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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Open Ports for Open Minds

I'm at the JISC Innovation Forum this week. The Forum is a chance for people working for and funded by JISC to get together and discuss the big challenges in HE, FE and e-learning. The event is arranged around a number of discussion sessions, panels and forum (so its unlike a traditional conference as its not about individual work, but the lessons that we can learn as a community).

Yesterday we kicked off with a session about potential future directions for JISC, my suggestion was that JISC should concentrate on helping Universities manage the new wave of technology - not by promoting that they adopt it, but by encouraging them to simply move aside, and allow their students and staff some flexibility and freedom.

This has been exemplified by the WiFi network available to us at Keele University campus where the event is based. Each user requires an individual login and password, and is required to download a mysterious Java app that somehow negotiates access for you. Once connected you are restricted to http and https requests (no imap or vpn for example), and the java app frequently falls over and gets disconnected, requiring you to kill it (quit doesn't work) and then re-run it (although sometimes this results in you being denied access for a few moments, presumably while you wait for your MAC address to be cleared from some cache somewhere).

This is utter madness, a large neon sign that says "we have been required to offer you this service, but don't trust you and would rather you didn't use it". By making the experience so difficult they could put off a great deal of casual use, by locking the firewall down so tightly they force you use awkward web alternatives to the tools that you may be used to, and by requiring this bizarre java stage they ensure that only laptops (no phones or pdas) can access the network.

I've noticed a trend that students are beginning to abandon University e-learning infrastructure because it is too restrictive, and moving to public offsite facilities (such as Google Groups and Mail), but this is surely a good way of making students opt-out of the physical infrastructure too! If I was a student at Keele I would simply buy myself a mobile broadband connection and never use the local system.

JISC's greatest challenge is to get this sort of restrictive practice reversed, so that Universities can start to offer proper IT services to their students in such a way that experimentation and innovation can occur.

I can think of plenty of other examples. We have a colleague working at the University of Portsmouth who is blocked from accessing YouTube on his Uni network, making it impossible for him to access valuable teaching resources (he teaches languages and YouTube is a rich resource of material). At our own University (of Southampton) the central email systems have recently been overhauled, and the ability to set up email forwards to external accounts has been removed. Staff use the University email accounts as points of contact with students (its impossible to keep track of so many other accounts), and so this now forces students to maintain and check two accounts, rather than the one that they may have used for years.

Networks need to be managed, and damaging or illegal activity needs to be controlled or stopped - but the default policy should be to support openness.

Of course it's as much about open minds as open ports. We have to start respecting the autonomy of our staff and learners. By all means monitor the network and close down services or block ports that develop into a problem (as Napster did a few years ago), but give people the freedom to integrate their existing digital environment and personal gear as they see fit.

The alternative is to see them opt out altogether.

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