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CETIS 08:Technology for Learning, Teaching and the Institution

Christina Smart and Sharon Perry
Last modified 09 Dec, 2008
Published 09 Dec, 2008
The institution and IT managers were at the heart of the discussions at JISC CETIS's 5th annual conference two weeks ago in Birmingham. This report outlines the keynote presentations by Andrew Feenberg and Stuart Lee and collects the many lively tweets, blog posts, flickr photos and videos from the event.

Some 140 delegates gathered at the Lakeside Centre, Aston on the 25th and 26th November for the annual JISC CETIS conference. As in previous years, the conference was "unashamedly technical" and provided an opportunity to reflect on a year of developments, to consider what's new and exciting and to make recommendations about the sorts of interventions JISC could make to nurture these ideas.

Oleg Liber; Grand Challenges

Professor Oleg Liber, Director of JISC CETIS, opened the conference by exploring the current technology, demographic and economic challenges affecting educational institutions. Among the challenges for institutions would be policies like the high level skills agenda set out in the Leitch report, whereas from a technology point of view, institutions are grappling with issues around cloud computing, and user owned technolgies. He concluded that the aim of the conference was to explore the question, "How do IT services, in particular, navigate through all these challenges?"

Adam Cooper; CETIS Connections

Dr Adam Cooper, Deputy Director of JISC CETIS, traced the themes that had continued to develop since last year's conference, Beyond Standards by considering what people had been talking about on the CETIS blogs.

On going themes include, web 2.0, learning design, mash-ups and cloud computing, assessment, and repositories. Widgets emerged as a theme this year, and open educational content returned as a key theme thanks to a new drive from HEFCE in this area. Adam also highlighted the success of two projects XCRI and SWORD. The XCRI project had started life in the Enterprise Special Interest Group three years ago and was now moving towards becoming a European Standard, Metadata for Learning Opportunities. Whereas SWORD, a new tool for rapid depositing into repositories, was developed in response to a need for a deposit API which was identified at the JISC CETIS conference three years ago.

Adam's slides are available on the conference programme page.


Andrew Feenberg; The Online Education Controversy

Professor Andrew Feenberg, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, used the opening keynote to explore how we use computers to support teaching and learning. Quoting William Brody retiring Principal of Johns Hopkins University, he speculated that teaching and learning in higher education had hardly changed in the last 100 years, whereas other industries, like the car manufacture, would be unrecognisable to workers from 1900.

Andrew gave an example of an online distance learning course he developed in 1983 at La Jolla, California. In those pre-web days using the internet to deliver a course was highly experimental, he said, computers were believed to be for data and number crunching not communication. The course tutors had no idea of how to teach online and no examples to refer to, but they discovered that communication was key.

Andrew referenced Plato who had observed that writing did not reflect the true nature of discourse. Andrew asked, "Does human distrust of the computer go back to Plato?" Adding "users have had as much impact on computers as computers have had on us", a point illustrated by Escher's drawing hands:

Eschers drawing hands

The development of Humans and Technology is interlinked

Each time a technology emerges we try to find ways of harnessing that technology for human discourse, he suggested, adding that,technology is not apolitical or value free and that we need to explore the social forces which decide which software and devices are successful. In front of a picture of a penny farthing, Andrew discussed how technology reaches "closure", the predominant software people use, and speculated that educational technology hasn’t yet reached closure.

Returning to the theme of factories, Andrew asked whether we would recoginse education as a factory; automated, efficient, replicable, or whether it was more like a city; variable, inspiring, and full of opportunities. "The internet extends the urban logic in a new way", he said. Andrew argued that if we believe that education is more like a city, then there are no efficiency gains to be made. Furthermore, education is about performance and human interaction, both of which are expensive. So why do we keep trying to reduce the costs?

Andrew concluded that we need to look closer at how we make decisions about technology arguing that; "The quality of Education is at stake – the question is not whether to use technology, but how to use it."

Andrew's paper is available from the Conference agenda

Rowin Young has also blogged about Andrew's keynote

Other blog posts are available at

Stuart Lee; Things I Contemplate (Worry About)

Dr Stuart Lee, Director of Computing Services at Oxford University gave a highly entertaining closing keynote speech, which moved from the invention of the video recorder, to the use of books in Star Trek via a quotation from Charles Dickens’ "Hard Times" on replacing fancy (imagination/innovation) with fact. He described a wide-range of issues - technical, human, and operational - which he contemplates (worries about!) as Director of Computing Services.

The technical issues he has been contemplating are probably easily recognised by most people involved in IT in education - outsourcing of e-mail and other services; the migration of projects to services; security and privacy; catering for mobile devices and learning; rollout of software/hardware across an institution (which in Oxford University’s case contains 39 mini-universities).

However, the biggest issue that he has identified (and the main focus of his keynote) is that of people. In particular, those involved in the decision making process. In Oxford University, as in many other educational establishments, key decisions made by individuals or departments are often ring-fenced to such an extent that an almost fortress-like mentality exists in order to protect the services they provide. This is often because of reasons of funding, differing goals or philosophies, or simply because people want to protect their jobs and the service provided by their department. When trying to integrate an IT or e-learning project, Dr Lee suggests that the most important question to ask is: what is important to the stakeholders who will be involved in the project, and, in particular – what can make them lose their job?

On the other side of the coin are the users themselves. Dr Lee says it’s very difficult to "wow" users these days and that he remembered as a child hearing about the invention of the video recorder and being completely stunned by the idea. However, these days there is no "wow factor". Users expect the technology to be able to do what they want it to do, but technology is changing so fast, that it is impossible to keep up.

If learners are asked who they considered to be most important to them regarding their education, they are likely to identify the practitioner/tutor as being the most important, because they are the people with whom they have a key relationship during their studies. Therefore, e-learning should not just be viewed as a way of "shovelling out" content to students. There is still a strong need for lectures, not only because students actually want them, but because they are cost-effective. Following on from that, it is therefore important that IT services/projects have a good, engaging relationship with practitioners, otherwise any e-learning projects may fail. Dr Lee quoted the term "chindōgu" – a Japanese word which describes the art of inventing ingenious gadgets, which look useful on the face of it, but which are actually quite useless – as he felt that it summarised many of the e-learning tools that he had seen developed.

From an operational point of view, there are plenty of things that still "wow" Dr Lee, but these are mostly facts and figures. For example, at Oxford University: an almost doubling of network traffic over the past year (from 8,000Gb/day to 14,000Gb/day); the small amount of e-mail that is actually legitimate (about 11%); misuse of the Freedom of Information Act by students and journalists; the huge number of files in the backup archive (around 1.4 billion files); supporting 38,000 users; and an unexpected 100% increase in the electricity bill!

Dr Lee concluded by saying that although many of the technical problems, such as data interchange, can be solved, the most fundamental interoperability issue is that of people. Therefore, in order to successfully integrate e-learning projects, it is essential that the responsibilities and concerns of stakeholders - from key decision-makers, through to practitioners and learners - are understood, and that all stakeholders are engaged in the process.

Paul Hollins; Plenary Report

The majority of the conference was dedicated to a series of parallel sessions which explored themes that continue to be of interest to the community. In the closing plenary Paul Hollins, Deputy Director of JISC CETIS, took on the impossible task of conveying the range and depth of the debates, supported by two slides produced by each session summarising their discussions and recommendations to JISC.

Parallel sessions

Post conference each of the session facilitators have gathered resources for the sessions they organised. An overview of the presentations and discussions from each session are available from the links below, along with any presentations, twitter aggregrations, flickr photos, and videos.

Sheila MacNeill's summary of the widgets session.

Phil Barker's summary of the VLE 2.0 session

Adam Cooper's blog post about the Grand Challenges session

Scott Wilson's blog post about the Processes session

Lorna Campbell's blog post about the OER scoping session

The Back Channels; Twitter, Videos, Blogging and Feedback

  • The twitter back channel was a lively feature of this year's conference, enabling particpants to comment on what they'd seen and learned and to compare notes during parallel sessions.

The aggregated twitter posts are available at and

Here are a selection of comments that capture the essence of the event:

"Still feeling inspired following #cetis08"

"Fantastic time @ #cetis08"

"Home from #cetis08 Really enjoyed the whole event, huge thx to all."

  • Blog posts are collected at:

  • Sheila MacNeill and Andy Powell developed stories from the conference:

Sheila's story

Andy's story

  • Mark Power's entertaining video impressions of the conference is available on YouTube:

  • In the online survey for the event 87% of respondents said it was a useful conference and all the respondents said the conference should be an annual event.

Comments from the survey include:

"Learning that no-one really knows what they are doing. Very refreshing."

"Very enjoyable conference with a great atmosphere."

"Great fun to see what is possible. And to try to relate that to where the forefront in development of learning technologies is."

Rest assured we'll be working hard at JISC CETIS to ensure that next year's conference is as useful and stimulating as this one has been.


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