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JISC Next Generation Environments Conference

Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 18 Jul, 2007
Published 18 Jul, 2007
The Next Generation Environments Conference held at Aston Business School on 27 April 2007 explored the role of new technologies and next generation environments in higher education. The conference was aimed at senior policy-makers and influencers in the area of learning, teaching and research within higher education institutions.

The conference explored the current and potential future impacts of next generation learning, teaching and research environments and emergent technologies across the teaching and research community.

One of the aims of the day was to provide information about new technologies and the user experience. A series of presentations were given providing a policy perspective, an industry perspective, and perhaps most importantly two key perspectives from institutions – a senior manager level and the student view.

A further aim of the day was to examine areas where JISC can engage with partners, and lead, encourage and broker enhanced value from emergent technologies and their application to the education sector.

Participants in the conference had the opportunity to contribute throughout the day to the blog for the programme and some interesting discussion took place here.

Presentations from the day

The JISC strategic mission and priorities

Dr Malcolm Read, JISC Executive Secretary, welcomed delegates and opened the conference by placing JISC’s contribution to higher education within the broader educational picture. Virtual learning environments had been a key part of e-learning for a considerable period of time, he said, he also considered the role JISC would now play in supporting higher education helping to define future developments and in informing industry of the sectors needs.

JISC’s mission is ‘to support the sector in its use of ICT in a useful and sensible way’, providing an underlying infrastructure through JANET, and supporting different activities such as e-learning and e-research, business engagement, knowledge transfer and administrative systems. It manages large programmes, identifies areas for development, and provides support, guidance and services,.

The areas JISC supports are determined by several criteria,: that they are technology based, provide a UK wide benefit, and would be unfeasible without central support. Malcolm stressed the role of JISC in taking risks on behalf of the sector.

He went on to explain how the budget was allocated; and whilst the majority was spent on the network, considerable sums are spent in a range of development areas, which often overlap, for example research is a big driver for content and infrastructure, but the resultant work often benefits teaching and learning.

Through the above activities JISC has played a major role in technological development in education. An illustration of this role is provided by the e-Framework which has now become a major international collaboration, and should help institutions to develop complete and interoperable systems to support their work.

The overall mission of JISC’s work is to lift the sector as a whole by providing guidance and advice, enhancing capacity, providing strategic leadership and making sure future funding is informed by the broad range of work that is taking place across the sectors and industry.


New technology and the modern university

The keynote presentation of the day was provided by Professor Peter Hartley of Bradford University who, in an entertaining and stimulating presentation, considered what we can (and what we cannot) safely predict in the application of new technology to learning, he identified some major issues and barriers to future development, and suggested some potential ways forward

Peter began by asking two fundamental questions

  • ‘What do we visualise as the present and the future for learning?’
  • ‘What technologies do we need to support and enhance this?’

Arguing that although we may feel that we are adapting to new technologies, we are actually responding by adapting what we know already, Peter suggested that we are taking ‘the old and giving it a new context without changing what we do’. Peter then asked whether we actually knew what we wanted (was it students with ‘full brains?’) and what were our education systems designed for? One thing we could be sure about was that we could not predict the form and shape of technology, even within a 5-year time frame.

He listed a number of ‘reasons to be cheerful’, and not so cheerful. -

  • Some practitioners felt that e-learning had taken off too quickly before we really understood how to use it and at times had even led to a step backwards in the learning experience
  • There was a view that the use of a VLE equalled e-learning
  • There was a lack of rewards and support to develop e-learning, particularly in the context of the RAE
  • Social and organisational barriers were still significant

However many of the new technologies and tools were becoming more sophisticated and provided good tools for social and personal organisation and communication

He went on to consider students and whether we really understood who they were and the worlds they inhabit. Students are having to cope with an increasing amount of complexity in their lives both socially and culturally, let alone in their educational worlds; however their use of technology was matching and supporting this by providing tools to manage activity, and they were increasingly creating their own content. What did this mean for education? And the ‘real question’ was whether we thought they were coping well, the answer he suggested was that we just don’t know.

Peter suggested there was a ‘New fight in the playground’. The lines of conflict centred around the questions of ‘authority and control vs freedom and innovation’.

He identified three types of space which both staff and students now inhabit –

  • the ‘formal public controlled’ – which he called the ‘museum',
  • the 'collaborative, informal and exploratory’ which he called the ‘playground’
  • the ‘personal, private and exclusive’ which he called the ‘refuge’

and he suggested that these areas were often in conflict with each other in an educational context.

These areas require different types and degrees of control - but the question is how much control do we need? Organisations have never had to deal before with this sort of situation - how do we do it? ‘Software is not an issue – it runs right across – can be used in all these areas – but its application is different’.

He went on to discuss student expectations, how they relate to their tutors, and the group dynamics that emerge, and again returned to the point that we don’t really understand our students, or what is happening. ‘Students are struggling to become learners, “I don’t want to be a self-regulated learner. I just want to be told what to do.”’ Students find themselves in very different places in terms of how confident they feel about learning, and their relationship with technology.

The question is therefore how to organise the learning environment, and design courses, in order to respond to the needs of all these learners? As well as the environment, students are likely to prefer a different type of tutor depending on where they are in their journeys.

So a number of challenges arise and the modern university must -

  • Know the students
  • Make its pedagogy explicit
  • Support all the learning journeys
  • Then adopt the appropriate technologies
  • Manage the boundaries between environments
  • Align the policies and practices


JISC’s role in the changing HE landscape

Sarah Porter, JISC’s Head of Development, explained how JISC's role in future development involved taking risks on behalf of the community, inspiring innovation, and embedding and encouraging usage across multiple domains. She outlined the work of the JISC Development Group, and the impact that it is having at an institutional and community level.

The work of the group is primarily conducted through a wide range of development programmes and involves working at a number of levels, from the wider environment through to the development of strategies and policies which then become the drivers for the development programmes themselves. Change in institutions takes a long time and the aim of the programmes is enhanced capability, strategic leadership, and guidance to the sector that can be used at departmental, institutional, regional and national levels.

JISC is taking a strategic approach to considering the ‘next generation’ of learning environments and these include supporting moves towards modular approaches to software development, and service oriented approaches to the development of institutional infrastructures, as expressed in the e-Framework. These approaches also include a focus on the community and the individual, and supporting more flexibility and choice. The vision is that teachers should be able to use different systems, the community should be able to share open content and have open access in the research space, and that JISC will be able to capture requirements from the community and help with transferring these to the commercial sector.

There are many development programmes, and Lawrie Phipps, Programme Manager for the new JISC Users and Innovation Programme , explained that it aimed to ‘create opportunities to transform practice by developing technologies and processes that support the user experience in improved and innovative ways’. It has two strands, Personal administration for teachers and researchers, and Next Generation Technology and Practice.

The programme will bring together a community that will investigate and collaborate around these strands and funding is available through the Capital Programme for work in these areas.

Sarah rounded off this presentation by explaining that the JISC Capital Programme was providing many funding opportunities between now and March 2009 and the closing date of the current call was 21st June 2007.


JISC Inform article

Responding to the ever-evolving needs of institutions and academics

Derek Jones, Solutions Engineer at Blackboard Inc., outlined how Blackboard is looking at the challenges that institutions are facing, and they have outlined a vision for the ‘future learning institution in the 21st century’ which is ‘student centred, unconstrained by time and place, and operates simultaneously in a local and global context’.

They have conducted a series of reports and have identified ‘Four pillars of institutional effectiveness’ -

  • Enhancing the student experience
  • Responding to globalisation
  • Improving institutional accountability
  • Increasing resource use and revenue

He then provided some case studies of institutions which had successfully tackled these challenges in a strategic way using Blackboard.

There were seven key questions that educational institutions needed to address –

  1. What specific abilities and experiences should our graduates possess?
  2. How do we define, measure and store these outcomes?
  3. How well do our students measure up to these outcomes?
  4. Does social background, gender, nationality, etc., affect outcomes?
  5. How do services and policies affect these outcomes?
  6. How does course sequencing, pedagogy, extra-curricular activity, and technology affect outcomes?
  7. How do we harness this information to make the institution more effective?

Derek provided a model in his presentation for looking at the cycle of assessment and analysing how improvement could take place by taking a multi-level approach from the classroom through to the institution.

Blackboard currently offers a range of products to support institutions, and several associated initiatives which include the Beyond Initiative which is concerned with encouraging the community to get together, and includes free social bookmarking tools, and the BlackBoard Idea Exchange

He offered a vision of engaged students, a collaborative community, well served constituents and effective institutions. The future required a ‘360 degree view of students’, and the need to look at bringing technology together by combining centrally supported systems, along with in-house and open source systems. ‘The concept is that we’re looking to bring the technologies together to facilitate a more cohesive set of technologies and suites of products that suit the requirements of different institutions’


Supporting institutions’ collaboration and engagement with the wider community

Simon Whittemore, JISC's Programme Manager for Business and Community Engagement, leads JISC’s strategy and programme of work to support institutions’ engagement with business (private and public sector) and community partners. This area, Business and Community Engagement (BCE) , is also known as ‘knowledge transfer and exchange’, or ‘third stream’, in reference to a third stream of funding alongside teaching and research.

In his presentation Simon considered the role of new technologies and environments in knowledge transfer / third stream. He discussed new strategic challenges, new social software developments, increased online interaction, and how institutions can exploit these opportunities to break new ground. He began by providing an overview of BCE and placed it in the wider context of the challenges faced by institutions such as externalisation, and the drive for institutions to become more business-like. He explained the nature of the activity which includes the provision of knowledge services, and knowledge production, and the fact that public sector partners are the widest area of engagement.

Simon explored the content of this area of work and the types of activities that it typically involves in the context of the private and public sectors, and also the contribution it makes to the cultural and social worlds through cultural enrichment activities, and problem solving in areas such as crime, food and diet, and providing continuing education.

This work is concerned with the transfer of knowledge and expertise in HE to respond to the demands of the Business and Community worlds. There is a growing need for Knowledge Transfer professionals if this work is to become embedded and sustainable, and Simon discussed the Institute of Knowledge Transfer, and the development of KT practitioners.

Simon then went on to consider what characterised next generation environments, including their reliance on participation, their decentralised nature, and the opportunities they offer for collaboration and sharing. They can play a range of roles by facilitating collaboration, developing communities of practice, supporting professional development, enabling cultural and organisational change, supporting knowledge management and transfer, and service management and delivery.

He explored the key factors and conditions required for sustainable BCE, and this included structures and policies in place, a strategic approach, and the development of a culture which involved senior management support and an ‘Open, vibrant, interdisciplinary environment’ .

There are however, risks involved in ‘operating within a Web 2.0 world’ including questions of collective authority, ensuring quality, the speed of change and legal implications ‘But we need to engage and to understand to know, to control the risks and to make the most of the opportunities!’


The development, deployment and take-up of new technology

Dave Cormier, from the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, reflected on the experience of the implementation of new technologies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. These have included the development of virtual research environments, virtual learning environments, the facilitation of academic networks and adventures in an immersive environment.

He described how they aimed to take open source technologies and bring these together in ways which would blur the boundaries between teaching and research, and which would be driven by the students and researchers. This is essential if we are to manage what Dave described as the “huge proliferation of content taking place leading to knowledge clutter” which he suggested that only an ‘ubergeek’ could begin to control and manage. Researchers are now beginning to put their information online and publish research results as they happen, the question is how can this process be facilitated, and the content be managed?

Edtechtalk is a ‘network of educators’ based on simple principles – all of the knowledge in the community that is placed online is automatically available, and the infrastructure is kept as simple as possible. The principle is that it is better to establish what you want to do with lightweight tools which you can adapt; the danger of starting with expensive infrastructure is that it takes much more time to implement, and then determines what you can do. ‘Keep the technology simple, the governance open and focus on community as much as possible’. Dave described how there was a need to respond to multiple audience levels, and recognise the wide variety of ways in which people would become involved. The goals the community shared would lead to the development of the curriculum. The advantage to the university of using open source tools was that it made it possible to respond to people’s specific research needs, and these solutions could then become available and adaptable for researchers across the university, which also provided a much cheaper solution.

The Mollusc Health Laboratory has been developed through working with the research community and this approach has the advantage of allowing synergies to happen, and an increased confidence on the part of researchers that they can use these technologies. Dave discussed the need for ‘stewardship’ of digital artefacts and this was ‘really about taking a library and the way it normally supports research and stores knowledge of civilisation and giving it its new digital role’. They had been faced with the challenge of creating a digital library and came across the 2004 JISC description of a virtual research environment – which described what they needed ‘because we don’t just need to handle digital artefacts – we also need a place for community and a place for security’

There are many pitfalls on the way, but it is important to simplify things as much as possible, and there must be an immediate advantage for people. Things must be convenient and save time, and build on ‘existing literacies’. They have been using a service oriented approach with the intention that eventually everything will be ‘point and click’ and from the browser.

Finally Dave described the ‘Living Archives’ project which is developing an immersive environment through Second Life. It involves a collaboration between trainee teachers and school children who are creating a Mayan history installation. This has ‘integrated circular models of looking at the same content’, and whilst he felt that this approach was at the very early days of development, ‘like Pacman’, it provided an example of what can be done and they will be researching the process all along.


New technology from both the learning and teaching perspectives

Linda Creanor and Ross Graham are based at Glasgow Caledonian University and Ross began by exploring his experience as a student.

Ross, a student reaching the end of his undergraduate studies, is an experienced user of technology, and recognises that it plays a big role in his education. He described his experience as a learner in a technology-rich world and discussed the variety of tools he has been using both for his personal use and as formal university-supported systems.

The question of the relationship between students and tutors emerged as, whilst students use email, tutors may not always reply, and whilst tutors set up discussion groups in a virtual learning environment, students may not use these and may only use the system to download lecture notes.

Ross raised the question of encroachment on personal space. Students use systems like msn, bebo and facebook all the time, and, from his perspective they do not want to be receiving email from lecturers in that space, and ‘I don’t particularly want podcasts of lectures on my ipod -– I want to listen to music on my ipod’. Although he added that sometimes it was easier and desirable to interact in these personal spaces, and that he would not mind some content on his ipod, as long as it was short. His main concern was how we could bring the two spaces together. He argued that systems need to be fully adopted by everyone for people to be comfortable in their environment and for them to be successful. ‘I want an environment at uni to relate to me, for me to enjoy it and want to use it, and it mustn’t encroach on my personal space’.

Ross discussed the need for an environment that brought social and academic environments together, and allowed both one-to-one and group relationships, and commented that current virtual learning environments don’t seem to integrate these. Students want to know their tutors and have a ‘comfort zone’ at university, the question is how to achieve this.

Linda Creanor, is a senior lecturer in e-learning at Glasgow Caledonian University, and she raised the important question of ‘who are the learners?’.

There is an increasing number of research studies, around the learner experience, many funded through JISC and some through the Higher Education Academy. The Learner’s Experience of E-Learning (LEX) research study was funded under the Pedagogy strand of the JISC e-Learning programme, and looked at a wide range of ages and cultures. Among many recommendations it suggested that a more longitudinal view was now needed.

In the broader arena DEMOS have recently issued a report Their space - education for a digital generation which has a focus on school children and this will help inform how the present situation might translate later into further and higher education.

Linda discussed how we need to realise who the learners actually are and described how we are now catering for an ever increasing diversity of student profile, and the question is whether we are unintentionally excluding anyone.

A number of themes have emerged from the LEX study including

  • The blurring of learning and life
  • Student expectations, including the need to see technology being used for a reason
  • The role of the family is emerging as an important theme, both the influence of the family on the student, and the way in which the younger generation are influencing their parents
  • Learners are expecting to have more control over their learning, and there is evidence that they are completing tasks they are set but perhaps not in the way that the tutor expected.

Linda talked about the Saltire Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University and how it was designed to provide a self regulating environment and ‘a variety of different spaces, from noisy social interaction areas for group work, to places for silent study’. She suggested that there was a mismatch between what we give students in physical learning spaces and virtual spaces which can often still be very tutor directed

Learning is increasingly having to be fitted around life – which is becoming more complex, so students want flexibility and the ability to have clear boundaries between separate but interlinked things. So the big questions include how to bring together formal and informal learning in an appropriate way, how can we adapt the design of learning to encompass rather than exclude the technology, and how can we prepare staff in the new landscape?

The Mod4L project funded by the JISC Design for Learning programme , found that traditional professional development approaches are inadequate in this context, and that staff development and professional development are moving towards the notion of communities and encouraging staff to work together to develop these understandings of new technologies and approaches to learning.


Throughout the day many interesting issues emerged – some familiar and others new. They concerned the new technologies that have recently emerged, the enormous changes that have taken place in the students that now attend our universities, and the fact that we do not have a good understanding of the variety of worlds our students occupy and what they expect from higher education.

Alongside these new concerns, some perennial ones also emerged about the social and organisational barriers to change that still exist, and the need for teachers to have time to engage in using new technologies in their teaching in an appropriate way, along with the incentive to do this.

Some of the issues and questions that emerged -

New developments

  • technologies that were considered ‘learning technologies’ are moving beyond the learning context to support other areas such as e-research and business and community engagement
  • the interrelationships between e-learning, e-research, e-administration and business, and community


  • what does a modern university look like in the changing technology and student landscape?
  • understanding the landscape and what’s happening – for students, for offerings in time and place, and the pressure of globalisation
  • institutional effectiveness and competitiveness

Adoption and development

  • where are we in stages of adoption?
  • are we best placed to understand how best to exploit and use new technologies?
  • how do we break the pattern of taking the old and giving it a new context without changing what we do?
  • given the unpredictability of developments how do we plan?
  • what are the social and organisational barriers?
  • technology is not an issue – its application is - if it solves a problem people will use it
  • how do we involve the users in the design of systems – both learners and tutors?
  • what is perceived as new by some is already ubiquitous for other


  • we need a better understanding of students’ needs and the complex environments they now operate within
  • we need to better understand the spaces that exist in institutions and how they interrelate
  • the role technology plays in students’ personal and social spaces, the relationship between this and academic/learning life, and the issue of encroachment into personal space


  • adapting the design of learning and preparation for teachers in the new technology landscape
  • staff needing to be aware – the need for appropriate time to try out the new tools
  • time for staff to engage in teaching and learning development and e-learning
  • the need for lecturers to really engage with where students are
  • social dynamics of students and tutors
  • boundaries and the question of encroachment between personal and learning spaces
  • the need for a ‘tutor experience’ study as well as the ‘learner experience’

Learning environments

  • building on investments institutions have already made
  • the need for flexibility and responsiveness, and the possibility of personalisation
  • use of new and open source technologies
  • the issue of what learning environments we offer and the relationship between physical and virtual learning environments
  • what this means for vendors

Virtual research environments

  • tensions concerning open science and tradition
  • if a field changes every two months then a paper publication is inevitably out of date in fields that are rapidly moving
  • the link between research and teaching

Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
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