Hey, you, get off of my cloud: are scholars too selfish to share IT?

Academics must change to get the best from technology, Jisc hears. Hannah Fearn reports

March 24, 2011

Academics are failing to make the most of universities' cloud computing services because of their lack of technical expertise and their reluctance to share resources, a conference has heard.

Speaking in Liverpool last week at Jisc's annual conference, Paul Watson, professor of computer science at Newcastle University, said that universities must change to realise the huge benefits of the technology. They would have to invest in it as a way to encourage research innovation, not simply as a cost-saving measure, he argued.

Cloud computing allows users to access servers or applications remotely, with the result that universities can share services rather than having to invest in technology separately.

But most providers, including Google and Microsoft, offer very basic cloud computing services, and these require a high level of technical skill to adapt for academic use, the conference heard.

"One of the things we've found is that working researchers don't have (the necessary) IT skills," Professor Watson said.

"They're very good at using computing to transform what they do, but don't have the skills themselves" to take full advantage of cloud computing, he added.

Professor Watson argued that most researchers were part of the "long tail" that still did a lot of their research on their own desktop computers.

However, if universities invested in providing the facilities researchers needed to exploit the benefits offered by cloud computing, they would improve their research capacity and save large sums over time.

Professor Watson said universities needed to design computing platforms to access the cloud with "security, scalability and reliability" in mind.

A useful cloud platform would offer less IT-literate academics a way to store data securely, analyse research findings and share their work in a controlled way, he said.

However, Phil Richards, director of IT at Loughborough University, said the typical academic was holding back the introduction of cloud computing in higher education.

"If we want to make big savings by cloud, we need to get universities to change their behaviour on quite a large scale," he said.

"Researchers don't like sharing their resources. People who do top-level research are competitive and they don't naturally share. They will collaborate only if they absolutely have to."

He agreed with Professor Watson that if universities could convince academics to use public platforms, it would leave "more money to do genuinely beneficial things".

Dr Richards said that universities were already in a good position to introduce cloud computing, since JANET, the research network, could be used as a base for the service. Computer giant HP had recently spent millions creating a similar network for that very reason, he added.

But he urged universities to create local clouds, as well as using external ones, in order to reduce the risk posed by farming out important IT services.

Jisc is now seeking pilot universities to help it establish a cloud service on the JANET network. Institutions interested in taking part are being asked to come forward.


World wide what? Digital literacy module draws chorus of disapproval from sceptical scholars

Students at the University of Salford are being taught how to use social networks and blogs to aid their learning and ease them into work, despite resistance from some academics.

The university has introduced a module in digital literacy, which is open to all first-year undergraduates and aims to teach them how to use online resources.

But speaking at the Jisc conference last week, course leader Frances Bell, senior lecturer in information systems at Salford, said she had faced criticism from academics who claimed it was a "non-subject".

"They say it's too easy and it's not a proper thing to do," she said.

"It's very political. We had a brand new module and other staff had been displaced to make way. People feel very badly about that."

The module, Blogging and Microblogging for Learning, can be chosen instead of a language or law.

It teaches the use of social networks, blogging, online security and digital tools for business and research.

Dr Bell said the university had worked with a small group of academics interested in digital literacy to ensure that it was embedded in the curriculum.

The course helps students to analyse the digital information they use as well as understand more about the business models for social networks and blogs.

"We get them to be critical of information and websites. We get them to draw on their own personal use, which is not always within our view," Dr Bell explained.

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