Tag: treasures

treat it like treasure

Cover of our BITS magazine designed by our ISG Graphic Design Service designers

This week is Information Security Awareness Week at University of Edinburgh. The graphic design team have made a range of lovely graphics for them based on treasure, phishing, pirates, datastewards etc. And I invented a tagline and hashtag for them.

The information, datasets and creative content we work with every day are valuable assets to the University and to other people. We should treat them like treasure. We should know where they are, how safe they are, who has access to them and how easily they might be stolen. Our feature topic for this issue of BITS is information security. This magazine is part of a University-wide awareness raising initiative for all colleagues and students to take care.

We have information and advice about what you can do to keep you and your work safe, and what the institution support services are doing to make that easy. Don’t underestimate how attractive even your most mundane information about people, processes and finances might be to someone looking in from outside.

The @UoEInfosec team have sometimes seemed reluctant to use the #treatitliketreasure hashtag in their tweets.
I wondered if perhaps they don’t like it.
I asked.
‘I don’t really understand how twitter hashtags work’ was the reply.
I wonder if that is ok?

technical debt for OER

Me trying to find a book on technical debt. Photo credit: LTW, University of Edinburgh CC-BY
Me trying to find a book on technical debt. Photo credit: LTW, University of Edinburgh CC-BY

Three weeks ago,  while preparing  my presentation for e-learningforum@ed conference I was musing on the similarities between ‘technical debt’ and what one might call ‘ copyright debt’.

I was thinking about institutional risks of not being open. Institutional risks are sometimes legal, sometimes reputational, sometimes financial.  Mostly, at IT directors’ meetings we talk about the need to mitigate risks early on, and avoid risks in the future.

Generally,  the risks of not engaging with open practice are reputational: Other institutions are doing it; we might miss out on this good thing; we should be seen to be bold in digital education and leading edge in our open research. There is a risk to our reputation if colleagues do not seem to be up to-date-on licensing and refer to online materials or data as ‘open’ when they are not. But most of those risks are easily hidden under a smear of open-washing and a vagueness about the definition of open in different contexts.

These are not risks which will ever convince a VP Finance and Resources to invest.

If you want to convince an IT director or a CIO to invest in systems which have built-in  open-licensing workflows,  protecting the institution against the risk of expensive copyright debt may be the way forward.

My definition of ‘copyright debt’ is based on my understanding of ‘technical debt’. Technical debt is a metaphor often used in IT to explain why it costs so much to replace IT systems. I  use it to explain why rather than spending my budget on new exciting learning and teaching functionality, I am having to spend it to replace something we thought we already had.

You can ready about technical debt on Wikipedia. It’s the cost of not doing something properly in the first place. From the moment you build a system poorly, without due attention to software code rigour and process, you begin to accrue debt and then interest on that debt. From the moment you don’t fix, patch and maintain the code, the same thing happens. At some point you are going to have to go back and fix it, and the longer you leave it the more expensive it will be*.

From the moment a colleague tells you that they don’t have time, or don’t care about the copyright licensing and metadata on their teaching materials and load them up into a VLE, online course environment, departmental website, online course-pack, lecture power-point slides, whatever, you start to accrue ‘copyright debt’.

Someone will have to go back to those materials at some point to check them, figure out who made them and when and check for 3rd party content. The longer time passes (or staff change) between the original materials   being uploaded in to the VLE the harder it will be to find the original source.

The cost will hit at the moment that you migrate from one VLE to another, or from one website to another, or from one media asset management system to another.  At that point lecturers and departmental administrators will be asked to confirm that they have copyright permission for the materials they are migrating, and they will say ‘ I have no idea, in fact I don’t even remember/know where all the bits came from’.

They will suggest that someone in a central service (usually the library) should do the checking, and that is where the cost hits. No-one in the library is super-human enough ( unless you pay them a lot)  to check all the hundreds of teaching and learning materials in your VLE, so most of it will just be binned and colleagues will be outraged that they have to make it all again.

I’d suggest the common causes of copyright debt include (a combination of):

  • Business pressures, where the business considers getting something released sooner before all of the necessary copyright searches are complete.
  • Lack of process or understanding, where the businesse is blind to the concept of copyright debt, and make decisions without considering the implications.
  • Lack of flexible components, where materials are not openly licensed, the re-use permissions are  not flexible enough to adapt to changes in course content.
  • Lack of time, which encourages colleagues  to do quick  google searches and take materials they find without checking the license.
  • Lack of metadata, where content is created without necessary supporting metadata. That work to create the supporting metadata represents a debt that must be paid.
  • Lack of collaboration, where knowledge of open practice isn’t shared around the organization and business efficiency suffers, or junior learning technologists  are not properly mentored.
  • Parallel development at the same time on two or more VLEs  can cause the build up of copyright debt because of the work that will eventually be required to move content from one to another. The more content developed in isolation without clear licensing , the more debt that is piled up.
  • Delayed reformatting – the  formats which were used for creating learning objects quickly becomes obsolete. Without clear permission to make adaptations it is hard for older TEL materials to be converted to new formats.  The longer that reformatting is delayed, and the more content is written to use the older format, the more debt that piles up that must be paid at the time the conversion is finally done.
  • Lack of alignment to standards, where industry standard features, frameworks, open technologies are ignored. Eventually, integration with standards will come, doing it sooner will cost less.
  • Lack of knowledge, when the content creator simply doesn’t know how or why to use open materials.

The challenge in all this of course, is that the individual academics making the materials don’t care about the longer term cost to the central services of this debt. This argument won’t persuade them to take the time to change their practice, so we must build rigour for open practice  into the workflows of our enterprise-wide systems and services as soon as we possibly can, making it easy for colleagues to make positive choices.

Or else we risk a whole heap of copyright debt.

*Basically it is the software equivalent of ‘ a stitch in time saves nine’.

(While I was doing this thinking, I bumped into  a session at #OER15 called  ‘the cost of not going open‘ by Viv Rolfe which also looked to quantify costs. Viv’s approach is to look at costs and savings around academic time spent creating materials, which complements my thinking rather nicely.)



an OER Vision for University of Edinburgh?

The Book of Salvation Opened, 1772 http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/1zx3cb
The Book of Salvation Opened, 1772 http://images.is.ed.ac.uk/luna/servlet/s/1zx3cb

The University’s mission is the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge. As a world-leading centre of academic excellence we aim to: Enhance our position as one of the world’s leading research and teaching universities and to measure our performance against the highest international standards; Provide the highest quality learning and teaching environment for the greater well-being of our students; Make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health and economic and cultural well-being. As a great civic university, Edinburgh …will continue to look to the widest international horizons, enriching both itself and Scotland. (University Mission)

‘Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.’ (Capetown Open Education Declaration)

The sharing of open educational materials is in line not only with University of Edinburgh’s mission but also with a global movement in which research- led institutions play a significant role. I’d suggest an OER vision for University of Edinburgh might have three strands, each building on our history of the Edinburgh Settlement, excellent  education, research collections, social responsibility, enlightenment and civic mission.

1. ‘For the common good’: Teaching and learning materials exchange to enrich the University and the sector.

  • To put in place the support frameworks to enable any member of University of Edinburgh to publish and share online as OER teaching and learning materials they have created as a routine part of their work at the University. (E.g handouts, teaching materials, lesson plans, recorded lectures, research seminar content, blended-learning content, datasets, problem sheets and tools).
  • To support members of University of Edinburgh to find and use high quality teaching materials developed within and without the University.

2. Edinburgh at its best’: Showcasing openly the highest quality learning and teaching:

  • To identify collections of high quality learning materials within each school department and research institute to be published online for flexible use, to be made available to learners and teachers as open courseware.(E.g. Recorded high profile events, noteworthy lectures, MOOC and DEI course content).
  • To enable the discovery of these materials in a way which ensures that our University’s reputation is enhanced.

3. ‘Edinburgh’s treasures’: Making available online a significant collection of unique learning materials available openly to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health and economic and cultural well-being.

  • Identifying a number of major collections of interdisciplinary materials, archives, treasures, museum resources to be digitised, curated and shared for the greater good and significant contribution to public engagement with learning, study and research. (E.g. Archive collections drawn from across disciplines e.g History of Medicine/Edinburgh as the birthplace of medicine/ Scottish history/ social change)
  • To put in place policy and infrastructure to ensure that these OER collections are sustainable and usable in the medium to longer term.

I suspect the expertise ( although not the resources*)  to deliver each of these strands exists within the University through partnership between Schools and Information Services. This vision would build upon work, custom and practice already in place within the University but offers an opportunity to take a strategic approach to publishing open educational resources at scale.  What else should be included?


*The annual cost of running MIT OCW is about $3.5 million


(c) University of Edinburgh Digital Image Collections CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

‘Have nothing in your library that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’, William Morris might have said.  In our library we have a copy of the Decretals of Gratian, printed in 1472, which was reputedly the favourite printed book of its owner, Morris himself.

With a movement towards open practice in higher education the topic of learning design in technology enhanced education seems to have become popular again.

“Learning design is the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities, usually using ICT-based tools to support both design and delivery.”1

Are our online courses useful and beautiful?  Much discussion at ALT, helpful JISC guides, toolkits , OER materials and some new tools in the space. It’s time to spend some time looking at the art and craft.

If we can be transparent about what we are doing we can reproduce the elegant elements.  If not, it’s curtains for us.

Jisc Learning Design Studio say the benefits of following learning design process are:

  • It acts as a means of eliciting designs from academics in a format that can be tested and reviewed by others involved in the design process, i.e. a common vocabulary and understanding of learning activities.
  • It provides a method by which designs can be reused, as opposed to just sharing content.
  • It can guide individuals through the process of creating new learning activities.
  • It helps create an audit trail of academic (and production) design decisions.
  • It can highlight policy implications for staff development, resource allocation, quality, etc.
  • It has the potential to aid learners and tutors in complex activities by guiding them through the activity sequence.

‘Learning design’ has suffered slightly in the UK, I think, from being  used interchangeably with ‘instructional design’ which has US and ‘training’ connotations which seem to make it unattractive to academic colleagues who prefer to think that learning is serendipitous, discovery based and personalised. There is also a difference between ‘designing for learning’, ‘learning by design’ and ‘learning design’.  One difference is that learning design comes with its own set of technical standards which shape tools and platforms.

time travellers

(c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

There is a steampunk science public engagement event  in Edinburgh on Friday* and it is the birthday of HG Wells today.  It seems appropriate in that context to let you know that I have discovered a time traveller in the University of Edinburgh Fine Art collection.

I am in the enviable position of being able to choose art from the collection to hang on the walls in my office. It’s a tough gig; choosing between a Blackadder and a Bellany, a Redpath and a Rodger, but I struggled through.  It has to be said that much of the fine art collection comprises portraits of dead white men with excellent facial hair, and there’s not many women artists in there.

My favourite picture in the collection is already exhibited ( quite rightly) in the school of Scottish Studies: Women Singing at a Table (Waulking the Cloth) by Keith Henderson is a stunning piece. I was offered  a naked Sean Connery from his time as a life model.

The first piece I have chosen however, is this painting by AE Borthwick. It is entitled ‘A Rocky Landscape’ and clearly shows a young woman recklessly using her laptop for virtual fieldwork while perched on a rock by a river. The artist died in 1955.


*Attendees are invited to dress in ‘your finest corsets, spats and gasmasks’.


women are like teabags

Picture taken by me in the room. No rights reserved.
Picture taken by me in the room. No rights reserved.

Did I mention that one of the best things about working in a research university is that you get to hang out near elegantly curated collections of beautiful old things?

Last night I was introduced by Jacky to St Cecilia’s Hall: the only place in the world where it is possible to hear 18th century music in an 18th century concert hall played on 18th century instruments.

St Cecilia’s is one of those buildings in the Cowgate that you walk straight past, never realising that inside is a trove of treasure. And a stunning collection of shiny bagpipes. The University has a plan to renovate the building and make it a lovely venue again. It’s the second oldest music venue in the UK (the oldest being the Holywell rooms in Oxford).

In case you are wondering, St Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians ( feast day: 22nd November). She is also the subject of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale. She was sentenced to be boiled alive, but miraculously, the cauldron of boiling water did her no harm, and she sat quite comfortably in it, singing for an entire day, after which they had to try to chop her head off to shut her up.   This makes St Cecilia the perfect illustration of  Eleanor Roosevelt’s  assertion that “A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.”