“We are a country in crisis. A country at war.”

Nick Poole didn’t mince his words in a blog post which summarised his keynote talk at yesterday’s UK Museums on the Web 2010 conference: “We are a country in crisis. A country at war.

The opening paragraph went on to give the political context to his views “We have a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that culture should be funded by the taxpayer“.  This is not the type of comment you’d normally expect from the CEO of a public sector body, Collections Trust!

Having opened with this gloomy summary of the current environment Nick went to outline how the museum sector should resp0nd:

we have to use every tool in our armoury, and use them with the wisdom we have acquired in the past decade.

•    Fund imaginatively
•    Collaborate Creatively
•    Aggregate smartly
•    Build Openly

Imaginitive, creative, smart, open. These are the themes of our conference today. These are the qualities we must bring to designing this new future of ours.

Nick feels that technology is now embedded across the sector.  But this perceived maturity, rather than highlighting the importance  of IT innovation, is being used to marginalise  it and, it seems, focus simply on mainstream service delivery:

The place of technology is no longer at the margins of the museum. Our role as technologists is no longer to explore, to investigate, to discover. Our role, from today, from now is to deliver.

Is this a desirable approach? And are such views relevant for the higher education sector?

In many respects Nick is correct.  Following the initial use of the Web as a publishing medium the Web 2.0 revolution has provided a platform for much richer, interactive and user-focussed services, and the use of Social Web services makes it easier to deliver such services in a cost-effective ways.  I should add that UKOLN has been involved in support museums, libraries and archives in exploiting the potential of the Social Web through the series of workshops and presentations we have delivered across the cultural heritage sector for a number of years.

Job done? All that’s left is to persuade the risk averse local authorities to liberalise the policies regarding access to Social Web services (and the reductions to local authority funding will help that).

I think not.  Indeed as Nick said “We are a country in crisis. A country at war. We have a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that culture should be funded by the taxpayer“. To which I might add “a Coalition that does not fundamentally believe that higher education should be funded by the taxpayer“.

Is this really a time when higher education (to position the discussion in our sector) when there is no longer a need “to explore, to investigate, to discover“?

Back is 1989 essay Francis Fukuyama published an essay “The End of History?” which was interpretted by some as an argument that a time of radical change is over and we had reached a plateau of political stability. Following 9/11 such views were widely debunked.

Are we at a time when we can predict “The End of IT’s History?“. The technology wars are over: Microsoft vs a whole range of software vendors over the years, the PC vs the Mac, the cathedral vs the bazaar, open source vs closed source, open vs closed. We now simply need to make use of commodity IT services in order to deliver our core mission, with the economic crisis providing the opportunity to recognise the need to accept this new reality?

In some areas this is true.  Running one’s own institutional email service is no longer regarded as something institutions need to do, as Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield has pointed out on her blog and at high profile talks on several occasions.

But the commodification of IT in some areas does not mean that this is true in all areas. Similarly the mainstreaming of a set of technologies today does not necessarily mean that significant  changes  won’t happen again in the future.

Adam Cooper touches on such issues in a post on “Whither Innovation?“.  Adam asks a similar question to Nick’s:

Whither innovation in educational institutions in these times of dramatic cuts in public spending and radical change in the student fees and funding arrangements for teaching in universities?

but reaches a different conclusion:

It seems to me that innovation always follows adversity, that “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Adam describes how the innovation theorist Clayton M Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe ways “apparently well-run businesses could be disrupted by newcomers with cheaper but good-enough offerings that focus on core customer needs (low end disruption) or with initial offerings into new markets that expanded into existing markets.” Adam goes on to argue that “Disruptive innovation threatens incumbents with strategy process that fails to identify and adopt viable low-end or new-market innovation. In our current context of disruption by government policy, this challenge to institutional (university) strategy is acute.

We are at a stage in which a high profile CEO of a public sector body will use the emotional language of “We are a country in crisis. A country at war.” to stimulate discussion and debate – and I very much welcome the way in which Nick has stimulated this debate (you just have to look at the evidence of the way in which Nick’s blog post was discussed on twitter earlier today to see that his post and the imagery he used stuck a chord with many).

For me the higher education sector, too, needs to be “imaginitive, creative, smart and open“.  But, unlike Nick, I feel that there is a need for technologists (developers) with our institutions to explore, to investigate and to discover – approaches which were recognised in yesterday’s news that “Bristol University ChemLabS celebrated by JISC Times Higher Education Award“.  Sarah Porter, JISC’s head of innovation and one of the judges for the awards pointed out that “By focusing on innovative approaches to using technology to improve learning, the project has had measurable, demonstrable impact on the attainment of students of chemistry at the University of Bristol“.

If we lose the experiences possessed across the sector and the culture of experimentation and creativity which is fundamental to the higher education sector we will surely condemn ourselves to a sausage-factory mentality, processing students and researchers using the centralised learning and research environments.

But perhaps the differences between Nick’s comments and  my views are more to do with the different sectors in which we work rather than any significant divergences of opinions.  Replace ‘museums’ with ‘higher education’ in Nick’s  conclusion of the way forward and I’d be in agreement:

The reality is that if we are really going to deliver a Digital offer for museums that is globally competitive, we must pool our resources, collaborate creatively, aggregate smartly, build openly. Individually, we will not do what needs to be done. Together, we can achieve anything.

So let’s be “imaginitive, creative, smart and open” and identify the areas for commodification and recognise the battles which were fought and lost – and the areas in which diversity and innovation are needed.


  1. I’m always surprised, and somewhat saddened and discouraged, that the museum sector is not making far greater use of Virtual World technology. Linden Labs and Second Life seem to be slowly imploding, but they are far from the only game in town any more. The possibilities for everything from prototyping to actual (online) exhibitions are manifold and (to some of us at least) inspiring, not to mention trivially cheap.

    See the example discussed at the website I’ve linked myself to: an ongoing exhibition of WW1 poetry and oral history which we built in 2009.

    • Chris – why? It is fairly clear from all the projects I’ve been involved in that online visitors just don’t want to have anything to do with a virtual representation of a physical museum. There are possibilities for prototyping, maybe, although the alternatives are probably far easier and cheaper. Also, there aren’t any emerging standards or technologies in this area – as you say, SL may once have been this but it has really fallen from favour.

  2. I agree that the learning curve for involvement in VW is currently unworkably steep, but some steps are being taken in that direction – see the Canvas project (http://www.tipodean.com/canvas/index.html) and LL’s own moves in that direction. Also, as a generation raised on World of Warcraft and EVE start to come up through the system, might this way of interacting with others in a shared 3d space become more common? (See: http://mysite.verizon.net/wsbainbridge/convergence.htm – sorry for the eyebleeding website; these guys are proper scientists :)

    The emerging standard is, for better or worse, growing out of the Linden’s architecture. pretty much all the other grids (Reaction, Rezzables, Jokaydia, OpenSim) etc are based on it. Seems like LL may be like the Mosaic/CERN of the 3d web* (so called); waiting for Apache and Mozilla (and, god help us, Microsoft and Apple) to come along and ‘professionalize’ the basic concept.

    The Linden architecture has a great advantage of presenting content creators with a shared development enviroment, and one designed from the ground up to be collaborative and social rather than having it tacked on as an afterthought. This should not be underestimated – http://studiowikitecture.wordpress.com/

  3. Hi Brian – I very much agree with your closing remark, that we (institutions) need to “identify the areas for commodification […] and the areas in which diversity and innovation are needed”. I think the same line is appropriate for the business world at large. Diversity and innovation are best situated with the value-adding aspects of a business; commidification and standardisation are situated with the routine and low-value aspects, which are the only candidates for out-sourcing IMO. Two of the challenges wes (and business) face are really knowing how to factor these two and overcoming institutional power structures that impede rational progress. The risk of not getting it right, or not doing it at all, is that we spend too much time bogged down in taking a “diversity and innovation” approach to low-value-add work whereas we need the low-value stuff to just work, to be a “platform for execution” (ref “Enterprise Architecture as Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution”). I think this applies to our IT as well as what we do (teaching/learning, research).



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