The aim of this research strategy is to set out the priorities for OUCS in terms of research and development, but also to stimulate debate. The need for a research strategy has been recognised within OUCS, both to concentrate bidding in specific research areas and to streamline research work within an agreed priority list across the whole of OUCS. A strategy is proposed building on OUCS’s five year plan, the University’s ICT Strategic Plan 2005-06 to 2009-10 and the policies of appropriate funding organisations. The proposed strategy is based on six key considerations:
This paper will examine how these contextual factors inform the development of the research strategy. Research at OUCS is mainly in computing related areas, although advice and practical help on using Information Technology in research is covered across the University. The research undertaken by OUCS is largely centred on computer science but reflects the strengths and priorities of OUCS and of the University as a whole in this field.
Research in the context of OUCS is concerned with investigative work linked to the provision and development of new and existing services, user requirements, and evaluation. Research also investigates new technologies, new hardware and software developments, as well as piloting/ evaluating new ways of offering service elements that could benefit the University and enhance the OUCS provision. Research is needed not only to provide information on requirements, take-up of new services, and their evaluation, but also to keep OUCS staff up-to-date with new technologies and developments, to remain competitive, and to provide a cost effective and efficient service. The strategy analyses these key considerations, outlines key themes and activities and gives recommendations on future research. Research priorities should be set for a period of 3 years with annual reviews in line with the five-year plan (Recommendation 1).
2. OUCS Mission statement
The OUCS mission statement is to:
'Foster and support excellence, innovation, best practice, and value for money in the use of IT in teaching, learning and research across the University'.
This has continually informed the department's direction, which shows growing use of core services by the collegiate University and new developments such as wireless provision, podcasting and Groupware. OUCS delivers relevant high quality IT services to University staff, students and the wider academic community, and needs to further develop this to support the University of Oxford’s mission statement:
'to achieve and sustain excellence in every area of its teaching and research, maintaining and developing its historical position as a world-class university, and enriching the international, national, and regional communities through the fruits of its research and the skills of its graduates'.
3. OUCS Five Year plan areas
The OUCS five-year plan (2010-2015) has supported the core research activities from the earlier Research Strategy, namely:
There are also several key activities under these themes which OUCS will pursue namely: e-learning, management of data, access and identity, infrastructure, and security. In Appendix A several objectives are listed for the next five years and the following are with reference to research:
The plan identifies the following areas as priorities for the department and these are reflected in the research strategy. These are:
The above are specific projects that will be taken forward. However, if funding is available, there are other project areas for further work such as: open notebook developments; semantic web developments; and access auditing (global analysis of audit trails to determine traffic, social networking, future provision).
This research is also dependent on a series of core OUCS services, such as:
4. Research areas in IT within the University
Departments within the University undertake research relevant to OUCS. Research in these departments should not be duplicated by OUCS, but collaboration and joint working are possible. OUCS has strong research links with several departments such as OeRC, Libraries, and Education. Firstly OeRC has research topics such as e-Health, climate, virtual reality, embedding e-Science and the digital economy. OUCS are already collaborating with OeRC on projects such as the Low Carbon ICT project, e-IUS and the Digital Repositories project (also run by the Library Service). Secondly, the Libraries Service (OULS) has close connections with OUCS and runs digital preservation projects, the Oxford-Google Digitization Programme, the Oxford Research Archive (ORA) and the BRII project, among others. Thirdly, there are links with the Department of Education with teaching on the Masters in e-Learning and with specific Education projects.
The Office of the Director of IT (ODIT) runs projects that seek to make optimal use of IT and collaborates with other departments, e.g. OeRC on the Digital Repositories project. The Oxford Internet Institute has a specific research brief on the societal implications of the Internet. Some of these areas are out of scope for OUCS but research areas covering areas of mutual interest include digitised resources, Government/Governance, Information Exchange and social science computing, with projects such as Cybertrust, the Learner and their context, the Open Net initiative and the World Internet Project. There are several groups, including the centralised services, looking at research related to administration activities. Examples of these are: using Web 2.0 technologies in graduate recruitment, student portals, assessment and gateways, the alumni office. OUCS is already collaborating on a number of different projects with UAS. There are links to the English Faculty and to Linguistics, with TALL (Technology assisted Lifelong Learning Unit) in the Department for Continuing Education, with the Oxford Learning Institute, and with the Computing Laboratory which runs the undergraduate and postgraduate academic computing courses.
Research on e-learning within the University should primarily be carried out within the University’s traditional tutorial framework for undergraduate study, but should also take into consideration other models of learning at both undergraduate and taught postgraduate levels. This includes the tutorial system which is already being investigated within Weblearn in order to facilitate both academic and student use for scheduling, distribution of learning support material, and online learning activities. OUCS research in this area will follow the recommendations of the education committee and will be followed up by a series of OUCS e-learning activities within the Learning Technologies Group at OUCS. OUCS must also take the lead on projects that meet its overall mission statement and seek to develop its service provision, by researching into the underlying technology or new technologies. Where the project is more applied to a specific academic discipline then OUCS should work in collaboration with the faculty, department, or the OeRC and the project should be based outside of OUCS.
5. Research funding opportunities and applications
OUCS has been successful in applying for research funding from a range of funders. These have included JISC, AHRC, EPSRC, Leverhulme, ESRC and the EU; but notably our major successes over recent years have been through the JISC or AHRC. It is important, therefore, to continually seek to widen the portfolio of funders, especially with applications to research councils and charitable foundations. This would increase the percentage of awards from sources other than JISC and hence improve sustainability and decrease dependency. A shared research strategy would enable targeting of specific research areas and for the increasing number of applications to be angled towards a future portfolio based on the key research themes. However, as always, the available research funding will need to be assessed against the key priorities of OUCS.
Funding and sponsorship from businesses/corporate sources is being investigated (Recommendation 11). Some sponsorship is already being undertaken by companies in supporting OUCS courses and conferences, and with some equipment manufacturers (e.g. Apple and CISCO). Knowledge Transfer Partnerships with IT companies are being actively encouraged and subjects under discussion include security issues, software development, risk assessment, and the educational benefits of gaming software.
There is an issue of how OUCS deploys research and development projects. This has now been tackled by the material generated by the Project Support Team (https://wiki.oucs.ox.ac.uk/pst) which sets out a clear project lifecycle, and presents key documents that should be completed at certain milestones. All projects should adhere to this process, but also recognise the needs of the external funders (if appropriate). The OUCS project lifecycle is crucial to the research process within OUCS.
6. Staff profile
Current research and development strengths within OUCS are in Arts and Humanities computing, e-learning, podcasting, digital repositories, encryption, and text encoding – to name but a few. The OUCS Research facilitator will be keeping a list of all ongoing projects (and recently completed ones) (Recommendation 3). The key strengths in IT service provision within OUCS are infrastructure, virtualisation, security, networks, requirements engineering, user services, evaluation, services support, back-up provision, web design and internet usage. It is essential that the staff and the skill mix within OUCS are adequate to sustain the goals of the research strategy over the next three years (Recommendation 2). Relevant staff should receive training in research methods and processes and listing of these staff members’ research interests would streamline communication to them of specific funding calls for funding. Linking the research and development strengths with these service provision strengths gives a wide range of present and potential research areas. These represent practical research and development projects rather than pure academic research (as stated in the introduction), and include piloting of potential new services and work on the research life cycle. Against this though we must recognise two things:
In order to expand the research capacity and capability, resources and specific skills are needed. However given the current financial climate this may not be easy to achieve, and realistic responses to this situation will need to be developed. OUCS needs to examine staff development to identify and develop appropriate competencies and to maximise employee engagement, as these specialist needs are hard to fill. OUCS has good policies, excellent service conditions, job security and a supportive community, but these need promoting to potential staff. This might involve secondment to projects on a short-term basis.
Given the current financial situation and these recruitment problems, it might be useful to maintain a register of IT proficient consultants who could provide short-term assistance or specific skills, e.g. in programming or analysis (Recommendations 7 and 8). Using consultants has benefits in short term commitments, immediate project starts, no long term expenditure, and flexibility in who is recruited. However, the disadvantages are that there is little skill development within OUCS, the knowledge gained remains external to the department, consultants can be expensive and there is no comeback if there are problems. The consultant database should include external, corporate consultants, ITSS members willing to be seconded (short term), and others, e.g. postgraduate students with industry experience and KTP associates. ITSS could take a lead on this and offer this as a service for OUCS and the ITSS community, e.g. for annual leave cover, leave of absence, specific projects etc.
Many of the projects run at OUCS are staffed by dedicated contract research officers. These research officers are career researchers and frequently work on more than one project, or a succession of projects, but are often on fixed term contracts. As OUCS recognises the value of these experienced researchers and takes the responsibility for their appropriate training needs seriously, identifying opportunities to advance their experience and career need to be made, which would also increase their value to the department. OUCS is keen to develop career structures for contract researchers and to facilitate their movement to another University post at the end of their contracts. Linking these contract researchers to the consultants regis ter may allow a wider range of potential opportunities.
The research facilitator’s role is to inform and liaise with groups within the University. Part of this role is in encouraging a research community within the department and externally to the rest of the University. Links have already been established and need to be stre ngthened with other departments, for example: OeRC, OII, OLI, Education, and the Computing Lab. Sharing information on seminars, projects, joint funding initiatives and research bids continue to be supported across the University. These links may benefit from more formal relationships by shared seminar series, information on new events and representation on research committees or research meetings.
7. Focal themes for the research strategy
Based on this background analysis, three key themes for OUCS’s future research commitments are proposed. The following paragraphs give a brief definition of each theme and set out the type of research covered, and future developments. These three key themes are considered to be the most important and to range across OUCS reflecting the interests of many groups, sections, and services; and also key strategic priorities for the University. Under these three themes are a further five key activities, which although important, are usually undertaken by specific groups within OUCS. In other words a theme is a specific area of research in IT which reaches across the department; an activity is a smaller research area and can be performed by a single section or group.
The key themes identified are:
7.1. Theme 1 – Ubiquitous computing
The ubiquitous computing theme covers the widespread everyday use of IT across the collegiate University and the increasing importance of the delivery of the core services offered by OUCS in a way that meets user demands. This theme includes both technical and pure research components. The technical areas are: wireless networks, access services, service oriented software architectures, groupware networks, mobile devices, infrastructure, trust and security. The research areas within the ubiquitous theme include underlying architectures, and newer areas such as ‘always on computing and mobiles’, location and context aware/content sensing services, invisible/wearable computers, open platform technologies, and elastic cloud computing resources. The ubiquitous theme is probably the most important one for OUCS, since it concerns deliverables across the whole University. One area of specific interest is to investigate methods of accessing services in new ways. The development of mobile computing and mobile technologies are covered as is the delivery of services to mobile devices. Further development using mobile devices to support teaching and learning activities are being explored such as links into Sakai and specific tools e.g. a tool to facilitate tutorial bookings. Areas that could be developed are: continuous connectivity to the internet while on the move, data security, spontaneous networking, improvements in energy efficiency, interoperability and collaboration between business networks, verification and validation, authorisation/ access controls, and personalisation. Having a comprehensive wireless network, widespread use of mobile communication and a resilient network should allow interactivity and the prediction of future flows and usage as well as allowing OUCS to develop best practice in these areas. Developing mobile devices for teaching and learning with specific tools and facilities, with additional features such as tutorial bookings, student lists, and library information. Exploiting the benefits of Nexus and Sharepoint needs to be fully developed in a research environment and with linking research groups and cross university and multidisciplinary areas, where again communication is essential. The benefits of sharing and versioning research bids for example saves substantial amounts of time.
7.2. Theme 2 – New Technologies and Applications
The new technologies theme refers to emerging user applications, where future development would help both predict and design new services, as well as supporting the present provision or improvements in the existing services. This theme requires a user-centered bottom-up approach, covering the academic, administrative and student communities within the University. The theme involves some future scanning, suitability testing and could benefit from a pilot project approach. This theme has great potential in the creation and testing of new facilities. Such facilities could be tested by small, less complex pilot projects in advance of becoming services. The theme reflects the life cycle or process approach of research, is practical and links the need for iteration, software development and user testing with the user requirements areas of Theme 3. One of the most important elements within this theme is the development of the Semantic web (with the University’s new Institute for Web Science) and OUCS’s own linked data projects, as well as additional Web 2.0 facilities which are very relevant for an increasingly IT-literate student body. The knowledge economy has great need for the use of digital technologies and tools for research. Linking specific tools with both VLEs and VREs should enable further usage of all these systems. Developing Sakai with Exchange and Sharepoint as well as developing new facilities within Sharepoint for project monitoring, project support and support for research groups should further this theme. Using the new technologies to enable more social networking, and social linking, facilitating research and aiding communication is important, and using the new technologies to keep in touch but also to share information rapidly through tweets, blogs, podcasts and images. Developing 3D collaborative worlds is another area for research and for communication.
7.3. Theme 3 – User Requirements
The user requirements theme enhances and develops the work in human based interaction such as user based requirements, evaluation, and feedback. This is essentially a people-focused theme. User access and identity issues are covered, as well as access management generally. Access management provision and research has some overlap across the key themes as it is also a component of ubiquitous computing. Access management and security are of such importance to OUCS that they are also key activities. Advice on user requirements and the collection of user based information is provided by the OUCS research technologies service and the client relation team. Service evaluation already feeds into computing service provision, but the statistics it provides could be used in research projects as well as for determining future provision (Recommendations 1 and 6). Collecting and collating user requirements, preferences and feedback should inform future research and service provision. Another area of user requirements is in facilitating research linking to mobile communications but also for visualising research outputs, modelling and simulation, data mining and specific tools. Allowing users to try these out and inform them of new developments would help them to assess their requirements and what would be most useful and productive in their research.
The three themes detailed above are intended to be cross-OUCS research themes. In addition to these themes then, there are five key activities, which are more narrowly defined areas for research, and these will probably be led by specific groups or sections within OUCS, but may involve some cross-group activity.
8. Key Activity
8.1. Key Activity 1 – e-Learning
The e-Learning research activity includes WebLearn (Sakai) developments, podcasting, the development of education research services, e-learning pedagogy, the educational development of Web 2.0, Open Educational Resources and the developing areas of participatory media culture, immersive worlds, and educational games technologies. The e-Learning activity also includes the learner experience, evaluation, and educational applications. Gaming, visualisation and computer modelling are component elements of the educational games area. The e-Learning theme encapsulates opportunities for cross-group projects within OUCS in the areas of mobile technologies for e-Learning, user requirements for VLEs, new teaching technologies and openness of educational content. The areas that should be developed include the facilities within Sakai, data management, security and confidentiality, data storage and tutor facilities. New developments with Sakai are in progress, including links to Exchange and Sharepoint, enabling groups of users to share work areas. The development of WebLearn allows more evaluation, user requirements realisation and user experiences or case studies to be developed. It is important in this area to strengthen links with other groups, internally and externally such as the Department of Education, OII and external e-Learning projects (Recommendation 9). Further development of Sakai, together with the integration of Sakai with Exchange and Sharepoint may lead to future potential research areas. Supporting learning through e-assessment is also being developed.
8.2. Key Activity 2 – Management of research data
The digital repositories research activity covers the design, creation, use and evaluation of digital repositories. Links with the ORA and long-term storage provision of research data are important, and the provision of a research data and archiving/storage facility is under discussion. This activity also includes the provision of research services such as Intute. The text encoding work is covered in this activity area with the TEI, BNC and European funded Research Projects – Enrich, DARIAH and CLARIN. The experience gained by OUCS in these large European projects is of potential benefit for future data provision and management services. This experience has enabled OUCS to maintain a central role in emerging international infrastructure in data management. The potential development areas include: standardisation, research data storage and archiving, high quality service provision and evaluation, sustainability, cost effective arrangements for infrastructural projects and services. Open notebooks developments with a lab notebook using software like MyExperiment or using Sharepoint to find common interests, post data and research updates, link to blogs, send messages and create groups. Open source developments such as Science Commons are useful together with designing tools for web enabled research and for open interoperability. A research activity in OUCS and OeRC is in techniques for dealing with large data sets, as well as curating and managing digital collections. The development of community collections and of the communities themselves is a relatively new area of research, linked to data collections. Semantic web developments and an emphasis on data linking are also an active part of OUCS’s research programme.
8.3. Key Activity 3 – Access and Identity Management
The Access management activity covers several other sections within OUCS and links closely with the Infrastructure and Security key activities. The development of single sign-on usage, and the encouragement in the use of strong passwords, have created secure seamless access and reduced the administrative burden for information managers and Librarians. However single sign-on also presents added risks and increases the need for security guidance to users (in areas such as password management) and development under the Infrastructure and Security activities. OUCS uses the standards-based Shibboleth software, which gives a common framework for access management that is being adopted by education and commercial sectors worldwide. Access for research groups and sharing of data, results, reports, research bids, as well as version control will be possible with Sharepoint. Using audit trails to see who needs this for their research and the traffic would allow global analyses of all audit trails as well as the take-up of social networking and help determine future provision needs.
8.4. Key Activity 4 – Infrastructure
The Infrastructure activity refers to the underlying architecture that underpins core services. This research activity involves providing information from research on the benefits of deploying specific infrastructures, on the use of virtualisation, and in centralising and outsourcing component parts of the specific department’s or projects computing needs. Various approaches to infrastructure are considered, and each project or service is assessed for the most efficient and cost effective assessment on virtualisation. Virtualisation is an important and growing trend, and many UK businesses now incorporate virtual solutions within their IT infrastructures. Virtualisation technology is deployed to reduce the complexity of developing, deploying and managing large-scale applications. Investment in infrastructure will entail some research into new developments and technologies and enable some cost savings. The Low Carbon ICT project is now being taken up across the university with concrete examples of energy cost saving, as well as the future development of green procurement and disposal projects. Developing better tools, social networking, video conferencing, digital technologies, curation tools should also cut down the amount of travel and face-to-face meetings required and allow a more constant and detailed linking across research groups, within the UK and abroad.
8.5. Key Activity 5 – Security
The key activity of security is increasingly important. Increases in the level of phishing, denial of service attacks, internet fraud, and identity theft together with growing legitimate use of the system are causing significant pressures on the amount of security needed. An area of concern within the activity is highly sensitive information areas such as examination, assessment and results, and personal data. Although security is presently largely a service based activity, rather than a research one, there is a need to research both alternative methods and newer technologies such as key fobs, biometrics etc. In OUCS the ITS3 team follows up problems from the widespread IT teams and OxCert provides a service across the University on security matters.
Developing tools to assist security may also be useable on mobile or handheld devices. Investigating ways of avoiding or mitigating these service issues would also be productive areas of research. This is a theme where both inter-department co-operation and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are good starting points. With increased movement of research data and results high levels of security are needed, which allow easy access across the research group but with controlled access and auditing for external users. Tools to enable collaboration, facilitating working and with additional features such as workflows are needed as well as time management and time sheet management for projects, already a necessary requirement for EU research projects.
9. Supporting research across the University
The Research Technologies Services (RTS) within OUCS provides dedicated support for the wider research community. Within OUCS the Project Support Team acts as a point of contact, alongside the Research Facilitator, to support internal research and development projects.
For the wider research community (i.e. outside of OUCS) an initial consultation and a basic subset of services are provided free, detailed or specific research services are charged for. Examples of the type of service available are: assistance with the technical sections of research bids, assessing hardware and software needs, and setting up and/or running research analyses. Research support could go further though, to include hardware provision, repository provision, e.g. archiving research data (areas not within the ORA’s present remit), as well as IT specific research training, research project facilities and project management support.
This is already being provided by existing OUCS services often on a cost recovery basis. Research support requirements vary considerably between departments, with a wide range of different needs, as some departments have full research teams while others need more specific help. OSS Watch is the national Open Source Advisory service and offers advice on Open Source development.
OUCS is developing a resource of the publications produced by the department such as reports, journal and conference papers, presentations and workshops, in order to provide a showcase of the type and nature of the research work being carried out within the department. Another concern which is being actively discussed is in the career development of the researcher, in facilitating his or her future development, nurturing the skills developed in project management, research skills, people management and in running the project, and maintaining a portfolio of projects on time and within budget.
Potential developments in supporting research include: a full research service from bid to project closure and archiving, moving from project to service, content management systems, research software, registers of research projects, website support and archiving, case studies, and research involving quality assessment, user feedback, and evaluation (Recommendation 6). Using the facilities of Nexus and Sharepoint would allow greater linking across research groups and the sharing of data, tools and research outputs.
Communicating with researchers using mobile communications, newer tools such as Twitter, Flickr, social networking and project management and workflow tools would all reduce the administrative burden and communication problems from disparate groups. Developing links across the research community is also important, with the facilitator’s network and research services working together and with the necessary tools. Further sharing of research information such as shared lists of seminars, workshops and events; access to completed research bids for different research councils; providing information on new funding opportunities; offering research tools and courses on using them and the development of the research toolkit and courses are all ways OUCS can assist in actively developing more contact mechanisms. Some of these areas are already being planned and research funding applied for, further work is needed on these, as well as comments and suggestions from the researchers within the University.
Links across the providers of research services (Research Services, Libraries, OeRC) and their respective roles need to be detailed (Recommendations 9 and 12).
The research strategy is based on the five key considerations detailed in the introduction, which provide a context for further development. The document subsequently details the relevance of each of these considerations in detail and from this; it is argued that there should be three key themes: ubiquitous computing, new technologies and user requirements. There are also five associated key activities (Recommendation 4). There is a need to set priorities for research and this has been done by limiting the themes and key activities. In prioritising them (themes and activities), the external funding potential and staff expertise have been taken into consideration. The key themes and activities should be targeted for research across the whole of OUCS.
The research focus should be on areas that have mutual and significant benefit for OUCS, be user centred and mirror the key areas of OUCS’s work. Another important consideration is the development from project to service, and the decision process for doing this, with workflows and processes (Recommendations 5 and 10). The key themes span across OUCS, however it is envisaged that groups within OUCS will take the lead on the key activities.
The recommendations are as follows: