Chief Information Officer

We’re currently recruiting a brand new CIO post for the Open University. This is a major leap forward in thinking at the OU and the emphasis of the post is to provide the cohesion between the technology areas of the orgnisation and to manage the complexity to meet business needs (my interpretation – the recruitment agency use much longer more business savvy words)

Historically the OU has been like many other universities and has had ‘ogranic growth’ of information services with a number of faculties leading the way and then some of the technologies getting adopted more widely and then becoming part of a centrally run service, some services from the central support units also get used more widely and some student technologies  get adopted by staff so there are many different technologies and service in place at any one time.

In the recent past there has been a push to centralisation and control and AACS (the Academic and Administrative Computing Service) at the OU has had a difficult job of managing that without having any direct authority to remove other services in place in other parts of the University. AACS also started out as supporting just the admin services with the academic services within another unit. The expanding to support academic systems has also not been without problems. AACS haven’t had influence (or sometimes awareness) over what other units develop for themselves and so there is a multitude of systems with overlapping or duplicated functionality.

The issues always tend to end up as a tension between providing a balance between control (security) and access (openness).  We generally want openness in our services to students, with ‘widening participation’, ‘freemium’ and ‘OER’ being the flavours of the day. We generally need tight control and security of our administrative services and our business critical systems to ensure that we can guarantee business continuity.

There’s also a need to ‘move up the value chain’ and leave the low level service provision to others. The ideas of commoditization and the consuming and adapting rather than building it all ourselves approach of the past and the move to the cloud… (I’m simplifying here but Simon Wardley explains it better than I can)

The answer seems to be the creation of a post which sits at a very high level and is seen (at least theoretically) to be above any single technology area – to be a director of information services and a broker between the different parts. It’s also someone who reports to our ‘Vice Chancellors Executive’ so therefore someone who can explain strategy and can push back at some of the views in order to build a service that meets the future needs of the University.

I think this is a very positive step for the orgnisation. The post is not only to align development but also to think about agile approaches to delivery and to manage a path to facilitate growth of services from research through to operational (where appropriate), from single unit to multi unit to enterprise, from centrally through to distributed, to facilitate cloud-based or shared solutions. It’s to act as the business architect. A role sorely needed.

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Bio Feedback Technology

We’ve just purchased a set of Bio feedback technology that has been used by other research to look specifically at emotional responses to gaming. The product is ProComp Biograph Infniti and we’ve bought it with a number of different sensors to pick up things such as  Surface Electromyography, Skin Conductivity and EKG heart rate monitoring.

This rich data can be provided alongside other types of data and we’re therefore going to use it with our purpose built Research Labs along with eye tracking technology and other video data that we capture during our testing work. This should allow us to get a much more detailed picture of the level of engagement and immersion within game play and indeed other forms of online interaction such as within virtual worlds and other online web environments. I’m really looking forward to trying it out. We’ve got plans to also extend this work beyond the labs themselves so we can look at monitoring people in their own social contexts and seeing if this makes a difference.

We are also considering developing a joint research bid with the Speckled Computing people again extending the work we do in the labs out into the real world and looking at how to use the ‘intant feedback’ that this technology provides to assist people in both how they work and in their personal and social lives. I’m very excited about the possibilities that these technologies provide.  

Some quick example or two to explain what I mean.

1. We can use Bio feedback to assist people in dealing with stressful situations and conflict. We can use VR or video simulations to mock up events and work through issues with individuals in a ‘controlled’ way, for example training social workers.

2. We can use Bio feedback and speckled computing at assist with rehabilitation, and with improving balance in people who have mobility issues, for example those who have had hip replacement surgery to learn to walk correctly again and improve freedom of movement.

3. We can assist with pandemic outbreaks by sending ‘specks’ to affected people to gauge whether or not they have the illness and to monitor their recovery. This avoids having to involve expensive health care practitioners and it also allows us to accurately measure the spread of a pandemic.

There are many more, Sports Science, Gaming etc.. the possibilities are many and varied and the opportunity for using this technology to benefit our society is very much within our grasp.

kids, computers and change

I haven’t been blogging for a while because I’ve been involved in the logistics of moving a university depratment to a new building this week (think herding cats and you get the picture). Now that I’m back I’m going to make up by having a bit of a stream of consciousness about slightly connected topics.

1. My kids have managed to ruin my computing at home by spilling water over the keyboard which has taken out the ‘n’ key and the space bar. I tried using the on-screen keyboard and it’s like pulling teeth – it is worse than trying to do a full blog post via txting. I found it seriously hard work so I’ve resorted to the laptop. It’s these small uphill battles that make my online experiences so erratic, or perhaps I’m just making excuses however other people seem to be ‘always on’ and in my experience power plug issues, network connectivity, kids and other various things always get in the way of me doing this. I talked to a colleague about the transient nature of my online stuff when we were trying out plaxo recently. I was trying to get my twitter friends into it and then tried using my facebook contacts, but the interface started to annoy me and I was five seconds in without success and about 5 seconds away from giving up so I do think that the ten second rule than NN (Neilsen Norman) the usability gurus used to apply to websites still holds (in my experience) to web apps. In 2006 the BBC had this down to 4 seconds for commercial sites selling goods.

2. Janet Street Porter did a rant in the Independent on Sunday in her editorial about how all our details are being exposed and exploited by, for example, YouTube and the fact that studies show that people using the internet and social network for long periods have trouble making real friends and that relationships for the next generation are going to suffer. I hardly ever agree with JSP and my views are significantly different to hers on this but I do think that getting the public/private stuff right on the internet is difficult. I tend to be very cagey about myself because I do prefer to keep my private life a closed book, knowledge is power and you never know when that slip of the tongue might come back to bite you. Other people however are totally very open and I find this refreshing but also a bit disconcerting. I’m a very shy person and I expect that comes through with how I act online and choose to reveal myself in the virtual world. I don’t worry about how kids will deal with real relationships by the way. They’re just finding new ways to communicate, not replacing the old but enhancing these.

Microsoft’s web vision…

I read an article today on the BBC website about Microsoft’s web vision. I can’t tell if this press release is smoke and mirrors or if there’s more to it.

I can say that Microsoft appear to be playing catchup in the cloud computing arena and the new Live services are a relatively comprehensive set of tools available in the ‘cloudsphere’. I do see a change in focus for Microsoft and it’s long overdue in my opinion. I’ve already blogged about Grava and it’s potential for adoption in the educational community (assuming it gets taken further as it’s still relatively basic). The thing about this press release and I have seen it with other companies including Google is that they release a ‘vision statement’ plus some apps that are similar to ones their rivals produce, so tell me where is the unique ‘killer app’ amongst them? – How open are they to ‘intermeshing’ with non-MS tools? – Is it up to me (or more likely Tony Hirst) to produce the killer mesh? – only time will tell.