Putting 'brainware' first

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Putting ‘brainware’ before hardware and software emerged as a key theme at the annual JISC conference in London on 12 and 13 April.

Leadership and further investment in a technology infrastructure were voted as the main priorities for universities by an audience of senior figures from education, technology and industry. Professor David Baker, who was chairing the debate, said, ‘Technology has to help institutions to re-engineer themselves for the next 10 to 15 years. Organisations like JISC need to facilitate this change and increase the level of technological understanding, especially at strategic and senior levels.’ Over two thirds of the audience also agreed that networked individuals and not institutions will drive innovation in the future.

What about those people working in education without the know-how to use and understand technology? Speaking to 720 delegates at the conference the following day, Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, argued that it is the job of universities and colleges to prepare students for the workplace – and that the role includes introducing them to a range of new technologies that would be helpful.

‘It’s more about the people and the processes than it is about the technology,’ he said. ‘Most technology in education fails because we get too enamoured with the hardware and the software and we forget about the brainware to go with it. When you think about us as a sector in the UK and the need for us to stay top of the stack in the world of higher education, we are much better off doing this together.’

This theme of digital literacy was threaded through many of the conference sessions, informed by the need to develop critical thinkers in a digital environment rather than simply teaching people new software tricks.

With delegates attending from Australasia, Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, and over 950 more following online, collaboration and networking opportunities are a vital part of this shared knowledge.

Break-out sessions focused on developing key skills – including research seminars on accessing resources, how to give your research impact, and how to harness the community for input into academic work. But there were also behind-the-scenes examinations of the technology that is making this possible. An introduction to the National Grid Service explained how it helps to connect European research. New findings from three pieces of JISC-funded work into the challenges of managing data were showcased, and a workshop explored the legal issues surrounding Web 2.0.

A closing keynote highlighted the green and economic challenges facing power-hungry colleges and universities. Bill St Arnaud, former head of CANARIE, Canada’s advanced internet development organisation and president of a Green-IT consulting firm St. Arnaud-Walker and Associates, proposed looking to virtualisation as a way of moving servers out of universities and onto the cloud where possible. He showcased the green credentials of research-intensive universities in the USA that fund data centres far from their campuses.

The production and dissemination of knowledge is becoming increasingly devolved from institutions. It is vital for researchers, students and vice-chancellors alike to understand how technology can help them to navigate information, work collaboratively and effectively while retaining institutional influence in key competitive areas. As Martin Bean said, the challenge for researchers is no longer gaining access to information, but establishing which content to trust.

One attendee likened his experience to a ‘Victorian explorer returning triumphant from far off lands with a sea chest full of wonders’ – apt words for an organisation that is involved with innovating the full spectrum of ICT from digitising Victorian illustrations to mapping the future of higher education technology.

To explore the virtual goody bag of free digital resources relating to all the sessions, and watch the conference keynote speeches, visit www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2010/04/jisc10/virtualgoodybag.

Next year’s conference will be on 14-15 March 2011 at the BT Conference Centre in Liverpool.