The government is keen to secure the UK’s position as a world class centre of research and development. There are over 160 universities and institutes of higher education in the UK and the job of ensuring all those places of learning can talk to each other and share information belongs to an organisation called the UK’s Education and Research Network (UKERNA).
Its main responsibility is the Joint Association Network (JANET) which connects the UK’s education and research organisations to each other and the rest of the world through links to the internet. JANET is not just for academics however and now the government has said it wants to extend the use of the high-speed, high-capacity network to schools.
This is all a long way from JANET’s relatively utilitarian beginnings. It came into existence formally in 1984, although networking between British universities was around in various rudimentary guises prior to that. Over the years it has grown from a 9.6Kbit/sec network to the 10Gbit/sec network it is now, with even higher capacity already on the drawing board.
Spanning the divide
Like many public sector bodies, UKERNA has been feeling the winds of change over the past few years, with the government’s increased emphasis on how private sector skills and disciplines can help it achieve its potential. That is partly borne out by its structure: UKERNA is a non-profit, limited company with one client – the Joint Information Systems Committee, the part of Whitehall that runs higher education IT.
As a quasi-private company operating in the public sector it is helpful to have someone at the helm who is comfortable with both sides of the divide. Step forward Tim Marshall, chief executive of the body. Marshall’s CV makes for interesting reading – joining the BBC in 1978, he rose to run all the Beeb’s coverage of major sporting events, before moving to Disney where he was MD of Buena Vista Productions, responsible for all international production of TV and new media. An almost inevitable stint at a dot-com followed – in the e-learning space – before he came on board in 2005 to head UKERNA.
"Students are getting more interested in what technology can do for them and want more powerful connectivity, which we need to supply"
Tim Marshall, chief executive, UKERNA
A lot of the last two years has been about instigating some possibly overdue cultural change in the organisation, he says. “There’s been a lot of restructuring – and it sounds minor but we’ve moved from a 1960s, civil service, separate offices environment to an open plan way of working.”
Marshall says there is a real excitement in UKERNA at what JANET is doing – and more importantly, can do.
“JANET is going from delivering e-learning and videoconferencing facilities to school children to hosting pioneering remote surgery techniques, supporting research into global warming and the very beginning of life itself,” enthuses Marshall. A comment backed up by Phil Hope, current UK Minister for Skills: “Now primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities can communicate and collaborate securely and reliably. The videoconferencing and other technologies under the programme will allow them to share learning and link into the UK’s world-class higher education research facilities and other resources.”
So for the first time there is a single communications resource for education across the UK, with JANET reaching all levels of education from primary schools to universities. Government stakeholders are now looking to the network and its services to play a role in helping to improve national learning and skills – enabling the transfer of knowledge and ensuring opportunities for learning are available to all.
The kids are all right
But there are challenges ahead. If academics were tricky customers in the past, wait until the kids get involved.
“Young people today are IT literate all the way down to school level – they know so much more than the teachers. It only takes a summer holiday and they’re ahead again. Students are getting more interested in what technology can do for them and want more powerful connectivity, which we need to supply,” says Marshall.
This is at least one factor in him spending a lot of time and organisational resource looking at better ways of working, both within the public sector and with industry, potentially.
“So many things are disruptive of our traditional business planning models in government,” he says. “Change seems to be getting ever faster ‘out there’ and it’s difficult for government structures to react adequately.”
Marshall believes that the way JANET functions today may be a model for how other kinds of shared services will run in the future.
“We are acting as an integrator for a large number of stakeholders – nine research councils and the Department for Education and Science. I think this is an example of best practice in the public sector,” he says.
The network is helping to push innovative uses of technology. Professor Kevin Warwick, head of cybernetics at University of Reading, has undergone two different medical procedures to research cyborg technologies and neurological science. He used JANET to transmit neural signals from his brain in New York to a robot hand at his Reading lab.
“I was feeling what the robot hand was feeling via JANET on a different continent, which was tremendously exciting,” he says.
The upgraded network has been involved in a range of innovative projects recently from a large-scale digitisation of news film archives and major astronomical European supercomputing project, to a new interactive project aimed at schoolkids for the National Space Centre. JANET is also being used for a number of videoconferencing and other shared information initiatives.
But, like any business network, JANET is not just about innovation, it is about supporting the business. It is equally adept at the everyday administration tasks like communicating with students, processing applications and distributing exam results.
And it is the scope of JANET which will allow individuals and organisations to push back the traditional boundaries of teaching, learning and research methods in the years to come.