Last week I attended another enjoyable CETIS conference. The event, which this year had the theme Brave New World?, provides a valuable opportunity to catch up with old colleagues, but faces to names Ive come across online and make new connections.
The conference theme alluded to not only the dystopian view of the future described in the Aldous Huxley novel but also the optimism expressed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
This was a very appropriate title for the event as the optimism surrounding a number of the technologies discussed at the conference (including linked data and APIs) was tempered by an awareness of gloomy economic predictions for the higher educational sector, global environmental concerns and expectations that we will face uncertainties after the next general election.
In light of such uncertainties over what the future may bring there was an awareness of the need to ensure that the development community engaged with the concerns of senior management and we made use of mechanisms to provide the flexibility needed in a time of uncertainties. Such approaches which were mentioned included scenario planning and monitoring of strong and weak signals.
What, then, were the signals I detected at the conference?
In the conference’s closing plenary talk will Bill Thompson was optimistic about the future. In a review of technological developments Bill teased us with visions of electronic contact lenses, e-paper and other cool innovations.
I met Bill at the first WWW conference, held in CERN in 1994. Like Bill, I too was excited about the promise of the Web back then and still retain a similar sense of optimism and excitement. And yet hearing similar views to mine being expressed I started to think about doubts and scepticisms. I have (fairly rapidly) gone through a period of excitement over my open source (Android) mobile phone (the camera application kept crashing on me a few days before the CETIS conference) and so felt Bill’s belief that the benefits of an open source environment would inevitably (within about 2 years, Bill suggested to me) deliver a better tool that the closed environment of today’s market leader, the iPhone.
Hearing Bill made me reflect on some of the other innovations which I and other have felt would have significant impact over the years. About 10 years ago the exciting new technologies was VRML: an open virtual reality environment which, it was promised, but build on the success of the Web, and even replace the 2D Web world with a much richer and more interactive distributed 3D environment. And then, more recently, we had the excitement of Second Life: proprietary and centralised, but very exciting. Or at least exciting to some. But not featured at the CETIS conference, unlike the more mundane but relevant learning competencies, eporfolios and learning objects (but this year they were open). The lack of discussion about Second Life was not due to its ubiquity and universal embedding within institutions!
Yes, I think we can say that at this year’s CETIS conference the participants were aware of the need to ensure that the innovative aspects of elearning which were discussed could be embedded within an institutional context. And it was pleasing that senior managers (from, for example the Universities of Oxford, Stafford and Highlands and Islands) were present at the conference and engaged in the discussions.
In the two parallel sessions I attended (on University API and Universities and Colleges in the Giant Global Graph) we did have discussions on various barriers. In the former session I gave a brief talk entitled “University API? WTF?” in which I warned of the dangers that we were simply peddling the latest technology fix, whilst the user community was still waiting for previous universal cures to materialise. But, to be honest, I’m still searching for a mechanism for productively exploring such issues, which can avoid the predictable responses of “We need concrete user cases”, “We need to market the benefits more effectively”, “We need to get senior managers on user side”, …
And in the Universities and Colleges in the Giant Global Graph session the technical issues again were the main focus of the debate. My colleague Paul Walk did help to decouple some of the topics we were discussing (open data, open linked data and the Semantic Web) and, most usefully, ensured that his thinking was not just trapped in the space and time of the session but published on his blog (with the benefit of subsequent discussions).
Did either of the sessions provide senior managers with an indication of not only tangible benefits of University APIs or Linked Data but confidence that making resources (staff time and money) would provide a satisfactory ROI? I think not. But perhaps that may be because such approaches are not yet ready for large-scale service deployment. Which isn’t to say that testing of prototypes shouldn’t be encouraged. But in addition to such project funded or small-scale activities, there is a need to be able to convince the senior managers on the grounds of business efficiencies or new opportunities, and not just on the merits of the technologies themselves. And we need to remember the lessons of the past – after all, in the Universities and Colleges in the Giant Global Graph session we appeared to be reinventing X.500 directory services.
(Note: when initially published the final sentence of this blog post was corrupted. The final sentence has been rewritten.)