Collaboration in Higher Education and Its Benefits for ICT

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Key Takeaways

  • Collaboration within higher education benefits not just the higher education community but also the information and communications technology community.
  • Virtual environments can extend the reach of research collaborations internationally while stimulating developments in ICT infrastructure.
  • Cloud computing offers opportunities to rethink how technology is provided and exploited within research, learning and teaching, and the management of colleges and universities.

Collaboration within higher education, particularly in research, has long been part of accepted practice, often driven by the scale of the challenge but usually from a collegiate ethos and a desire to impart knowledge and experience as widely as possible. The information and communications technology (ICT) community in higher education shares in and benefits from this spirit of collaboration both in terms of creating leading-edge infrastructures and through a free exchange of knowledge and experience. This has been the case since the early days of computing (and earlier in the case of information services such as libraries), but the Internet and the World Wide Web have greatly enhanced this beneficial interchange. More recently, the open agenda has promoted benefits to research, education, and society in general through open-source software, open standards, open access to research outputs, and open educational resources. Many opportunities lie ahead for more open, extensive collaboration and accompanying benefits for ICT, including through use of virtual research environments and cloud computing services.

Virtual Research Environments

The growth in research collaboration, usually international, has done the most to stimulate developments in ICT infrastructure, for example the Internet, the World Wide Web, high-performance computing, and data mining techniques. Virtual communities of researchers, sometimes groups of over a hundred and occasionally many more, rely on a common network infrastructure and access to common resources — such as large-scale computers, remote instruments and sensors, databases, and suites of software tools and applications — variously referred to as virtual research environments or collaboratories. Many of these applications and approaches are tailored to individual disciplines and can require considerable specialist support. Identifying generic applications for collaborative research, however, beyond traditional communication tools such as e-mail, Web 2.0 applications, and video conferencing, is proving difficult. The resulting high overhead in computing support is often borne by the researchers themselves, with associated costs, frustrations, delays, and loss of efficiency to the research project. On the other hand, tackling large research projects, particularly in the sciences, would not be possible at all without such collaborative research environments. (The Large Hadron Collider offers a good example of a large, international research collaboration.)

The applications and developments that have followed from the concepts and early work of grid computing and e-science have been enormously beneficial, but they need streamlining and a more professional, robust standing. I would argue that the time is now right to build a new profession of research technologists to:

  • Support collaborative research
  • Identify generic approaches to collaborative research
  • Provide training for researchers
  • Maintain and enhance appropriate technical infrastructures beyond the existing network communication tools

A parallel would be the increasing professionalization of the learning technologists who now successfully support the multiple complex activities around e-learning (which encapsulates the overlapping and vaguely defined terms distance leaning, online learning, flexible learning, blended learning, etc., etc.). A profession of research technology would define the core skills required, accredit training, and provide a career path. Research technologists would also be well placed to provide formal training to researchers in the demanding techniques of modern e-science–based research techniques.

Even if an integrated generic service for virtual research collaboration is unlikely to be achieved soon, there are possibilities for benefiting from economies of scale through collaborative areas such as cloud computing, virtualization, and the open agenda, which includes open educational resources and open science.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing offers the possibility of outsourcing IT requirements to suppliers on the Internet. To take full advantage of the opportunities offered requires  a professional approach to procuring cloud services and culture change in the way ICT is provided and exploited within research, learning, teaching (not just in higher education), and the management of universities. Sourcing from the cloud is one way of meeting short-term peaks in demand for computing requirements, individual software applications, or larger and long-term support and processing services.1

The most obvious example of cloud services, now widely exploited by many higher education institutions, is the provision of e-mail, particularly for students. Many colleges and universities also use Web 2.0 tools such as YouTube and wikis for disseminating information and blogs for communicating remotely, usually within closed communities such as a student class or research team. All of these tools facilitate collaboration.

The opportunities for exploiting the cloud in administrative computing will benefit from experiences in the commercial sector, with further cost benefits achieved through the larger-scale use of cloud computing for resource-intensive applications that avoid the need for large-scale in-house computer and data storage, which can be difficult to capitalize and maintain in smaller institutions. A short-term requirement for a lot of computing resources or data storage could be met more cheaply by using cloud services than by purchasing and maintaining additional processors, for example. The longer term use of the cloud for general computing in a university or college might also cost less than either central or distributed IT provision when economies of scale can be realized.

Virtualization as an Option

Many issues must be considered before a university or college, or a department or faculty, decides to use cloud services. Despite some commonality of applications across universities and colleges (many use the same administrative and learning management systems, for example), the way in which these systems are used and tailored for the individual institution will differ. While some argue that organizations should consider redesigning their processes in collaboration with others to reap benefits, in practice this degree of collaboration is hard to achieve, especially where applications are seen as mission critical or offering competitive advantage. The concept of virtualization addresses this issue, enabling a single computer to run several different, completely independent applications.

Virtualization is not new. It can be, and is, used at any scale: between institutions to share different applications on the same computer, or within a university or college to run applications from different departments on a central facility (such as administration systems that require high security, and different learning management systems for a number of faculties).

Data Security and Persistence of Service

A more difficult issue when considering a cloud solution is confidence that the data and application will be secure and that the service will continue to be available over many years. The latter issue — a particular concern for long-term research projects — is not easily addressed by current commercial applications, particularly as users typically do not know where their applications and data are held. Using a private cloud presents a possible solution in situations where security is a concern, for example in storing ethically sensitive or proprietary business data — an issue especially for researchers outside the U.S. who doubt the security of their data on U.S. servers.2 One or more universities might share a data center, for example, or contract for such a service with a commercial provider where suitable guarantees can be given. Some applications simply do not lend themselves to cloud solutions without considerable risk, however. Highly sensitive data, for example, or research applications that require specialized high-performance computing architectures are not good candidates, although in the latter case hardware is usually provided centrally, often at the national scale.

Distributed Computing Versus Shared Services

Despite many examples of shared services and collaboration in higher education, the creation of shared computing facilities has not been common since the widespread introduction of smaller scale computers (minicomputers) in the 1980s, followed more recently by personal workstations. The trend has been one of distributed computing. Typically, each member of staff has a personal workstation with varying degrees of separate processing applications. These range from clients for remote central services (especially common for administrative applications) to powerful stand-alone clusters of high-speed processors to large data stores for research applications. This engenders, in many cases, a culture of independence and a belief that complete control of one’s computing resources is the safest and surest approach. This is not always true, and it is seldom the most cost-effective, secure, or environmentally friendly way of providing computing resources.

Changing the culture of use is a slow process, however, and the premise of rational decision making cannot be relied on. So despite a collaborative and collegial approach in much of higher education, the use of cloud computing or the creation of shared private or semi-private cloud services will not happen automatically or spontaneously. It requires direct management action from leaders of universities and colleges, and in many cases might require national or regional (state) government involvement.

Weighing Costs

A final issue when considering any use of cloud computing, whether as a shared computing platform or as a means of delivering software services over the Internet, is the cost. Under many circumstances cloud computing should prove much cheaper than the current distributed computing provision. However, the costs are not well understood. At what scale would it be cost effective? For which types of application — administrative, large-scale long-term research, or short-term demanding projects? Under which circumstances is shared private provision (such as a regional or national shared computer service) cost effective? And when is it better to use commercial offerings?

Exploiting the Cloud for Collaboration

There is a real opportunity for the education and research community to build on its ethos of collaboration and pool its experience and requirements for computing and data curation facilities by exploiting the cloud. The obvious parallel is the international collaboration required to build the Internet. That initiative arose from a powerful desire to use networks for enabling a new research environment. The Grid,3 a book by Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman that recognized a new opportunity for exploiting high-performance networking for research, has been key to JISC’s e-science program. The cloud is the broader realization of the Grid vision that, like the network, has wider potential for education and society as a whole.

An important area where the higher education sector can build on the successful track record of collaboration is in exploiting cloud computing concepts to reduce costs, improve the flexibility of provision, and reduce the carbon footprint of ICT. JISC is currently conducting research into the environmental, organizational, and economic implications of using the cloud, including IT governance, legal implications, and skills issues.4

The same processes and models that have led to a hugely effective research and educational network infrastructure can be deployed to provide a similar net of cloud computing and data curation resources. Creating specialist procurement and management organizations in the same way that many national research and education networks (NRENs) have provided the intelligent customer function necessary for educational networks. Whether the solution consists of self-provided computer centers or procurement of commercially provided services, it will require specialist management to ensure that the education and research community can maximize the benefit of cloud computing. This is a good time for the education and research community worldwide to pool ideas and expertise, collaborating to deliver the vision of a cloud of processing resources.

  1. Although the concept of cloud computing is presented as a new opportunity, it is, in essence, an updated version of the traditional computer bureau services popular (at least in industry and commerce) in the earlier decades of computing. The recent universal provision of high-speed, high-bandwidth networks across higher education and research makes the cloud model of interest, although such outsourcing has not been common in higher education.
  2. There is a widespread perception among researchers outside the United States that the US Patriot Act will enable a third party to analyze any application and data stored on a U.S.-based service.
  3. Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman, eds., The Grid 2: Blueprint for a New Computing Infrastructure, 2d ed. (Amsterdam: Elsevier, November 2003).
  4. The JISC studies cover use for education in universities and colleges as well as research and administration. The studies will review the evidence for the environmental costs and benefits of cloud computing, as well as the current state of cloud computing for researchers and other institutional user groups. See the JISC web pages Technical Review of Cloud Computing for Research and Using Cloud Computing for Research, and the autumn 2009 edition of JISC Inform, specifically the article on Blue Sky Thinking.