Following in Buzz Lightyear’s footsteps

Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc, discusses maximising the potential of digital technologies across higher and further education

‘To infinity and beyond!’ yells Buzz Lightyear in ’Toy Story’ and that idea of a journey of unimaginable size and with untold possibilities is one that I remember when I look down the road which universities and colleges are travelling along now. 

It is exciting to be on a journey like that but it is also reassuring to have a few roadmarkers in place. So at the Higher and Further Education Show on Thursday, 16 October, I’ll be making a presentation about some of the headline ways that digital technologies are being used to shape the future for tertiary education, and to expand its horizons.

At Jisc, we strive to quantify the benefits that our work with digital technologies brings to education. One familiar way to present this is as the statistic of £300m per year saved across the sector as a whole but, naturally, what individual universities and colleges really need to know is what that means for their own balance sheet. 

We save institutions large sums each year through shared services ­– for example, we negotiates best-price subscriptions and licence fees for journals and e-resources, and our Janet network provides high speed connectivity of unrivalled power at costs that are lower than those charged by commercial providers. And in the last couple of months we have expanded our shared services with the launch of a new shared data centre to support academic and medical research. It is proving to be a cost-effective way for research-generated data to be taken care of for the six leading research institutions who have been in from the start, and it is capable of scaling up rapidly to accommodate others who want to join up. Those who do will save money on infrastructure and energy while freeing up their academics to concentrate on the research that brings in the funding. 

But dig deeper and the true value of the shared data centre begins to emerge. The data centre concept appeals to many of those who want UK research to lead the world and a shared model holds out the promise of still greater benefits – more efficient aggregation, easier sharing of data, opportunities to develop common data platforms and foster collaborations and interdisciplinary working.

Saving on costs AND improving the way that research is conducted – it’s a double whammy that is hard for institutions to ignore, and we are working on new ideas that hold out similar promise. 

One is the Jisc Kit Catalogue , a kind of Argos Catalogue for the 21st century. It enables research-intensive universities to share their state-of-the-art equipment so that each one doesn’t have to buy everything. We have developed the software platform – it has won one prestigious award and is in the running for another. We will continue to develop the software in line with a roadmap created and prioritised by the institutions that took part in the pilot. It will be evaluated fully and, if universities feel it will bring valuable long-term benefits, we will develop it as a fully-fledged shared service.

And on a similar theme, we are working on a brokerage system to enable the research community to share their high power computing capacity with industry, both to recoup costs and to support profitable research collaborations.

Alongside research, we haven’t forgotten the core business of teaching and learning. My talk will also look at ways that digital technologies can add value to the debate around massive open online courses (MOOCs). Now that the initial fog of excitement has dispersed and a clearer picture of the landscape is emerging, we have plans to harness some digital tools to make the learner experience more relevant and rewarding. For example, we’re working on ways to use learner analytics to tailor learning at individual level, matching the experience to the learning style. Also, a new entry on the Gartner hype cycle is ‘mashware’ – we will be looking at how we could use this approach to break up MOOCs and other open educational resources (OERs) into bite-size chunks of e-learning that can be adapted or blended more easily in individual courses.

I’ll be covering all of these topics in more detail at this week’s show, and there will be opportunities to ask questions and find out more about how to get the most from existing and emerging digital technologies. It’s usually hard to shine a light along the road ahead and pick out clearly what’s on the horizon, but we’re pretty confident that we’ve identified the technologies that are looming into view. The work we are doing now will help to put universities and colleges in the best possible position to take advantage of them.