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  • The Spotify of the textbook world takes off as Bibliotech is go

    As libraries look to widen access to core texts, how can they make this affordable to both universities and students?

    Social mobility of students is a topic that rarely leaves the education headlines, with tuition fees and accommodation costs at the top of the list. Less topical, but of real importance to students’ day-to-day learning, is whether or not they have access to digital resources.

    Bibliotech, coined by its founders as ‘the Spotify of textbooks’, has been selected as a preferred e-textbook supplier in the UK. A shortlisted entrant in our edtech startup competition this year, Bibliotech negotiates with publishers on behalf of its users - be they students or academics - and via a web app, provide access to core textbooks for as little as £2.99 a month.

    Bibliotech was named as one of the recommended suppliers for e-textbooks in the Joint Consortia Framework Agreement for Books, which launches today. UK higher education institutions may purchase their e-books, standing orders and related materials via this framework agreement which provides compliance under EU procurement directives.

    David Sherwood, CEO at Bibliotech, commented,

    “We’re very pleased to be appointed as a supplier on the Joint Consortia Framework Agreement not long after Bibliotech launched in September 2016.

    We offer e-textbooks under a unique subscription business model and look forward to partnering with libraries in England and Wales to provide a sustainable library focused model for electronic textbook delivery.”

    Caroline Mackay, licensing manager at Jisc Collections, said:

    “It’s great to be launching this partnership with Bibliotech. It was set up by students who saw the potential of technology to provide online access to thousands of textbooks and learning materials, and gives a truly affordable option for many students, who would otherwise struggle to pay for these resources.

    We are also able to offer the service to libraries, which should really help students studying electives get access to resources which they may only need for a short while, and could form part of a valued package of support from their university.”

    The Bibliotech platform creates bespoke e-textbook packages which match institutions' reading lists and integrate into all library management systems, virtual learning environments and reading list software.

    All students have unlimited access to the content purchased for their course - a library-focused alternative to the one-for-one model.  Bibliotech already work with most of the major publishing houses and continue to sign new publishing partners with top titles from all the major courses. 

    Read more about the Bibliotech model and improving textbook access on the Jisc Collections website.

  • Govroam – the wifi solution for the public sector

    Anyone who has to travel to different offices and buildings regularly as part of their job will understand what a pain it can be to swap on to different wifi networks at every new destination.

    Identifying the correct network, sourcing the password, and actually logging on all takes time and effort.

    In the public sector, where partner-working across different sites and organisations is increasing, “zero-touch” access to wifi has become a possibility with the launch of govroam.

    It means that public sector employees across the UK can now travel between any participating public services’ building and connect to the network, without touching their laptop, smart phone or tablet. Once the profile is installed, the connection happens automatically.

    The introduction of govroam will support the trend towards multi-disciplinary activities, such as the convergence of health and social care.

    Imagine an elderly person is spending a long time in hospital after an assault and needs contact with social services, community health workers and the police. All of these workers can visit the hospital and use govroam to connect to the various online resource they need, while the service would also enable doctors to access patient records quickly during rounds.

    Site-sharing with govroam enables multiple organisations to share a physical location and connect over a single standardised network. Parts of a council office could be repurposed for community-based police or health workers, or spare space in police stations made available for probation staff. This approach encourages collaborative working and has cost-saving benefits.

    Such multi-tenanted sites are already being used in Leeds, where govroam is already in place as part of the Yorkshire and Humberside Public Services Network (YHPSN).

    Another public service network (PSN) that was an “early adopter” of govroam is Kent, where every local authority in the county has rolled it out. Govroam is now available at more than 250 sites and rising and work is continuing to connect the whole of Kent’s PSN, which has more than 370,000 users across nearly 1,200 sites.

    Govroam has also been deployed in parts of London, and there’s keen interest from PSNs in many other parts of the UK. The service is not, however, limited to PSNs: the fastest growing adopter of govroam to date is the NHS.

    Govroam evolved from eduroam – the established wifi service used by the further and higher education and research sector and which runs on the UK’s national research and education network, the Janet network, and supporting the roaming of 1.6 million unique devices each month.

    You can find out more by listening to our podcast on the benefits of govroam.

  • TDS Student partners with Jisc to empower higher education with tools to enhance student learning outcomes

    TDS Student, leaders in providing student attendance and engagement solutions to higher education institutions across the UK and Ireland, today embarks on a new partnership with Jisc.

    TDS Student welcome Jisc as the latest organisation to join their partner network and are looking forward to working in collaboration to build an integrated learning platform for the higher education sector.

    The partnership between TDS and Jisc will enable universities and higher education institutions to gather a holistic view of student interactions across campus.

    Ian Allen, business development manager for TDS Student UK, said,

    "We are delighted to be working with Jisc.

    The partnership will further complement the TDS Student attendance monitoring and retention platform, allowing existing and future customers to benefit from TDS Student and Jisc integration.”

    Michael Webb, director of technology and analytics for Jisc, said,

    “Working with TDS will enable us to extend the platform for our national learning analytics service.

    Learning analytics helps support student success by allowing universities and colleges to make the most of their data to provide improved support and timely interventions to students, and to provide students with the data and information they need to improve their learning.

    Ultimately this should create better results for all, improving student outcomes, while making universities more competitive and attractive to new students, so it’s exciting to start this next phase.”

    Effective learning analytics allows universities to personalise interventions and uncover hidden patterns in their student data. In doing so they can reflect on how students are interacting, and make evidence-informed decisions about how best to support their students.

  • What are universities doing to defend their cyberspace?

    Hacking is a growing problem globally and attacks on all organisations, UK universities included, continue to increase. So, what is the higher education sector doing to combat the problem?

    A new survey by Jisc indicates that universities’ cybersecurity budgets are increasing rapidly, but investment alone is not enough to tackle the problem.

    Raising awareness of threats, what they look like and what to do about them is a key defence in the fight to protect cyberspace, and the higher education sector is making good progress on this point. However, there are other difficulties to overcome, too.

    The research shows that, although most universities have information security awareness training for staff, fewer than half train students. Meanwhile, some universities report difficulties in recruiting staff with the right skills and complain there is not enough support for cybersecurity from senior decision-makers.

    To put the issue into context, latest Jisc figures show that, since October 2016, there were 770 Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against 176 different organisations connected to the Janet network. The unluckiest has been attacked on 59 separate occasions.

    Working on the principle that preparation is the key to effective defence, 82% of respondents use outside expertise to test their systems for vulnerabilities, although fewer (51%) use third-party services to gain intelligence about current or emerging threats.

    Jisc’s cybersecurity compliance manager, John Chapman, said:

    “With the increasing threat landscape, it is becoming more important to identify where vulnerabilities are, keep technology up to date and to apply the latest security patches as they’re made available."​

    Social engineering, especially phishing emails, (which may, for example, trick someone into a particular action, or into revealing confidential information), are the most common threats mentioned by survey respondents, all driven by a lack of awareness. 

    It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the top cybersecurity priorities are protection and prevention – and end-user training. The Jisc research found that 83% of universities provide training for staff, which is compulsory in 46% of cases, but only 40% train students and only 8% insist that students take a course.

    John Chapman added:

    "Being more aware of specific threats and improving user awareness can benefit institutions by reducing their exposure to attacks that can have serious implications."

    Respondents who felt their university was well protected against cyber-attacks said the issue was taken seriously by management, with the right investment, processes, technology and training in place. They felt able to react quickly to problems, undertook regular audits and, as a result, recorded a low number of incidents.

    By contrast, those higher education institutions who felt they weren’t well protected said cybersecurity was low on management’s priority list, there was a lack of investment and they had trouble recruiting the right staff.

    Using a real example, John Chapman explains how not investing in the cybersecurity area can be a false economy. He said:

    “We recently came across a university that had invested in a Jisc automated approach to vulnerability assessment, which meant it was able to understand within a few minutes if any of the systems were at risk to the recent WannaCry attack.

    “In turn, this allowed all the IT staff to be stood down from the alert on a Friday afternoon, saving the expense and disruption of working through the weekend to manually check that all systems across the estate had been correctly patched.”

    The survey found that 72% of universities had staff dedicated to cybersecurity and 40% set aside money specifically for cybersecurity in 2015/2016, which is projected to rise to 58% in 2017/2018. Compared to the level of spending on cybersecurity during 2016/17, the mean amount is expected to rise by 132% in 2017/2018.

    To help universities gauge where they are on the scale of protection, there are several recognised cybersecurity standards. Cyber Essentials is the most popular certification and 20% of universities have achieved this accreditation already, while 38% are working towards it and a further 29% are considering.

    In response to 94% of respondents agreeing this would be useful, Jisc is exploring the possibility of producing a cybersecurity ranking system for its members (universities, colleges and research establishments). Jisc has already committed to helping members better assess their cybersecurity position by developing a security audit service.

    The survey was conducted by Jisc between 30 March and 6 June 2017 and received 65 responses from 51 universities.

  • Govroam: bringing the success of eduroam to other public services

    In this podcast Mark O'Leary, our head of network access, and Emma Smith, our Govroam development manager, discuss the benefits of Govroam and the challenges that have been overcome.

  • Experience counts: sectors unite to launch new venture for students

    National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB), Unite Students and Jisc announce partnership to create national register of student work experience opportunities.

    In a move to help students find the right work experience, the NCUB, Unite Students and Jisc have joined forces. The partnership will work with universities to develop a unique matchmaking service aimed at bringing together businesses, charities and students to build a mutually beneficial connection.

    Creation of a digital platform for the service will give students easy access to work experience opportunities across the country and NCUB has already integrated the working prototype with career service systems with partnering universities.

    David Docherty, chief executive of the NCUB said:

    “We are delighted to be working with Unite Students, and Jisc to level the playing field in giving university students equal access to opportunities, help universities provide a wider range of experience for their students and give business access to a more diverse talent pool.” 

    Research shows that graduates with work experience are more likely to be employed, have increased confidence, attain better classifications of degree, and get a better job faster. The work experience platform will create a national pool of work experiences, particularly for students from disadvantages backgrounds.

    The partnership will be working with business to provide a range of working experience opportunities for undergraduates across the UK.

    Richard Smith, CEO of Unite Students said:

    “We provide a home to over 50,000 students across the UK and our research has identified that employability is an increasingly important issue for students, so the timing of this project couldn’t be better.

    We’re excited to be working with NCUB and Jisc to improve access to work experience opportunities for students, and know that it will benefit both students and the business community alike.”   

    Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc said:

    “This is an exciting venture to be involved in and one that will help to support universities deliver a joined-up, enriched experience for their students.

    We know from the recent results of our student digital experience tracker (pdf) of 22,000 students, just how valuable work experience will be in increasing their understanding of the digital skills they need for the workplace.”

  • Preparing Scotland’s students for their digital future: the new priority for higher education?

    The University of Glasgow emerged the deserving winners of this year's Jisc-sponsored Innovation Technology Excellence category at The Herald's Higher Education Awards.  

    Through demonstrating how virtual reality can give medical students an insight into seizures from the patients' perspective, the ViRES project is clearly leading the way in engaging students with technology, but what is the picture across the sector?

    An extensive survey has shed light on students’ digital experiences and expectations in detail, and at scale. With over 22,000 participants from 74 organisations in the UK and ten international universities, the 2017 student digital experience tracker (pdf) has collated some interesting results.

    Recently released, the report gives some real insights into how students view the support offered through their universities, the skills they’re obtaining and whether this is equipping them for the world of work.

    Scotland is not exempt from the ‘digital skills crisis’, and with millennials making up 50% of the workforce by 2020 – so says Price Waterhouse Cooper’s report into ‘reshaping the workplace’1 - there’s an expectation that the next generation of graduates will be the digitally capable workforce of the future.

    The tracker found, that as a result of technology, 71.3% of students felt more independent in their learning, and a similar number felt they could fit learning into their lives more easily.

    On the flip side of this endorsement of tech, and despite 82% of higher education (HE) learners agreeing that digital skills will be important in their chosen career, only 50% agree that their course prepares them well for the workplace. Should we be worried?

    According to Sarah Knight, our head of student experience,

    "Support, advice and guidance for developing students’ digital skills is often held across lots of different places in an organisation but many students are unsure about where to access it.”

    What’s more concerning, in her opinion, is that a significant proportion said they weren’t sure what skills they’d need for their course or for their career afterwards.

    It’s far from a negative picture across the sector though, and there are some great examples of good practice, including from Glasgow Caledonian University who feature, with ten other HE institutions in our guide to developing organisational approaches to digital capability.

    We know from last year’s tracker survey that students were most likely to use new technologies if they’d seen these well-used by staff, so approaches such as the 2020 strategy to expand digital literacy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, offer real promise.

    Within the tracker, several of the other areas explored were the digital environment and students’ access to digital services in the places where they usually learn.

    We discovered that while 80% had reliable wifi within HE, it was clearly still a consideration for students with comments from learners including: “If everything is going digital we need better wifi”

    Alongside eduroam, a wifi service designed with students in mind, we also run a number of services to boost institutions’ cybersecurity and safeguard learners.

    With over a third of students who participated in the tracker unsure of how to access help if bullied online, the digital scope of universities reach beyond the teaching staff, illustrating the ongoing need for support of their students’ digital wellbeing.

    If the future is bright, it’s most definitely digital, and in providing a well-rounded experience for students, we need to meet both their expectations and those of their future employers.


  • Higher education students not prepared for digital workplace

    Our young people are touted as a tech-savvy cohort who have grown up with the internet and smart devices, but is the UK higher education (HE) system equipping them for life in the modern workplace?

    While 81.5% of university students feel that digital skills will be important in their chosen career, only half believe that their courses prepare them well for the digital workplace. These are sobering statistics considering the well-documented technical skills gap in the UK and that good digital skills are becoming increasingly vital in the workplace. 

    Our new student digital experience tracker survey (pdf) sheds light on the digital skills, habits and attitudes of today’s higher education learners. 

    The results show that the use of technology in teaching and assessment is not fully embedded into practice. Highlighting an apparent mismatch between the skills required by employers and those that students are familiar with, or believe are necessary, the report warns:

    “We need to be concerned about the almost 20% of learners in HE and almost 40% in FE who do not feel digital skills to be relevant in their chosen careers.

    Since we know that around 90% of all new jobs require good digital skills, there must be a question mark over the workplace awareness of these learners, and perhaps of their teachers.” 

    Our head change for student experience, Sarah Knight, says HE providers need to address this gap:

    “Though colleges and universities are arming students with the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for their preferred careers, some are missing the opportunity to embed digital skills as part of the curriculum.

    Incorporating opportunities to embed digital skills into the curriculum (as well as technology into the delivery), doesn’t only improve the experience for learners, it also enhances the professional development of staff.

    The digital capabilities of staff are key in order to pass on the relevant digital skills to learners, to improve their employability.” 

    However, it appears that tutors are not the automatic go-to for support in digital upskilling, particularly for university students. Just 15.8% of HE learners said they would ask for help from a tutor. Online assistance was the most common choice for this group (36.5% said they would turn here for help), with a lesser number (20%) asking fellow students, friends and family. 

    Learners are generally upbeat about engaging with digital technology to support their course learning, but its use doesn’t seem to be widespread. The survey finds that around six in ten feel that use of digital technology on their course results in better understanding and allows them to fit learning into their lives more easily. More than 95% of HE students say they have produced work in a digital format and around 78% have experience of working online with others.

    However, 58% of HE learners have never used an educational game or simulation as part of their course and 48.4% have never used a poll or quiz to give answers in class. 

    The report notes that, considering the very high percentage of HE (95.7%) learners who access online information weekly or more, a decade and a half after the development of “the social web”, content-centred teaching practices continue to dominate.

    It goes on:

    “A similar observation could be made about the low use of interactive digital media such as games and simulations, which provide rapid intrinsic feedback, and polling, which provides in-situ feedback to make live learning more engaging and responsive. Neither appears on this evidence to be fully mainstream yet.”

    The tracker is a tool that enables organisations to explore how students use and feel about the digital tools, environment and support they provide. It offers institutions valuable insight into how students are experiencing digitally enhanced learning, and provides an opportunity for them to engage with students with regards to issues such as the design of their curriculum and the digital environment.

    More survey findings

    Virtual learning environments (VLEs)

    HE learners are highly likely to use VLEs: 80% rely on it to do coursework and 67% regularly access it via a mobile device. However, only 40% say they enjoy using the collaborative features or want their tutors to use VLEs more. 

    Online assessments

    Notably more HE learners agree that e-assessment was convenient (80%) in comparison with the number of learners who agree that e-assessment is more enjoyable (57.6%), provides them with better feedback (45.8%) or helps them avoid plagiarism (70%). This suggests that negative feelings about online assessment overall may be related to ‘delivery’ (and outcomes) rather than to ‘management’.

    In both sectors, the report suggests that e-assessment perceived by students as being practically useful rather than pedagogically valuable. 

    Digital learning tools

    Students were asked how often they used digital tools or apps to complete course tasks in their own time. Of those who used such tools weekly or more, 64.4% use digital tools to make notes or recordings; 68.8% look for extra resources; 60.7% manage links and references; and 81.6% access lecture notes or recorded lectures. A minority (40.2%) use social media to discuss learning. 

    Other notable statistics

    • 80.4% of HE students have reliable wifi access in their university
    • 95.1% have access to online course materials
    • 91.2% have access to institution owned computers and printers
    • 88.4% use their own laptop to support learning 
    • 65.5% agree they have access to digital training and support when they need it
    • 31% agree that they are given the chance to be involved in decisions about digital services
    •  80% know where to get help within their university if they are bullied or harassed online 
    • 35% agree they know how their personal data is stored and used  

    Find out more

  • Purchasing power - we unveil initiatives to make digital collections affordable

    We are giving subscribing universities and research centres access to more than 20 collections from three major publishers, Adam Matthew Digital, Brill and ProQuest, as part of a brand new group-purchasing pilot

    The agreement is part of exploring new ways to help higher education libraries increase access to digital archival collections that facilitate research, teaching and learning in more efficient, joined-up ways.

    Creative Commons attribution information
    Vogue Italia cover
    ©Vogue via ProQuest - The Vogue Italia Archive
    All rights reserved

    The offer is based on a community centred approach to lowering the cost of digital archival collections and the simple market principle: the more products are purchased, the lower the price. Institutions have until mid-July to take advantage of this opportunity through the publishers' pages on the Jisc Collections website (Adam Matthew DigitalBrill and ProQuest).

    Paola Marchionni, head of digital resources for teaching, learning and research at Jisc, highlights:

    “Researchers and librarians face a common concern: how can we ensure sustainable access to special collections to deliver better research and innovative teaching?

    Libraries have said that digital archival collections of primary source material are an important complement to traditional resources such as journals and books, but budgets are stretched and they find it difficult to purchase these often expensive content resources.”

    The parallel initiative is a collaboration between Jisc and US-based Reveal Digital, which uses a library crowdfunding model to support the digitisation and delivery of special collections (such as Independent Voices), which represents the largest digital collection of North American 20th century alternative press titles.

    We have negotiated pledging fees for UK institutions to gain early access to this unique collection and at the same time support UK digitisation and open access. Half of the amount pledged by UK libraries will go towards the digitisation of UK alternative press content for future inclusion in Independent Voices and UK pledging libraries will provide strategic oversight on content selection and digitisation. Independent Voices will become open access in 2019.

    Dr Douglas Field, senior lecturer in 20th century American literature, University of Manchester, one of the institutions that have pledged so far, said:

    “For decades, scholars have been searching through different libraries in the US in order to find complete runs of little magazines and alternative press publications.

    By digitising so many previously hard-to-find publications, Reveal Digital has made these vital publications accessible, transforming these alternative press publications from marginal areas of scholarship into exemplary digitised copies for a new generation of scholars and enthusiasts.”

    To date, eight institutions have pledged their support and helped to crowdfund the digitisation of UK content:

    Chris Ashton, head of content and collections, University of Sheffield, said:

    “The University of Sheffield has been very happy to pledge its support for the Independent Voices project in order to receive early access to this important collection of US alternative press titles, and to have a voice in the forming of an equivalent UK collection.”

    For UK institutions, pledging for Independent Voices (via Jisc Collections website) is open until 31 July 2017. Here, you'll also find more information on the collection and Reveal Digital’s crowdfunding model.

    Register for a free webinar on 20 June to find out more about Independent Voices, and read more about the group purchasing pilot.

    The Independent Voices collection

    The flood-like appearance of an alternative press in the late 1960s expressed the upsurge of dissent and of aspiration of American youth. Feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals and the New Left, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Latinos, and members of the LGBT communities all began to publish newspapers and periodicals.

    Drawing their inspiration from the successes and failures of the Civil Rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War, an amorphous but broad movement for radical change splintered.

    Read more about the Independent Voices collection.

  • Beating Brexit: why we must build more bridges towards borderless education

    Overseas’ students are a key part of the UK economy, but Brexit is already having an effect on the numbers from the EU who want to study here. To ensure the UK remains a world leader in delivering education and research internationally we must now capitalise on developing opportunities for “borderless” study.

    In this podcast we take a look at why we must build more bridges towards borderless education. Read the original blog post.

  • Two thirds of Scottish students think staff need to improve their digital skills to keep up

    Our survey of 1,001 learners has found that 63% of Scottish students think staff need to improve their digital skills to keep up. A further 68% of respondents think that students should be taught more digital skills to help them to cope with the modern workplace - in line with concerns about a digital skills crisis, that have been heightened in the wake of Brexit.

    The digital capability of staff and students is the key theme for this year’s free Connect More events, kicking off on 6 June at Caledonian University, Glasgow. The events have a varied programme of speakers from both Jisc and across the education sector and are an opportunity for professionals to network and share problems, and solutions.

    Valerie McCutcheon, research information manager at The University of Glasgow said:

    “One of the key benefits of being involved in a recent Jisc project was the opportunity to share our experiences and knowledge with others from different education institutions. I would encourage anyone who is keen to explore how technology can enhance the learning experience of students and tutors to register for the event – collaboration is one of the best ways to tackle the common issues that we in the education sector face.”

    The survey1 also found that 54% of students think technology is developing faster than schools, colleges or universities can cope with, and more than two-thirds (79%) believed that staff need regular training in order to improve the way technology is used in their organisation.

    Andy McGregor, deputy chief innovation officer at Jisc, who will be presenting at Connect More Scotland, said:

    “Connect More events bring higher and further education staff together to network, to share effective practice and to learn. From previous research we know that most students are inspired to improve their own digital capabilities, but practitioners already have many priorities and targets that take up their time when it comes to implementing new technologies at their organisations. This event will provide ideas about how to use technology in an efficient way. There’ll also be the chance to use some inspiring tech from the hands on tasters available at Digilab, from VR headsets to robots and everything in between.”

    60% of survey respondents also thought that advancements in technology stand to improve the learning experience for future students, which is the ultimate goal for lecturers and tutors wherever they’re based.

    From digital problem solving to robots for the classroom, the free Connect More event, on 6 June will give educators - in both FE and HE - a chance to explore the tools available to them today and how to meet the expectations of tomorrow's learners.

    Register for your nearest Connect More event.



    • 1 *The survey was delivered by Fly Research, on behalf of Jisc in May 2016

  • Learning at Work Week 2017

    This week (15-21 May) is Learning at Work Week, but cast your mind back a short while and ask yourself: “What did I learn at work last week?” If you find it hard to think of at least one example, then maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit.

    Need some inspiration? Let’s start with a little food for thought:

    “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family”

    So said former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Showing understanding of how people best learn, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said:

    “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

    Early Chinese philosopher Confucius thought that:

    “He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

    And one for the boss, perhaps, courtesy of John F. Kennedy:

    “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

    Colleges and universities are full of learners, but the term shouldn’t be confined to students. If you are a manager or teacher in a college and university, then you must learn too, especially in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world that is increasingly reliant on technology.

    Let’s continue by asking a few questions:

    Lecturers, are you:

    • able to access technology specifically for teaching and assessment?
    • comfortable using that technology?
    • confident students are making the most of technology resources?

    Managers, are you:

    • aware of how students use tech and their attitudes towards it?
    • aware of the role technology can play in student wellbeing and retention?
    • using technology to make efficiency savings?
    • confident that your staff are using technology to the best of their ability?

    If you can’t yes to all or most of the above that apply to you, then maybe you need to learn some new ways of working.  

    Firstly, establish a baseline: Work out the tech skills and resources you and your institution have, the skills and resources you would like to have and the skills and resources students and colleagues expect you and the institution to have. If there’s a shortfall, it’s time to make a change.

    There is a wealth of help available from Jisc. Our new guide contains comprehensive information for your digital transformation journey and a suite of tools and resources. Alternatively, book in for one of our free Connect More events, being held around the UK in June and July and focused on the digital capabilities that every teacher needs.

  • How universities can use learning analytics to boost fair access and retention

    Universities pulling together access agreements for next year should have learning analytics in their sights. ​Read the accompanying blog post.

    In this podcast we take a look at how learning analytics can be used to boost fair access and retention of students in higher education.

  • "Keep up!" - 86% of students want higher education to keep up with mainstream tech trends by introducing activity tracking apps

    It’s no secret that sales of activity tracking apps and wearables have boomed, with The Telegraph reporting that over three million fitness trackers are flying off the shelves in the UK each year. From monitoring our fitness and sleep and even our mental reflexes, self-improvement is officially the name of the game.  

    86% of higher education (HE) students think an activity tracking app for learning and teaching would be helpful, finds our recent survey. Further findings show that 78% of HE students would be happy to have their learning data collected if it improved their grades, and more than half would be happy to have their learning data collected if it stopped them from dropping out (61%).

    These findings come as no surprise, as the survey also found that 98% of HE students think that technology is becoming increasingly important in education. A further 76% of HE students surveyed who think technology is becoming increasingly important – think so because it makes life more efficient. It seems clear that students would whole heartedly welcome this self-improvement movement, along with the tech that they use in their everyday lives, into the education sector.

    Enter learning analytics. This year, we will be releasing a learning analytics student app, so that students will be able to see how their learning activity compares with others and set targets to do better in their courses. This will not only benefit students, but staff members too, who will be able to view a dashboard showing the learner engagement and attainment of their students, allowing them to better target students who might be struggling with the course, and prevent drop-outs too. The app will also help staff members to better understand how to make learning more effective.

    Speaking to Times Higher earlier this year, Ian Fordham, Microsoft UK’s new director of education, said higher education institutions are in a “hybrid” state of adapting technology into their academic offer:

    "I think the learning analytics movement in HE is going to become much more significant, tracking students on their learning journey – for example, the amount of money that universities waste on lost students in terms of that journey.

    Embedding learning analytics within a university’s tech-enhanced learning environment brings many advantages, including having a single version of the truth where universities have clear data from which to base informed decisions and create intervention plans early to improve an outcome.”

    Andy McGregor, deputy chief innovation officer at Jisc said:

    "It’s brilliant to see that students are as inspired about the creation of an app to improve their learning experience as we are. The app has the potential to help students take control of their learning progress as well as enabling university staff to continually improve the experience they offer students. With such apps becoming every day in other sectors and industries, it’s time that education reaped the benefits of such technology too. 

    At Jisc we believe that digital has the power to transform and revolutionise education, and our work with learning analytics is an important step in the right direction"

    To support the use of data and analytics, we are working with 50 universities to set up the world’s first national learning analytics service. This system is being developed to include bought-in learning analytics technologies, and Jisc developed solutions. The service will be underpinned by our code of practice, which sets out the responsibilities of organisations to ensure that learning analytics is carried out responsibly, appropriately and effectively.

    To get up to speed on learning analytics, as well as our code of practice, you can read our quick guide to understanding your data.

  • Machine learning v malware: is big data the new kid on the cyber security block? - Miranda Mowbray

    Data scientist and Networkshop keynote speaker Miranda Mowbray explains how finding patterns in large data sets may offer a huge step forward in tackling network attacks. In this interview she also considers the particular security challenges posed by the Internet of Things, the ethical issues around big data analysis, and argues that we should not blame users for their poor password choices.

    Miranda Mowbray

    You use big data to find attacks on computer networks. How? And how does it improve on how people were doing it before?

    In general, the traditional way of finding attacks on computer networks is to identify the “signature”. So, for a particular attack, you know that there is a particular sequence of bytes that’s a signature of that malware, or the signature is a little more behavioural, for instance that a certain number of bytes are sent to a particular port. Or the malware uses a particular domain to communicate between the infected machine and the malware.

    But this is a rather fragile way of detecting because if the malware designer manages to change the signature and slightly upgrade the attack, then it suddenly becomes invisible. Malware designers have found ingenious ways to design malware so that they give different signatures every time - the malware itself mutates.

    However, if you collect lots of data from the network and use data analysis on it, it’s sometimes possible to spot patterns. So, for example, although the domain will be different every time, you see patterns in the set of domains that are picked by the random generator within the malware. And if you can see this happening in ways that are consistent with the attack you can do larger-scale pattern spotting and use that to detect malware that mutates.

    One way that we did this was to detect domain fluxing algorithms. This is a technique in malware where the domain that is used to connect between the malware controller and the infected machine is different each time. But there are patterns in the features of the domains that they try to connect to. We weren’t the first people to use data science to find these patterns, but we designed a detection method that, from five days' data from five different months in a large enterprise network, uncovered 19 families, nine of which we hadn't seen before. The previous record was in a paper that reported six previously unknown families detected in 18 months' data, and most previous research papers on this topic reported just one new family.

    Are there any downsides with using data science for the detection of network security issues?

    Yes. There are several big ones. The first is false positives. We’re looking at billions of events per day and if you have one chance in a thousand of getting a false positive, then that's millions of false positives. That’s not good enough – the number of false positives has to be kept low. There are various ways in which you can do this. Generally, you do it as a trade off between false positives and false negatives in that you’re prepared to miss things, but there are also other techniques. For example, rather than immediately ban something from your network, you may quarantine it so that the stream connected with it cannot explore the full power of your network, like get into more sensitive databases, for example.

    [#insertinlinedriver services#]

    Another thing you can do is delay and collect more information. So you say, “this looks suspicious, we’re going to delay its behaviour, observe it some more and see whether we can be more sure whether it’s actually bad news or not”. That may result in a slight delay but, when we tried it, users didn’t actually notice anything at all.

    Another option, and the point at which users might become aware, is if you decide to set up automatic send-outs of notifications to users saying “we’ve noticed something suspicious and here’s what you have to do”.

    An inherent problem with cyber security from a data science perspective is that, unlike other areas of data science, there is an adversary. You’re not trying to find general patterns in nature or the universe or a business, there is someone who is actively trying to fool you – and that makes it more challenging and more interesting. You have to make the detective methods you develop expensive for your attackers to get around, or slow them down. You have to think always about how they might be circumvented. That’s pretty cool and fun.

    Another issue is that because you’re looking at a very large amount of potentially sensitive data, keeping this data private and secure is really important and that’s less of factor in some other areas of data science where the data is public and not particularly sensitive.

    A further issue is the frequency of the true positives. Supposing one in a million of the billion events you look at is associated with an attack, that’s a thousand a day. Ringing an alarm bell for each one of those will not go down well with your security event team. So you have to collate the data and show it in a way that’s more helpful and easy to manage for human beings. If you can work out if there are things happening that are all associated with the same attack, you can report them together, ringing just one alarm bell.

    What added issues does the Internet of Things bring?

    In one sense, the Internet of Things is no different from what we had before – it’s hardware plus software plus networking plus applications, and a security problem in any one of those is a security problem for the whole thing. But what’s unusual about the Internet of Things is that this is a new industry with a lot of new companies whose main focus is not going bust. They have a limited amount of time and venture capital to bring to market a product that actually functions and they are concentrating on that. Anything that will delay their time to market or increase their cost per device is going to be treated as an area where they may have to make cuts – and one of these areas is security and privacy. The issue with privacy is that it may be that, for the business model, the whole point of the device is to collect as much data as possible.

    There’s also an issue that this is mainly small companies where the manufacturing chain may be very long and complex. It may involve teams from small startups in seven different parts of the world, where none of the teams have a security expert. And interactions between what any of these teams do might cause a security problem.

    Another issue is where an object is designed for offline use and then put on the network. It may be very securely designed and be fine as long as it’s offline but, as soon as you hook it up, all sorts of new problems emerge. For example, there are doll manufacturers that are internet-enabling their dolls and there have been vulnerabilities discovered in these. They may be designed to be safe and work well as offline dolls but once you put them on the network there’s an issue. 

    How can we move forward in making people actually care about security? Is it down to design processes, business models or user mindsets? (Or all three…)

    It’s all three. For example, with the Internet of Things, as well as the design of the technology, one issue that can easily be addressed is that some Internet of Things start ups don’t have good processes in place. They want to do the right thing but, for example, they do not have good procedures for responding to a vulnerability report.

    There was an investigation into the security of baby monitors, which found difficulties, which is not really surprising, but what did surprise me was the very inadequate response of some of the companies to the vulnerability report. They didn’t seem to have any processes in place for dealing with it. There is an exception – Philips was exemplary, which shows that this can be done.

    As for mindsets, there’s a terrific paper by Anne Adams and Angela Sasse at the University of London called Users Are Not the Enemy and the idea is “don’t blame the user”. When people talk about changing mindsets, sometimes what they mean is “those blasted users, they behave insecurely”. Adams and Sasse looked at some examples where this was being said and found that it was set up so that it was almost impossible for the users to behave securely!

    I did some research with a different team on what makes people more likely to share online. We found that defaults are a very important driver. If you make things easy for people to do, then it’s more likely they will do them, particularly if you can make it the default. There are some examples in the Internet of Things where the default is insecure and the users have to do something to make it secure. That should not be the case. If a customer insists on using "password" as a password, there should be something that says, "we don’t allow that".

    Generally, before you do user education, you should do everything else first. If you have a problem with users, it’s probably evidence that your design and your architecture is not good enough. Once you’ve improved that, then you can do user education.

    [#insertinlinedriver safe#]

    What would you say is the balance between attack and defence? Who is winning?

    I don’t think it’s a case of “winning”. I see the network ecosystem like a biological ecosystem. Most people who use any kind of network are good, but there are a few people who are out to exploit that: they're parasites. But it’s not in the interests of the parasites to kill off the host, to kill off the ecosystem.

    We are always going to have people designing malware in order to make money, it’s likely that they will continue to be able to make some money but I don’t think that they are going to be able to close the whole thing down. I don’t think anyone can ever win, but I don’t think we’ll lose.

    How might we go about understanding the 'thought process' of a machine learning algorithm?

    There is an issue with some types of machine learning in that they are very opaque. So, for example, I could tell you all the features that are used in one of my algorithms and the weights that occur from those features. But the weights depend on the recent data that’s come in, so tomorrow it may be different. I can give you a full description of the algorithm, I can say everything it does but that’s not really explaining the thought processes. You don’t necessarily have an insight into what it’ll do tomorrow. And it may surprise you!

    However, there is a lot of work being done in making machine learning less opaque, and I do think there is scope for it. For example, one thing you can do is find the top five features that are most salient in a classification algorithm. If I'm classifying something as malware, or not, or infected or not, I can tell you the features and their relative weights, and I can say how these have changed over time. I can also give you typical instances of where it has classified something as malware or not, or something that it wasn't quite sure about and it plumped for not-malware, and these were the weights that motivated that decision.

    There's also some very nice work by Cynthia Rudin and her team on interpretable models: if you're learning from training data with 100 features, instead of looking for a model that uses the values of all 100 features, you can look for the best predictive model that only uses a small number of the features, and which evaluates an input just with a simple scoring system for these features. They've shown that for many applications you can find simple, easily explainable models of this kind that are just as accurate as the ones found by more opaque processes.

    In the particular case of deep learning, which tends to be completely opaque, there is work being done to make it less so. Deep learning produces different abstraction layers for data, it finds features of a data set and features of those features and features of those features of those features. You can find out what high level features it's discovered, and that may give you some sort of insight into what it's doing.

    There’s an international shortage of data scientists. How do we fill that gap - starting early with schools and STEM subjects? Encouraging more women into the field? Or will automation fill the gap for us?

    Automation will be part of the solution but it is not enough. We can automate to a certain extent, and it's right that we do that, but there will be a continuing need for data scientists.

    To do data science you need the technical bit, you need the hacking bit, but you also need the domain knowledge and so it really is an art as well as a science.

    The appeal of the field has changed quite a lot in just the last few years because of the amount of publicity around how much money data scientists can make. One result of that is a bunch of people who do not have the maths background but are good at the hacking are getting into data science and that's not necessarily the ideal route, because it's easy to do it wrong. Data science involves a collection of skills that, from an educational point of view, we're not really educating people to have together.

    As well as the analytical, statistical and hacking skills, there are domain skills, so a data scientist in agriculture might be rather different than a data scientist in business. But an absolutely crucial requirement is the ability to communicate your results clearly in a way that a layperson can understand but does not traduce the science. And that is something that, traditionally, computer scientists aren't given much coaching on.

    What has your research told you about ethical issues in big data analysis (particularly in an educational context)?

    My work has been in the corporate context but one thing that I've been impressed by is the seriousness with which universities take ethical issues around the guardianship of big data and how they do that better than the commercial world, in my opinion. So when I was looking at codes of practice I generally found better ones from academic institutions or scientific bodies than from the commercial world. Having an ethics board is absolutely normal in universities, it's rarer in industry.

    I was doing research on more than one large network so, in theory, I had access to very large amounts of network data that hadn't been put through any obfuscation or anonymisation process. As an experiment, I got a colleague to pseudonymise some data that I was allowed to look at, so he replaced each identifier by a pseudonym, and then I had a look to see what I could find – and I found out some pretty sensitive personal things, some pretty sensitive corporate information, and it spooked me. My project already had a code of practice but it was a bit dusty so I did a complete overhaul.

    More recently, there's been a framework for the ethical use of big data analysis brought out by the Home Office and the Cabinet Office and I gave input as part of the advisory board. They workshopped the first draft with members of the public so I answered questions from the workshop participants about data science. That was fascinating because it turned out the sorts of things that the members of the public were concerned about were different from what the experts were concerned about and it wasn't what we predicted.

    For members of the public generally, what they cared about was what their data was being used for. They wanted it to be used for something of public benefit or personal benefit to them and they wanted some assurance that it would actually work, that it would be useful. That mattered more than the details of how we were looking after the data. They were ok with us doing things that would have been a big no-no for me, provided that it was in a good cause and would be effective. It was all very pragmatic, very sensible – and very hard to translate into technical rules.

    Miranda Mowbray's research has included work on machine learning applied to computer network security, and ethics for big data analysis. She was previously at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Labs, finding new ways of analysing data to detect attacks on computer networks. She is a Fellow of the British Computer Society.


    Miranda at Networkshop45

    Miranda gave the Networkshop keynote presentation on 11 April 2017 at 14:45 on machine learning for network security.

    See the programme for full details and session resources.

  • The edtech startup competition: catching up with the winners

    At Digifest this year, our startups competition had a twist and nine teams pitched live to a crowd of sector experts and peers in an attempt to bag the grand prize of a support package worth up to £20,000. 

    In this podcast we chat to some of the winners about how their startups stand to shape the sector. Jonathan May, CEO and founder of Hubbub, and Donald Clarke, CEO of the people's choice, Wildfire

  • govroam: a silver bullet for public services?

    Seamless Wi-Fi across public services could transform everything from disaster response to health and social care. As 'eduroam for the public sector' is rolled out across the country, we explore how it is working.

    On Boxing Day 2015, Leeds city centre lay under water. Unprecedented rainfall swelled the River Aire to record levels, before bursting its banks and wiping out roads, bridges, buildings and power networks. It was just one of a series of floods that devastated the north-west of England and Wales.

    The city’s emergency response teams – fire and rescue, police and the Highways Agency – couldn’t use their normal buildings, which were waterlogged, to coordinate the response. One year later and the city would have had govroam, in place as part of the Yorkshire and Humberside Public Services Network (YHPSN), which would have meant they could all access their networks from elsewhere. With govroam, the city’s integrated response plan shouldn’t flounder.

    Disaster recovery is an extreme example, but the potential of federated roaming technology in public services should not be underestimated.

    “It’s massive,” confirms Jon Browne, YHPSN programme lead. “The free movement of people between organisations is going to be critical and govroam is one of those fundamental building blocks. By itself it doesn’t do anything, it attaches you to a network and authenticates you to use a connection back to your organisation. But it’s what that then enables you to do…”

    “Seamless” is the word that comes up again and again when talking about user experience: and as Leeds’ flooding response proves, that one simple capability unleashes a tidal wave of possibility.

    govroam is eduroam for public services: the same technology and philosophy, for a different community. It allows public services staff visiting another connected institution to log on to Wi-Fi using the same credentials they use at their home institution. Once the profile is installed, the connection happens automatically, without the need to register individually or reconfigure the device when you arrive at each new site.

    [#insertinlinedriver eduroam#]

    There are many ways of doing this, but eduroam was the obvious model of choice: it has reliable, tested technology, open source radius server options and simple, non-proprietary architecture. It can scale to support any number of sites and isn’t limited to specific Wi-Fi technologies – and everything can be installed, supported and managed by a single point of contact.

    Individual councils and public service networks (PSNs) have been working on regional roaming capabilities for years. Yorkshire and Humberside have well over 60 partners wanting to use theirs – “they’re queueing up!” says Browne – including all county and unitary councils, three-quarters of police forces, two transport organisations and most health trusts.

    “And that’s just in the region,” Browne continues. “You’ve then got border areas such as Bradford, who want to go over into Lancashire, but can’t at the moment – as soon as you’ve got govroam, you can go anywhere.” It became clear that public services were facing a stark choice: fragment into multiple, incompatible islands, or standardise. The national infrastructure went live in September 2016.

    The challenge of going national, says David Hayling, head of IT infrastructure at the University of Kent, was “establishing trust in terms of understanding each other’s requirements”. eduroam provides a simple internet access mechanism for students, staff and researchers.

    Public services handle sensitive data on deliberately siloed corporate networks. Setting up shared PSNs – a link between organisations – is one thing, but authorities were struggling to cooperate further because of differing security requirements. “Each legal entity – county council, borough councils etc – had to individually sign to say they complied, and provide documentation to demonstrate that,” explains Hayling.

    It meant multiple, duplicating, inefficient systems. To share wireless access, you need to provide public Wi-Fi or temporary guest permits. If people are working remotely, they need 3G/4G dongles.

    “The higher education people were in these meetings,” recalls Hayling, “sitting there aghast: we cracked this years ago! We’ve got the answer and 20 years’ experience. eduroam works.”

    There are certainly challenges applying it to public services, he concedes, but nothing govroam can’t accommodate: “it’s flexible enough to separate out layers of what people are trying to achieve.”

    govroam uses end-to-end encryption (AES as part of 802.1X tunnelling) to ensure private user credentials are only available to a user’s home organisation for authentication; they are never exposed over the air or accessible by the visited site’s infrastructure, so spoof networks set up with the aim of harvesting credentials have very little opportunity to access them. It’s easy to use, but also removes the opportunity for user error. Fundamental to the trust model of govroam is the assurance that all users are bona fide government workers or their representatives.

    However, while the authentication and access security checks are protected, the communication is still Wi-Fi, so the answer for Hayling was as simple as reminding people to separate out two ideas: the network they’re connecting to, and the level of security assurance they need. govroam allows participating organisations to still deploy their own encryption or VPN.

    “That’s what the National Cyber Security Centre does with its stuff,” Hayling says, “VPN back after connecting through govroam”. What govroam offers is the assurance that “you are connecting to a genuine network you can trust, but to keep a higher level of assurance you take your own steps. If a school provides students with mobile devices, for example, the school configures the device to provide internet filtering necessary to the user of that device.”

    So what’s the potential of this for public services? The first is simply efficiency. Imagine a child is going to be spending a long time in hospital and needs education on the ward. The schools network can deliver that, so teachers come in and use govroam to connect. But say the child also needs social care support; their care worker can also come in and complete their notes. The NHS has plans to introduce Wi-Fi into all hospitals, but only with a roaming network would doctors be able to access patient records quickly and securely during rounds. Simply being in a different location need no longer be a barrier to working in a familiar way.

    But govroam could also be transformational. Take integrating health and social care. What if Wi-Fi providers support govroam on a backchannel, suggests Browne; when care workers do home visits, they could automatically connect and access client records. He tells of an elderly woman who fell down in her bathroom. She couldn’t move so an alarm system was useless, but sensors installed in her house noticed she’d gone in but hadn’t come out, and called an intervention.

    “Now if the care person going in had govroam,” Browne posits, “they could straight away look up the integrated care record and know ‘don’t give this person paracetamol, she’s allergic’, even if it’s not her regular care worker”. Together, it means you can enable people to continue to live in their own homes for longer and save money on care visits. “You’re saving lives through new technology backed off into govroam. Now we have a national solution, we can start thinking about these things. Suddenly we’re building a picture very different to the current situation.”

    [#insertinlinedriver govroam#]

    govroam will also be critical in helping local authorities cope with budget cuts. Site sharing with govroam would enable multiple organisations to share a physical location and connect over a single network connection. “So many public sector buildings are inherited from the Victorians,” says Browne. “It’s expensive, inefficient and in the wrong place. We’re shutting police stations, so police now have to drive to their beat, which adds expense and delay because that becomes part of their shift”.

    Why not repurpose parts of local libraries, he asks. “govroam can give police access to their resources. Now you’ve got a reason for keeping the library open and a bobby starts his beat in the right place. These sorts of technologies free you up from being restricted to certain buildings and certain places. It can have a massive impact on the way we deliver services.”

    Leeds is developing multi-tenanted sites, explains Browne, “in which you have people in one building working with police, health and parole services”. Using a single connection with multiple corporate LANs delivered over it, each organisation specifies the data layers it wishes to use, and these are delivered over one connection and then broken out for use by each organisation.

    “That used to require segregation within offices: police desks here, social care there. With govroam, any worker can use any desk: your govroam authentication is captured by the building itself. Once it’s authenticated you, it works out the appropriate conditional access and reconfigures the network to extend, say, the police corporate network to your device. For that session, while you’re there, that desk becomes a police desk. If the next person to use it is in health, it then extends the health network”. This doesn’t just save money on desks and floor space: “it’s a way of encouraging interaction, freeing people up, promoting collaborative working. Anyone can operate anywhere. That’s massive.”

    This kind of thinking is just the beginning, for Browne. Once it’s fully integrated into the public sector’s ways of working, he believes “they will use it in ways I can’t even imagine. govroam’s potential is limited only by our imagination.”

    For now, there is a formal agreement that govroam and eduroam don’t connect, but it’s fundamental in many spaces that both are in place. NHS hospitals, providing care and training simultaneously, are a case in point. All they need to do, says Hayling, “is deploy a two-broadcast service – govroam, eduroam – with appropriate configuration behind the scenes, and they could deliver all the services they need to all their students and staff.”

    People using it would only need to configure one device to use these two services: it would connect you automatically to the appropriate network. And, he says, “if organisations do it at the same time, the extra cost and configuration effort is small.”

    “In Kent,” says Jeff Wallbank, former head of Kent Public Service Network, “every local authority has rolled out govroam: all public sector organisations work in any buildings, and are setting it up in parallel with eduroam. The question now is, can universities and colleges roll out govroam in their buildings?”

    Kent PSN has more than 370,000 users across nearly 1,200 sites including health, schools, universities, fire and rescue, FE colleges and business parks, district and county councils, libraries, hospices and leisure centres. govroam itself is currently available at 250 sites and growing.

    “Kent helped really drive this forward,” says Matt Ashman, founder and director of Khipu Networks, the company which helped delivered the pilot and now offers a govroam “one-stop-shop service” for organisations who don’t have the skills or time to configure their own in-house systems (Jisc runs govroam; Khipu offers the option of a fully managed commercial service which enables public sector organisations to offer eduroam and govroam fully support and maintained). Kent, continues Ashman, “is the flagship project which has delivered govroam across the entire county”.

    “The challenge," he reflects, ‘is we have to get a community together – there is no point deploying govroam into one hospital as a standalone, we need lots of hospitals where staff are working together”.

    Wallbank also wants to see a common standard rolled out across the country. govroam was recently deployed for the first time in London, and the next step is convincing central government, whose sites are more widely dispersed: job centres, HMRC centres, prisons, courts and more. All these services tend to share buildings with other public sector organisations, but operate on separate networks. Wallbank wants “a set of standards; govroam or some form of national roaming needs to be standard. Then theoretically anybody delivering services can occupy anywhere with ease, temporary or permanent.”

    Wales already has an aggregated public sector broadband service. “A simple SSID change, link to Jisc’s central national server and it’s rolled out in Wales… We’re having the same conversation in East Sussex,” Wallbank continues. “Connect their regional radius server to Jisc’s radius server, we’ve got govroam.” Then, who knows.

    It won’t be long before a trickle becomes a deluge. “Senior officers in local authorities come up to me,” says Wallbank, “and say, ‘govroam isn’t half good, why haven’t we done this before?’” 

    Find out more at Networkshop


    Mobility is one of the topics we'll be covering at this year's Networkshop, which taking place in Nottingham from the 11-13 April 2017.

    Join us on the first day of the event for the parallel session on this topic, including a talk on govroam. Full details for all this year's sessions can be found in the Networkshop45 programme.

    You can join the conversation on Twitter using #nws45.

  • Digital learning environments

    There's a lot of interest in the next generation of digital learning environments and it was one of the topics we covered at Digifest 2017. We caught up with Lawrie Phipps, our senior co-design manager, who spoke with Ange Fitzpatrick from the University of Cambridge and Elizabeth Ellis from the Open University, about what those environments might look like.

  • Technology-enhanced learning in higher education

    We caught up with Sarah Davies, our head of higher education and student experience, at Digifest 2017. She chatted to us about how technology is being used to enhance teaching and learning in HE.

  • Growing trust: the rise of Assent

    For world-class universities keen to make the most of finite research resources, there’s an overwhelming business case for using Assent, argues Jisc's Peter Atkins. 

    If you’re a researcher, you’ll recognise the issue immediately. Accessing multiple resources – from leading physics facilities to high-performance computing (HPC) – can mean passwords, passwords and more passwords, not to mention the struggle of dealing with X-509 certificates.

    Lydia Heck, a senior computer manager in the Institute for Computational Cosmology at the University of Durham and manager of the DiRAC data-centric system there, says the process of acquiring grid certificates (which expire after a year) and proxy certificates (which can expire before a job is completed) can be “an ordeal”.

    Single sign-on 

    From a researcher’s point of view, a complicated access process is an obstacle to collaboration and a drain on precious time.

    Among the other issues is that researchers are often signed into multiple facilities via different authentication processes, so it’s difficult to determine who’s using which site or facility, when.

    And there’s a security angle, too: without a system tied to a university login, it’s hard to protect against “rogue users” – ex-graduates or ex-employees who use unexpired logins, using hard-won research time without authorisation.

    What is really required is a system tied to a user’s university login.

    Jisc's Assent service allows researchers to log into high-end research facilities and web-based resources with a single, university-assigned ID. All a researcher has to do is remember a single username and password.

    Assent acts as a “trust broker” between the research facility (the “service provider”) and the researching university (the “identity provider”) – both of which subscribe to, and are trusted by, Assent.

    Streamline workflows

    Bill Pulford, science IT coordinator at synchrotron facility Diamond Light Source, has been leading a project to set up Diamond as an Assent service provider. Simplifying sign-in, he says, should help streamline workflows for researchers.

    Pulford explains how it works in practice:

    “Imagine a scientific research project such as finding new antibiotics to counter bacterial resistance; that is likely to be a collaboration involving a lot of different facilities, but Assent could help access these facilities during experiments.

    “So you could log into Diamond and then access local instruments, an NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) facility, a protein production factory, computing clusters and perhaps different small resources as well, at the same time.

    “Collaborators could do the same from other facilities, and everyone would have the same view, which helps improve workflows as people acquire and analyse data. Without a common credential, and Assent technology, this is likely to be harder to manage.”

    From the point of view of the facility, tracking Assent sign-ins could bring other benefits. Pulford adds:

    “We’re under increasing pressure from government to record publications made by people who’ve done work at Diamond and to register publisher-centric ORCID identifiers (which identify individual researchers). Adopting Assent helps us harvest these ORCID IDs within the infrastructure that we’ve adopted.”

    It’s reasonable to assume that such data could be useful to universities too – ultimately helping them take ownership of research usage data, and deriving academic value from statistical links.

    Rogue users

    And as for the rogue user problem, Assent stops it dead.

    Jens Jensen, a scientist and researcher at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) sees how Assent can help there. He says: 

    "One of STFC's roles is to provide resources to researchers. As much of STFC's research infrastructure is expensive, we need to make sure it is used correctly by authorised people. A user who registers with a user office will get a credential from us, but it would make our lives easier if they could use credentials they hold already.

    “The more credentials researchers have to manage, the more difficult it is for them – and the more likely it is they forget a password or to update their address when they change jobs."

    But with Assent, says Jensen, identities are maintained separately from resources, so if the university email access is revoked, so are Assent privileges.

    Chicken and egg 

    Establishing a trust network of organisations, however, can be something of a chicken and egg problem. Notwithstanding the valuable future benefits, universities’ IT teams may want to see Assent working “in the wild” before committing resources.

    One short-term issue is that there is some technical work for universities to do, including setting up as an identity provider, before using Assent, which means making a business case for it.

    Universities also need to install software on users’ desktops for Assent to work. Windows and Linux support for that technology is ready, and Mac support is imminent.

    From her testing of Assent at Durham, Lydia Heck has noted that it takes some effort to work out how Assent fits together and acknowledges that it requires advanced technical knowhow – Jisc is looking at improving the documentation to help.

    Growing trust

    [#insertinlinedriver trust#]

    In the long run, the benefits of Assent look set to outweigh the short-term issues and, as initial users get the word out, it is hoped the trust network will grow, thus enabling more people and organisations to benefit from more effective, collaborative research.

    At the same time, there are efforts to codify the issue of researcher sign-in. A pilot project, led by UCL and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is attempting to create a national infrastructure for research authentication. Assent looks set to be a cornerstone of this, so investing in it is a sensible strategy.

    Ultimately, the essence of Assent is user simplicity – which makes business sense in the long run. “Let people concentrate on the science,” argues Pulford, “and we worry about the infrastructure.”

    To find out more about Assent and how it might benefit you, visit the Assent page or contact the Assent team on 0300 300 2212 or

    Find out more at Networkshop


    Trust and identity is one of the topics we'll be covering at this year's Networkshop, which taking place in Nottingham from the 11-13 April 2017.

    Join us on day three of the event for the parallel session on this topic, full details for all this year's sessions can be found in the Networkshop45 programme.

    You can join the conversation on Twitter using #nws45.