In a month’s time the DE USRG will cease to exist, as it merges with the Web Science Institute. Since we took it over in 2011 we have focused on a few key areas:
Firstly, the role of technological innovation in driving research-informed education, and this being digital economy research in its own right. The education sector is changing rapidly as we all appreciate and the place of technology is fundamental to this.
Our second focus has been on encouraging cross-discipline, and business-facing research that is as open as we can make it. Examples from our own activities here include continuing collaborations with Microsoft research connections and with a range of small social media businesses.
Our third focus has been on “eating the dog food” – encouraging the institution to direct its own research inwards, particularly by applying it in areas such as business intelligence and marketing communications.
A few years ago the DE USRG initiated the development of a university-wide blogging infrastructure that continues to grow. By sitting outside of the (very sensibly) constrained business-critical digital services provided by the University we have been able to innovate and experiment. This service has now supported the first four FutureLearn UoS MOOCs and is still under development. We recently added a lot more geospatial functionality to the Portus blog for example. It has been supported from the DE USRG and also CITE funding.
The close involvement of computer science researchers of all stages has also been pivotal to the DE USRG’s activities. For example, the Web Science MOOC included significant contributions from postgraduates with their research leading a number of discussions. This was highly praised by the learners. The same thing happened on the Portus course where research students, masters and undergraduates all contributed and where the completed work of researchers (e.g. a PhD thesis in one case) was openly shared, interlinked and commented upon.
Similarly the Archaeology of Portus MOOC is able to make use of research driven by computer science and engineering collaborations in areas such as imaging. The blogging infrastructure was also evaluated by Southampton Human Computer Interaction students and content analysed by natural language processing experts, both fed by collaborations that grew from an RCUK DE large grant. And the Digital Marketing MOOC will take this yet further by even more student research-led activity that is strongly grounded in real world, applied business collaborations.
In terms of openness, developing these MOOCs has highlighted the tipping point – we are in the midst of a research publication transition that we have no doubt will drive more and more content and review into the public domain. With Portus the inaccessibility of monographs has chimed with current activities by research councils, learned societies and publishers to explore the future of the book and hence of long-form humanities scholarship. We plan in the coming months to develop much closer links between open education, open data and open scholarship at Portus. With the Digital Marketing MOOC the focus will be on storytelling – we share our stories and encourage learners to reciprocate and interact with each other, using their blogs or whatever social channel is best suited to the task. The opportunities and challenges of the open and transparent nature of such activity mirrors those facing marketers in the “real world” as they create and share relevant content, engage with customers and build relationships online.
Communication has been another key strand. It has been our aim within the DE USRG to encourage more diverse communication activities, including events crossing disciplines, institutions and sectors (such as SxSC). We encouraged increasing use of social media and again this is now at the heart of the MOOCs and in other educational and research contexts across the University. As the DE USRG transitions into a component of the Web Science Institute, this sense of innovation being driven by student’s educational and research activities will persist and indeed grow, in close contact with business.
In so many cases over the last three years we have been astounded by the creativity and energy of our colleagues and our students. Whether in curriculum innovation contexts like Living and Working on the Web or in the new connections emerging from DE networks such as ITaaU or NEMODE there are real changes happening solely as a result of new collaborations that ignore silos (student/staff, discipline, sector) and a willingness to share. None of the MOOCs would work without the enormous input from dedicated scholars who have bought into the idea that research should be accessible, and challenging rather than dumbed down.
We have started to treat the term “edutainment” when leveled at the MOOCs as the greatest compliment – education that learners find entertaining sounds just like what universities do. We hope that the DE USRG has supported this environment.