst the ITSS in the University and no part of the University can afford to work in isolation these days: there have been numerous examples where someone has said ‘if only they had asked, I could have told them…’ — the ICTF will provide the structure to facilitate both the asking and the telling.
Will it last? Well, this is IT we’re talking about: of course it won’t.
What is Oxford on iTtunes U?
Oxford on iTunes U is a new public portal to pull together the online talks and videos from a diverse range of teaching activities at Oxford. Launched on October 7th 2008, this unique collection of free-to-download audio and video podcasts from the University is available within Apple’s hugely popular free music service, iTunes; we have also developed a parallel web version with identical content for those who do not use iTunes (http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/).
iTunes U makes it easy for a global audience to access the best of Oxford; it lets the public leap over the walls of the University’s departments and colleges and dive into a variety of teaching and research activities in a wide range of disciplines. It contains literally hundreds of hours of interviews, talks, lectures, and promotional films. The project has enormous outreach potential and has been featured regularly in the national press and the local news. It has helped raise the profile of key areas including admissions and the fundraising Campaign whilst also providing a unique set of free world-class open content released by academics, researchers, and students.
What is available?
This growing collection of approximately 150 hours of material is as broad and diverse as you’d expect from Oxford. From world-class Nobel prize winner Joseph Stigilitz, an economist who predicts the credit crunch, to a complete lecture series on Philosophy, Medieval English and Politics, and a beginner’s guide to Quantum Nanotechnology … there’s a smorgasbord of food for thought for the intellectually curious.
Let’s take a tour …
Looking at student activities, we have the highlight of the Oxford Art year: the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art final year student show. Every year the students work towards a final exhibition, showcasing the very best of their work. We can now step right inside this process, through a series of podcast video interviews with students taking the viewer through the decisive steps that led to the creation of their final portfolio. Also from Ruskin comes a frank and stimulating discussion between the Ruskin Master, artist Richard Wentworth, and a group of final year students, who talk about the highs and lows of their three years at Oxford. It’s a unique insight into what it feels like to be a young artist, the day after a memorable final show.
Moving across the University to an English tutorial at Mansfield college, here we can see students grappling with the topic of gender in medieval English literature. Another click whisks us away to the Sheldonian, where we can join a packed theatre to listen to world-class researchers Richard Dawkins, John Sulston, and John Harris grappling with an equally challenging topic — ‘What is Science for?’ — in this hugely popular lecture from earlier this year.
What about Big Bangs at Oxford? The biggest science experiment ever conducted formally started in September 2008 at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and Oxford scientists were at the heart of it. In the Science area of Oxford on iTunes U, we can hear the excitement as Alan Barr — a physicist specializing in particle physics — describes testing the ATLAS particle detector, one of four core sensors looking for the world’s smallest particles. For Alan it has been a long road, constructing the apparatus in the basement of the Denys Wilkinson building with fellow engineers and physicists, and he reflects in the podcast on the data that may unravel the secrets of the how matter was formed in the early stages of the creation of the solar system.
How do I access the podcasts?
The Oxford on iTunes U service and the parallel web version are both linked from one key homepage — http://itunes.ox.ac.uk. Use either service to subscribe to the feeds that appeal, and enjoy the Oxford experience in the comfort of your own home.
How can I publish my own podcasts?
Once you’ve recorded your material and placed it on a departmental server, you can create an Oxford podcast feed using the central OUCS RSS service, OXITEMS. Contributors of audio and video material are being asked to complete a contributors’ form to confirm that they own the material, have not breached copyright, have not made defamatory remarks, and so on. The contributors’ form also releases (with the speakers’ approval) material for reuse by the university.
The OUCS podcasting service has been spearheading this initiative through a regular series of training workshops to support staff in departments, and a gap-filling recording exercise to make sure that all divisions are adequately represented.
What are the plans for the future?
We’re hoping to improve the web portal, with more functionality and a smoother look and feel. However, the real asset of Oxford on iTunes U is the wealth of top quality content, and we’ll be adding more student-generated content for the University Life area, and many more interviews with researchers. Furthermore, because the content is no use if you can’t find it, we’ll be strengthening the subject-based metadata and investigating more interactive ways of letting users discover interesting content, so that more and more people can explore Oxford’s wealth of teaching and research, whenever they want, wherever they are.
Information Technology has transformed the ways in which academics across all disciplines communicate and find information, and in many disciplines it has transformed the ways in which the research is carried out. Where the latest cutting edge high performance computing, high speed networks, and new forms of online multidisciplinary collaboration are involved, the new digital paradigm is often referred to as ‘e-Science’, or, increasingly, ‘e-Research’. By extension, the term ‘e-Humanities’ is being applied to those areas of research in the Humanities where the emerging, advanced, digital technologies and methods are making new types of research possible.
Large-scale digitisation projects are producing enormous amounts of data in areas of interest to scholars across the various disciplines in the Humanities, and the availability of this data can potentially unleash a huge potential for new research questions to be addressed. Various departments in Oxford are already deeply involved in many of the key digitisation projects, such as Early English Books Online (EEBO), the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, the John Johnson Collection, Google Books, and the Great War Archive, to name but a few. Many tools and datasets exist, but in a fragmented and unconnected landscape where many different technical standards apply and where the user has to negotiate many different barriers to licensing and acquiring them, and then many more problems in connecting tools and data. The next step is to harness these tools and resources within an infrastructure that can allow researchers to apply much more easily the tools that they want to use for searching, collating, analysing and annotating data, and for online collaboration. While numerous projects at Oxford are managing to pursue digital projects at the cutting edge of the Humanities, a co-ordinated infrastructure could release much more of the potential, as well as laying the framework for more multidisciplinary collaborations.
The Building a Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities project has laid some important groundwork towards building this infrastructure. The work of the Oxford Text Archive in the AHDS, CLARIN and DARIAH provides some of the key links with the latest national and international developments in building a research infrastructure for the Humanities. In a recent initiative within the University, the Humanities Division, OeRC, OUCS and others have been working together to contribute to Project Bamboo (http://projectbamboo.org/), a major new initiative to advance arts and humanities research through the development of shared technology services. Project Bamboo originates in North America, but aims to have a global reach, and Oxford is joining with other leading UK research universities to investigate the possibilities of developing our e-Humanities activities through this framework.
OUCS has a long history of involvement at the cutting edge of many areas of humanities computing, through initiatives, projects and services such as the Oxford Text Archive, Humbul Humanities Hub (now Intute: Arts and Humanities), the Text Encoding Initiative, the British National Corpus, which are all ongoing, and past ventures such as the CTI Centre for Textual Studies, Arts and Humanities Data Service, and the Humanities Computing Unit. In collaboration with other departments, OUCS looks forward to a key role in facilitating and contributing to e-Humanities in Oxford.