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From February I’m going to be involved in a new project, STELLARSemantic Technologies Enhancing the Lifecycle of LeArning Resources (funded by JISC).   In some ways the project connects with previous work I’ve been involved with in the Lucero project in that it will be employing linked data, and will be working with learning materials, in that I’ve had some involvement with our production and presentation learning systems through the VLE.  But STELLAR will be dealing with a different area for me, in that we’ll be looking at my institution’s store of legacy learning materials.   So it’s a good opportunity to learn more about curation and preservation and digital lifecycles.

STELLAR is particularly going to be looking at trying to understand the value of those legacy learning materials by talking to the academics who have been involved in creating those materials.   There are quite a few reasons why older course materials may still have value, they might be able to be reused in new courses on the basis that reusing old materials might be less costly than creating new materials.  They might have value in being able to be transformed into Open Educational Resources.  Or, for example, they might have value in being good historical examples of styles of teaching and learning.  So STELLAR will be exploring different types and models of expressing the value of those materials.

Finding out about the value that is placed on these materials can also be an important factor when trying to understand which materials to preserve as a priority, or where you should expend your resources, and we’d hope that STELLAR would help to inform HE policies as institutions build up increasing amounts of digital learning materials.

As part of STELLAR we will be taking some digital legacy learning material and transforming it into linked data (with some help from our friends in KMi). This gives us the opportunity to connect old course materials into the OU’s ecosystem by linking to existing datasets on current courses and OER material in OpenLearn.  By transforming the content in this way we can then explore whether making it more discoverable changes the value proposition, makes the content more likely to be reused or opens up other possibilities.  It should be an interesting project and one that I’m looking forward to, as there are going to be a lot of opportunties to build up my understanding of these issues and aspects.

William Kilbride’s lunchtime talk on the Digital Preservation Coalition today.  William is from the Digital Preservation Coalition (sounds like a surprisingly good name for a Rap artist!), based in Glasgow.  His talk gave a good run through the work of the DPC and was a good primer on some of the issues around Digital Preservation.  A useful follow-up to some of the ECDL sessions where digital preservation was touched upon.

Digital Preservation Coalition website

Digital Preservation Coalition website

The DPC’s statement ‘Our digital memory accessible tomorow’  is a great aspiration and William explained how the DPC was going about trying to help to support and encourage making that a reality.  Describing long term preservation as ‘trickier than we expected’  he first flagged up four issues:

  • the growth in digital data
  • the complexity of data
  • the requirements of data
  • expectations

William illustrated the problems with a couple of great examples.  60% of the URLs in Hansard reports between 1997 and 2006 no longer work. And, the tapes from the Viking lander had to be recreated from a bitstream copy as the original tapes weren’t usable.

He outlined five good reasons why long-term access was required – regulatory requirements; financial risk; opportunity cost; reputational cost and heritage loss, and gave the example of NOFDigi, where only a proportion of that data (created at significant cost) was still available.

The DPC see their role as enabling and agenda-setting.  They have a broad range of institutions involved from Universities to the BBC, to various research organisations, Museums, JISC and the MLA.  In their enabling role they run the Digital Preservation Training Programme and produce Technology Watch reports, for example.  In the Agenda-setting role they have been involved in reports including ‘Mind the Gap’   and ‘Digital Britain’.

William identified seven long-term challenges. 

  • He saw that ‘Digital information has little inherent meeting but is only rendered comprehensible by a combination of technologies and skills’.  Access depends on configuration of hardware and software and the skills of the operator.  Mitigation strategies are to document the configuration, use emulation and migration to access the content.
  • Technology continues to change which creates obsolescence.  Examples include changes in file formats.  Mitigate by watching for changes that would lead to file formats becoming obsolete.  Use tools such as Pronom or Droid from the National Archives to help with analysing which file formats are present on the network.  Migration and emulation strategies can help
  • Changes in storage media, e.g. the Domesday disk.  Mitigate by refreshing and using slef-check methods
  • Digital Preservation systems are also subject to obsolescence.  Mitigate with standards such as OAIS and be modular
  • Data being altered, corrupted or deleted.  Mitigate with security and checksum tools
  • Digital resources are intolerant of gaps in preservation.  He suggested that automation and economies of scale have a role to play. 
  • There was also limited experience and rapid technology change.

It was commented that there was another issue around deciding what should be preserved.  Issues around how much risk you would accept might determine your preservation strategy.  One interesting comment was that a recent JISC report had noted that ingestion cost 70% of the overall costs.  Although storage might be cheap to buy the environmental costs could be high.

One of the interesting follow-ups was that the difference between born digital and digitized content was that with born digital content you don’t have the original source material.

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July 2020

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