Making the case for innovation

Collaboration on organising and sharing information helps the research community to innovate, says Sarah Porter, of JISC

Innovation is positive change to an existing situation – ranging from a small incremental change to a large, sweeping one. It could be a researcher doing something different in their own practice, based on new ideas that are coming out, or a huge research project based on high performance computing – the word innovation covers a broad spectrum.

Some universities are already ahead of their time, with a real commitment to innovation. They may, for example, have integrated their online repositories across research environments and have seamless links through all systems; but others have a more complex organisation, or have invested in different areas, leaving ICT lagging. But these institutions can learn from each other. And this is what JISC is trying to promote in the UK, through a programme of innovation projects that spread the success stories from one institution to another.

The UK is fortunate to have in place plenty of good, co-ordinated networks at a national level so people are already committed to sharing ideas and working together. Collaboration works at a number of different levels, from researchers in teams functioning within and across departments, to a strong culture of collaboration between libraries that goes back many years. Within IT and academic support teams there’s a culture of collective practice and working together through organisations like UCISA (Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association) in the UK. Some virtual learning environments were joint efforts between universities in the first place.

JISC is also tasked with promoting innovation across all subject areas in UK universities and colleges. At the moment we are promoting the conclusions of a series of projects aimed at supporting existing institutional strategies by providing solutions to institution-wide problems. The strategies are based upon proven practices, technologies, standards and services, and the solutions demonstrate innovation and good practice, and build knowledge and experience that can be shared across institutions.

One such solution is the MyReferences software. Writing up references can be time-consuming. This new piece of free software to help students and universities manage academic references more easily has been developed by the Open University (OU) and its partners. MyReferences integrates tools from the widely-used RefWorks reference management software into the Moodle virtual learning environment that is used in academic institutions across the UK to support online learning.

A single innovation project like this can have a ripple effect across a whole host of institutions – and not just in the UK. While continuing to pilot the software with staff and students at the OU, the project team has been working with other institutions to implement the software. The response so far from students and staff alike has been overwhelmingly positive and we’re looking forward to working with more organisations internationally to spread the benefits of this new tool.

Making the case for investing in innovation remains an issue. It needn’t cost the earth – small amounts of funding can support not just physical, but also human resources. They can also promote skill sharing where different institutions come together to work on a virtual research environment or to share expertise on running administration systems on the cloud, for example. Human networks are already in place, but we need to make the best use of those networks, both within and beyond national boundaries.

Innnovation is about managing risk – and making sure that what fails in one place is not repeated, but tweaked and refreshed, perhaps, for a new attempt elsewhere. It’s an opportunity to do things better and differently as universities face the consequences of the economic recession. We need support for centres of expertise, those that have done things really well, in order to show institutions where we’re going, and also support for the smaller start-up initiatives. Some colleges and universities are going to have to make some quite radical changes if they want to survive and thrive. This isn’t the time to sit passively and wait. It’s a time to take risks and be creative by working with others who have had the experience, and emulate what they have done.

Sarah Porter is head of innovation at JISC


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