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October 11, 2006

The importance of being open

CloverploverA copy of October's EDINA Newsline floated onto my desk today and I happend to read their update on the progress of JORUM - JORUM delivers valuable resources.

Chicken trussing aside, it is hard not to be tempted to make simplistic comparisons between JORUM and Slideshare and the other social tools - all of which seem to gather momentum at frightening speed.  I know I'm not comparing like with like and I know I'm being unfair in a way - but I wonder how the 1200 resources deposited into JORUM over the last 11 or so months compare with the rate of presentations being deposited into Slideshare currently (even while it is still in beta)?  I briefly tried looking for some statistics about the rate of takeup of Slideshare and failed - but looking at the turnover of new presentations on the homepage indicates a pretty healthy pattern of usage.

So, what are we doing wrong?  If anything?

I was preparing my slides for the CETIS Metadata SIG meeting about Item Banks earlier today, which caused me to stop and think a little about the similarities and differences between the JISC Information Environment and Web 2.0.  It seems to me that we got a lot right with the JISC IE (and when I say we, I really mean Lorcan Dempsey and Robin Murray and various others who did a lot of the early thinking before I got involved).  I spent a lot of time around the turn of the century evangelising the importance of machine to machine interfaces and being able to glue things together across the network - at a time when many people were only really interested in getting everyone to visit their Web site or portal.

The JISC IE encouraged an open approach but, looking again at the Web 2.0 Meme Map, what it failed to do was successfully encourage participation in the way that Web 2.0 social tools manage to do.  Why?  I don't know.  Perhaps I simply didn't do a very good job, or perhaps the world wasn't ready for that way of thinking?  Paul Miller does a great job of talking up Library 2.0 (and Library 2.0 is the logical conclusion of where the JISC IE was going I think) but I don't really know if it is having a real impact on your average library service even now?

To a certain extent I think we fell foul of being too rigid in the use of a particular set of standards - some of which are not very RESTful in their approach.  I end my Item Bank talk with two slides.  The first giving my view of how Item Banks should be delivered in terms of the JISC IE technical architecture.  The second in terms of Web 2.0 (or my interpretation of it).  There are some similarities, but also some differences.  I wonder what, if anything, we should learn from that?

More generally, I also wonder if we don't always 'trust our users' and value their 'right to remix' - both of which it seems to me are key principles in what makes Web 2.0 a success.  Does JORUM's current registration process indicate a trust in the end-user?  Slideshare warns me not to upload copyright material, but leaves it at that - perhaps they've got better lawyers than JORUM!?

Image: slide taken from How to tell the Birds from the Flowers by Robert Williams Wood.


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interesting thoughts, a coherent response to which may need to wait until after a good night's sleep. AirCanada are not conducive to formulating well-reasoned responses to thoughr provoking questions!

At a recent meeting of a JISC-funded service, though, I did indeed ask why they had built a new offering from scratch rather than using Flickr. Some of their reasons were (possibly) sound. Others were surely not. In how many other cases do we reinvent (or ignore existing) wheels, for ill-thought through reasons such as academic 'purity', or overly cautious interpretations of untested law? [One of the reasons for not using Flickr was that there's bad stuff on Flickr. Seriously. Anyone looked in a library recently? Do you agree with everything you find on the shelves? Do you even agree with the methods behind everything you find on the shelves? Just because you don't, doesn't mean it shouldn't be there].

So... what could today's IE do, to build upon the foundations you and others laid so carefully? As you suggest, it could enable participation. It could even go a stage further, and actively encourage participation. It could learn from - and use - existing services far more than it does. In deployment, it could be far more pragmatic than it sometimes is, and rapidly iterate through a series of 'good enoughs', rather than striving all too often for the wholly unatainable theoretical ideal. Very importantly, JISC should bring more of its weight to bear in pushing providers of components within the IE to open up far more; machine interfaces such as those you pushed so hard for. All too often, the JISC has backed down here, and allowed suppliers to mandate access via their proprietary human interfaces; interfaces that are different from all the others that our learners, teachers and researchers use every day. They do themselves a disservice. JISC, though, fails those whom it should be there to serve, and should be more prepared to stand behind its hard-won convictions. If we think that users *really* want access to resources X, Y, and Z, we're kidding ourselves. They want meaningful, coherent, and comprehensive access to the *answers* (and questions, and evidence) that enable them to complete the task at hand. Offer them a better way than scrolling the long list of A&I databases to which you've subscribed on their behalf, and lovingly catalogued for their delectation and delight, and they'll take your hand off; even if the 'better way' is maybe only using resources that are 'good enough' but more accessible.

We've just signed up to JORUM for our institution, and I was suprised that we have to limit access to academic staff only - another example of the lack of openess embraced by Web 2.0. It also means that tomorrows potential users (todays Postgraduate students) don't have access - which seems unlikely to help with it's success.

On the other hand, there is clearly an issue with trusting services like Flickr, Google, Amazon S3 etc. with 'our' (let's say UK academic community) data. There is perhaps some justification for this, but probably 'our' attitude will change over time - as with Open Source software. Interestingly JISC isn't promoting the use of these 'open' services in the same way it is promoting open source s/w - and I think that the IE encourages the idea of a closed community rather than integrating with the wider world (is this unfair of me?). Anyway, perhaps this is something that should be considered - perhaps a possible future JISC bid to use a Web 2.0 service in some way? (e.g. use of Flickr as a repository and delivering learning objects based on this?) Perhaps under the latest JISC Circular (04/06)

Interesting thoughts ...

I guess when we judge the volume of content shared, it must be in proportion to the number of potential contributors. Obviously, Flickr, Slideshare, YouTube etc have the widest possible constituency (=worldwide), and few restrictions on who can post. They are bound to attract more content than a service that is UK-based and restricted to a particular group of contributors (e.g staff at subscribing FE/HE institutions). It seems to be that web2.0 content services like flickr etc are at a particular point in their development where they’ve reached critical mass, but what happens next? New services will come along for niche markets, as users and contributors begin to refine their requirements for such services. UK FE/HE is one such constituency.

JISC has commissioned Rightscom to do a study into the applicability of Creative Commons style licences to UK FE/HE scenarios, it’s certainly of interest. We need to look more at the use cases behind individuals and institutions using CC-style licences: sometimes it might be the ideal solution. Other times, we need to look at sharing within the “network layer”, where federating access can enable a level of trust between users and contributors. You mention JORUM - they actually have a licensing working group that is exploring how to evolve the license model, they are definitely interested in how to balance openness with institutional liability, risk management etc.

The web2.0 "user-aggregates" models of content sharing surely need to include some access-controlled services, individual subscriptions, paid-for-content etc? It can be, and will be, a mixed economy of service providers, but the user can access it how and where they want – surely that’s the aim? I guess there are also differences between advertiser-pays and taxpayer-pays that might be important here too??

I agree that the IE needs to continue to develop to enable this. Perhaps the openness ethos isn’t writ large, but it is what we’re aiming for.

Thanks to those that have commented so far. Interesting...

As an aside, and in reference to an earlier post in my blog, it's interesting to note that this exchange of views about the IE (even though it's only 4 posts) is at least as much of a public discussion about the IE as I've seen on the jisc-development mailing list for a long while - so in that sense at least, it seems that my initial concerns about blogs handicaping open discussion were unfounded.

In response to Paul's comments about encouraging the use of external services, I completely agree. To a certain extent this is what the JISC/DEST eFramework for Education and Research is designed to enable - though it seems to me that JISC is currently somewhat schizophrenic about the relationship between the JISC IE and the Eframework? My concern is whether the formality with which services in the eFramework need to be described and the level of prescription about what services sit where are major points of contention in the success of the eFramework. It seems to me that the current approach doesn't naturally lend itself to the kind of innovative developments we see in Web 2.0.

Thanks to Amber for the update - its good to hear that things are being looked at. I kinda knew they would be really - JISC is doing so much. But if we treat Web 2.0 as an attitude rather than as a set of technologies or whatever, then we need to keep asking ourselves, "have we got the right attitude?", "how does our attitude fit with the typical student's attitude?", "are we meeting student's expectations with the kinds of services we offer them access to?", etc.

I'm not being critical of anyone or any particular service here - except perhaps myself. Things change over time and we need to constantly modify our thinking and approaches in line with what is happening elsewhere. I'm very conscious that we probably couldn't have even had this kind of conversation 5 years ago - because no-one was ready for it at that time. So it's a process of evolving and we all need to be ready to take a critical look at what we are doing and adjust accordingly.

In your slides 15 & 16, the differences you highlight between "the IE way" and "the Web 2.0 way" are (mainly) at the level of the "plumbing" - what sort of interfaces are offered/consumed, and the degree to which the nature of those interfaces has been prescribed. (TBH, I suspect "the Web 2.0 way" of offering search may be that provider A offers search interface A exposing format A, provider B offers search interface B exposing format B, etc!)

But leaving aside these questions of "mechanics", I think maybe a more fundamental difference is that in the IE, both content and metadata were/are seen as coming from (a relatively small number of?) "content providers" to (a relatively much larger number of?) "users"/consumers, but in the Web 2.0 approach, those users are not only "user aggregators": they are active participants; they are also "providers", at least of metadata about existing content (through tagging, reviews, annotations, etc), and also of new content. (Yeah, I know, I'd find it hard to draw a line between the two anyway - when is a "review" metadata and when is it "new content"? Discuss....)

Partly I think this is just a reflection of the scope which was set for the IE set in the first place (discovery/access), and partly (as I think you suggest) it's a reflection of the way the larger context has changed and of the shift we're seeing towards a genuinely "read-write Web".

To use the terminology which Scott Wilson has used in his discussions of PLEs, I think (and I'm probably over-simplifying somewhat!) the IE concerned itself mostly with "feeds" from the "provider" to the "user", i.e. in the IE architecture diagram, "stuff" flows (maybe through various intermediaries) from the back row to the front. I appreciate that the diagram was always a simplification and there was a recognition that "real world" service components were "multi-faceted". But if we were starting now looking at the IE, I can imagine that we'd probably be more explicit in modelling the "conduits" as well as the "feeds", i.e. not just the way people "get stuff out of" the environment, but also the ways they "put stuff in" to that environment, whether that stuff is a simple tag, some more formal categorisation, a rating, a comment, a description of resource use, a profile of some sort, a resource list, a "remix", a new resource, or a whole collection of new resources, or whatever.

Great discussion. I tend to think that all those free tools (or should I say 'services'?) out there on the public internet could be of much more worth than what we give them credit for right now in HE.
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