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CETIS09: A Brave New World?

Christina Smart and Sharon Perry
Last modified 18 Nov, 2009
Published 18 Nov, 2009
Reflections from the CETIS09 conference held in Birmingham last week. Everyone will have had their own experience, so this is not a comprehensive report but picks out some of our highlights of the event.

Last week some 150 delegates gathered at Aston's Lakeside centre for our sixth annual conference. It was a lively and stimulating two days. Here is a brief overview of the main presentations and keynotes as well as links to the parallel sessions and their associated presentations and resources page.

Oleg Liber; Learning Technology – Past, Present and Future

Professor Oleg Liber, outgoing Director of JISC CETIS, gave his final JISC CETIS Conference keynote, before he retires in February. He took the opportunity to reflect on the current state of education from a learning technology point of view.

The technologies available to us now have changed significantly over the last 15 years, yet our universities remain largely unchanged. As a result, learning technologies are made to fit into a relatively static organisation that is still engaged in traditional methods of learning and teaching rather than being dynamically used in new ways. One of the reasons why this is problematic is because whilst the traditional paths universities have taken are clear, it’s harder to carve out a path through virgin territory, when you don’t know where you’re headed.

The environment in which our HE (Higher Education) institutions operate is rapidly changing and universities now need to respond to factors such as globalisation, embracing the knowledge economy, widening participation, changes in government policies and focus, and the student as a paying customer. These elements are potential stressors to a sector, which, whilst happy to embrace technology, is by its very nature slower to move away from traditional methods of operating. However, learning technologists can help universities make this transition.

The latest government emphasis for HE (see Higher Ambitions - is to encourage competition (for students) and collaboration (on research). Is it possible to successfully do both things at the same time? Increasingly, the HE sector is being pushed to become more business-oriented, yet education should be a service provided by the nation for its people. Learning technology can facilitate that but it still has some way to go before university courses and open educational resources are made freely available online for people to study in the manner and time that suits them.

So what about the future? It’s not possible to accurately predict the impact of what we’re doing now with learning technology, nor what technologies will come along in the future - and there will be more to come, we haven’t seen it all yet. Change is a certainty and change brings challenges. Perhaps the only way to ensure the sustainability of what we’re doing is to build a shared vision for the way forward.

And I don’t know about you, but I think we’re going to miss Oleg’s forward thinking and his vision for learning technology.

Paul Hollins; Introduction to the conference

Following Oleg's presentation Paul Hollins, deputy director of JISC CETIS, provided an overview of the conference, hoping that the "Brave New World" of the title would be more like the utopic vision of Shakespeare's The Tempest, than the dystopia of Huxley's novel. Paul summarised some of JISC's recent activities and suggested that despite an uncertain future we need to find a way to allow what Malcolm MacLaren described as "Fantastic failures, from which we can learn so much".

This conference was Oleg Liber's last as director of JISC CETIS and Paul asked Mark Stiles, Professor of Technology Supported Learning at Staffordshire University to say a few words to mark the occasion. Mark reflected on the last ten year's of Oleg's career commenting that the focus has always been on people, not technology. He concluded by saying; "CETIS is not a techno nerd organisation, and we owe Oleg a debt for that".


What makes a good keynote? Every year we try to find a balance between being inspirational and providing a reality check, while at the same time being entertaining and thought provoking. For me this year's presentations by Chris Cobb and Bill Thompson got that balance just right.

Chris Cobb; "Its not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change..."

In the opening keynote Chris Cobb, Pro Vice Chancellor of Roehampton University, focussed on the current context for institutions and how they might become more adaptable. Chris started by explaining that the quotation title of his talk was widely misattributed to Charles Darwin. The quote was actually made by Clarence Darrow, an American lawyer, and Chris peppered his talk with some other great Darrow quotes, including:

“History repeats itself. That's one of the things wrong with history”

Outlining the current context, Chris went on to talk about the recession and 5-20% cutbacks predicted to hit the sector. At the same time the government’s new framework agreement, with its continued ambition to get 50% of school leavers into higher education, will put increasing pressure on institutions. Although it is currently “hard to read the runes” about what these changes will mean Chris suggested that technology would be a catalyst or a “burning platform” for shaping the future.

Roehampton University ran one of the early JISC Enterprise Architecture pilots, and Chris described his “eureka” moment when he realised the approach could “unlock some potential” in the University. What is important is that Enterprise Architecture gives you a roadmap to get from the present to where you want to go, as well as enabling conversations between the non technical staff at the institution. It will be vital for all universities to gain this sort of understanding because the MAC (Management and Administrative Computing) initiative showed that the one size fits all approach won’t work.

The current context will allow niche markets to flourish developing products which complement the functionality of core systems. Chris went on to give a flavour of some of these products and services that are already available. These include:

  • WPM Education; developed at Birmingham University and offering secure online payments.
  • The Princeton Review; a service for handling postgraduate admissions
  • Campus M; offering a suite of mobile applications for staff and students
  • Talis; offering a range of services linking reading lists to availability in libraries.

Chris concluded that using enterprise architecture tools will help institutions understand their internal dynamics far more and that understanding will enable institutions to become more adaptable to change in the coming years.

Bill Thompson; Closing keynote

Introduced as “a man who claims to know about this stuff” Bill Thompson, a technology writer and critic and recently appointed as head of partnership development of the BBC archive project, closed that conference with an exciting Tomorrow’s World vision of the future.

Bill began with a quick sprint through the last 50 years of computing and the internet from the first massive computers with mercury valves and ARPnet to now where, for today’s kids, the technology has “become invisible”. Quoting William Gibson, the science fiction author, Bill said “the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed”, and illustrated his point by describing a cybercafé in the Kibera slum outside Nairobi where young Kenyans are accessing facebook and playing games online.

We can get a glimpse of future technologies by considering current ground-breaking research. The semantic web, predicted by Tim Berner’s Lee in 1994, is now becoming a reality, and e-ink and e-paper are already being manufactured, Bill said. Looking further ahead, scientists have been able to store a single bit on an iron atom, and Bill speculated that in the future it might be possible to store your entire life on just 60kg of iron. Augmented reality could become common place using contact lenses with LEDs or neurons on the surface. Imagine being able to walk into a conference and instantly know people’s names and their affiliations, Bill said. “There is a path from where we are now to this” Bill explained, “these are engineering problems now.”

These developments would lead to the creative destruction of some current technologies, Bill predicted. In addition, the realisation of the semantic web meant that we would soon recover from ”the 20 year nightmare that was html”. In the next few years we would experience a “once in a civilisation shift”, the challenge for us will be navigating these developments and their political repercussions. “It took 400 years for print to go from being an exotic innovation to become a necessity”, Bill said “but only 40 years for that to happen online, it's no wonder we're a little out of breath”. Bill finished by looking to a truely global future, with another 5 billion users online, and the internet everywhere and radical. And for those that find that prospect a little daunting Bill added,“Keeping up will be the biggest challenge but also the excitement of it all”.

Adam Cooper; Plenary feedback

As is other years each parallel session produced a couple of slides to summarise their discussions. Like the other speakers Adam Cooper, Deputy Director of JISC CETIS, noted that the sector was moving into a period of complexity and certainty. However new opportunities would arise from this situation, and Adam predicted a growing interest in "foresight activities", in which JISC CETIS could play a role.

Parallel Sessions

JISC CETIS conferences provide an opportunity to reflect on developments over the past year and define priorities for the year ahead. This year JISC CETIS staff ran ten parallel sessions exploring a range of technologies and issues currently affecting universities and colleges. These sessions are listed below.

Lorna's summary of the OER session

Sheila's summary of the Learning environment sessions

Adam's summary of the Giant Global Graph discussions

The Back Channel, Twitter, Blogs and conference feedback

The wifi at Aston was very flaky this year and meant that the twitter back channel was much quieter than last year. However those that connected successfully had things to say. Below are a few highlights from twitter, blogs and the conference evaluation.

"#cetis09 thanks to all involved with the CETIS conference - an excellent two days of challenge and inspiration. Great delegates too."

"Really enjoyed #cetis09 - great to catch up with the elearning crowd. Really glad we still do this"

"great technology panorama painted by @billt in closing talk at #cetis09

"An excellent session; all three speakers had really useful things to tell us.

"Great lively debates which brought out some important differences between the techies and "the management". These kinds of sessions make conferences worth travelling to. Great stuff."

"Ideas, ideas, a bit of reality and a lot of exciting vision."

Overall, a great conference with lots of ideas on how to shape this "brave new world". Tweets from #cetis09 are being kept on twapperkeeper posterity.


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