Research groups operate as firm-like entities

One of the sources I have drawn from in my research on the pre-history of hacking in the university is Henry Etzkowitz. His research into the history of MIT and ‘entrepreneurial science’ was especially useful and interesting. As something I want to come back to at a later date, I’ll leave you with this quote from his paper, Research groups as ‘quasi-firms’: the invention of the entrepreneurial university, Research Policy 32 (2003) 109–121 (PDF). I was reminded of this by an article in Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper.

Research groups operate as firm-like entities, lacking only a direct profit motive to make them a company. In the sciences, especially, professors are expected to be team leaders and team members, with the exception of technicians, are scientists in training. As group size increases to about seven or eight members, professors who formerly were doing research are typically compelled to remove themselves from the bench to devote virtually full time to organizational tasks. Often persons in this situation describe themselves as “running a small business”. To continue at a competitive level with their peers, they must maintain an organizational momentum. Once having attained this goal, it is extremely difficult to function again as an individual researcher, so every effort is made to sustain leadership of a group.

Research groups within universities operate as small businesses lacking only a direct profit motive. Discuss!

Making sense of things: A PhD by Published Work

At this time of year we have our annual appraisals, which involves looking back on what personal and professional objectives I set myself for last year. One of those ambitions was to work towards submitting a ‘PhD by Published Work’ in 2014. In that respect, I think I’ve failed to really complete anything substantial. In the last 12 months, I have spent most of my time running JISC-funded projects1 and, related to that, trying to develop the LNCD group here at Lincoln. It is good work, and I enjoy it, but unlike most academics who receive funding for research and/or development, I am not that interested in writing papers about the work I do day-to-day. Technology related projects, such as those funded by JISC, produce lots of academic, peer-reviewed papers, but it has never occurred to me to write about this side of my work in a systematic way. Perhaps this was because I joined the university having been an Archivist and Project Manager elsewhere, and outside academia, the accomplishment of the project is itself the objective and writing up papers doesn’t really factor into the work. Also, the projects I run day-to-day, while I enjoy them and think they are of value, don’t provide me with any sense of meaning or purpose in the world, which is the reason why I entered higher education as an undergraduate and post-graduate student. It has never occurred to me that my vocation and my efforts in higher learning, should or would ever coincide until a year or so ago when I was offered a permanent academic contract at Lincoln, rather than the fixed-term, non-academic contracts I had been on. Being ‘an academic’ is quite unique in that it does combine a lifetime of higher learning with a vocation, something I have been slow to put into practice over the last year.

I need to get out of this habitual way of thinking and start to make direct connections with my day-to-day work and my intellectual aspirations, eventually completing a PhD. It is not easy and I would appreciate any advice you might have. Looking over my blog this morning, of the 209 posts I’ve written since April 2008, I have categorised 58 of them being related to what I want to pursue for my PhD. Doing this has allowed me to try to find some sense of coherence to my work, which I will outline here for my own benefit and perhaps even for your interest.

The first period of those posts covers the time I spent thinking and writing about ‘resilient education‘ with Richard Hall. It began with a failed bid to JISC around business continuity within HEIs in the face of an energy crisis. One question that framed our work at this time was, “What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?” Over a number of blogs posts, face-to-face conversations, workshops, a conference paper and, eventually a journal paper, we both felt that the imperative of economic growth and therefore the social relations of capitalism are the root cause of the crises we face in society and therefore in higher education, too. It was through conversations with my colleague Prof. Mike Neary, that I began to shift from viewing this problem as technological, economic and cultural, to one that is fundamentally historical and political. At first, I was drawn to ideas that have circulated for some time among environmentalists and ‘ecological economists’, such as that of a non-growth-based ‘Steady State’ economy and the work of the Transition movement. However, I remained unsatisfied with these liberal solutions to liberal capitalism.2 Of course, such approaches have some practical merit, but I soon found them intellectually impoverished compared to the approach of critical political economy.

The most challenging, stimulating and useful scholarship I have read over the last couple of years has been by writers in the Marxist tradition of critical political economy: Writers such as Simon Clarke, Moishe Postone, Mark Neocleus, Harry Cleaver, and Mike Neary have provided me with a radically different way of understanding the world and the challenges society and therefore higher education faces. So far, I have attempted to use the methodological tools provided by this critical, scholarly tradition in one book chapter, which I remain dissatisfied with but nevertheless see it has a building block to something more mature. That piece of writing was, if you like, my research output from the ChemistryFM OER project that I ran. As well as my article with Richard Hall, I also co-authored an article with Mike Neary, both of which could be seen as a critique of my work on that OER project.

In terms of scholarly progress, I see now that the article I wrote with Richard Hall was the culmination of a period trying to address the first ‘research question’ of ‘What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?‘ By the time the article was written (and certainly by the time it was published), we had both moved on and in my book chapter and article with Mike Neary, I was trying to critique the approach that Richard and I had taken in the earlier article, which makes a case for open education as an approach to developing a ‘resilient education’. Today, I do not think that openness as it is commonly understood and practised, will re-produce a more resilient, sustainable higher education as we commonly understand and practise it. There is much more to be said about this and in doing so, I shifted my emphasis to thinking about what openness means and how it is practised inside and outside higher education. One of the earliest and most influential expressions of openness can be found in hacker culture.

During this period (the last year or so), I have been interested in hackers, hacking and how student hackers can re-produce the university. One of the reasons I made this shift was because in my work day-to-day, I was managing JISC-funded technology projects and, influenced by Mike Neary’s work on Student as Producer, I was employing students and recent graduates to work with me on these R&D projects. During the course of this work, I was also appealing to university management to support a more formal collaboration among different departments at the university, which focused on the role of students in re-producing the university through their work on technology projects. The result of those committee papers and discussions was LNCD.  Working closely with student hackers and more closely with the university developer community in general, I began to think about the history and practise of hacking. This work is on-going as I sketch out ideas on this blog. I began with a simple proposal that we should understand hacking as an academic practice, or rather as a development of the academic tradition. I developed this a little further in a short article for the Guardian, which reflected on hacking, Student as Producer and a student hacker conference that we organised at Lincoln with the DevCSI project, called DevXS.

The JISC projects, LNCD, the reflections on hacking and the DevXS conference were then written up in a case study commissioned by JISC on ‘institutional approaches to openness‘. The case study was called ‘Hacking the University’ and a similar version of it, along with an additional section by my colleague Dean Lockwood, will be published in a book next month.

As I continued in this vein, I began to think about hacking as both learning and as labour and tried to articulate this in a couple of blog posts about learning a craft and the university as a hackerspace. At that time, I thought that one intervention that I might make at Lincoln in trying to get students to challenge and re-produce ‘the university’ as an idea as well as a living institution, was to develop a course based on the model of hackerspaces and examine the work of hackers pedagogically in terms of a craft. I was also thinking about how funders like JISC could support this approach, too. This led me to look at popular models of funding, such as the ‘angel investment’ of Y-Combinator, which I am beginning to tie back into the history of hacking and the origins of venture capital in US universities. My two most recent posts in this area (here and here) have been sketches for an article I intend to write on the role of universities in the development of hacker culture. It’s only once I have examined and critiqued this aspect of hacker culture history that I feel I can move on to more substantive and specific questions relating to hacking, openness and freedom, and the relationship between students, universities and venture capital in producing a new form of vocationalism within higher education.

This is likely to form the major part of my PhD by publication but despite writing long reflections on this blog, it does not amount to anything that I can readily submit for the PhD. I have also neglected to apply any methodological critique to my recent writing about hackers and hacking and need to return to the central categories of Marx: e.g. value, fetishism, class struggle, alienation, each of which I see as central to the re-production of the work of hackers and hacking and therefore the role of the university.

I also feel that I am currently a long way from reconciling the projects that I do day-to-day and the critique of political economy that I have started. Last week, for example, I had a conference paper proposal accepted on an evaluation of CKAN for research data management. On the face of it, this paper would normally be a fairly straightforward critical appraisal of a piece of software and for the conference that is what I intend to write. But I know that I should take the opportunity to develop the paper into something more intellectually substantive and incorporate it into a negative critique of openness, open data and university research culture. Whatever I end up writing, I am going to ensure that from hereon, my time is spent bringing my writing together into a coherent PhD submission in two or three years time.

Finally, if you are interested, here is the section of university guidance that deals with ‘PhD by Published Work’ (PDF). There are a number of things I have to do between now and my submission, not least keep writing, but also seek clarification around the meaning of ‘a substantial contribution to the academic endeavour of the University’. Co-authored outputs are permissible, but I need to be much clearer on what the Faculty Research Degrees Board expect to be included. At the moment, I am assuming that only my book chapter on OER is submissible as part of the PhD. Not only that, but it is the only piece of writing that approaches the standard of intellectual work that I think I would want to submit. Of course, I could be persuaded otherwise… Nevertheless, I think I need to have four more pieces published in order to submit the PhD, as well as writing a a 5-10,000 word commentary. Expect updates on this blog as I work towards this and thanks for any advice you can offer.

  1. Since January 2011, I am/have been PI on DIVERSE, Orbital, ON Course, Bebop and Linkey. []
  2. The idea of a ‘steady state’ can be found in one of the classical texts of Liberalism, John Stuart Mills’ Principles of Political Economy. []

Seminar: Hacking and the University

Hacking and the University

The role of the university in the development of hacker culture

The standard history of hacking begins with the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT in 1961 and has continued to be closely associated with academic culture. Why is this so and what intellectual and institutional culture led to the development of a ‘hacker ethic’?

This seminar will propose a history of hacking in universities from the early 20th century, taking into consideration the role of military sponsored research, the emergence of the ‘triple helix’ of academic, commercial and government enterprise, the influence of WWII cybernetic theory, and how the meritocracy of academia gave rise to Y-Combinator, the most successful Internet angel investment fund there is today.

Part of the Centre for Educational Research and Development’s Thinking Aloud seminar series.

November 27th, 1-2pm, MB1012

JISC INF11 Programme Meeting: From unprojects to services

I’m going to the JISC Information Programme Meeting on Thursday and have been asked to join a panel where I’ll talk about our work at Lincoln under the heading ‘from unprojects to services’. Here are my notes.

Over the last couple of years, staff in CERD, The Library and ICT have worked closely together on a number of ‘rapid innovation’ projects, which have sometimes later attracted JISC funding.  Much of our work has been undertaken at the initiative of individual staff, who have benefited from a supportive ICT environment that allows us the freedom to develop and test our ideas without running into bureaucratic walls. ICT – in particular the head of the department, Mike Day, and head of the Online Services Team, Tim Simmonds – recognised the benefits of employing undergraduate students and recent graduates, and established a post which Nick Jackson and Alex Bilbie share. Alongside this, I have been applying for JISC funding and successful bids have allowed us to employ Nick and Alex full-time rather than part-time. In recent months, this has worked very well and currently much of their time is spent working on JISC-funded projects which bring value to the University. Below, are a list of the services that this culture of innovation has allowed us to work on over the last year or so. Click on the links to go to the services.

The Common Web Design: Distributed HTML5/CSS3 template for internal services

Posters: A repository for visual communications

lncn.eu: The official URL shortner for the university. Provides real-time stats, API and acts as branded/trusted proxy for other services.

Single Sign On: OAuth/SAML/Shibboleth/NTML/Eduroam integration

Zen Desk: University Help Desk

My Calendar: An aggregation of space-time data into a flexible web service. JISC-funded.

Nucleus: Datastore for People, Events, Bibliographic and Location data (and more to follow). Provides (open) APIs to all other services. MongoDB.

James Docherty, a third year student, used the nucleus datastore as a source of data for his final year project: Situated Displays for buildings, showing room booking information, posters and announcements.

Staff Directory: Fast, versatile people-focused search engine

Jerome: Fast, modern, personalised library search portal aggregating books, journals and EPrints data. JISC-funded.

Mobile: A directory of university services for mobile devices

Online Server Monitoring: A simple dashboard for anyone to check whether a service is working

QR Codes: Will be used for asset tags and already being used in rooms to create Help Desk tickets.

  • Most of these services push and pull data to Nucleus, the central, open datastore built on MongoDB. e.g. Zen Desk=People + Locations, My Calendar=Events, Jerome=Bibliographic
  • We’re currently looking at how Nucleus can also be a source for Linked Data. It has open(ish) APIs.
  • CWD sites transparently sign the person in to the site, if they are signed in elsewhere.
  • We like Open Source. SSO is mostly open source software. Alex has released his OAuth 2.0 code. CWD likely to be open source; MongoDB, bits and pieces from Jerome and My Calendar.
  • As we build these services, they are being integrated, too. e.g. lncn.eu will be a URL resolver for Jerome offering realtime monitoring; posters will show up in My Calendar events; CWD is the design framework for My Calendar.
  • Most of these services are for official launch in September. They will be included in the new ICT Handbook, included in brochures and other announcements.
  • We’re working with the Student Union to develop the use of FourSquare around the university.
  • Now that we know we can develop this way and that it works and we enjoy it, we’re hoping to expand from two to four student/graduate developers and have our own budget for hardware/software/conferences and to give to staff and students that want to join us.
  • Our approach links into the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy: Student as Producer. We want to work with students and staff across disciplines to create useful, innovative and enjoyable online services that make the University of Lincoln a great place to work and study at. It’s not about a team that works on ‘educational technology’, but rather a network of people who develop and support technologies that make Lincoln a productive environment for research, teaching and learning. It’s inclusive, with students (and therefore learning) at its core.

Writing JISC bids

Last night, I submitted two bids to JISC’s Infrastructure for Education and Research programme and, having submitted a few bids to JISC over the last year or so, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts about my experience bidding for funding. Maybe it mirrors your experience, too. I’d be interested to know. Like every other bid I’ve written, you can read them online if you like:

JISCPress (Google doc) – Awarded £26K

JISCPress Benefits & Realisation Tender (Google doc) – Awarded £10K

ChemistryFM (PDF) – Awarded £18K

Powering Down? – Not funded. Read the judges positive comments in the postscript of this blog post.

Total ReCal (Google doc) – Awarded £28K

I might also add our Talis bid, which could just as easily have been a JISC bid. It was not funded but the judges liked it.

And the latest two:

Linking You << get it? ‘Lincoln U’ :-) (Google doc) UPDATE: Awarded £14K

Like most other HEIs, Lincoln’s web presence has grown ‘organically’ over the years, utilising a range of authoring and content management technologies to satisfy long-term business requirements while meeting the short-term demands of staff and students. We recognise the value of our .ac.uk domain as an integral part of our ‘Learning Landscape’ and, building on recent innovations in our Online Services Team, intend to re-evaluate the overall underlying architecture of our websites with a range of stakeholders and engage with others in the sector around the structure, persistence and use of the open data we publish on the web. Some preliminary work has already been undertaken in this area and we wish to use this opportunity to consolidate what we have learned as well as inform our own work through a series of wider consultations and engagement with the JISC community.

Jerome (Google doc) UPDATE: Awarded £36K

Jerome began in the summer of 2010, as an informal ‘un-project’, with the aim of radically integrating data available to the University of Lincoln’s library services and offering a uniquely personalised service to staff and students through the use of new APIs, open data and machine learning. Jerome addresses many of the challenges highlighted in the Resource Discovery Taskforce report, including the need to develop scale at the data and user levels, the use of third-party data and services and a better understanding of ‘user journeys’. Here, we propose to formalise Jerome as a project, consolidating the lessons we have learned over the last few months by developing a sustainable, institutional service for open bibliographic metadata, complemented with well documented APIs and an ‘intelligent’, personalised interface for library users.

At this point, I should give a few words of appreciation to Paul Stainthorp, Alex Bilbie, Nick Jackson, Chris Goddard and David Young, who helped me put these recent bids together. In particular, Paul worked with me on and off over the weekend to finish off the Jerome bid and it is all the better for it. And that brings me on to the first point I want to make about working with people.

Open bid writing

I don’t have that much experience raising funds. I wrote my first bid (JISCPress) in April last year with Tony Hirst, at the Open University, who I didn’t really know at the time but has since become a friend and I am now Co-Director of a not-for-profit company with him. The JISCPress project was based on some fun we were having outside of work to try to open up the way that the government consulted with the public. As you can see from the bid, we simply wrote up the ideas we were having based on our trials and errors with WriteToReply. Because of the nature of the project, we wrote the bid in public, inviting anyone to contribute or simply observe. We told lots (hundreds? thousands?) of people we were doing this through our online networks. It was liberating to write it in this way and we’ve since been commended by staff at JISC for taking this approach. Some seasoned bid writers were quite surprised that we would do such a thing, but Tony and I wanted to make a point that bid writing could be an inclusive and collaborative endeavour, rather than a secretive and competitive exercise. Neither of us felt like we had anything to lose by working in this way. It was my first bid and raising funds was not something expected of me at the time (hang on?! it’s still not in my job description! ;-) )

Anyway, we got the funding and then some more funding and the award winning outcomes of the project are now in use by JISC and hundreds of other people. I continue to work on it with the original team, despite the period of funding being over.

I still write most of my bids online and in public, but I don’t shout about it these days. After I was funded once, the pressure to repeat the process has, alas, made me more cautious and frankly I hate this. I still publish and blog about the bids I’ve made shortly after they’ve been submitted, but I’ve not quite repeated the openness and transparency that Tony and I attempted with JISCPress. Shaun Lawson, a Reader in Computer Science, and I replied to the Times Higher about this subject last week suggesting that there is much to be gained from open bid writing.1 I recall, also, that in a podcast interview, Ed Smith, the Deputy Chairman of HEFCE warned that competition in the bidding process might better be replaced with more collaborative submissions in the future as funding gets tighter.

I know there are staff in JISC that really do favour this approach, too, and I wonder whether JISC, advocates of innovation in other institutions, might attempt to innovate the bid writing process by requiring that all bids received must demonstrate that they have been written openly, in public and genuinely solicited collaboration in the writing process. We are all used to submitting bids with partners and collaborative bid writing is quite the norm behind closed doors, but why not require that the bid writing is collaborative and open, too? JISC could at least try this with one of their funding calls and measure the response.

From ‘un-projects’ to projects

The other point I want to make is the value of being able to write bids that are simply a formalisation of work we’ve already started. There must be few things more soul destroying that being asked to look at the latest funding programme and conjure up a project to fit the call (I don’t do it). Like JISCPress, all the other bids that I’ve been successful in receiving funds for were based on work (actually, better described as ‘fun’) that we’d been doing in our ‘spare time’, evenings and weekends. We were, in effect, already doing the projects and when the right funding call came up, we applied to it, demonstrating to JISC that we were committed to the project and offering a clear sense of the benefits to the wider community. JISCPress was based on WriteToReply, ChemistryFM was based on my work on the Lincoln Academic Commons, Total ReCal, Jerome and Linking You are all based on a variety2 of work that Alex, Nick, Paul and, to a lesser extent I, have been doing in between other work. What’s worth underlining here is that we’re fortunate to have Snr. Managers at the University of Lincoln, who support us and encourage a ‘labs’ approach to incubate ideas. Inevitably, it means that we end up working outside of our normal hours but that because we’re interested in the work we’re doing and when a funding call comes up and it aligns with our work, we apply for it. As you know, to ‘win’ project funding is an endorsement of your work and ideas and it confirms to us and, importantly, to Snr. Management, that working relatively autonomously in a labs environment can pay off.

A supportive environment

Up to now, I’ve tried to make the point that when I write a bid, it is a somewhat open, collaborative process that proposes to formalise and build on work that we’re already doing and what we already know. I know that this is not uncommon and is not a guaranteed ‘secret to success’, but it is worth underlining. Finally, I want to acknowledge the wider support I receive from colleagues at the university, in particular from David Young and Annalisa Jones in the Research Office. I know from talking with people in other institutions that often, the bid writers remain responsible for putting the budget together (no simple task) and have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to even get the go ahead for the bid and then find a senior member of staff who will sign the letter of support. Fortunately, in my experience at Lincoln it is quite the opposite. I have very little to do with pinning down the budget. I go to the Research Office for 30 mins, explain the nature of the project, the amount we can bid for and the kind of resources we will need and a day or so later, I am provided with the budget  formatted in JISC’s template. Likewise, the letters of support are turned around in a matter of hours, too, leaving me to focus on the bid writing. There is never any question of whether I should submit a bid or not as I’m trusted to be able to manage my own time and likewise, the other people involved in the projects are trusted too. Of course, we discuss the bids with our managers while writing them and if they are concerned with the objectives or the amount of time we might be committing to the project, they are able to say so, but because we write bids that are based on work we’re already doing, it’s much easier to know whether a bid is viable.

So that’s how it’s worked for me so far. I sent off two bids last night and I felt they were the strongest I’ve submitted so far, not least because of all the work that Paul, Alex and Nick have been doing. Frankly, neither of these bids would have been written were it not for their good work so far and their energy and enthusiasm for ‘getting stuff done’. Of course it will be nice if one or both bids are funded but the process of writing formally about the work we are doing is a worthwhile process in itself, as it helps to situate it in the wider context of work at the university and elsewhere. Now, the bids are in it’s time to relax a bit and get on with something else.

  1. “We read with interest the suggestion by Trevor Harley (“Astuteness of crowds”; 4th November 2010) that the peer review of grant applications could be replaced by crowdsourcing. We suggest going even further in this venture of harnessing the potentially limitless cognitive surplus of the academy (apologies to John Duffy “Academy Untoward” also 4th November 2010) and crowdsourcing the process of authoring the grant proposal itself. Our reasoning is that, given enough wisdom from the idling academic crowd, an individual proposal could be ironed completely free of half-baked rationales, methodological flaws, over-budgeted conference travel and nebulous impact statements and would, therefore, be guaranteed a place near the top of any ranking panel. On a serious note, we do believe there is much to be gained by both applicants and funders adopting a more transparent, collaborative and open grant bidding process, in which researchers author a funding proposal collectively and in public view using, for instance, wikis or Google docs. Indeed, we have ourselves successfully piloted such an approach (http://lncn.eu/r23), which mirrors the more positive aspects of the ‘sandpit’ experience, and unreservedly recommend it to other researchers.” []
  2. Jerome has its own blog, and we all blog regularly about work we’re doing. []

Becoming a scholar activist

I’ve been looking for information about ‘scholar activism’ and recently came across an MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University. It’s run by Dr. Paul Chatterton, lecturer in the School of Geography. His colleague has written a really interesting, reflective paper about setting up the MA degree, and Paul has written a couple of related papers on making strategic interventions inside and outside the neo-liberal university, and about academia and activism.

Interested in this stuff? Got any links and references to share?