SaaS meets Old Skool

I was in a meeting recently between Google and the OU implementation group involved in the rollout of Google Apps. Google has flown in Gabe Cohen, Google Apps Product Manager and Sam Peters, Business Development Manager (Europe) and the OU had representatives from all the big areas of the organisation. I’ve had meetings like this several times in the past but I was struck by the chasm between the Google view of Enterprise change process management  for implementing SaaS (software as a Service) technology versus the ‘old school’ view of implementing services and systems with paid for 3rd party service suppliers.

For example the OU would like to spend a period working with a senior technical person from Google about how the Google suite gets implemented against existing technologies. Sitting around a table and whiteboarding scenarios and coming up with a implementation plan. With Google it’s a case of switching it on. They say they can provide eight weeks of technical support around the launch window ‘but we’re unlikely to need that’.  I visited the University of Westminster when they had just ‘switched on’ the Google suite and I can testify that Google make the process painless. UoW’s head of ICT said that they spent ten days internally with Google mapping their authentication services and sorting our the passthrough of information to their Google Apps environment and that was it!

At the meeting on Friday I was struck by the different world views. The people from the OU (myself included although I may think of myself as a little more enlightened) were discussing about how you’d provide a stable environment for students and roll out tools. Google said they just add ‘feature sets’ and have a quarterly release cycle so it’s a case of benefitting from new things and providing them as you see fit. The OU has however a different demographic to other UK higher education institutions and we have a fair share of ‘silver surfers’ and some technophobes to consider.

I think it’s a very different mindset coming from a more traditional 80’s or 90’s style view of systems and services where you have total control, holding you full architecture stack within your business in a single place (or multiple places within your control) and having a total internal structure and staffing mechanism to keep things going to moving to allowing things to be controlled by others and to have services that are provided for you (and that you don’t even pay for) but that your organisation benefits from.

This lack of control is obvious and moving to the cloud is undoubtedly a very positive step but when it finally starts to become reality you can almost smell the fear. Knowing that Google provides services to governments, pharmaceuticals and other organisations that have serious data control concerns doesn’t make it any easier. Our students ARE our business and even a 1% drop in students would make a huge impact so we need to make sure we do this right. 

Yes lets just switch it on…but after we’ve planned and made sure that our students will be switched on to it.

Gagging Order, Google et al

I’ve been under what feels like a gagging order for the past twelve months as I’ve been part of a small team at the Open University evaluating Google Apps for Education versus Microsoft Live at Edu as the replacement to OpenText FirstClass system for email and also to provide other services to enhance the OU student experience (eProtfolios being one in particular that the OU would like to examine to see if Google can provide a suitable replacement to the current in-house solution called MyStuff).

This has been a very interesting project for me and I visited Google HQ in London earlier in the year and also went around to various places, including the University of Westminster to check out their use of Google tools. I also visited places that have taken the Microsoft tools route and I visited Microsoft HQ last year too, in both cases the overwhelming majority of the institutions are pleased with the results they have received by moving to a cloud provider and adopting more of a CLE rather than VLE (despite the odd niggling issue). I have to say though that, and this I hope is no disrespect to other UK Universities, they are coming from a place much lower on the curve then the OU when exploring “Virtual Campus” solutions. Most of them have Web CT, Blackboard or in a number of cases POP mail accounts as their VLE equivalent. These places gain a lot in a short time by moving to Google or Microsoft.

The OU is in a different position and so it was a big responsibility to make the decision we thought was the correct one to move the OU forward, I felt especially responsible since when I worked in the Technology faculty in the 1990’s we (the EMERG team) introduced FirstClass to the OU and through T171 with John Naughton, Martin Weller and Gary Alexander made it a core component  in online courses. It was a rich environment compared to the equivalent at the time (and remember this was Windows 3.1 era whereVAX mail and CoSy were around as competitors so it really was giving a whole new set of services to the student with it’s rich conferencing experience).

The upshot is that the Open University has picked Google as the provider of choice. Everyone and his dog is blogging about it but some interesting ones are Niall Sclater (who managed the evaluation process) and Tony Hirst who is starting to think about how these tools may be used.

I’m extremely pleased for three reasons, none are to do with Google being “better” then Microsoft by the way as I think it was really a close thing. They are:-

1. I can finally talk about the things I’ve been doing for the past year and not have NDA’s or confidentiality agreements to worry about, so the future is bright and I can discuss the potentials of the ‘next wave’ of technologies without having a gagging order placed on me.

2. We can start planning on how internal v external works for the organisation; we can explore and exploit the benefits of distributed, cloud and share services solutions.

3. I feel like I can start blogging again properly about techy stuff as I’m a nerd. I had considered setting up an anonymous blog or an internal blog (i.e. a blog to self) to keep track of all my doings  but neither of these seems satisfactory. I like to link to others posts and debate with colleagues online (and offline) so those things seem like anti-blogging to me.

…Never mind Happy New Year, it’s happy new era.

Change is good?

Martin Weller has written an interesting post about the restructuring of our institute. I have to say that I was suprised by the outcomes which suggest we split the unit into two. I, like Martin, am going to avoid the big political hot potato that are my thoughts about the review process itself although I did like meeting the reviewers and in particular Don Williams from Microsoft. Don really changed my view of the type of people who work there since he seems to be genuinely enthusistic about our work and values it. What I will say is that when change happens then the process of change management is important, I’m no expert but I do wish that more organisations would hire dedicated people with change management expertise to guide organisations through restructuring processes.

Why is it important? well because a bit like software development it’s not necessarily what your requirements are (the review outcomes) but rather what system is delivered (the new structures). These can be very different. I welcomed the review and despite a few misgivings about the outcomes I feel that overall this represents a catalyst for change which has been long overdue in our unit. I run a team that struggles with the complexities of dealing with the myriad of calls on our time. We pick up the things that other people cannot and we have no way of filtering or ‘focusing’ on the strategically important. I hope that the new units give us a chance to do that.

I have seen restructuring going horribly wrong, staff get demotivated and the best ones leave. Recruitment is difficult or impossible and the unit struggles under the weight of work that must continue to be done despite all the reorganisation taking place.

I have seen restructuring done really well through a well managed transition period with a reasonable set of targets (very low expectations for the first two years then rising to achieve full success indicators by the third year). This was done with relatively informal processes for migrating staff and building capacity. People moved gradually into new posts or areas and were willing to take on extra stuff as time progressed. The unit was seen as a new entity and treated as such, people were given a sense of ownership and a sense of purpose within the new unit. It wasn’t perfect but it was good.

So I have been involved in restructuring twice before with mixed results, is this third time lucky for me?

I think I’ll conduct some user testing once this is done to check that the system is robust and meets the requirements specification. In the meantime it’s business as usual for me, different structure but the same issues to grapple with.

OpenLearn:Discuss

I’ve been reading with interest the comments from colleagues about OpenLearn . Seb Schmoller in his piece argues about the type and volume of content and appropriateness of platform. Martin Weller gives a good defence of it from a content providers viewpoint and demonstrates how Tony Hirst and others have been using it. I’m not going into the content arena to argue the case for the defence but instead I’d like to give my thoughts on the project from my personal perspective as I (along with Martin) was involved in the early stages of the project and I created the first functional specification for the system.

So where do I begin…The OpenLearn project is full of intelligent people who have worked very hard to make it happen.

OpenLearn has been successful in achieving it’s funding objectives and making large amounts of learning material available to the public. So why do I feel slightly disappointed by it? I think because it has a missed opportunity. I created an extremely ambitious (but not unrealistic given the funding) functional specification that would have been difficult but not impossible to deliver. I suggested a range of learner centred resources, sense making tools and other neat widgets and things to help navigate through resources and use these effectively. I suggested many other things that have been successfully implemented in OpenLearn but they missed out the sensemaking layer in my opinion. I feel that the project wholly delivered on meeting the funding body objectives but has not delivered on bringing any added value (aside from publicity and a bit of ‘bonhomie’ to the OU) back to the OU or indeed to those that use the resources…perhaps what has been delivered is enough?…the contraints of building to scale and ensuring quality have in some senses restricted the platform and choice of tools to provide.

I strongly believe though that there is an opportunity that has not yet been realised to make something more substantial and to get people to contribute back and make it a true repository (as opposed to a depository) for course chunks (not necessarily the OU’s). To make it a ‘repository’ we need to allow people to build designs using the learning chunks and resubmit them easily back. I think there’s a case for building a Learning Design tool to do exactly that and I was discussing this with Grainne today (the LD bit was her suggestion by the way)…but even more important, go back to the basics of what is ‘best of breed’ in the world of sharing content. I did this with the specification and I think it needs to be revisited because the specification was to build something that would be a paradim shift for the university. I don’t see that in what has been delivered. What I do see though is something that works because it has provided learning materials which over 1.4 million people have downloaded. That’s part 1 complete, box ticked, now lets get part 2 done.

Teaching…going back to basics

I was looking at a news story from Channel Four News recently about the Open University which has been involved in this debate about ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification). Where the government is reducing or removing funding for students to study if they already possess a qualification at that level (e.g. second degrees etc.). I won’t get into that now as it’s a bit political but suffice to say I’m against it because I think it will inhibit lifelong learning for those who want to study at higher degree level to retrain in a new area.

Anyhow the news story contained snippets of old Open University folk in kipper ties showing things like wave form motion using a tank of coloured water. I am fascinated by these. I worked in the video production unit here when I first joined the OU and created animations for BBC programmes. We used to (in our spare time) watch the old video footage, including things where Professors had, for example, impressive sets of braces which could display different mathematical formulae as they talked about them. I really found it amusing and it did present quite dry subjects in a quirky way (which didn’t always work!).

 My theory now is that with technology we need to explore ways to go back to basics and to recreate this atmosphere. I think that the OU should be thinking about research into remote experimentation and remote instrumentation, actively engaging students in live experiments using the power of video, online media and interactive T.V.

 I’m currently involved in building a new centre for ‘ambient technology research’ at the OU and I have been enthusing (?) academic colleagues about how we could use the labs to do live experiments that we could stream and in which students could engage and actively participate and influence the outcome. This could open up our curriculum into new areas previously not explored by the OU (i.e. very hands-on activities in area such as physical sciences, sports, food, etc.) and also to help with student engagement and participation, making a more ‘virtual campus’ environment that can be achieved through a VLE or other simplistic online tool.

It’s an idea, it doesn’t need to cost a lot to do, it may be nonsense but we’ll see! – watch this space.