The Repositories Research Team

The completion of the Repositories and Preservation Programme earlier this year also brought an end to what may have been one of JISC’s longest running support projects, the Repositories Research Team (RRT), formerly the Digital Repositories Programme Support Project (DRPSP). DRPSP / RRT, which ran from 2005 – 2009 is notable in that it was the first JIIE support project delivered collaboratively by two JISC services (now innovation support centres): UKOLN and CETIS. Dedicated support staff were funded at both CETIS and UKOLN and the project was managed by UKOLN’s Rachel Heery from 2005 until her retirement in 2007 and by myself and Phil from 2008 – 2009.

Digital Repositories Programme Support Project

In its initial incarnation from 2005 – 2007 DRPSP focused primarily on project support with team members supporting individual projects through thematic clusters. This allowed the team to become familiar with project activities, giving them a detailed overview of the programme as a whole and enabling them to provide advice to projects on relevant related work. In addition to two project support officers at UKOLN a project officer was funded at CETIS to support teaching and learning focused repository projects. This was particularly beneficial in the early stages of the programme as there is a tendency for issues relating specifically to the management of educational resources and the role of repositories in the teaching and learning domain to become subsumed by the open access / scholarly works / institutional repositories agendas.

During this period DRPSP also ran a number of support workshops focused on complex objects, using UML, writing scenarios and usecases and developing service usage models.


The team also played a significant role in incubating a number of high profile technical developments, most notably the Scholarly Works Application Profile (SWAP ) and the Simple Web-service Offering Repository Deposit (SWORD) Protocol. SWORD is particularly interesting as it originated from a discussion on repository service-orientation at the 2005 CETIS Conference. This discussion identified “deposit” as the most important repository function for which there was no single, obvious standard for implementation as a web service. DRPSP carried out introductory research, held a series of meetings and gathered use cases and feedback from the repository development community to help incubate work on a common API for repository deposit. This working group ultimately gave rise to the SWORD project which developed a profile of the Atom Publishing Protocol as a deposit API.

Repositories Research Team

When DRPSP morphed into RRT in 2007 the direct project support and institutional advocacy remit passed to the recently established Repository Support Project. This enabled RRT to concentrate on providing support to JISC at a more strategic level. Notable outputs from this period include the programme level synthesis and the repository ecology work.

Programme Synthesis and Evaluation

The objective of this activity was to identify evidence produced by projects that would be relevant to a planned thematic evaluation and synthesis of the Repositories and Preservation Programme. The actual evaluation and synthesis was undertaken by external consultants and the relevant themes were identified by JISC programme managers. In order to facilitate this work the team used a shared blog where they posted evidence tagged by theme that they had trawled from project outputs. This resulted in a blog that effectively acted as a public annotated index of project outputs tagged against themes. The blog platform provided useful functionality in that it allowed the distributed team to work together on a collection of documents, it provided a useful over-view for the JISC programme managers and a starting point and invaluable programme summary for the consultants commissioned to carry through the evaluation and synthesis.

Repository Ecology

The Repository Ecology activity was originally inspired by Neil Maclean’s EDCL 2004 keynote in The Ecology of Repository Services: A Cosmic View! and evolved into a major initiative to investigate models of repository and service interaction and to consider the strengths and limitations of different approaches to articulating or modelling their relationships. The biological study of ecology examined as a potential metaphor to provide new ways to represent the complex multi-faceted environments in which repositories exist and interact. The report and case studies, which are available from the IE Repository, were highlighted by Dorothea Salo on her Caveat Lector blog in a post entitled “JISC is so much win

On reflection

Running a cross service support project with a significant advisory, synthesis and incubation remit was not without its challenges and it is fitting testament to Rachel Heery’s considerable expertise as a project manager that the team overcame the obstacles of physical and administrative distance to produce such varied and valuable outputs. When Rachel retired her departure had an immediate impact on the team and it’s fair to say that Neil Jacobs of JISC, Phil Barker and I had quite a job picking up where she left off.

Despite the challenges of managing such a long running cross service support project we believe that funding dedicated staff in existing services and innovation support centres and bringing them together to form a coherent project is generally a good model for programme support. This enables the support team to leverage the resources and expertise of the host service or centre. In addition the services and innovation support centres are also in a good position to synthesise issues arising from the programme, relate them to broader strategic issues and feed them back to JISC.

DRSPS / RRT was a relatively long-lived project that spanned a number of programmes and whose remit changed considerably throughout its lifetime. The project was fortunate to employ a number of dedicated and motivated staff who rose to the challenge and who, despite the challenges, viewed their time with the DRSPS / RRT project as being extremely positive and productive both professionally and personally.

In the words of one team member:

“I gained an awful lot. I gained a broad knowledge of repositories and projects and what was going on in repositories area. I gained skills in standards development, application profiling…. I made tons of contacts and had opportunities to travel. It was a fantastic job really.”


We would like to acknowledge the following staff and thank them for their input to DRPSP / RRT: Julie Allinson (formerly UKOLN, now University of York), Sarah Currier (formerly CETIS, now Sarah Currier Consultancy), Michael Day (UKOLN), Mahendra Mahey (UKOLN), R. John Robertson (CETIS), Adrian Stevenson (UKOLN).

A number of JISC programme managers and consultants also made a significant contribution to this project over its lifespan including Neil Jacobs (who stepped into the breach as project manager in 2007), Andy MacGregor, Rachel Bruce, Amber Thomas, Balviar Notay and Tom Franklin.

In particular we would like to acknowledge the invaluable personal and professional contribution made to this and many other projects by Rachel Heery, Assistant Director for Research and Development at UKOLN, until her retirement in 2007.

Phil Barker and Lorna M. Campbell

Repository Fringe 2009

A few brief notes from the first day of the Repository Fringe (#rf09) event in Edinburgh. A lot of the presentations were somewhat orthogonal (can’t use that word without thinking of the late great Claude Ostyn!) to my main areas of interest. There were one or two mentions of using repositories to manage teaching and learning materials (two to be precise) but the main focus of the majority of the presentations was squarely on institutional repositories of scholarly works and the research publication workflow and lifecycle.

Having said that, Sally Rumsey and Ben O’Steen’s opening keynote raised some interesting general points which I’ve noted randomly below:

“Sir Thomas Bodely built an “ark to save learning from deluge” and instigated a “republic of lettered men”. Are we building the digital equivalent of the Bodleian?”

“Repository staff act as catalysts for community building.”

“The most successful repository is the internet. How can we make institutional repositories more like the internet? Adding urls to resources for example.”

“People search for “things” not documents. Things have names in real life, however not everything on the web has a name. We can give things names? We can certainly give them urls. It is key to know how a document relates to the thing. The real power comes from the relating of things.”

“We’ve reinvented too many wheels. We need to use the defacto standards of the web, they work, don’t fight them.”

“Almost anything can be regarded as a repository (e.g. flickr, youtube, eprints, etc) but these things don’t have much in common.”

“We need to cut the complexity and aim for one click deposit. We need a solution to the multiple repository deposit regime (MuRDeR) problem.”

“Preservation is useless without access. We should rename preservation – assured secure storage and permanent access.”

“Disproportionate feedback loop – the perception that a small effort brings enormous benefit. The ultimate feedback for the academic is peer review.” (I though that this particular disproportionate feedback loop sounded rather like harnessing the power of professional vanity to fill repositories.)

“Print on demand is going to be huge.” (Oh really??)

A few other notable, and in some cases questionable, quotes from the day:

“…..of course if we’re talking about people a strings….”

“Linked data is going to take over the world.”

“The Semantic Web isn’t just about better search, it’s about aggregation.”

“Institutional repositories are ultimately marketing tools really.”

One of the mentions of learning resources came from Richard Jones of Simplectic who said they were involved in a project that was developing a learning object repository based DSpace augmented with Mahara to facilitate communities of practice.

One last thing, one of the “novel” aspects of the Repository Fringe was the Pecha Kucha sessions. Some of these were notably more successful than others. Les Carr was excellent of course, as were William Nixon and his colleague from Glasgow University’s Enrich and Enlighten projects. However I couldn’t help being reminded of Alt-C panel sessions with three or four short rushed powerpoint presentations with very little time or inclination for comments at the end. More opportunity for discussion would have been greatly appreciated! As one of my colleagues diplomatically put it:

“….the message was somewhat hampered by the medium.”

I decided against attending the second day of the conference but was very sorry to miss Cliff Lynch’s closing keynote. Hopefully It’ll appear online sooner rather than later.

Real live learning material repository managers spotted at JISC conference!

During last weeks JISC Repositories & Preservation Programme meeting I sat in on a discussion forum on repositories for learning materials that was as interesting as it was short. I didn’t count the number of people who participated, (30 perhaps?), but it was notable that real live honest-to-goodness learning object repository managers outnumbered dubious “experts” (like me). That has to be progress! This informal session was facilitated by JISC’s Amber Thomas and liveblogged by R. John Robertson (#rpmeetb).

Given that most of the participants were speaking from experience I think it’s important to acknowledge the issues they raised….

Quality Assurance

QA is still a big issue. One participant noted that staff at their institution don’t want “three crummy powerpoints” in the same repository as their open access research papers as this will reflect badly on the quality of their scholarly works. A few thought that all teaching and learning materials should be QA’d as this would make them more attractive for reuse. Others, rightly in my opinion, pointed out that context is critical for teaching and learning materials and it makes no sense to QA resources out of context. A straw pole of participants showed that the majority of repository managers present have chosen not to QA teaching and learning materials.

Reuse or Management

There is still some ambiguity regarding the primary role of learning resource repositories. Are they there to facilitate the asset management of resources within the institution or to facilitate the reuse of resources by staff, and indeed students, outwith the institution? It appeared to me that the focus is still very much on using repositories to facilitate reuse but that it is not at all clear who the primary stakeholders are who might reuse these resources.

One Box or Many

Several of the repository managers present reported that they faced a dilemma regarding whether to accommodate the full range of institutional resources (scholarly works, teaching and learning materials, etheses, etc) in a single institutional repository or in multiple resource specific repositories. This was summarised as “one box or many”. One participant noted that senior management would not support multiple institutional repositories, their line of reasoning being “there’s only one institutional library, why should there be more than one repository?” Clearly there are technical solutions to this particular problem, however at root this is an institutional policy issue.

The VLE as Repository

Worryingly more than a few participants reported that it was still common practice for staff to use the institutional VLE to store teaching and learning materials used on a daily basis. This despite the fact that it’s widely known that “you can’t get anything out again”. It’s not clear whether these resources were deemed “not good enough” to be uploaded to a repository or whether it is simply easier to store them in a VLE. It appears that academics draw a distinction between teaching resources created for their own use and “learning objects” created for reuse.

The Myth of Reuse

Tom Franklin pointed out, as he has done many times before, that in his experience no lecturers reuse teaching materials that are more than ten years old so is there really any point in promoting the reuse of teaching and learning materials? This is a valid point. However I would argue that there are many lecturers that would probably like to reuse resources they created themselves a couple of years ago if only they could find them! To my mind the real value of repositories is that they can help teaching practitioners, and the institution more generally, manage their resources over the short to medium term.

So, is there any underlying commonality between teaching and learning materials and scholarly works? Unlike scholarly works, there is no clearly defined workflow for the production, use, management and distribution of teaching and learning materials. As a result it is difficult to articulate the role that repositories can play. In addition teaching and learning materials and their intended use differ vastly across subject domains. Several participants suggested that disciplinary based approaches to resource management may be more productive than the institutional approach. As John reported in his twitter feed

Conceptually Learning Material and Research repositories are very different services with fundamentally different goals, not just different metadata and workflows. Learning Material repositories are much more about asset management and possibly have closer parallel with research data than scholarly works, although not in terms of preservation.

So no stunning conclusions but a lot of food for though raised in just 30 minutes. It was genuinely enlightening to hear the experiences of so many colleagues who are actually managing learning material repositories. Kudos to the JISC Repositories and Preservation Programme.

Challenges of managing teaching and learning resources

Learning resources have not been served well by the Open Access Institutional Repositories debate, a problem that has been recognised and discussed by the JISC Repositories and Preservation Advisory Group however there are still significant issues that need to be address. This was one of the topics discussed at a recent meeting of the JISC eLearning Team, the JISC eLearning Consultants and the CETIS Management Team. Rather than focusing on a single specific technology, i.e. repositories, we should attempt to address the wider aim i.e. improved learning resource management across the sector. Repositories will have a role to play in achieving this aim, as will other technologies and solutions. The ultimate goals should be to improve teaching and learning practice.

In order to address the issue of resource management effectively we need to understand more about current working practices. It’s also important to identify institutional drivers for prioritising resource management. The JISC OER Programme is likely to have considerable impact in this area and the centrifugal force of this initiative is already apparent. There are many “Big Issues” to resolve in terms of improving the management of and opening access to educational resources. These include issues relating to policy e.g. what is the relationship between institutions, teachers, learners and the resources they create; practice e.g. how do teachers and learners create, use and interact with resources on a daily basis; and technology e.g. how can we manage large distributed collections of open educational resources, tracking, identifiers, rich metadata etc.

These are big challenges however there areas where discrete interventions could have a significant impact:

  • A landscape study of academics working practices and how they interact with educational content.
  • Widget and toolbar technologies along the lines of SWORD and FeedForward. Developing a range of tailored tools and widgets to help facilitate content creation and management workflows.
  • Search engine optimisation for teaching and learning materials.
  • Technologies to draw together distributed rich metadata to add value to existing content. E.g. drawing together comments and recommendations from applications such as flickr, youtube delicious etc.
  • Tracking technologies to monitor how open educational resources are used.

These and other related issues will continue to be debated into the new year so watch this space!

Exclude teaching and learning materials from the open access repositories debate – The Discussion

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post summarising a discussion that had take place at RPAG prompted by Andy Powells suggestion that

…the issues around learning object repositories, certainly the softer issues like what motivates people to deposit, are so totally different from those around research repositories that it makes no sense to consider them in the same space anyway the issues around learning object repositories, certainly the softer issues like what motivates people to deposit, are so totally different from those around research repositories that it makes no sense to consider them in the same space anyway.

This sparked considerable discussion on the RPAG mailing list the highlights of which are summarised here.

Steve Hitchcock was first up with the suggestion that we should focus on the œI of Institutional Repositories and asked

Are there personnal, domain and institutional perspectives to consider? And how do they relate to each other?

Amber Thomas agreed learning materials are different because

  • The priority isn’t to expose them by OAI-PMH (people don’t use oaister etc for finding learning materials, they use google)
  • They are referred to as open content, open educational resources etc rather than open access
  • The argument for open access is different, has different rhetoric and different stakeholders
  • They won’t often be institutional with a capital “I” they are more likely department or project or cross-institutional

Charles Oppenheim was also in agreement:

…learning materials are different in all sorts of ways, most importantly the (normally) absence of a commercial third party stakeholder (in contrast to research outputs) and the attitudes of the owners to sharing.

Andrew Rothery, who has already commented extensively on the pros and cons of using repositories to manage teaching and learning materials, suggested that we need to distinguish between different types of learning materials

Across the country, thousands of tutors are uploading substantial quantities of their own materials into their institutional VLEs every week. Broadly speaking these are the materials which institutions find hard to manage in conventional open access repositories and these are the ones which relate to different concepts, and need different approaches.

Yes, there are some resource collections which could be archived in a more formal repository system, a bit like text books or teaching materials which get published.

But that still means the whole question of learning and teaching materials needs its own perspective so we can make progess with designing appropriate repository systems.

It’s much harder to deal with the kind of resources Andrew identifies than collections of learning objects which may have been designed with re-use, re-purposing and “publication” in a LO repository in mind. The former are exactly the type of materials that have traditionally been regarded as ephemera but these are the resources that facilitate a key part of the institutions’ core business: teaching and learning. Should we be considering strategies to manage these resources?

Tom Franklin took a somewhat different perspective and cautioned against creating a dichotomy between teaching and learning materials and scholarly publications and suggested that we should also consider other resource types such as research data, archival data and student created content. While agreeing that we need to focus our efforts Tom added that we also need to be inclusive of a wide range of content types.

Finally Chris Awre provided a very neat summary of the issues we need to address:

…it is hard to imagine that research outputs and learning materials are different in ALL respects, even if there are clear differences in some areas. The issue in the debate about whether to include learning materials seems related to one area of repository activity, that of open access, and, while this is clearly a key aspect of why we are establishing repositories it is not the whole story: there are vast swathes of digital content out there that need managing for a variety of purposes but where open access is not on the agenda (or only a part of it).

It may, thus, be useful to gather evidence and thinking on how different types of materials are different to better understand where different approaches are required and where a similar or common approach can be taken: Ambers points are a step along this path and I agree that a focus on learning materials would be helpful. Whilst considering the differences from an open access perspective will be one factor within this, a multi-faceted view needs to be taken to address all potential institutional requirements.

It is encouraging that there seems to be general agreement that we need to consider the differences and similarities between various resource types and the objectives and requirements of their users and that we should focus more on these objectives and less on a single technical approach to meeting these objectives.

Cooke Report to Denham

Ron Cookes recent report to John Denham MP On-line Innovation in Higher Education is an interesting and thought provoking current “must read”.

The report identifies priorities for action to ensure that

UK Higher education remains worldclass and ¦ at the cutting edge of the global ICT economy

and also calls for a clear long-term vision to achieve this goal. Cooke outlines requirements and recommendations for three areas that require greater strategic direction; Learning and Teaching, Research and Innovation and Management and Administration.

The section on learning and teaching is of particular interest as it places considerable emphasis on the growing importance of open educational content. Indeed the reports first recommendation calls for:

A new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content: the UK must have a corpus of open access learning resources organised in a coherent way to support on-line and blended learning by all higher education institutions and to make it more widely available in non-HE environments.

An admirable goal indeed, however I am less sure about the need for

…national centres of excellence to provide quality control, essential updating, skills training and research and development in educational technology, e-pedagogy and educational psychology.

Should we not be focusing on the ability of ICT and in particular social networking technologies to disseminate expertise throughout the sector rather than centralising it at a number of exemplar institutions? I also rather non-plussed by the suggestion that

¦a national centre of open access course materials, for example through the Open University, is a potential model worth considering¦

Dont get me wrong, I think the OUs Open Learn project is a world-class initiative and one that we should all look to and learn from, however the OU business model is somewhat unique in the UK and what works for the OU will not necessarily work for other HEIs.

In contrast I am particularly encouraged by Cookes call for all HEIs to develop a strategic approach to information management:

Information resources are expensive and need to be managed as strategically as financial and human resources to improve the effectiveness of institutions.

In addition the reports emphasis on the importance of developing literacy and technology skills for both staff and students is highly commendable. Technology focused staff development initiatives seem to me to be lagging further and further behind technological innovation. Any initiatives that could help to bridge this gap would be a major step in the right direction.

While I agree with most, if not all, of Cookes recommendations there seems to me to be a strong, and perhaps somewhat dated, centralising theme running through the report. This is evidenced by the call for national centres of excellence and œcurated and organised collections of open learning content. The report also makes some questionable statements about repositories, for example:

¦it should not cost more to make course materials openly available on professionally managed repository platforms.

And rather worryingly, although the report includes an appendix of significant JISC programmes there appears to be no mention of Jorum and the potential strategic role it could play in facilitating and curating a UK network of open educational resources. Perhaps I missed a footnote somewhere.

I havent commented on the Research and Innovation and Management and Administration sections of the Cooke report as these really arent my areas of expertise however there are a couple of points relating to the interface between research and teaching and learning that are worth highlighting:

in research led universities there is a need to link effectively research resources with learning and teaching.

It is taken for granted in the research process that one builds on the work of others; the same culture can usefully be encouraged in creating learning materials.

So, a thought provoking and encouraging report overall but perhaps one that needs to widen its vision somewhat.

Exclude teaching and learning materials from the open access repositories debate. Discuss.

Much of last week’s meeting of the JISC Repositories and Preservation Advisory Group was taken up with a discussion of the findings of the Repositories Roadmap Review which is being undertaken by Rachel Heery. The Review, which is not yet public, sparked a lively discussion during the course of which Andy Powell put forward the suggestion that teaching and learning materials should no longer be included in the same discussions as open access scholarly works as the issues relating to their use and management are just so different.

As one of the small quota of œteaching and learning type folk on RPAG I was inclined to cautiously agree with Andy. Many of us who have an interest in the management of teaching and learning materials have been frustrated for some time that repository discussions, debates and developments often focus too much on scholarly communications and research papers while neglecting other resource types such as teaching and learning materials and data sets. Im sure Im not the only one who feels a bit sheepish about having to jump up at regular intervals and say œbut what about teaching and learning materials? There has in the past been a tendency to assume that Institutional Repositories set up to accommodate scholarly works could also provide a home for teaching and learning materials in their spare time. And this despite the fact that theres considerable debate regarding how effectively learning object repositories can manage teaching and learning materials, never mind capital I capital R Institutional Repositories!

In the past Ive suggested that the language and discourse of the Open Access movement œdoesnt fit teaching and learning materials. In a written contribution to the discussion Andrew Rothery of University of Worcester went further to suggest that:

the concepts and values around open access, archiving, metadata, sharing, and publishing dont really fit.

and that the whole model of formal institutional repositories just doesnt support teachers day to day practice.

So whats the answer? Id suggest that we need to begin by asking a lot more questions before we can start coming up with answers. Questions such as:

What to teachers actually do with their materials? Where do they currently store them? How do they manage them? How do they use them? Are there things teachers cant do now that they would like to? How do learners interact with teaching materials? Are there personnal, domain and institutional perspectives to consider? And how do they relate to each other?

We need a discussion that is focused squarely on the requirements and objectives of teachers and learners not one that is an addendum to the, admittedly worthy, open access debate.

A word of caution though¦. My one concern is that if we exclude teaching and learning materials from œrepository debates, and indeed JISC funding programmes, will we stop talking about them all together?

And one last thing¦itll be interesting to see how OER developments influence this debate.