The JISC-funded Shared Infrastructure Services (SIS) Landscape Study has published two reports which describe how Web 2.0 is being used in higher educational institutions in the UK and Australia. The two surveys allow comparisons to be made across these two countries. This work was coordinated by my UKOLN colleagues Ann Chapman and Rosemary Russell, who were also the authors of the UK report.

Rather than discussing the UK report I’d like to comment on how Web 2.0 is being used in Australia – partly because I am reasonably close to how Web 2.0 is being used in the UK (and suggested a number of people who were interviewed for the report). But in addition as I went to Australia this time last year to speak at the OzeWAI 2009 conference I was interested to hear if my observations of an apparent reluctance by IT Service departments to support use of various Web 2.0 services was supported by this more comprehensive survey across Australian Universities. It seems my interest in how this describes use of Web 2.0 in Australia is also shared by Sarah Bartlett who has given her views on the report on the Talis blog.

The Australian Report, entitled “A Landscape Study of Shared Infrastructure Services in the Australian Academic Sector“, was written by Jane Hunter, Director of the eResearch Lab at the University of Queensland. The 26 page report (which is available as a PDF document) describes how:

The aim of this report is to survey the situation in Australia and hence enable comparisons with the UK. This survey therefore focuses on the current and active users of Web 2.0 tools and services in Australian Higher Education institutions and aims to identify what they are using and why.

We learn that:

the results of the survey indicate that the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the higher education sector in Australia is not significantly dissimilar to the situation in the UK. Users prefer to use Web-based services that are already adopted by the wider community and that are free, robust, simple to sign on to, and easy to install and use. Examples include: FaceBook, YouTube, Skype and Twitter. … As in the UK, the primary factors governing choice of service are: cost, ease of use/interface design, wide-spread adoption. The important factors in continuing use are reliability, efficacy and how much it is used by the user’s peer group.

The popularity of such services has an impact on services developed within the community:

The fallout has been that users don’t choose to use technologies that have specifically been developed by and for the eResearch community (e.g., Sakai, EVO) – unless they have been mandated by their research/peer group or institutional IT service providers or if there is nothing else available through the Web.

it was interesting to note that the SWORD Application Profile and RoMEO were highlighted as “examples of such services not available elsewhere” – applications which were developed as part of JISC-funded support for institutional repositories.

So we are seeing a user-led adoption of Web 2.0 technologies, which seems similar to the UK position. But there is a downside:

The lack of support in universities for freely available Web 2.0 technologies has led to tension between users, IT support and central management. University IT departments are often seen as “controlling” and obstructive. Users want to be able to download, install and use software services such as Skype onto their desktop computers or laptops – but often they do not have administrative rights to do so. There also exists a level of tension between mandated technologies (e.g., EVO) and widely adopted mainstream technologies (Skype) that both serve essentially the same purpose, but have different levels of support and security implications.

Many Australian institutions and faculty IT support are struggling to maintain both the security of content and services whilst also maintaining the flexibility required to support changing users’ needs. Slowly universities in Australia are beginning to adopt and support Web 2.0 services through their libraries and IT service departments. This is expected to grow over time in response to user demand. Universities also realize that although many staff and students are familiar with using Web 2.0 services, there may also be a need to provide training and support in these new technologies to more mature staff members or those staff and students from less technical disciplines.

The final section in the report looks to the future:

Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way that students, staff and institutional services in the Australian academic sector work and interact. Staff and students are embracing Web 2.0 technologies because they are so easy to download, install, experiment with and use – in order to quickly engage with colleagues and share the latest information. This has led to the gradual integration of Web 2.0 services into the academic digital infrastructure in Australia as universities recognize that they are not a passing fad and will be increasingly adopted.

The survey indicated that the number of Web 2.0 applications that staff/students access to perform daily tasks is continuing to rise and that the applications of choice change relatively frequently. This trend is having an impact on the role that academic IT service departments play. IT service departments are realizing that they can no longer control the applications that are being used for teaching, learning and research.

We also see a recognition of the need for a changes in the traditional approaches taken by IT Service departments:

Institutional IT departments need to evaluate different services and make recommendations. They need to identify when it makes sense to take advantage of services “in the cloud” such as Google Wave, rather than providing and mandating a local institutional or nationally-funded service that duplicates the freely-available and widely deployed service. Their role has changed from service development and service provision to one of providing technical support to people who need to engage with Web or cloud services [my emphasis] – by setting up accounts, assisting with problems and recommending the best services.

Withe the exception of the reference to EVO I feel that everything I have written could apply equally well to the UK higher education sector.   Common issues, then. I wonder if common approaches are being taken to addressing these issues?  For as the report concludes “these technologies are not perfect and they bring with them many challenges that need to be addressed. Consequently, there will still be a need for university IT service providers to identify gaps in user demand or security (or other) issues associated with Web 2.0 services – and focus on solutions and services to fill these gaps and solve associated problems“.  The report  concludes by arguing that “Universities need to start making proactive plans for how to apply these emerging technologies within organization-wide teaching, learning and research strategies“.  I wonder if such shared issues which have been identified across the UK and Australian higher education communities can be addressed by shared approaches to solutions?