Conferences

THETA 2013 Conference Report

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Conference Report by Alex Reid, AARNet eResearch Advisor

Alex spoke about optimal ways of identifying and meeting the needs of eResearchers, based on the experience gained in developing and promoting CloudStor (see http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/alex-reid.pdf).

This conference was held from 7 to 10-Apr-13 in Hobart. It was previously called Educause-Australasia and is held every 2 years. It brings together university IT Directors, Chief Librarians and eLearning Directors (and their staff) in Australia & New Zealand. There were about 560 delegates. THETA stands for The Higher Education Technology Agenda.

Its Website, which includes the program and copies of most of the presentations, is at http://theta.edu.au/author/caudit/. The theme of the conference was “The Edge of the World”, which some people did manage to work into their presentations.

This conference is a great opportunity to network with everyone responsible for technology within the HE sector. As usual, the plenary sessions were of a high standard, with a range of interesting and useful topics covered. These were supplemented by a broad range of submitted papers given in 3 parallel sessions. A wide range of subjects were covered, including the use of technology in research, trends in eLearning, opportunities for shared services, and strategic alignment of technology initiatives with institutional mission.

Not surprisingly, eLearning was a popular topic, with particular emphasis this time on MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. Because there is legitimate uncertainty about the place of these courses and the likely impact on the shape of Higher Education generally, it was helpful to have some measured presentations on the subject. Such a key presentation was a plenary session given by Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, DVC (Academic), ANU, who described the rationale behind ANU’s joining one of the big-3 MOOC consortia, edX (the others being Coursera and Udacity), indicating how they plan to draw on ANU’s particular strengths in astrophysics, Indian studies and languages.

We might expect to see a surge in uptake of MOOCs in Australia with the advent of faster home broadband (particularly as the NBN rolls out), and some universities might find the systems (and perhaps the networks) they employ to deliver MOOCs under serious pressure. One of the first MOOCs, offered by Stanford on AI, attracted 160,000 students from around the world.

Kate Cornick, General Manager, Health and Education, NBN Co, spoke on the role of the NBN in the changing higher education landscape, asserting that telecommunications is changing universities, none more so than the NBN (notwithstanding the wonderful work AARNet has done, she said). She believes that the connection between campus and home is key to the future of universities, with eLearning paradigms (like MOOCs) burgeoning.

Ted Dodds, CIO at Cornell University, spoke about the challenges facing delivery of IT services, in view of the fact that 90% of the IT budget is committed to maintaining basic utilities, leaving only 10% to develop differentiators. He advocated tools like the Cloud, Virtualisation, eLearning consortia as ways to economise on the basics and free up resources to develop more institution-strategic services. For instance, he cited Internet2’s Net+ initiative as a great help in doing this and advocated universities doing more of this sharing/pooling of basic services. It is worth noting that AARNet is partnering with Internet2 in offering some of these “Net+” services, such as the Box.net Cloud storage service.

The conference coincided with the release of a New Media Consortium Report on the Technology Outlook for Australian Tertiary Education in the period 2013-2018 (copies can be downloaded from http://www.nmc.org/publications/2013-technology-outlook-australian-tertiary-education). The CEO of NMC, Larry Johnson, introduced the Report, which looks at the adoption/main-streaming of emerging technologies over 3 time periods – 1 year out, 2-3 years out and 4-5 years out.  It also includes the top-10 trends impacting technology decisions and the top-10 most significant challenges.

With the conference being held in Tasmania, it was particularly interesting to hear of the plans that Tasmania has to develop a State-wide sensor network. Professor Paddy Nixon, DVC (Research) at the University of Tasmania, delivered the closing plenary presentation, noting that Tasmania has all the characteristics of complex global systems, but is small enough to enable whole-of-economy analysis. The aim is to integrate data from multiple sources, holding it in accessible Clouds, to build up a comprehensive picture of climate, resources, agriculture, etc. This will enable some of the more complex problems facing modern society to be tackled.

With a plethora of new tools and services being developed and released for use among the research community in Australia (largely through projects like the NeCTAR and RDSI), there was quite a bit of interest in an AeRO project to improve and standardise discovery and support for these services, which was described at the conference in a couple of sessions. AARNet is participating in this project, using CloudStor as a typical service for proving the framework being developed.

Overall, a very worthwhile conference. The next conference will be held on the Gold Coast in 2015, hosted by Griffith University, probably at a similar time of year.


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