Not content!

As Jisc’s current content programme is reaching its conclusion, it has become increasingly apparent to me that, if we are to innovate we have to take risks, we have to experiment and test new ideas and we have to make mistakes. It is a preposterous idea that we can create a new environment for digital scholarship without making mistakes and in some instances investing in things that don’t work out. The 19th Century was a great time for innovation but many projects which were started fell by the wayside or just acted as a stimulus for new or rival ideas. Innovation relies on not being content, on continuously challenging the status quo and seeking for improvement.

The Content Programme 2011-13 set out to test a number of ideas: is it possible to create Open Educational Resources using primary source materials, can we do large-scale digitisation with multiple partners, does clustering resources make them more findable and usable?

On 3 July we had the Final Programme meeting here in London. A couple of strands of the programme had already delivered back in January, so we had only a few of those projects present at the meeting, yet we still had a jam-packed agenda. The morning was dedicated to projects work-shopping on the theme, Tales of the Unexpected. This session provide a rich set of shared experiences which was the subject of a previous post.

In the afternoon we ran a session called Digital pathways: institutional perspectives on the changing scholarly landscape, what the future holds. Lorna Hughes, University of Wales Chair in Digital Collections, National Library of Wales set out the approach to digitising the nation’s culture as matter of principle. Lorna is Principle Investigator (PI) for The Welsh Experience of  WW1 project which is reaching its climax and follows on from a number of preceding Jisc supported iteratives. She said her role could be defined as asking the question ‘what do we do with all this digital stuff’. So, though there has been significant investment in digitisation over the years, the real work lies in making the resulting content linked, exposed and related to demand; this approach is closely aligned with John Unsworth’s Sholarly Primitives concept.

Lorna suggests that the key thing is achieving exposure, partially through large aggregators such as Europeana but equally by offering multiple ways into large digitised corpora and in particular by geo-referencing their metadata. She went on to describe the Welsh place names project to create a basis of a gazetteer through crowd-sourcing. People want to find stuff though place and by date!

The geo-referencing theme was then taken up by Humphrey Southall, Reader Geography and PI for Old Maps Online. Humphrey talked about what GIS is actually good for as opposed to what it is normally used for.  Humphrey’s key point is that it is not enough to put material online. It must be findable, citable, linkable and embeddable, published as Open Linked Data or equivalent but also Copyable/Mashable through open licensing and finally sustainable. Humphrey suggests that GIS used in a standard way leads to average slicing of the data so you can’t find the detail. The presentation  stressed the importance of being able to mash up data from a variety of open sources via the ‘the Linked Open Data Cloud’.  The essential thing to make the Open Data work is open licensing; something that many bodies still do not appreciate.

Paul Ell, Senior Research Fellow, Queens University Belfast, went on to talk about the importance place names to overcoming the issue of information silos, the data deluge and sustainability. He posited that gazetteers rather than traditional GIS are the answer as ‘In the Humanities and Social Sciences almost everything happens somewhere’. The problem is that current gazetteers, ‘lack chronological depth and spatial detail.’ Gazetteers such at the one being developed by the Digital Exposure of English Place-Names (DEEP) project allow resources to be discovered through deep linking and bring relevant content together through the data derived from the Survey of English Place-Names.  DEEP has created infrastructure for future historical English place names activity. Paul explored how Gazetteers could provide a solution to discovery of a variety of resources. Ensuring that resources are linked is essential to long term sustainability. Paul went on to say that there need for more tools developed, including methodological tools – generic crowd-sourcing toolkits and multi-collection metadata for example.

These three presentations all arrived at largely the same conclusion: discover is significantly aided by Geo-referenced data but that this must be supplemented by a variety of tools, policies and open licensing.

The second round of presentations focused on how to sustain digital activities in an institutional context. Michael Pidd, the HRI Digital Manager at the University of Sheffield’s Humanities Research Institute (HRI) set off on an energetic assessment of why the HRI is a success. The HRI has a multi-disciplinary team which balances subject expertise with technical specialism. Recently the team delivered Manuscripts Online which makes innovative use of Natural Language Processing to improve discovery of a wide variety of manuscripts sources. Mike suggests that sustaining the centre relies on positioning it in the right way. Mike used no slides so here are some of the points he made:

– It’s about delivering DH, not theorizing about it!
– Being sustainable is about being institutionally sustainable first and foremost: bring in the business; bring in a net contribution; align with institutional research priorities and add value to your institution’s overall research profile. Students are now paying for their higher education more than ever, so understanding how a research centre contributes to that economy is crucial (rather than just expecting to be funded by it).
– ‘The HRI costs very little in the overall scheme of things, but we support the faculty brand through the interesting stuff we do’
– Work internationally and in partnership; this helps to bring in research income! Working collaboratively means drawing on a much larger pool of expertise and innovation.
– ‘Our website provides evidence to demonstrate impact internally’. The people who know least about us are sometimes our own institutions.
– Reputation is key – generate reputation and your opportunity to generate further partnerships is increased. But reputation rests on delivery with innovation.
– Know your press officer as that role is entirely about demonstrating impact – brand.
– Look for business beyond the original grant! The grant-funded period of a project should be just the beginning of the project’s life; you should be able to use the output of a grant to explore and develop other types of income models.
– Embed yourself in research communities by sustaining and evolving the resources you have developed for them.
– Get students on board – this makes faculty aware. Students become users of resources and in fact want to create them themselves.  If students are not using your resources, is your institution genuinely research-led?
– Demonstrate that you are sustainable by building solid relationships with other departments. For example, we have a close relationship with our computing services to ensure that we have the right level of service and freedom of action to host and maintain what we develop over the longer term.
– Provide a service to colleagues!

Mike went of to make some general points about Humanities research using digital resources. He suggests that if we stop innovating, Digital Humanities is finished! Digital Humanities should be about innovation in technology for humanities research, not simply the use of technology. For example, photographing manuscripts digitally was once a developing field in the humanities, whereas now we should consider this to be simply ‘doing humanities research’. Do big things with data be it big or small – you can do a lot with small data! Mike sees some trends emerging: rendering technologies which are native to the browser are taking off; web APIs have not taken off for linking data – but APIs are very useful for system architecture and for separating the data from the presentation layer.

He closed by saying that the development of policies is important; as data is a capital asset it needs security, resilience and access. He suggested the Humanities are way ahead of other disciplines in this regard as there is vast experience of these issues, gleaned from years of delivering rich data for researchers.

Nick Short, Head of e-Media Unit, Royal Veterinary College  brought the session to a thoughtful conclusion. Nick was mindful of lessons learned from a number of projects in which he has endeavoured to open up resources for teaching and learning. He focused on how we can make resources sustainable in a challenging environment. Nick made a number of key points during his presentation:

– The audience is the starting point.
– The provision of online resources aids the student journey – get to students before they join a course – provide basic insight into science before they start helps to gain advantage during the course.
– Once a student has completed the Veterinary course, we try to support them on a lifelong learning journey as a qualified Vet needs to refresh skills for 35 hours per year.
– Thinking about how to provide resources to support this ongoing training opens up what we do!
– Unless these resources make money it is difficult to justify their support and further development.  The way ahead might be to create an online academy, not a Mooc, rather a place where lots of resources are brought together.

Nick concluded by saying that learning from the WikiVet and the Jisc supported OVAM initiative shows that it is possible to provide resources which are liked by students and tutors alike but he suggested that we need to find ways of sustaining these resources. This is ultimately the great challenge. He proposed that Jisc could really help in the area of sustainability by doing economic modelling and by offering support for business case development.

These sessions evidence that there is a very mature knowledge base relating to the development of resources with serve the needs of users and the institution. The programme’s legacy is a set of valuable resources but more importantly we are on the road to developing a truly open environment for teaching, learning and research, built on increasingly sustainable development models. Yet we cannot rest content, as there is still much to do to ensure the long-term availability of so many valuable resources.

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