The 2005 JISC Conference took place on 12 April at the Birmingham International Convention Centre (ICC) which this year - inexplicably - had a giant Ferris wheel thirty yards from the main entrance, entirely unconnected with the main event. The annual conference  is a chance for JISC to showcase the breadth of its activities  in providing support for the use of ICT in education and research, and as usual it was a bustle of networking and learning. However the ICC is an extremely large complex of suites and lecture rooms, and it took a number of trips to the information desk to find out where everything was happening. This report is a series of snapshots of sessions, which Ariadne managed to catch.
Professor Sir Ron Cooke chaired the plenary session and opened the day by proclaiming that this was the largest JISC conference to date, with over 750 delegates. His presentation centred on what JISC considers the two main themes of its current work: integration and impact. Integration with our information environment he defined as consisting of internal, national and international integration. The key areas for internal integration of JISC Services are accessibility, security, discoverability and interoperability. External integration consists of JISC's work with its community of partners, such as the academy, a new elearning programme.
JISC is also keen to improve its own impact. In the past JISC's success has been in inverse proportion to its visibility, because of Janet and Athens. Current Janet usage continues to double every 8-12 months and the Superjanet 4's rate of growth is dramatic. It is likely that Superjanet 5 will be completed by the end of 2005 and there are now nearly three million registered Athens users. JISC remains invisible to many but the use of JISC resources is rising. Press coverage has increased, for example through media coverage of popular services like the plagiarism service. JISC realises that it needs to reach out to its practitioners: Regional Support Centres have a key role to play in this.
Professor Cook introduced the keynote speaker, Roger McClure, joint Chief Executive of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council (SFEFC). His keynote looked at the main challenges to FE and HE over next decade in the light of the distinctive Scottish experience.
The new Scottish Executive faces a number of challenges, including how to increase the Scottish national GDP, improving international competitiveness and bringing about 'full participation'. He also remarked that Scotland had not succeeded particularly well in raising participation across a wide range of social groups. One area which needed closer examination was the development of more responsive lifelong learning, but the curriculum to support it was not as yet in place.
He highlighted the importance of collaboration but observed that it can be difficult and time-consuming, and one often has to 'go it alone'. He argued that it is better to commit to a variety of alliances - a shared sovereignty. Collaborative working and joint ventures, especially in ICT are of key importance. ICT can offer research support, blended learning and distance learning/online groups.
Dr Alan Robiette talked about Next Generation Access and the problems of controlling access to resources (over 200 licensed collections) by the use of nearly 3 million usernames at 500 Higher and Further Education institutions. He enlarged on new developments at Athens and explained that they now face novel challenges with cross-institutional working and growth in e-research.
Alan then looked at developments and initiatives in other countries, including the emergence of new standards. He concluded that the next generation of access management must support internal applications as well as use between organisations, access to third-party resources and inter-institutional use. It should be stable and long-term but also ad hoc and dynamic.
The Shibboleth system  is a new powerful, scalable, and easy-to-use solution developed by Internet2 that can be used when you want to share secured online services or access restricted digital content. Its strengths are that it is a robust technology with international acceptance (US, Australia and some European countries). Its weaknesses are that it lacks user-friendly management tools and has relatively unsophisticated authorisation. What needs to be done next is to implement Shibboleth on JISC services, gain experience on campuses and build the national components. There is now an early adopters programme at Eduserv intended to provide wide-ranging Shibboleth support .
Fred Friend, Director of Scholarly Communication, University College London, chaired a panel session on Opening up Access which explored issues of access to scientific and medical literature. The three panellists each presented different perspectives on open access: from a funding agency, from the author community and from a publisher.
Robert Terry, Senior Policy Adviser from the Wellcome Trust, gave the funders' point of view and explained that subscription charges have seen a 200% increase in last 10 years and publishers still make substantial profits - on average a 35% profit margin. At the moment 90% of medical research is online, 30% is available to the public. UK PubMed Central would like to be a worldwide pool, but the current situation doesn't allow them to be. Robert explained that there are many advantages to depositing a copy of a research paper in an Open Archive repository, for example you can have added features such as funders' attributions and live links with other databases. He concluded that at the end of the day dissemination costs are research costs.
Professor Peter Murray-Rust, Department of Chemistry, Cambridge University provided the author's perspective. He argued that open access is not enough and that he would like to see work available for reuse under a Creative Commons licence. He argued the need for a culture change on the part of funders, authors, editors, publishers as well as the need for more open data (within which he included machine-readable data). His recommendations were that funders must promote publication and the use of Creative Commons, editors should promote publication at source and publishers should provide data licenses and encourage institutional repositories.
Martin Richardson, Managing Director, Journals Division, Oxford University Press, explained that Oxford is doing some important things to support Open Archives which included even moving towards Open Archives for some journals. However OUP felt that further usage analysis and more research on citations and impact factor was needed to determine whether OA is more cost-effective than other models.
In a session on Tailoring Access and Enabling Discovery through Portals, Ian Dolphin, Head of e-Strategy, Hull University explored how portals and portlet functionality could help to make resource discovery a more seamless experience for the end-user. Increasingly, functions can be assembled to deliver a more personal and targeted experience in a user-determined context. This presentation gave an outline of JISC's portal activity and explored the implications for institutions in adopting portlet functionality to help them integrate resources. It focused on the experience at Hull University in developing an institutional portal based on the uPortal  framework. The portal at Hull aims to bring together locally held resources within the institution and external resources. The University is also leading the JISC CREE (Contextual Resource Evaluation Environment) Project , which is undertaking research into user requirements of portals that will help inform JISC policy in this area.
Ian outlined the agenda for CREE and placed the portal in a national and institutional context. He reviewed the more common and inaccurate misperceptions of portals dating from 2000 where, for example, portals were frequently seen as a universal panacea for all institutional ills. This operated, as he put it, on the 'Field of Dreams' scenario which enshrined the premise that it was enough just to build the portal to guarantee that the users would come to use it.
Ian described a graph, known as the Gartner Hype Cycle (see figure 1) which pointed to the peaks and troughs associated with portals created and which worked through the various phases of technology trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment and finally the realistic plateau of productivity.
The audience was presented with Hull's working definition of a portal, namely a layer which aggregates, integrates, personalises, and presents information, transactions and applications seamlessly to users, according to their role and preferences after single sign-on. He felt that the view that a portal is more often thought of as a 'single starting point' for a user was a useful one and which merited further examination.
There was also an overview of the emerging portal landscape. He touched upon Web Services and the benefits and drawbacks of native WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portlets) and looked at integration with the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) mentioning commercial environments. Concluding on the state of institutional portals, Ian said that there were around 16 to 20 in the UK based on uPortal. He also considered their impact on institutional processes, resources and architecture. Portals were proving flexible in tailoring online delivery and ELF Web services could be consumed by portals or desktop applications. But of course there were still a number of challenges confronting developers. In respect of Web services, security remained a pressing issue while performance and flexibility would be determinants in achieving portal framework maturity, just as conformance in respect of standards and specifications was both uneven and still largely untested.
Peter Ford, Professor of IT and Computing Practice, University of Nottingham and Dr Jos Boys, freelance e-learning consultant, ran a session on Can Post-16 Education Learn from e-Business? Some years ago the Learning Lessons from eBusiness Project  was headed by Peter, and he was editor of a related book entitled Managing Change in Higher Education , the stimulus to some key work undertaken by JISC concerning its Information Strategy in the late 1990s. Peter notified the audience that a new book was likely to be published in autumn 2005 which would be aimed at senior managers in FE and HE.
A very broad description of the project and the thinking behind this new book was presented. Its main stimulus is the assumption that technology is changing rapidly and that it is likely to influence the way institutions operate. He explained that the present project has sought to update the original book and ensure that it is made relevant to both FE and HE. He saw the purpose of the session as being to get feedback from the audience, especially in terms of existing practice.
The team began by examining whether 'e-business' practices were appropriate for education. They settled on the term 'e-business', believing that it was much more of an integrative concept than either e-learning or e-commerce. Peter explained that all institutions were facing enormous pressure from global, corporate and private universities. Peter explained that the team had been exploring options for moving forward, redefining the institution and embedding technologies.
Peter painted a scenario 20 years hence. He suggested that, in HE, the first years of learning would be standardised and taught mainly through e-learning. Secondly, courses may become more fragmented, with many students periodically working through chunks of material. Thirdly, institutions would offer more vocational courses: it was predicted that the three-year, full-time undergraduate degree would decrease in popularity. Finally, and an issue that was a common refrain, in 20 years corporate competitors would force universities to merge, globalise or die: the survivors would focus on high-end or on mass-produced courses.
He argued that the education market was already moving towards this scenario. First of all there is increasing pressure to be more cost-effective. Secondly, costs are being passed onto students - with the associated changes in 'customer' expectations. In addition, radical new opportunities were being offered by ICT through mobile technology, portals and high-speed communications. The UK is moving closer to an American model.
Three things needed to be in place in order to apply e-business successfully, Peter suggested. These were:
- Customer focus: Peter cited Amazon as a good example. Anyone visiting the site will see a range of editorial and customer reviews, books that may be of interest to the reader, extracts of relevant books - essentially data based on customer search behaviour. Amazon is an adaptive model, focused on the customer and not a static one. Peter explained that many college and university Web sites needed to offer a similar adaptive model when an individual learner logs on to an institutional Web site.
- Organisational integration needs to be implemented - CISCO was cited as an example of good practice.
- Institutions should have common systems - IBM was cited as an example of an organisation that stripped down its business to its basic components after an economic downturn: it is now a company reaping the benefits of this re-engineering.
Dr Rob Allan, e-Science Centre, Daresbury Laboratory, chair of the UK National Grid Service (NGS) task force gave a presentation on UK e-Research Services and Portals. He outlined the NGS , the core of which consists of two computer clusters at Leeds and Oxford, and two data clusters at Manchester and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL). It is available for use by anyone in academia. Biologists and social scientists working with large datasets are potential users. There's also a supercomputing facility, linking high-performance computers, available only to those with a research council grant. All the facilities available on the NGS are linked by middleware. A major issue remains as to which particular middleware to use. Should it be the Globus Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA), WS-Resource Framework (WSRF)  or EGEE/LCG (Enabling Grids for E-sciencE/ LHC Computing Grid)?
One of the main areas to be looked at is teaching users how to use the NGS. The National e-Science Centre  and the National Centre for e-Social Science  are beginning to run courses. Users want to know how to link their own personal devices, such as a PC, into the Grid across institutional boundaries. Middleware needs to make it easy, for example, to breach firewalls without breaking the law while still maintaining data security and confidentiality. Collaboratories need to facilitate people-to-people collaboration across institutions, subjects and from research to teaching. They also need access to information in digital libraries or repositories.
Rob explained that a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) must be
- easy to install
- have a familiar interface
- be easy to personalise
- work through firewalls
- be available all the time
- be pervasive (i.e. be securely accessible from anywhere)
It bridges the gap between e-science and wider users and must have AAA (authentication, access and accountability), allow shared development of content (editing tools etc.), and have access to grid services, data access, and allow connection to the Access Grid.
Towards the end of the day, Chris Rusbridge, the new Director of the Digital Curation Centre (DCC), provided an overview of developments, challenges and the future opportunities of a sustainable infrastructure for e-research in the UK in his presentation on A Sustainable Infrastructure for e-Research. This follows the recent publication of the report Science and Innovation Investment Framework, 2004-2014 , published by the DTI and DfES. The presentation focused on the physical and intellectual requirements to achieve such an infrastructure, notably hardware, such as SuperJanet, and software to manage security and access such as Athens, Shibboleth and grid middleware. The resources to be used in such an infrastructure include data centres such as MIMAS, EDINA, archives and repositories and e-science centres. Other resources for collaboration include video conferencing, the Access Grid , JISCmail and VRE.
The advice, management and support services that Chris touched upon were UKERNA for the network and security, the Digital Curation Centre for data curation and preservation, the National Centre for Text Mining  for extracting information from text, and the NGS for access to the Grid. He also mentioned information resources including e-journals; e-books; datasets; collections of images, videos or geospatial data for research teaching or learning. Other examples of recent innovative use of data include Digimap Historic Map Service  which charts the changing landscape, and Internet Archaeology, an e-journal  which makes good use of the Web to link data to written papers. The information environment and the grid can link to local services via portals and to discovery services via, for example, Google Scholar.
Chris explained that most scientific data is now kept in databases and centralised locations. Curation of these databases is essential. However in a study by Philip Lord and Alison Macdonald fewer than 56% of respondents said they had money set aside to maintain data after a project had finished, even if they recognised that the data would be of use in future.
Chris pointed out that data is a fundamental resource for e-infrastructure, but asked who should pay for its preservation? Possible models he suggested include subscription; pay for use; someone who gets indirect benefit pays e.g. through advertising, endowment; knock-for-knock (we pay for ours and you pay for yours, but we use each others' for free); and top slicing (everyone pays according to their budget).
In the question and answer session after the presentation Alan Robiette said that the MRC (Medical Research Council) wants to encourage greater use of research data, but cultural issues and difficulties in using data stand in the way. Tony Hey said that from October, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) will make grants conditional on there being a data management system and pointed out that the International Virtual Observatory  for astronomy is already doing it.
Since people were attending from locations all over the UK, and many had trains to catch, the conference attendees dispersed rapidly, without being tempted by the thrills of the big wheel at the front of the building. The organisers of the conference had announced a free memory stick for each evaluation form handed in to the information point, so there were plenty of those piling up on the desk. The JISC conference offered something for everyone and was a great opportunity for people to network.
Ariadne would like to thank the contributors to this article:
Paul Davey, JISC
Philip Hunter, UKOLN
Virendra Mistry, JISC
Philip Pothen, JISC
Judy Redfearn, JISC
- JISC Conference 2005 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=conf_2005_intro
- JISC Conference 2005 Programme http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=conf_2005_prog
- Shibboleth Project http://shibboleth.internet2.edu/
- Editor's note: readers may be interested in two contributions to Ariadne on Shibboleth:
Installing Shibboleth, Simon McLeish, April 2005, issue 43 Ariadne http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue43/mcleish/
Shibboleth Installation Workshop, James Sankar and Mariam Garibyan, January 2005, issue 42, Ariadne http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue42/shibboleth-rpt/
- uPortal http://www.uportal.org/
- The Contextual Resource Evaluation Environment (CREE) Project http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_cree&src=alpha
- Learning Lessons from eBusiness http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=project_ebusiness&src=alpha
- Managing Change in Higher Education, Ford P., Goodyear P., Heseltine R., Lewis R., Darby J., Graves J., Harwood, D. and King T., London: Open University Press, 1996
- National Grid Service (NGS) http://www.ngs.ac.uk/
- The Globus Open Grid Services Architecture (OGSA) http://www.globus.org/ogsa/
- Globus WS-Resource Framework (WSRF) http://www.globus.org/wsrf/
- The Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE) Project http://public.eu-egee.org/
- The National e-Science Centre http://www.nesc.ac.uk/
- ESRC National Centre for e-Social Science http://www.ncess.ac.uk
- Science and Innovation Investment Framework, 2004-2014, HM Treasury, dti, DfES, July 2004,
- Advanced Collaboration with the Access Grid, Michael Daw, January 2005, issue 42, Ariadne http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue42/daw/
- The National Centre for Text Mining: Aims and Objectives, Sophia Ananiadou, Julia Chruszcz, John Keane, John McNaught and Paul Watry issue 42, January 2005, Ariadne, http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue42/ananiadou/
- Digimap Historic Map Service http://www.jisc.ac.uk/coll_digimap_historic.html
- Internet Archaeology e-journal http://intarch.ac.uk/
- International Virtual Observatory Alliance http://www.ivoa.net/