Ten Years At UKOLN
Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus


Brian Kelly On the tenth anniversary of his appointment as UK Web Focus, Brian Kelly gives his thoughts on his career highlights, which include registering one of the first fifty Web sites in the world, and his work at UKOLN.

About UK Web Focus

The post of UK Web Focus was set up by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) to monitor developments to Web standards and innovations in order to advise the UK's higher education community (initially) on best practices for exploiting the Web. I started in the post, which is based at UKOLN (a national centre of expertise in digital information management) on 1st November 1996.

Over time the remit of the post widened, initially to advise the further education sector in addition to higher education, and, then, due to funding from the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives Council) to the cultural heritage sector.

First Encounters with the Web

During the early 1990s I was employed as the Information Officer in Computing Services, University of Leeds. In December 1991 I attended a meeting in which a variety of Internet applications were demonstrated, such as FTP, Usenet and Gopher. I was familiar with these applications, but new to me was the Web. Despite being text-only at that time I was attracted by the benefits of the hypertext interface and felt that this had the potential to provide what was then known as a CWIS (Campus Wide Information System) for the University. So in January 1992 we set up a Web service for the University. This was very much a pioneering effort and was probably the first institutional Web service in the UK, and when we registered our Web site at CERN (the organisation responsible for developing the Web) there were less than 50 organisations in the world listed with a public Web presence.

Our initial work was very much helped by a fortuitous visit to the University by Robert Cailliau, a co-developer of the Web with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Robert's wife was from Leeds and, on a family trip to Leeds, Robert took the opportunity to visit the local University in order to encourage take-up of what was then very much a little-known Internet application. Discussions with Robert convinced me of the potential of the Web to support not only our information needs, but also as a vehicle for enhancing teaching and learning and research support.

I can recall at the time, however, being slightly worried that we might have chosen a superior system, but that the rest of the community might just be content to use the inferior but better known Gopher system. Being aware of the analogy with the Betamax versus VHS wars (in which VHS dominated the marketplace despite the technical superiority of the Betamax alternative) I was aware of the need to promote the benefits of the Web across the community. So during 1993 and 1994 I gave talks and demonstrations at a range of seminars, workshops and conferences. By the end of 1994 the superiority of the Web was widely accepted and we began to see the phasing out of Gopher services.

Moving On

My early enthusiasm for the Web and my experiences in promoting it across the community led me to move on to seek a job with a national role. I left Leeds University in September 1995 to take up a post as Senior Trainer at the newly formed Netskills training organisation, based at the University of Newcastle. This enabled me to support the take-up of Web technologies across the community.

A year later an even more challenging role became available at UKOLN. The post of UK Web Focus was advertised with a remit to advise and support the community in maximising the potential of the Web. I was appointed to the post and started work at UKOLN on 1st November 1996.

Highlights of My Time at UKOLN

Although during the past 10 years or so I have seen a great many exciting technical innovations and have had the opportunity to attend conferences in a number of exciting locations (including Australia, Canada and Japan) I feel the most pleasing aspect of my work has been the establishment of a thriving community of practice comprising members of institutional Web management teams. This community has been supported by UKOLN's annual Institutional Web Management Workshop which has now been running for 10 years. This annual event, together with a number of smaller events and a number of thriving JISCmail mailing lists, have helped to develop a community of practice, with practitioners always willing to share their experiences and debate ways of providing effective institutional Web services.

Building Strong Foundations to Support My Advisory Role

Web Accessibility

During my early years at UKOLN my work consisted of finding out about new developments, standards and innovations and passing this information on - this was very much a technology dissemination role. However as innovations and standards flourished, this became an increasingly difficult task. In addition the take-up of innovations was slowing down as institutions were forced to come to terms with the tensions of deploying innovations and providing stable services.

In response to this my role slowly changed, so that I became more involved in understanding not only the innovations, but also barriers to deployment and developing approaches which could help overcome such barriers.

This work began in the area of Web accessibility. In the early 1990s the advice I gave to the Web community was to simply implement the WAI guidelines. However in June 2003, at a Web Site Benchmaking workshop for the RSC Eastern Region in discussions with Simon Ball of the JISC-funded TechDis service it emerged that both of us had reservations over the applicability of these guidelines in areas such as e-learning. This initial conversation led, following an Accessibility Summit meeting at TechDis's office in February 2004, to work jointly with Lawrie Phipps, then of TechDis, in the development of a holistic approach to e-learning accessibility. This work was initially described in Developing A Holistic Approach For E-Learning Accessibility (Kelly, B., Phipps, L. and Swift, E. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 2004, Vol. 30, Issue 3). Our work in this area complemented the research interests of Professor Helen Petrie (then of City University and now at the University of York) and David Sloan (University of Dundee). Joint papers on Forcing Standardization or Accommodating Diversity? A Framework for Applying the WCAG in the Real World (Kelly, B., Sloan, D., Phipps, L., Petrie, H. and Hamilton, F. Proceedings of the 2005 International Cross-Disciplinary Workshop on Web Accessibility (W4A)) and Contextual Web Accessibility - Maximizing the Benefit of Accessibility Guidelines (Sloan, D, Kelly, B., Heath, A., Petrie, H., Hamilton, F and Phipps, L. WWW 2006 Edinburgh, Scotland 22-26 May 2006. Conference Proceedings, Special Interest Tracks, Posters and Workshops) have further developed this approach by building a strong underlying framework for the work and extending it from e-learning to providing a generic framework for addressing Web accessibility issues.

In addition to developing the underlying theoretical model, we have also developed approaches for embedding this work within institutions and sought to ensure the approaches are widely disseminated. This work has included an award-winning paper presented at the international ALT-C conference on Implementing A Holistic Approach To E-Learning Accessibility (Kelly, B., Phipps, L. and Howell, C. ALT-C 2005 Conference Proceedings) - and Holistic Approaches to E-Learning Accessibility (Phipps, L. and Kelly, B. ALT-J Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 69-78).

Standards

The accessibility work described above recognised the importance of the WAI guidelines, but acknowledged that the guidelines did have limitations, and so an approach was needed which maximised the strengths of the guidelines but provided flexibility to allow the guidelines to be ignored if they failed to provide user benefits or could not realistically be implemented. A similar approach was taken in the development of an approach to support use of open standards within JISC development programmes.

A contextual model for use of open standards was developed which was initially described in Ideology Or Pragmatism? Open Standards And Cultural Heritage Web Sites (Kelly, B., Dunning, A., Guy, M. and Phipps, L. ichim03 Conference Proceedings (CD-ROM), Paris, 10-12th September 2003). Follow-up papers included A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes (Kelly, B., Russell, R., Johnston, P., Dunning, A., Phipps, L. and Hollins, P. ichim05 Conference Proceedings) and A Contextual Framework For Standards (Kelly, B., Dunning, A., Rahtz, S., Hollins, P and Phipps, L. WWW 2006 Edinburgh, Scotland 22-26 May 2006. Conference Proceedings, Special Interest Tracks, Posters and Workshops).

The thinking behind the approach which seeks to maximise the benefits of open standards, whilst providing the flexibility required should the standards fail to take off - they may be too immature, too complex or too costly to deploy, for example - is now being deployed in the JISC standards catalogue. This work is being coordinated by UKOLN to support JISC's development programmes.

Quality Assurance

From January 2002 to June 2004 I was the project manager for the JISC-funded QA Focus project. This project successfully developed a light-weight quality assurance framework which was designed to be usable within the context of JISC-funded project work.

The work carried out by the QA Focus project has been described in several peer-reviewed papers including:

This quality assurance model was supported by a wide range of briefing papers. They describe key standards and application areas and documented advice and best practice in their use and deployment.

The modular approach taken has enabled the documentation to be reused elsewhere. It has been particularly pleasing to note that the documentation is currently being embedded at the University of Waterloo, Canada to help support the development of a community of practice of Canadian University Web managers. The documentation has also been included in the Web Standards Project's list of resources. This international recognition of the outputs of this project not only provide an indication of the quality of the deliverables, but also help to maximise the benefits of this work and in establishing links with the wider international Web development community.

Recent Activities

In March 2004 I gave a talk on What Can Internet Technologies Offer? at the UCISA Management Conference in the G-Mex International Conference Centre, Manchester. This talk, to over 300 senior managers in IT Service departments, described the potential of Blogs, Wikis, instant messaging and social networking to support teaching and learning and research activities within our institutions. This talk, which, I was subsequently informed, was given the highest marks for talks at the conference, described a range of technologies which are nowadays often referred to as 'Web 2.0'.

It was a year later when the term 'Web 2.0' was coined. It was pleasing to be ahead of the field in identifying the potential of this range of technologies. The term Web 2.0 is now in popular use (other the term itself has its critics). During 2006 I have been active in continuing to raise awareness of its potential and also in engaging with concerns which have been raised. Events held during 2006 have include seminars at the Kings College London in February and University of Leeds in March (both of which attrcacted over 100 participants) tegether with many other seminars and workshops aimed at UKOLN's stakeholder communities, mostly recently a highly successful seminar organised by MLA North East and held at Teesside University.

This dissemination activity included note only advocacy which outlines the potential benefits but also addressing potential risks and reservations which have been expressed. The current work consists of developing a user-focussed approach to innovation, the development of risk assessment and risk management approaches, promotion of the benefits of openness and building on the well-established Institutional Web Management Community of Practice.

The Next Decade

Work at the start of my second decade at UKOLN begins immediately, with Accessibility Summit II taking place on 2ndNovember 2006 in which a small group of invited experts from across the higher and further education communities and the wider public sector will discuss plans for building on our Web accessibility activities. On the following day I am the organiser of and speaker at UKOLN's Exploiting The Potential Of Wikis" workshop, in which 80 delegates from the higher education and related sectors will hear about a number of ways in which Wikis can be used and discuss the merits of various Wiki deployment strategies.

Conclusions

When I started work at UKOLN in November 1996 I was very excited to be working at a national centre with an internationally recognised name and clear vision of the benefits of networked services. As I start my second decade I am perhaps even more excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. Over the past ten years we have seen the Web develop from providing a simple globally deployed information system to a rich environment which is being used in a great many areas, including education, research and business as well as in the social and cultural spheres. During that time JISC has helped the development of the foundations to deploy a Web environment to support the needs of the higher and further education sectors. JISC's current vision is the development of the e-Framework. This approach, based on the use of SOA principles to develop and provide modular services across the network has clear parallels with the Web 2.0 vision of mashups, syndication and an architecture of participation. And, just as with Web 2.0, there will be sceptics and areas of concern: will SOA work? How will it relate to the provision of existing services? What if the user community is happy with existing monolithic solutions? Can I trust external services and a networked environment for the delivery of mission-critical services? These are all important questions which will require deep thought and open debate. I am looking forward to engaging in that debate during my second decade at UKOLN.

Contact Details and Further Information

Brian Kelly, UKOLN, University of Bath, BATH, BA 2 7AY.
Phone: 01225 383943.
Email: B.Kelly@ukoln.ac.uk