Heads of e-Learning Forum meeting report – 13th June 2012 – University of Kent

Effectively navigating the cloud and the impact of externally hosted learning spaces in our institutions

The latest Heads of e-Learning Forum event (HeLF) was hosted by the University of Kent, with Cloud computing as its focus. Speakers and discussions ranged over the many and varied experiences, strategies and responses in this rapidly emergent area, and the real need for institutions to engage with ‘Cloud’. As the first keynote speaker highlighted, staff and students in every institution will already be using Cloud services in some form, for research, for learning and teaching, and for administration purposes for a variety of reasons. An institution’s first reaction might be to wish to control or contain ‘it’ but as was explored on the day, this response might not really be compatible with Cloud concepts.

For some introductory and background materials on what Cloud is, two good starting points include:

I was surprised to find out over the day that a number of UK institutions represented at the event had already moved some of their previously internally-hosted IT services over to Cloud-based services, such as adopting Googlemail or Microsoft for student email accounts, or utilising Google Apps for learning and teaching activities, or running externally hosted media servers. There are also examples of hybrid models such as externally-hosted installations of institutional VLEs (Blackboard and Moodle). These kinds of migrations are often not seen in cost-saving terms but rather, as an example, to free up highly-skilled staff from routine systems administration to engage instead with institutional priority developments. However, concerns are voiced about security, data privacy and the persistence/reliability of Cloud services and the day’s event did an excellent job of identifying the foundations, the realities and some of the misconceptions that make up these worries.

Welcome and opening remarks. Jane Carne, Curriculum and Educational Development Manager at the University of Kent, welcomed us to the day’s proceedings and mapped out some of the learning technology landscape at her institution. It was particularly useful to hear how they had developed an e-learning strategy in 2007 which clearly supported the curriculum aims of the University. Another major initiative is their MaLT project (contact Jane for more information) which is designed to facilitate ‘cross-silo’ working and communication, so that services like computing, library and educational development, who often have very different working cultures, can collaborate and ensure that the learning technology offer at the institution is coherent, fully considered from all points of view, and best suits the learning and teaching needs of the University. This emphasised the role of learning technologists as being ‘third-space professionals’, people in the University who are comfortable working between many different sections of the institution and who can see solutions and strategies from multiple points of view and with a range of foci.

Moving on to the first keynote presentation, “A sunny outlook…”,  a  good, balanced state-of-play look at  institutional engagement with Cloud computing from Peter Tinson, executive secretary of the Universities and Colleges Information System Association (UCISA). It was particularly useful to learn about the ways in which contracts and End-User License Agreements can (and sometimes can’t) be negotiated to suit institutional security and privacy requirements, for example, when adopting a cloud-based service, and how the processes for doing this in the HE sector were developing quite quickly and successfully. Peter outlined why some institutions might want to utilise Cloud services, from the escalating  cost (and reliability concerns) of the physical power requirements for in-house services, to obtaining a much-needed service such as a media server for the institution without having to worry about specialist staff, software purchase and scalability. UCISA last year published a briefing paper for senior managers which is an excellent starting point for anyone.

A small group discussion followed with each group discussing what kinds of externally hosted/managed/cloud-based services were being used, or considered, what processes and needs had led to their adoption (and even discontinuation).

Lightning Strike sessions were the next part of the day, where speakers have a maximum of 10 minutes and 10 slides for their talk, followed by any questions. A brief summary of each ‘strike’ is given below and please do get in touch if you are interested in finding out more detail on any of these.

The University and the Cloud: a health warning?“, Richard Hall – De Montfort University. Richard highlighted a number of important questions an institution might want to pose when considering engagement with Cloud services. These were questions concerning ethics, political issues and of governance. What levels of corporate governance are required? Do we understand what data  is being transferred to these services, what are our responsibilities here, what are the levels of risk? Is the cloud another tool for the further marketisation of higher education? How do institutions develop the digital fluencies of their staff and students in this new space?

“The Bloomsbury Learning Environment in the Cloud”, Sarah Sherman – The Bloomsbury Colleges.  Sarah described some of the Cloud services they are utilising and in particular how their adoption of such services has grown organically rather than their being centrally directed. They are migrating to a hosted instance of Moodle and have a media server, the Bloomsbury Media Cloud, hosted on Amazon S3. They utilise GMail for students and some departments are using an arranged, educational instance of GoogleApps as a part of their learning and teaching activities.

“Embedding Constellations of Clouds”, Neil Ringan – Manchester Metropolitan University. Neil detailed how their formal model of technology support (click to see the diagram below) from a Core level (the fully-integrated and supported VLE) through levels described as ‘Arranged’, ‘Recommended’ and ‘Recognised’ was designed to enable staff to work at a level that is appropriate to their confidence and their needs as much as to support innovative practice across the spectrum of emergent technologies. One of the benefits of Cloud computing for their e-learning team has been allowing them to concentrate their resources on evaluation and pedagogy, as an example of freeing-up personnel from systems administration and support tasks.

“Apps: from email to learning tools”, Brian Irwin – Sheffield Hallam University. Brian talked over their experiences of using GoogleMail for their student email systems and building on this to explore an educational instance of GoogleApps, in particular whether tools in GoogleApps could meet the use case scenarios of particular learning and teaching requirements, for example, students collaboratively creating a shared document.

After an excellent lunch some time was given over to HeLF business. This included reports on the developing relationships with bodies such as the HEA (with whom a joint event on e-assessment had just been delivered at Manchester) and to set out some general planning for the coming year, including a call for anyone interested in hosting the HeLF meeting. The  working theme for next year’s events will be ‘personalisation’.

Barbara Newland, University of Brighton, then invited everyone to contribute examples and case studies, identified through small-group discussions, of the extent to which learning technology is a part of institutional PG Certs, and the ways in which PG Certs are encouraging the appropriate use of learning technology. These identified examples were to be submitted as a part of a HeLF contribution to current work on a professional associations guide to implementing the UKSPF in the Digital University.

The second keynote 2 of the day from Mick Kahn of the  University of London Computer Centre (ULCC), “Hosting Moodle: an open source shared service”, was an in-detail look at the hosted Moodle and associated services that ULCC offer.

A second group discussion took as starting points the themes “strategies for embedding into mainstream” and “when to let technologies go” (which my own group focussed on).

Invited Speaker. The final session of the day was given over to Will Murray from the European arm of iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin (itself an externally-hosted service). He was attending in response to a range of questions recently asked of Turnitin by HeLF. Will outlined some of the new support that Turnitin are putting in place over the next few months, including 7 day a week, 24 hour support, as well as questions on the future direction of the Turnitin suite.

To sum up the day, we looked at many of the issues that might trouble institutions and the extent to which some of these issues are chimeric and so obscure the potential benefits of adopting cloud-based services, such as freeing highly skilled staff from routine system administration and management. We looked at successful institutional adoptions of and strategic responses to Cloud computing. We also explored some of the reasons why individuals in an institution use Cloud services (gaps in  institutional provision, agility, rapid scalability) and some of the tensions this can cause where an institution is unsure of itself in this area. Attempts centrally to control or prohibit Cloud computing in an institution often miss the point of why Cloud is being used in the first place and this day provided many important examples, pointers and pathways by which more sophisticated strategic responses and engagement can be achieved.

Many of the presentations from the day will be made available on the HeLF pages here. Past meetings covered topics such as digital literacies, PG Certs, learning spaces, and social software.

(For a report on the previous March 7th HeLF meeting please read this earlier blog post.)

Dan Roberts


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