Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The future of education and research networks

Education and research networks are typically publicly funded by tax payers and generally exist to provide reliable and secure network connectivity and communication services to a relatively closed community, or niche, of education and research sector 'customers' – usually confined by national boundaries but peered with other education and research networks internationally and commercial network services providers via the Internet. The service portfolio of a typical education and research network service provider includes video conferencing services along with access to very high quality bandwidth and IP network connectivity along with a range of the value-added services such as DNS and Email and the like, as would be provided by any commercial ISP. The customer service interface is almost totally devoid of any commercial-style marketing and promotional material, though obviously customer service desks are provided in keeping with the commercial network service provider service model. Most employees in education and research network service providers are technically very smart 'power-users', and typically come from an academic background.

Whilst researching the roles that education and research networks might play in providing services for their 'customers' in the future, and, perhaps more importantly in trying to come to a clear view of how IT Services companies should be shaping up to help, and with my head completely spinning, I was interested to read a thought-provoking blog post Teacher on Demand by my colleague Rudolf van der Berg about the possibilities of video channels for teaching.

This provoked me to think about how Web 2.0 might be applied to add value for network service providers in this sector and enhance our vision for the future of this sector. Don Tapscott refers to 'The New Alexandrians' when he describes his vision for the future of this sector in chapter 6 of his book Wikinomics (take a look at the Wikinomics blog for an interesting read). Don talks about 'The Science of Sharing' and why collaboration and sharing is now, and as it has always been since the time of the Alexandrians, fundamental to educational and research networks. He develops this idea further in a subsequent section entitled 'The Sharing of Science', where he says "Just as collaborative tools and applications are re-shaping enterprises, the new Web will forever change the way scientists publish, manage data, and collaborate across institutional boundaries".

With this vision in mind, it would seem there is a gaping opportunity (or even perhaps an obligation) for network service providers in the education and research sector to leverage their existing network and customer assets, along with some Web 2.0 thinking, and really start to re-model themselves as 'collaboration enablers' providing platforms to support more frequent and diverse, high-quality, feature-rich online interactions between their network users, the users of their peers networks, and the wider Internet user community. This increase in both openess and collaborative activity could stimulate innovation, which ultimately would help to accelerate a return to growth for the national economies in the western world.

Tax payers are (in one way or another) currently funding much of the strategic investments being made by western governments into their local financial systems. This investment is clearly needed to help stabilise the financial sector and assure normal functioning of commercial and public sector enterprises, though channeling some additional investment toward also increasing innovation through improved education and research networks at this time might give the tax payer a better return overall.

I feel that much can be done in the education and research sector, and that network service providers and their suppliers especially have a big role to play in helping to ensure that our western enconomies re-emerge from the economic downturn in quick time and in good shape.

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