Sunday, January 16, 2011

JISC a minute! Why JISC can’t deliver innovation.....


Many moons ago I was contacted by JISC to speak at one of their events, but when I provided the usual biography and picture, they got back to me saying I couldn’t speak as I, “was not affiliated to an educational institution”. I pointed out to the hapless girl on the phone that it was THEY who had asked me to speak. So much for engagement with the outside world. It would seem that not much has changed.

JISC censorship

No surprise this year then, when friend of mine found himself in a similar Kafkaesque position with JISC. They had asked him to speak on mobile learning (he really is an expert here) but when he submitted his abstract they hastily arranged an ‘Elluminate’ meeting, where of a group of 7 JISCers (overstaffed I’d suggest?) began to unashamedly edit the talk. They literally outlined what they wanted him to say. His response: “To which I replied ‘fuck off’” was natural. He explained that he was very busy and wouldn’t become a proxy for their views, and offered to ‘univite’ himself from the conference. They relented and let him speak.

The point of these stories is not to say that JISC is wholly and utterly useless. It’s not. In fact, it has many good people and strengths. It is, however, at times inward looking and sometimes institutionally blinkered, especially on innovation. First, it’s just too big and amorphous. There’s been an army of JISC bods around at conferences over the last few years. Many are pretty good and knowledgeable. Fair enough, as I applaud efforts to get some innovation in FE (which is normally ignored) and HE. Problem is, I don’t see enough innovation in HE and FE. It’s not that JISC isn’t trying to be innovative; it’s just that the model is wrong. They have several things going against them. As one senior FE person said to me last week, “FE and HE don’t innovate because they ’ve never had to”. But it’s really about a fundamentally flawed approach to innovation and cultural change.

JISC and innovation

Look up JISC on Google, and it says JISC - Inspiring Innovation. But does it? The website still has David Lammy as the Minister for Higher education, and there's a feeling that its insularity is a problem. The name's a bit of a giveaway as it has its roots, not in educational innovation but IT; Joint Information Systems Committee.

JISC can’t be the major innovator, as much of the major innovation in FE and HE has come from the outside. The technology is the domain of the private sector, OER is largely driven by Foundations and pedagogy is still, well stuck in the ‘lecture’ driven rut. They mention the word ‘pedagogy’ a lot, then default back to lectures. Try questioning the ‘lecture’ - I did and got crucified at ALT, but when the talk was released on YouTube it attracted lots of positive attention (lesson learnt – get out more).

Large scale institutional change in FE and HE, such as the OU, Learndirect, University of Phoenix, MIT and other innovative organisations, have often come from external sources of inspiration, whether it’s politicians, smart public servants or entrepreneurs. I’m not saying innovation is solely in the domain of the private sector, but it’s certainly not natural territory in the public sector. We need both.

Some JISC innovation projects have to be seen to be believed. Well, maybe not even seen. Take the “Blind interactive simulation cricket user training”. Surely this is proof enough of the second and third rate ‘faux’ research in this area. The project objective is to “create a bespoke digital interactive practice and coaching space for Blind Cricket”. This is ‘donkeypedia’ territory.

People, not processes, innovate

You can look at innovation in technology and education in two ways:

1. Diffusion (nudges, gradualism, lots of small projects, pilots etc.)

2. Disruption (big thinking, strategic change)

I fear that the first has been the model for far too long and has failed in so many ways. Colleges and universities have failed to climb the e-maturity path, share little in terms of best practice and tend to default to traditional, embedded norms.

The second, disruption, is possible, I think, because the political climate wants cost savings. There is the real possibility of reshaping education with increased use of the OU and OER model. This is all about SCALABILITY, whether it’s recorded lectures, online content, alternatives to lectures, a fourth semester, reduced capital expenditure and OER. SCALABILITY is the key term for me, which is why I object so much to the 'it's not about the technology' line. It's the technology that gives us pedagogic scalability. That's what makes Google, Wikipedia, iTUNES U, Youtube, Facebook and OER resources work. We have seen how the OU and Learndirect have positioned themselves as effective and scalable solutions in everything from basic skills to PhDs, yet few in JISC would have the slightest idea of how this is done in a real delivery organisation like Learndirect, as they don’t engage with many outside of FE and HE.

JISC, and others, by definition, can never lead, or even discuss, radical innovation. They are reduced to ‘nudges and pilots’ which fail because there’s no real subsequent sharing and adoption of best practice. There’s no shortage of good of ideas, just a shortage of will and impact. I had a lecture from someone at BIS last week who talked about this very problem. There are lots of ideas but little changes, as dissemination and adoption is weak. He rolled out the usual ‘stimulate, incubate, adopt’ model, forgetting the simple fact that processes don’t innovate, PEOPLE innovate.

What to do?

OK, the times they are a changin’. Has the pressure to innovate arrived? I think so. We have to get the cost side of education down through scalable solutions. That is the realpolitik for the next decade or more. That means radical innovation around scalable solutions, and not some fatuous debate about how many kids on free school meals get into Oxford.

Note, that I’m not saying that JISC should not exist, just that it should be realistic about its role as it is straightjacketed in terms of innovation. There’s a real need for IT support and advice, but not an army of people who inadvertently reinforce the status quo. Grant money can only be claimed by existing FE and HE institutions, and that limits innovation to internal sources. This actually stops innovation. We need to bring together, Foundations, companies, entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants, FE leaders and HE leaders to tackle the crisis. In many ways I saw an attempt at this at the WISE Summit in Qatar. But trying to do this through JISC is, I fear, ‘doomed to succeed’.

HEFCE review

This review started September last year and is due to deliver Spring 2011. To be honest, the membership of the review group may determine the outcome as it lacks any genione outide voices. Reviews such as this need to have the credibility of objectivity, so I hope they really do show such objectivity, and get over the hurdle of being 'on the inside', the very problem I've highlighted.


Bob Harrison said...

As ever Donald you have hit the spot and timely too as the HEFCE review of JISC is due out shortly. I hope they recieve your comments?

I suspect,however, you will get a defensive reaction(as you did at ALT-C) from the academic research community.
There are some brilliant people in the ALT community but I am alwyas left with this post JISC project question.

" So what difference will this make to students/pupils/learners?"

Often I have difficulty identifying impact and consequently cannot make a vfm judgement about the £££££ spent by JISC. Most of the technological-education game changers have come from students in their spare time,dormitories and bedrooms. (HP,Google,Facebook,Linkedin,Cisco etc)

There are some really aspects of the work of JISC and the JANET part of their work has been outstanding as has the conents/repository stuff. As for "Innovation"?there have been lots of papers delivered at lots of conferences but have they really made any difference? I think the HEFCE jury is still out?

Donald Clark said...

That's the question, in both future and past tenses. So what difference will this make? So what difference has this made?

I wouldn't want to get rid of JISC but suspect that it needs to redefine it's scope and ambitions. Innovation rarely comes from this type of support institution. I say rarely, because, sometime it does. JANET is a good example, although this was really an aggregation of other connectivity projects. Sticking to these undelying infrastructure projects is fine. It all goes belly up when it moves into pedagogy.

Julia Ault said...

I was particularly taken with this sentence:

"SCALABILITY is the key term for me, which is why I object so much to the 'it's not about the technology' line. It's the technology that gives us pedagogic scalability."

I think I may quote this to some of my colleagues who keep trotting it out and dismissing technology with the airy, impatient "Oh technology is just a tool..etc"

Much food for thought in the rest of your article too which I would struggle to argue with, tbh.

I hope this encourages the debate to begin.

TonyParkin said...

Donald hits nail on head as usual... Bob Harrison appends key comment to follow up... what's left to add? (....just saying :)


Now just a matter of waiting for the usual whiners to materialise :)

Donald Clark said...

Julia - it's only a tool, it's not the technology that matters, it's not about the technology - you hear one of these or a variant within minutes of any discussion in a room of educators. But it is 'to a degree' about the technology, as technology changes pedagogy. The web, Google, Wikipedia, online journals, e-books, OER, social media, PCs, iPADS, mobiles have all changed pedagogy. I like to quote flight simulators, as they have redefined the entire pedagogy of learning to fly. Of course, it's about the technology.

Donald Clark said...

Tony - the tweckling has begun!

Unknown said...

JISC under delivers because of the letter C. As a committee based structure it is all very collegiate and self serving. It does however produce some occasionally useful outputs for the sector, in particular the Infokits - essentially business process cookbooks.

On you other point about what could be referred to as shared services, that of the OU providing the model for delivering distance learning and the infrastructure to support it. Universities in particular are actually disincentivised from doing this as they currently compete for student numbers using their courses as sales differentiators, and also unis can't reclaim VAT, thus sharing a service with another uni increases costs by 20%

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Quentin. The 'Committee' point is interesting, as I suspect it structurally supports co-operation rather than radical innovation. This is a good thing for support functions, like Infokits, but less useful for more radical shifts. Couldn't agree more with the funding point but this begs the question as why JISC have so much funding if the sector can't cope with innovation structurally.

Paul Hollins said...

I do hope that I’m not considered as one of the “whiners’ , my aim is to be objective. Firstly the declaration; I’m a Director of one of JISC’s innovation support services, one currently under review. I have also worked in the private sector; in technology innovation within the digital games industry and educational content development.
Donald makes the statement “Why JISC can’t deliver innovation. “ As always he makes an impassioned statement one motivated by a genuine desire to improve our education system and for this I sincerely applaud him. He raises a number of issues in the piece some of which I agree with and much that I don’t.
It is right in our, indeed, any democratic society that public funded agencies are open to public scrutiny as they are by our political masters.
My immediate response to the statement is that JISC can’t deliver innovation as he asserts in his post; people do that but what it can do and on the whole does effectively is support innovation within the HE and FE sectors. It acts as a catalyst for change as a “change agent “. JISC mitigates risk by sharing the cost of innovation across the sector.
Take just one current “hot topic” in education the student, or applying the contentious term “customer”, experience or student (customer) lifecycle relationship management. What is the right course of action? Should we encourage institutions to take the huge risk of procuring at considerable (public) expense a customer relationship management CRM application from the private sector or should we, using Donald’s term diffuse, look at small pilots, mitigate the risk and share this and yes this does occur, experience across the sector provide information that allows institutions to make more informed decisions. JISC has commissioned, supported by pilot studies a self-analysis framework to help institutions make an informed choice for innovation .Our experience tells us it is the latter.
Fundamentally innovation is about renewal and change and large organisations be they in the public, private or third sector are remarkably resistant to change, there is an abundance of evidence to support this. So how should we address this resistance to change?
Donald is right to point out that innovation in FE and HE has come form the outside in the two UK examples he sites the Open university and Learn Direct, both of which were funded and driven by political imperative. There is much to learn about scalability from the OU and Learn Direct experience and without external investment neither would have developed. As a board member of Learn Direct Donald is well placed to comment. However Learn Direct, or at least its first incarnation as the “University for Industry “ UFI, made costly mistakes, thankfully it was supported and allowed to do so. Take the huge cost of the development of Basic skills content; commissioned at significant expense from the best of the private sector educational content suppliers, I should know as a former Head of Business Development for one of the beneficiaries of this procurement. Much of this expensive content remains largely unused, developed in proprietary formats, inflexible and unable to be reconfigured, reconstructed or to maintain pace with rapid changes in technology and access. The OU, an organisation for which I have a great deal of respect for the fantastic work it has done in broadening participation in HE whilst maintaining high quality, has a business model and student experience which would be difficult to, nor should we, replicate across the sector as a whole. Certainly aspects of the OU model could be applied and given the financial constraints imposed on Learning and teaching institutions are currently exploring more scaleable models of delivery, they have to!

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Paul. I suppose my main argument is that JISC works through ‘diffusion’ but the systemic barriers within FE/HE prevent any real disruption of the old models. This is fine, but it’s far from the sort of innovation that other areas of human endeavour enjoy. Note that I’m not against this approach, but it’s very much ‘business as usual IT’ i.e. standards, insource/ outsource, procurement etc. and never really gets beyond the embedded structures in the sector.
The OU has been around for 42 years, yet few others in the sector have grasped the advantages of the non-campus model. This, in my view, is indicative of the problem, as the cost savings could be enormous. There’s no real attempt to stop building yet more lecture halls and palaces of learning, even in the light of advances in technology (apart from Alan Langland's clever cuts in capital expenditure). No attempt to use technology to get education out of the agricultural calendar rut with a more responsive approach in terms of technology. Even a fourth semester seems beyond most institutions, an idea that obviously means things can be done quicker and costs reduced. Even relatively minor pedagogic changes, such as recording lectures, have barely taken root, and the very idea of questioning the core pedagogic approach – lectures, is out of bounds. In this sense innovation’s a name not the game.
Bob Harrison asks, what impact has the expenditure really had on students? That’s what the review has to ask. I see some very good work at the basic IT level but I also I see lots of ideas that, like spores, mostly fall on stoney ground and never get adopted. There’s little in the way of fundamental change. As students plunge themselves into lifelong debt for something less than lifelong learning, we are duty bound to find substantial savings through scalable technology solutions. I just don’t see this coming from JISC, as the major debates and discussions seem strangely absent.

Lesley Price said...

Interesting discussion..... I have no doubt that those directly involved in JISC funded projects/pilots learn a great deal from them and without additional funding many initiatives would just not happen However, I too worry about diffusion actually taking place and not just to others in the sector, but within the organisations who received the funding. HEIs are large complex beasts and what happens in one Department or Faculty does not always mean that lessons learned there are going to be taken on board by another. All too often education is plagued by the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome. I hate to think of the money that has been spent re-inventing wheels even within the same institution never mind across the whole HE/FE sectors! All JISC funded projects are evaluated, but there doesn’t seem to be any consistency across evaluation reports so even if you take the time to read them, its very difficult to measure like against like so its a bit like comparing apples to pears. I don’t know what the solution is, but I would certainly like to see more emphasis on systemic change rather than on short term now we surely have more pilots than EasyJet and BA combined!

Martin Hawksey said...

... and if you want to see how Donald was tweckled at ALT-C you can replay his keynote with the tweets

Made possible using iTitle service hosted by JISC RSC Scotland North & East. More about iTitle and Twitter Tracked ALT-C 2010 Keynotes

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Martin - much appreciated (I think!)

Lesley - interesting level of detail on the 'diffucion' problem. It's not just between HEIs but also across HEIs as they are severely departmental. I totally agree with your conclusion Lesley, that we need less projects and more focus on systemic change.

I have been involved in one major collaborative effort that I think is a reasonable model - IVIMEDS - a few dozen Medical Schools worldwide, got together and created core content for undergraduate Medical Degrees. Not perfect, and resistance was fierce, but the co-investment and collaborative approach had merits. Again this was led by Professor Ron Hardon, Alan Langlands and others, from outside of the normal channels.

Jez said...

Thanks for this post, Donald, you've made some really good points.

My own experience seems a good example of the situation you describe. I am responsible for setting up a virtual research environment (VRE) for a research centre at a small but well-regarded UK university. The aim is to set up an online platform that facilitates research collaboration and data sharing while still assuaging the privacy fears of industrial partners.

JISC has a major research programme into virtual research environments, which has funded 42 projects since 2004. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find any practical advice or conclusions resulting from these, and we're therefore pretty much having to start from scratch.

Because it's quite a small project, it's more important to get something up and running that works and can then be modified rather than doing a lot of work up front to choose the very best solution. In situations like that it's incredibly helpful to be able to draw on the experiences of others who have gone before, and JISC seems to be failing in this area.

Contacting people involved in the projects directly has been the best source of advice, but this is clearly not scalable. If this type of innovation is to be widely adopted, such information has to be widely available, and the people involved in the pilot projects are moving on to other work and cannot be expected to answer large numbers of emails about an old project.

Surely there should be a requirement for projects awarded this type of funding to disseminate their findings (helped by JISC), whether on the web or through peer-reviewed journals. Without that there is little point to funding the projects in the first place. Even negative results (a big taboo in the scientific community) such as "don't try this because it doesn't work" would be better than the present situation.

Donald Clark said...

Interesting Jez, as it raises real questions about what sort of organisation needs to be created to make the research effective. The diffuse structure, committee approach and myriad of projects doesn't sit well in an organisation that needs to have impact. That needs a campaigning front with reasonable marketing skills, and I don't just mean reports and brochures. There needs to be a funnel and stagegates towards firm conclusions and recommendations. This is a well worn path in large R&D departments. I'd agree with your analysis, but all I have to go on is the website, which I'd agree doesn't really do this final bit. But maybe it's done through other routes?

Lesley Price said...

Jez, as I said, JISC funded projects all to have evaluation reports and also have a dissemination strategy. You can find the reports on the JISC website but unless you know exactly what you are looking for, its not that easy. I did a simple search on the project/programmes area of their site for evaluation/mobile learning and was presented with 5410 results! Very often the projects have quite grandiose titles (typical of HE) which don't always say what's in the tin :-) Dissemination is also a bit hit and very much depends on who is running the project as its usually up to the project itself to carry out dissemination activities although JISC do hold events and conferences where project outcomes are shared. Dissemination is more effective in the FE community through the JISC Regional Support Centres. All of the RSCs hold regular events as well as supporting regional communities of practice. They also have a very good internal comms network so RSC teams in different parts of the country share what is going on in their region with their counterparts in other regional teams.

TonyParkin said...

Jez illustrates what for me is a key argument "JISC has a major research programme into virtual research environments, which has funded 42 projects since 2004. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find any practical advice or conclusions resulting from these, and we're therefore pretty much having to start from scratch."

There will no doubt have been excellent people engaged in innovation and excellent projects that, as Lesley Price says, will have informed the participants. But without clear and informative findings, active diffusion and meaningful impact and uptake then the various papers and reports that emerge are no better than vanity publishing.

And if the outputs in this particular area are all indeed of little use to Jez then this surely is a clear indication of a waste of valuable innovation funding and is frankly indefensible.

Donald Clark said...

We're getting a consensus here (Lesley, Tony and Jez) around the idea that dissemination stops at the end of projects, often not getting to the FE/HE community and even when it does it stops at one department or one institution. It's the very opposite of viral.

Lesley Price said...

I don’t want to be too hard on the JISC as many projects would just not happen without the funding they provide. The problem lies with dissemination/diffusion or whatever you want to call it. To do this effectively, whether that is virally or through more traditional methods requires a different skill set as it’s essentially a Marketing/Communications function. Most academics that run projects don’t have this expertise themselves or within their team and therefore, when dissemination is left to them, it’s hardly surprising that it’s not very effective. L & D professionals have a similar problem when they are trying to communicate to senior operational managers. They focus on the number of courses, the number of people who have been on courses or ..(said with tongue in cheek)...the proverbial happy sheet that I know Donald likes so much, rather than focussing on business impact.

Donald Clark said...

I'd agree. But why is this so? Some possible suggestions:
1. Too academic an approach - do it, publish, move on
2. Marketing's a bit corporate and not really a useful skill
3. Final payment of grants not tied to impact and dissemination
4. Simply a source of funding, not an agent for change

Lesley Price said...

I would agree with 1. That is the traditional approach to academic research. 2. My background is Marketing so treading dangerous ground here... I would argue that its an incredibly useful skill and unfortunately, its not just academics that don't recognise this. There is no doubt that its routes are in the corporate world but because we come across it all the time in our everyday lives, everybody thinks they know all about that sense there are a lot of similarities with education...everybody has experienced it, therefore everybody thinks they are an expert :-) 3. From memory, final payments are tied to impact and dissemination, but that depends how you measure impact and how you determine what is effective dissemination. 4. Very often the projects are agents for change, but only for the organisations who take part in them. So possibly a combination of all 4! Something certainly needs to change as there is simply not the money slushing around in the system that there once was. The academic world is under the same pressures as corporates...deliver more for less and give us more bangs for our shift in paradigm is required...not really so different to what you said at ALT-C about lectures!

Donald Clark said...

Good expansion of all of these points. Steady arguments lead to sound conclusions. The review really does have to look at optimising this spend. That means moving away from the grants for little projects approach and picking some big ticket ideas.
I meant that JISC and others don't take 'marketing' seriously - I'm a devotee!

Lesley Price said...

I just hope that review is sound and doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I really believe that JISC funding has had a positive impact so when it does we need to find ways to measure real impact and then tell the story more effectively...lets not knock it too hard, as I think that will only result in more cuts. Rather lets improve evaluation so that its easier to make comparisons resulting in improved decision making, get rid of the grandiose project names so that we can easily see what is in the tin and involve Marcoms professionals in dissemination. In the words of Alexandre Orlov..simples..or not???

Donald Clark said...

If the arguments presented here are right, the organisation does need to be reshaped. But I agree, there's lots of worthy effort here, it just needs to be rechanelled and made more relevant.

Chris Peat said...

In my experience one of the major issues for JISC is the way that they relate to private companies. They do have a relationship and we have been involved in events that they have organised, but the behave as if they would prefer all innovation to be primarily generated from the FE/HE sectors. We have been involved in some innovative work with Huddersfield Univeristy on exploring the use of e-portfolios to make it easier for work based assessors to comment on learners registered on the nurse prescribing course. It is innovative in the sense that we are genuinely exploring whether such an approach makes it easier for nurses to capture evidence and have it assessed. At the moment the 'jury is still out'.
We recently responded to a JISC request to present innovative projects to their local conference but were turned down on the basis that were 'giving priority to the colleges and universities rather than the private companies.'
This approach contrasts with the one taken by Learn Direct for example, who in my experience are very effective at harnassing the skills and knowledge of the companies they work with. Indeed we have been involved in a project where three companies have been involved with their own internal team and through collaborative work produced an interesting and highly innovative solution.
JISC has a key role in developing innovative practice but they will only partly deliver this if they fail to include a sector where innovative practice and ideas are being developed.

James Miller said...

Part of the problem is that JISC throw lumps of money at whole services or initiatives without recourse to detailed examination of their components.

As with the late, lamented - by some - BECTA, an organisation can contain many services of extremely variable quality and relevance to learners, from the patently obvious, to the obscure pet project initiative.

Some JISC-funded services are like this. UKOLN is a prime example. As a side point, if you ask many HE people "Are UKOLN a good service?" then they will respond positively. But ask them what UKOLN actually produces that is tangiable, and then the ummm's start. This is because most of UKOLN's work is too far removed from the learner, or is superficial in substance.

Some of their work is useful. The JISC Information Environment work has provided a framework which people have used, in service planning or just to get their head around ambiguous concepts of information-to-learner flow. In my institution, the IE work has proved especially invaluable and although tricky to prove, may have saved us making a six figure ordering error/disaster.

At the other end of a scale of 'usefulness' we have UK Web Focus, which appears to be a blog and a series of workshops. While this may have been useful in the late 1990s, haven't we moved on a bit now? Web Focus? The blog, the main source of 'information' is astonishingly low quality. Many of the articles are lacking in substance, being on the lines of "I noticed this! Is it good, or not? I don't have any answers; come up with your own." or self-promoting, in what looks like a frequent, and nakedly obvious, attempt to secure more funding Has the word "I" ever been used so much on a blog?

After reading over 30 posts in the last week, many of which appear to be rough drafts made live and then abandoned, I have learnt not a single new fact. And I am not exaggerating when I say that my 14 year old son, armed only with google, could produce a more authorative and informative information source than this UK Web Focus (what a name for 2011!) blog.

UK Web Focus also claims to be 'advisory', but it is difficult to see how, with what seems like an almost deliberate absence of advisory material.

It is difficult to believe that the JISC still funds this kind of thing, especially in the current fiscal climate. And as for 'innovation' - no, there is none here. I challenge someone to find any. After asking around, the sole member of staff behind UK Web Focus is popular, but notably in a 'cute' or 'good fun' or 'inspirational' way, not in terms of content, guidance or leadership.

The JISC pour a *lot* of money into UKOLN, with non-wage costs being significantly higher, proportionally, than many of their other services. The value that the community which supports learners obtains from UKOLN is, for the funding supplied, questionable.

It is time the JISC came up with a new framework for evaluating services which it funds, so in the case of organisations such as UKOLN, the 'dead wood' can be identified and pruned, leaving a slimmer organisation to do what it does best. Costs less, as well. I look forward to detailing my comments to the JISC and/or their funders about this.

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