Category Archives: Team post

#dammitJANET – Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) explained

Simon Barron (@SimonXIX) explains what DDoS is, how it is used and debunks some myths about it.

On 7 December 2015, the academic network provider, Janet, suffered a DDoS attack which partially brought the service down (Martin, 2015). Workers in Higher Education institutions across the UK (and organisations that have their internet access provided by server farms in HEIs) suddenly found their internet connections weren’t working probably while Jisc engineers scrambled to fend off the attack and restore service.

A DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack is a means of bringing down a server (or a cluster of servers) by flooding it with requests. In normal communication on the web, a local computer (i.e. a Windows desktop PC) sends a request to a server (i.e. by pointing Firefox to e.g. http://theinformed.org.uk/) to serve up a webpage; the server then responds by sending the data (i.e. HTML and CSS files) that makes up the webpage. A DDoS attack sends thousands of requests to a server continually from multiple IP addresses such that the server cannot respond: either from using up all the server’s CPU processing power at once or by filling up the short-term RAM memory of the server causing it to crash.

DDoS (sans the word ‘attack’) can be a valid method of testing the integrity of a server. A developer setting up a web service can perform load testing by incrementally increasing the number of requests sent to a page until it falls down: this gives you the total number of users that should use the service at any one time. A tool like Bees with Machine Guns (https://github.com/newsapps/beeswithmachineguns) uses the power of the Amazon Web Service to perform stress testing.

However DDoS is more effectively lodged in the public consciousness as a weapon of hackers. DDoSing without the express consent of the owner of the server is illegal. DDoSers in the USA have been prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) (Coleman, 2014). This weaponised version of DDoS is usually done through botnets. “A botnet is essentially just a collection of computers connected to the Internet, allowing a single entity extra processing power or network connections toward the performance of various tasks including (but not limited to) DDoSing and spam bombing… Participants whose computers are tapped for membership in a botnet usually have no idea that their computer is being used for these purposes. Have you ever wondered why your computer worked so slowly, or strangely? Well, you might have unwittingly participated in a DDoS.” (Coleman, 2014) A computer can become part of a botnet by being infected with a piece of malware.

Another method is a more voluntary form of DDoS using the program Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC), an open-source load testing tool (http://sourceforge.net/projects/loic/). Like its science-fiction namesake, LOIC is simply pointed at a target and then fired: the user enters the IP address of a server and then clicks the large button labelled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER”. When co-ordinated, a mass group use of LOIC can send thousands of requests at once. However the use of LOIC is not secure: assurances – from the Anonymous #command channel and journalists from sites like Gizmodo – that IP addresses of LOIC-attack participants can not be logged on a targeted server are wrong: “The DDoS’ed site can still monitor its traffic, culling and keeping IP addresses, which can be subsequently used to identify participants.” (Coleman, 2014)

A DDoS attack is fairly simple hacking: it does nothing more than disrupt a service in a way easy to recover from and temporarily take down a public face of a company.

(Monroe, 2011: image licensed as CC BY-NC 2.5)

The real issue is what hacking can be done under the cover of a DDoS attack. While server defences are weakened by devoting processing power to dealing with requests and while sysadmins are distracted fending off the attack, a hacker can covertly perform more malicious hacks like accessing data in a server’s database or changing passwords or planting code or simply ‘rm -rf /’-ing the whole server.

The impetus for this kind of malicious DDoS attack can be political or simply, in the words of hackers, “for the lulz” (Coleman, 2014). DDoS as a tactic for political activism has become associated with the trickster hacker collective, Anonymous, who have used it to take down the websites and servers of various companies or groups. Since DDoS can be used to crash a server, it has been used to take down websites from the Church of Scientology’s site to Sony’s Playstation Network to PayPal (Coleman, 2014).

The use of DDoS as a tool for political activism is hotly debated among hackers. Groups like the Pirate Party and AnonOps (operational planners of Anonymous) disagree about the ethics and efficacy of using DDoS (Coleman, 2014). On one hand are those who argue that DDoSing is nothing more than another “large-scale, rowdy, disruptive [tactic] to draw attention and demand change.” (Coleman, 2014): no different fundamentally from a sit-in protest, a direct action blockade, or an occupation of a physical space. The only differences are squatting on digital space rather than physical space and the increased numbers of participants that can be involved in a protest via DDoS. Anonymous also argue that the visibility of the action and its ability to get the mainstream media’s attention justifies its use to highlight political and social justice issues. In 2013, Anonymous posted a petition on whitehouse.gov asking that DDoS be recognised as a legal form of protesting, the same in kind as the Occupy protests (whitehouse.gov, 2013).

On the other hand, other hackers invoke principles of free speech and freedom of information to decry the use of DDoS. With an absolutist view of free speech, taking a website offline is depriving the company or group that owns the website from expressing their views (via the medium of webpages) and also depriving the public of information. Oxblood Ruffin of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective reasons that “Anonymous is fighting for free speech on the Internet, but it’s hard to support that when you’re DoS-ing and not allowing people to talk. How is that consistent?” (Mills, 2012) When using a botnet, there are also ethical concerns in harnessing someone’s computer without their consent to participate in illegal activity.

On the other other hand, a “more dynamic view of free speech could take power relations into account. By enabling the underdog—the protester or infringed group—to speak as loudly as its more resourceful opponents (in this case, powerful corporations), we might understand a tactic like DDoS as a leveler: a free speech win.” (Coleman, 2014)

In a sample of a chat log from anIRC chatroom, #antiactaplanning (quoted in Coleman, 2014), Anonymous members debated the use of DDoS on a US Government website:

<golum>: Whatever, listen. I’ve heard all the arguments for NOT ddosing. But the truth is we need to wake them up.

[…]

<golum>: I understand that ddosing could potentially harm our cause.

<golum>: But I think the risk is worth it.

<fatalbert>: well i as for myself disagree therefore im not helping with ddos

<golum>: We need attention

<+void>: OMG ITS THE ANONYMOUS, THE ONLY THING THEY DO IS DDOS, OMGOMGOMOGMOMG LETS MAKE ACTA PASS ON POSITIVE

<golum>: No.

<golum>: matty—how did contacting the politicians go?

<BamBam>: Yeah I’ve always kinda hated ddos

<golum>: Look. i’ve heard the arguments I just wanted to say, we should do this.

It’s unclear why Janet, the network enabling internet access for UK HEIs, came under attack this week. At the same time, the Jisc website received a direct DDoS attack as well (Jisc, 2015). It’s worth noting that although internet access through Janet in the UK was disrupted, users were still able to access the wider web by routing their traffic outside of the UK network either through a VPN like Bitmask (https://bitmask.net/) or through the Tor Project’s Tor Browser (https://www.torproject.org/). Such tools are often mistakenly perceived as being used exclusively by hackers, those accessing the ‘Dark Web’, criminals, or terrorists. Following the November 2015 Paris attacks by Daesh, the French Government have openly discussed banning the use of Tor Browser in the same way as Iran or China (Griffin, 2015). In reality, online privacy tools have legitimate and valid uses for defense in computer security: whether against DDoSers or governments and corporations conducting mass digital surveillance.

Whether morally legitimate or not, DDoSing is an effective tactic for hackers and other political activist groups. The core strength of DDoS is that it exploits a weakness in the fundamental principle of the internet: computers using telecommunications networks to request data from one another.

 

References:

Coleman, G., 2014. Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: the many faces of Anonymous. London: Verso.

Griffin, A., 2015. ‘France could ban public Wi-Fi and Tor anonymous browsing following Paris attacks’ in The Independent, 2015-12-07 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-could-ban-public-wi-fi-and-tor-anonymous-browsing-after-paris-attacks-a6763001.html

Jisc, 2015. ‘DDoS attack disrupting Janet network’ on Jisc website, 2015-12-08 https://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/ddos-attack-disrupting-janet-network-08-dec-2015

Martin, A. J., 2015. ‘UK research network Janet under ongoing and persistent DDoS attack’ on The Register, 2015-12-07 http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/12/07/janet_under_persistent_ddos_attack/

Mills, E., 2012. ‘Old-time hacktivists: Anonymous, you’ve crossed the line’ on CNET, 2012-03-30 http://www.cnet.com/news/old-time-hacktivists-anonymous-youve-crossed-the-line/

Monroe, R., 2011. ‘CIA’ on xkcd, 2011-08-01 https://xkcd.com/932/

whitehouse.gov, 2013. ‘Make, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), a legal form of protesting.’ on petitions.whitehouse.gov, 2013-01-07 https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-distributed-denial-service-ddos-legal-form-protesting

Toddling into the future

Fireworks

Well, another year has flown by, which means that Informed has just turned 2! In terms of what we’re meant to be doing now, does that put us into the Terrible Two stage, when we should start having temper tantrums? Perhaps though we’ll just skip the misbehaving bit, and get on with the informing plan!

The team took a little bit of a late summer/autumn break, and we’ve had some rearrangements of the responsibilities and makeup of the team, which we will announce soon. We’ve also been making some plans behind the scenes to try out a new venture, which we will also be launching in the near future. It will be something we’ll be looking for volunteers to help with, so if you’re interested in becoming more involved with Informed, keep an eye out for an upcoming announcement.

As always when we look back at our activities over the last year, we’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s been involved with the Informed project, both as the contributors of excellent articles published on the site, and as the volunteer staff working to solicit and moderate the content. As we are composed of a small team of volunteers, everyone’s contribution to the Informed project is hugely valued, and we thank everyone who’s been involved. But we’re not a static project, so if you feel like you’d like to get involved, or you feel you have an idea for a topic that you’d like to write about, please get in touch with the team via our contact form.

Shelving the Qu’ran

Shelving the Qu'ran
Shelving the Qu’ran. Copyright: Laura Ennis

It caught my eye one afternoon. Sitting atop the cabinet that houses our staff pigeon-holes. I reached up to grab a hold of the green leather-bound book, at the same time asking my colleagues, “What’s this doing here?” Turns out, it was our only copy of the Qur’an in its native language. To begin with, it had lived in the stacks, much like any other Library book. Then someone had complained.

Muslims have varying notions as to the status of the Qu’ran, both as a sacred text, and as a sacred object. But consensus agrees in the case of Arabic editions – where the text is literally the word of god. The Qur’an was published with its own instruction manual as it were, and imparts some direction as to how it should be handled, for example;

Non shall touch but those who are clean. (56:77-79)

The above passage is widely interpreted as meaning that those handling the Qur’an should be physically and spiritually clean. In Islam, this state is known as wudu. The Qur’an itself does not list any special considerations for its storage, but medieval scholars have stipulated numerous special conditions for the use and storage of the Qur’an. For example, the famous Imam and scholar Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi wrote in the Tafsir al-Qurtubi;

[do not] place other books upon the Qur’an, which should always be higher than all other books, whether they are books of Sacred Knowledge or something else,

It is for this reason that many Muslims find the shelving of the Qur’an with other books to be offensive and disrespectful. Especially when, as in our case, the shelf they are on is particularly low to the floor. So our copy was moved to the back room where no one could touch it, and placed above eye level where it languished and attracted dust. While this solved the problem, to me it seemed a poor compromise. I’m neither an expert in Library policy, nor religious issues by any means. But I have been working in Libraries for several years now, and by a strange quirk of fate my undergraduate specialisation was in Religious Studies, so it’s safe to say I know enough to speculate on the issue. Moving the book to a place where it wouldn’t be seen or used didn’t seem to be aligned with our mission as a Library, nor particularly respectful to item in question.

The idea that the words of god, or even the name of god, become scared when inscribed is not new, or limited to Islam. In Judaism for example, there are a multitude of names and epithets for god, but any document containing one of the ‘seven names of god’ becomes a holy object. The Megillah details the many prohibitions when handling, or being the presence of, the Torah and the seven holy names of god. Specifically, the Torah is to be placed above other books (Megillah 27a). As in Islam, Jewish instructions for handling sacred texts go one step further – old and damaged items are to be disposed of with as much reverence as possible. For example, in the United Kingdom there is a growing need for the respectful disposal of Jewish texts, many of which are buried en masse in an approved landfill near Stansted. Sikh copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are also treated with special care. It is stored or presented on a throne (takht) and treated like royalty. When they become old or damaged they are given a funeral. There are also strict instructions for carrying and handling of the text; the person carrying the Guru Granth Sahib should be clean, and it is elevated above the head whilst being carried.

Given that Libraries are certainly subject to holding copies of sacred texts I thought it would be relatively easy to locate policies in place at other institutions. While I invest quite a bit of time attempting to locate professional guidance on this issue, after a protracted search could find very little that would help. And after reading through what I did find, I was more confused than ever. The guidance from the Museum Libraries and Archives Council for the management of controversial material makes a brief and vague mention of the issue on the very last page of the report;

5. Stocking of religious texts

5.1 Leicester City policy on the shelving of the Koran and other religious texts

Some libraries in Leicester have received complaints about the Koran not being placed on the top shelves in libraries. Some customers go along the shelves and place the Koran so it is shelved higher than other books. This action arises from the practice in many Muslim homes of the Koran being placed on a high shelf above commonplace things, as it is the word of God.

The authority consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicester about this matter, and they advised that all religious texts should be kept on a top shelf together. This meant that no offence is caused, as the scriptures of all the major faiths are given respect in this way, but none is higher than any other.

Unlike the strong language in support of intellectual freedom elsewhere in the document, this section is purposefully vague. It’s not even guidance, simply a retelling of something that another organisation has recommended. I also have to wonder at the placement of this piece of text within the guidance notes. It’s literally on the last page, as if the insertion is piecemeal, or a token measure of inclusion. Further digging uncovered a list of responses to an enquiry about libraries’ practice in shelving the Qur’an and other religious books collated by The Network. Of the respondents, five had made special arrangements for the shelving of the Qur’an, and three had not.

Dissatisfied with the information and guidance I had uncovered, I wrote to the British Library and asked them what their policy on the storage of sacred texts, and if they had had any special precautions or measures when shelving or handling them. The British Library holds an impressive collection of religious materials, including spectacular examples of handwritten and illuminated manuscripts from faiths across the world. The response I received, while not especially helpful, was certainly interesting reading. The British Library does have special provisions for the storage of Sikh sacred texts;

“They are shelved in such a way as to avoid other works touching them or being over them, and are retrieved, installed and returned only by the curator.”

Additionally, anyone wanting to view the items in person, must first make an advance appointment with the Curator of North Indian Languages. This is probably a practical matter as much as anything else, because the Library currently holds the oldest known copy of the Guru Granth Sahib outside of India and it is both culturally significant and fragile – not to mention that digitised copies of these works are now available online. Other special provisions for sacred texts include categorically avoiding the use of pigskin to bind copies of the Torah or Qur’an “to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of those readers most likely to visit the Library to consult such works.”

While I can admire the practicality and in some ways the political correctness of such measures, I can’t say the same for the British Library’s reason for doing so – to avoid giving offence. People have the inalienable right to be offended, but being offended doesn’t make them right. Works of art and items of cultural importance deserve respect for their own sake, not for the fragile sensibilities of those who might one day be offended. Though on this point, I know that not everyone will agree with me – especially within the context of religious material.

However I would ask, what does it say about us as a profession that we’re unwilling to officially discuss this issue? I discovered very little in the way of guidance, discussion or debate on this particular topic. Meanwhile, we devote a whole week to celebrating banned books, and are willing to publicly criticise government web filters. When did information professionals become so timid? Is it acceptable for us as professionals to single out items for special treatment for no other reason than ‘someone might get offended,’? Would you be comfortable applying this policy to other works in your collections?

In my own Library our copy of the Qur’an was eventually moved. It now sits on the top tier of the reference shelf behind our circulation desk where it can be seen by patrons and is joined by works from other faiths, known as the ′Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Book.

By Laura Ennis

MOOCs – a revolution in education?

Are MOOCs really opening up education to all? (Image c/o Md saad andalib on Flickr.)

The following post was contributed by Informed team members Jennie Findlay and Ian Clark.

There has been much coverage of the emergence of MOOCs (Multiple Open Online Courses) in recent months, sparking multiple discussions about their usefulness as a new learning experience for a wide variety of users.  Their popularity has continued to rise since the first MOOC was launched to the public in 2007, so much so that even high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer have joined in, using the MOOC platform in conjunction with an academic partner in order to deliver a course on “commercial innovation” (a growing trend as MOOC providers begin to focus on providing job-related training). Some MOOC providers are also now beginning to focus on providing “nanodegrees”, designed to focus on training individuals to get very specific jobs. Within a few short years, online searches for learning providers with a physical location have been outstripped by those for online courses.

Of course MOOCs can be excellent learning tools, but as with any other method of delivering information and education, they also have their limitations. Most (free) MOOCs have excellent signup rates, but also an incredibly small course completion rate (averaging only 4% in one study).Those people who are successfully participating in MOOCs are also those people who are most likely to already have an advanced level of education. But are current MOOC offerings just an academic toy for those who are already well educated, and are they bypassing those who are actually most in need of access to expert training and life-enhancing skills? What’s stopping those who could most benefit from gaining skills and education via a MOOC from embracing the opportunity of self education?

Access barriers to MOOC use

There are multiple reasons why those who would most benefit from being able to access the university level training provided by MOOCs are unable to do so.

Access to a reliable internet connection

Access to an internet connection is an essential requirement for involvement in a MOOC, which are, by definition, delivered entirely online. But for many of those people who would most benefit from such a course, those with lower skill and education levels for example, securing access to a reliable internet connection, at an appropriate time, can present a significant barrier to engagement. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Internet Access statistical bulletin, 16% of households in the UK do not have an internet connection. Of those households without internet access, 12% say they do not have access because the equipment is too expensive and 11% say the access costs are too high. Furthermore, in households where the income is below £12,500, only 58% use the internet (lower than middle income households in 2005). It is clear, therefore, that for lower income households, MOOCs do little to broaden access to education and break down existing barriers.

Ownership of a computer/laptop with which to undertake a MOOC

A core requirement of an interactive course is that you have access to the equipment which will enable you to interact with fellow students and your tutor. However, the cost of owning a computer to enable you to undertake the course can be prohibitive for many, which means that their only option to access the course is via their local public library, and the computers available there.

Accessibility of public libraries

To use a public computer for a course of study requires that there be reliable access to that computer for the user. With reduced opening hours in many public libraries, not to mention library closures, being able to find a library open during the times when a MOOC student can visit presents a further significant barrier.

Availability of public computers

Undertaking a course of study, particularly while also working or undertaking other full time duties, requires the ability to set aside specific times for studying which fit around the student’s schedule. A lack of reliable availability of a computer will have an impact on this essential requirement to plan times of study. Many public libraries have restrictions on the availability of their computers, including limiting user sessions to one or two hours at a time, restricting the daily amount of hours a user can have on a computer and, in some cases, charging users for access to the internet. This can make it impossible for MOOC students who rely on access to these computers to schedule their studying time properly.

Reliability and speed of library networks

If a user has managed to both to access a public library and secure a public computer, they may still encounter difficulties engaging with a MOOC. Ageing technology and limited bandwidth availability on library networks means that those that rely on publicly accessible computers may experience greater difficulties than those who do not.

Course online interaction requirements

Many MOOCs encourage or require scheduled interaction sessions with either other participants, or the tutor. These are often in Google Hangouts, or MOOC-based chat rooms. This requirement to be able to be online, and access certain tools, can be difficult to comply with, particularly if the student has problems guaranteeing their ability to be online at a specific time. Many of the internationally based MOOC providers schedule these events in the evenings or weekends, which are particularly difficult times for some students (eg those with families) to get online.

Amount of time needed to commit to completion

There is a need to dedicate substantial time to many of the courses available online. Most Coursera courses, for example, have an estimated workload of 5-15hrs per week. Regardless of the course’s flexibility in terms of deadlines, for some the amount of time required to complete the course is too much. For those on low incomes, the combination of balancing requirements of family and personal development means that the latter will always lose out to the former. In addition, missing one class of 3 hours in one week due to other responsibilities will mean that 6 hours are needed the following week in order to catch up. This becomes an increasingly difficult task if internet and computer access are not guaranteed.

Cost issues

Cost of undertaking some of the commercial MOOCs

The most useful MOOCs are those which provide accredited training, and which will therefore be accepted and respected by potential employers. Although many MOOCs are currently being run free of charge to participants, it does not mean that they will be provided in this way in perpetuity. Currently, the substantial costs of creating and hosting MOOCs are being absorbed by the providers or course creators, but it is unclear to what extent this is sustainable in the long term. Most MOOC providing bodies are commercial entities, and inevitably they will eventually want to create a return on their investment.

Increasing introduction of costs to use public library networks (first hour free or sliding scale of charges for use of equipment)

As mentioned above, certain libraries have begun introducing charges for the use of their computers, usually after an initial free session time. Manchester City Libraries allow free use of library computers for an hour, and after that hour, users are charged a fee of £1.50 per hour. Having to pay for the use of a public computer can be a significant barrier for lower income MOOC students. And this is before we consider the cost of printing out documents, which comes at a price in public libraries. Many MOOC students will need to print out a substantial volume of the course materials in order to consult them when offline, this could significantly increase the financial burden.

The MOOC effect…

Beyond costs and barriers, MOOCs do not seem to be the giant step forward for the open, broad-based education revolution its advocates claim. For example, 70% of those who embark on such a course already have a degree, they are not attracting a huge swathe of people beyond the usual groups who engage with higher education. Even then, it’s questionable whether MOOCs are working for the majority with completion rates usually below 10%.

There are also concerns about the quality of the education provided via MOOCs. As one leading digital innovator in academia, Professor Dan Cohen (who led the development of Zotero) argues:

“We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Cohen has also claimed that he and other innovators are concerned about what he calls the “lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect to them”. Cohen argues, essentially, that MOOCs take a rather old-fashioned approach to education and that instead of promoting MOOCs as an alternative we should develop digital projects that help students to explore and encourage them to build their own digital projects.

There is also the danger, of course, of a narrowing down of course providers. As is inevitable, providers will merge, take-over competitors or disappear (particularly as some struggle to generate a return on their investment). In such an environment, there is a very real danger of the range of providers declining and the quality of the courses suffering as a result. A move towards one leading player in the market could create serious problems from an educational perspective, particularly if that player has other commercial interests and sees MOOCs as a way to cross-promote. Equally, there is a danger of developing very narrow skills that will either benefit the provider itself or its partners, rather than a well-rounded education that encourages the kind of critical thinking skills that are not considered desirable or profitable within the workplace.

Cohen also points out that most of the successful MOOCs have been maths/computer based and primarily vocational. It may well be that MOOCs are a beneficial education tool, but it may not be across all subjects. Some may lend themselves to the learning styles that MOOCs demand whilst others may be less so. After all, everyone learns in a different way. Some prefer face-to-face tuition, some prefer textual learning, some are happy with videos. For those who perform best when receiving face-to-face interaction (whether that be with peers or teachers), MOOCs will not be a suitable alternative to traditional methods of learning. A mixed approach for such students, however, may be more suitable.  San Jose State University, for example, found that a combination of online lectures and face-to-face class time significantly improved the pass rate for engineers.

Conclusion

MOOCs have certainly got a lot of people talking excitedly about their potential to revolutionise education – again, something to support this might be helpful. However, it is not clear yet whether they offer any significant advantages over formal routes of education or that they are quite the revolution that its advocates suggest. There are still a number of barriers that need to be overcome before many can embark on a MOOC, in this respect they differ little from the more traditional method of learning. Higher education has long seen to be the preserve of the few, particularly the elite institutions. There’s little to suggest that MOOCs are any different in this regard.

Indeed, it appears that they erect the same barriers as their traditional counterpart. Cost is a big factor in preventing engagement, as is time. Neither are in abundance for those at the bottom of the economic scale. For those with limited resources (both financial and time), MOOCs may appear as distant as a top university. They are not, as yet at least, proving to be the big game-changer for further education that the advocates may have suggested.

Not only are MOOCs failing to open the doors of education to all, but they are also failing to be revolutionary in how they teach. Rather than taking full advantage of the technology that such a programme should allow, they take a rather conservative approach. As Cohen points out, many universities are already providing more sophisticated methods for engaging students digitally. MOOCs, at present at least, seem to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to engaging with students in new and innovative ways.

MOOCs certainly appear to be here to stay, but are they really the big step-forward that we have been led to believe? There are still barriers to their use as with more traditional routes of education. They are not accessible for those without the means to engage with them, either financially or in terms of the time they can commit. They seem to offer nothing new in terms of digital learning, in fact they seem some way behind traditional universities in terms of innovation. MOOCs are certainly an interesting development in terms of the delivery of education. It remains to be seen whether they herald a revolution in terms of opening up education and with respect to fully exploiting new technologies in the learning environment. In short, the jury is still out.

Speak up about the hidden consequences of library cuts

Image c/o Ian Clark on Flickr.

On the day of the Speak Up for Libraries Conference we hear from Alan Wylie, a public librarian and campaigner for public libraries, about the consequences of library cuts on outreach programmes in libraries.

We’ve all seen the headlines, and as a library campaigner I’ve been unfortunate enough to see them every day, announcing cuts to library service budgets and the closure of libraries but what about the hidden cuts, the fine detail tucked away in the ‘consultation’ or ‘re-organisation’ report, what damage are these cuts causing?

Concerns about hidden cuts to library services are not new, as these articles from 2010/11 demonstrate:

“The cuts will just make it harder for libraries to provide outreach work and school visits – everything around making books accessible.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/20/spending-cuts-libraries-at-risk

“Reader development staff – the people who run activities such as library reading groups, author events and outreach work to schools – are also being culled wholesale in some parts of the country.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/25/hidden-cuts-undermining-local-libraries

Since 2010/11 the situation facing public libraries has deteriorated rapidly with CIPFA estimating 3000-4000 library staff lost (900+ in London alone) but what the figures don’t often show and the headlines rarely announce is the loss of specialist staff and services. For example staff in outreach teams who work with nurseries, children’s centres and schools to promote the enjoyment of reading and the importance of literacy to young children and their parents/guardians. One such person is Dave Pickering who until earlier this year worked as an ‘Early Years Library Outreach Worker’ with Enfield Libraries until:

“Last month the team of five people that I was a part of was reduced to a team of one person.”

Dave was very clear about the impact of these cuts:

“I worked with children and parents across Enfield. The Guardian is currently tracking the “Enfield Experiment”. Like many parts of London, it is a place where you will find shocking disparities between the wealth and lifestyles of people in one area compared to those in another. I moved around the borough, working both in communities you might describe as affluent and those you might see as deprived.

My service was valued in both places, but the impact of its loss – and the loss of other even more essential and life-enhancing services – will be felt most keenly by the poorest and most at risk, rather than by people who can pay for private children’s services and who don’t need the extra help to combat the social conditions they find themselves in. We’re not all in it together, because the impact of each cut is vastly different for each person depending on their situation.

The government is literally taking things away from children; it is dividing and dismantling communities and claiming that this is an unfortunate reality.”

Recently in Hampshire very similar cuts to those already made in Enfield have been proposed:

“The proposals are part of a package of measures , which include reducing the mobile library service in Hart and Rushmoor and ending the family library link service
One aspect of the cuts is to disband the library outreach team, which promotes the use of the library service to playgroups, schools and community groups.”

And I’ve also been told that part of the new proposals for Havering Libraries include cutting the team that promotes the Summer Reading Challenge. Nationally this annual event is a public libraries success story:

  • Research shows that taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge can help children keep up their reading skills during the long summer holiday
  • A record 810,089 children took part in the 2013 Summer Reading Challenge.

In January 2014 the Save Wolverhampton Libraries Campaign wrote an open letter to the Wolverhampton Chief Executive outlining their concerns relating to proposed cuts to the library service including those to “services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio”:

“The proposed cuts constitute closure by stealth of one of our city’s most precious assets. We are especially concerned about the removal of services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio; we refer you to the many roles carried out by our city’s librarians of which the following is not an exhaustive list:

  • Support with CV writing
  • Support with job searching
  • Support with form filling
  • Support regarding benefits
  • Support or assistance with IT and associated training
  • School holiday and Saturday activities
  • Outreach with schools
  • Outreach with community groups”

In the 2013 report  ‘The public library service under attack‘ commissioned by Unison and written by Steve Davies of the University of Cardiff, the figures show that although building based activities appeared to be holding steady or increasing, outreach was being cut:

“Although some respondents reported an increase in provision in some services (a quarter reported an increase in Baby Bounce and Rhyme time), close to one fifth reported cuts to both school holiday activities and to outreach with local schools (19% and 20% respectively).”

 John Vincent, co-author of the blog ‘Social Justice Librarian’ and coordinator of ‘The Network’, recently raised similar concerns about the demise of outreach and targeted services to ‘marginalised groups’ in a recent piece he wrote on libraries and social justice:

“We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.
But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.”

Richard Lyda an Outreach Librarian based in the US outlines the crucial importance and the positive benefits of his role:

“My experiences teaching for Head Start made me appreciate how important community outreach can be for so many people. Families need to know that resources exist before they can access them, and effective community outreach is a great way to spread the word about valuable community resources.”

“I would suggest not to overlook outreach as a mode of service in public libraries. I’ve had a very gratifying and fulfilling experience in my almost 5 years as an outreach librarian. I get to see the service positively affecting youth, families, and seniors every day.”

In my opinion outreach is crucial to the relevance, integrity and survival of public libraries without it we are in danger of losing touch with those in our communities that need our services most.

It helps to ground us and to break down the ‘professional in an official building’ barrier, it also helps to loosen the ‘footfall & issues’ noose put around our necks by those only interested in quantative data.

 

A celebration of library services, from A-Z

The following post was submitted by Gary Green, one of the creators of the Library A-Z project.

The Library A to Z launches on the 17th November 2014. It’s a free set of promotional materials that aims to provide a positive message about the value of libraries. The initial idea for the A to Z came about from the desire to address the misunderstanding that a modern library service = a building containing books. It is intended to show that libraries have much more to offer. During a time when library service funding throughout the United Kingdom is being cut, when it should be increased, it’s particularly important to emphasize the benefits of library services in a creative way that would draw people’s attention to them.

The original idea for the A to Z list was formed at a session at the Library Camp East event and the original list of words that forms its basis was crowd-sourced there too. Following on from this, a project was set up to raise funds to create of a set of illustrations and promotional materials based on the A to Z. £4,500 was raised in 30 days over summer 2014 and this provided enough money to pay for an illustrator, produce the free materials and spread the Library A to Z message to politicians and the media.

The main feature of the Library A to Z is an illustrated alphabet based around a list of words showing a wide-range of library services and how they support areas such as literacy, access to online services, the well-being, education and economic situation of individuals, communities and society. The illustrations, along with their associated words also make up a full colour illustrated book highlighting the value of libraries. The book is intended to be sent to local and central government politicians reminding them of the value of libraries, with the aim of encouraging them to pledge support and continued funding. The book also includes quotes from library users sharing their personal experiences of libraries, which are taken from the Voices for the Library site. A chapter of key library facts and figures is also featured in the book.

S

So, for example, take a look at the letter S from the Library A to Z and we see that it features library services and resources such as School visits, Sexual health (information about), Story times, Scanners, Study space (to think and work), the Summer reading challenge and Statistics. It also tells us about some of the users of library services: Silver surfers and Students. It also highlights some of the positive outcomes of libraries: it’s a Safe (place), it offers Serendipity, Sharing, a place to improve Skills, Social literacy, Spelling and Stereotype breaking.

The A to Z doesn’t cover all services, resources and positive outcomes provided by library services – the key message is to show a wide range of things on offer.

The illustrations from the Library A to Z have been turned into promotional materials including posters, the book and greetings cards. They can be freely downloaded (along with the original illustrations) by anyone to promote libraries. Some of the materials, such as the posters, can be edited to include information about local library services.

Further information and links to the free downloadable material can be found on the Library A to Z site at http://libraryatoz.org

A to Z

Happy birthday Informed!

Today is exactly one year since the launch of Informed, so the team thought it would be a good chance to reflect on what we’ve achieved and look ahead to what we want to achieve over the next year.

Image c/o Elaine Ashton on Flickr.

But first, some Oscars-style thank yous!

We would like to thank our amazing moderators who read all of the content and check it against the contributor guidelines. These volunteers give up their time, sometimes at short notice, to play a crucial role in the smooth running of the site. Not to mention that all of them were involved in helping to shape the site from fuzzy idea to fully launched in just one month.

We also want to thank the authors who have contributed posts on a wide range of topics and to a consistently high standard. Again these are volunteers and we appreciate the effort that everyone puts into their posts. We have approached people to write for us, but most have volunteered which is heartening as it shows that this space was needed.

It’s ok, you can put away your hankies now.

So it’s been an amazing year. The team are incredibly proud of the quality, quantity and range of content that is hosted on Informed. We set up Informed to provide a neutral space for people to write blogs (with anonymity if required) on information issues with a wider societal impact, but in this first year it has become so much more. We are proud to host the LIS open access declaration, which has gathered nearly 100 signatories from LIS professionals who have publicly committed to publishing their research only open access. Alongside posts about the role of volunteers in CILIP, the role of LIS professionals in disasters and falling numbers of LIS students and available courses, we feel that the remit has expanded to include professional reflection without straying into esoteric introspection. Posts have covered topical issues such as a petition to stop The Sun being available in Islington public libraries, policy initiatives like increasing access to research via public libraries and internet access in prisons. Themes have also emerged in the content of Informed, with a number of posts on open access, web filtering and several using FOI requests to gather important data.

Now we need to start thinking about how to keep up the momentum and ensure that this next year is as good as the last. Firstly we are planning to be more proactive about approaching authors, both for topical and more general posts. Secondly we are going to draw up a publishing schedule so that we can commission articles further in advance to give authors more time. Finally we would like to get more of you involved with the site! Whether you would like to sign up to join our team of moderators, submit a post to Informed, or suggest topics you’d like to see covered. We’d love to hear from you via our contact form or in the comments below.

Writing for Informed – call for submissions

We want Informed to be a space hosting content from those with an interest in a range of issues related to the information society. Whether you are an information professional or someone with an interest in the topic, we’d like to hear from you and share your thoughts and opinions on the big issues. This is a space to discuss the issues that you are interested in and spark some debate and discussion. Your contributions are what this space is all about.

So, what kind of things are we looking for? Something topical would be ideal (although not a prerequisite, any interesting points for discussion are welcome!) For example, maybe you have some thoughts to share on net neutrality and the impending EU vote? Maybe something exploring the cost/benefits of digital literacy training [PDF]? Or cyber security training for school children? Perhaps there’s an issue around data protection you would like to discuss? If you have a perspective on any of these issues, or if there are any related issues you are interested in exploring, please feel free to get in touch, we’d love to hear from you!

If you have any queries, ideas, suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact us via contact[at]theinformed.org.uk or via our Twitter account at @informedinfo. We look forward to hearing from you and, more importantly, sharing your perspectives on the big issues affecting the information society.

Do you Care for your Data? What care.data means for NHS patients in England

The new care.data database has prompted much debate about its impact on healthcare and patients.
(Image c/o Jamie on Flickr.)

The following post was written by Informed team member, Elly O’Brien.

NHS England’s new database, Care.data, will be populated with data collected by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) from different care providers such as General Practitioners (GPs). The HSCIC already collects Hospital Episode Statistics, which details admissions, outpatient appointments and accident and emergency department attendances. The concept behind care.data is to create a single database with information spanning primary care (e.g. GP surgeries) and secondary care (e.g. hospital admissions), to enable this “big data” to be used to help understand and treat diseases, inform how local services are organised, identify people at risk of conditions and improve the “pathway” of treatment a patient follows.

We are frequently told that we are living in an age of “information overload”, where we are bombarded with information which can lead to an “information paradox” in which there are so many sources of information, that knowledge becomes hard to find and this superfluity of information can make it harder to reach a decision. Care.data is a perfect example of this in action, having created a flurry of media coverage and commentary from all sides.

The aim of this blog post is not to add to this excess of information or to try to sway anyone’s opinion, but to signpost sources of information from various organisations and viewpoints.

The HSCIC has background information on care.data, NHS England has a range of information specifically for health professionals. NHS Choices has information tailored for patients including an electronic copy of the leaflet that has been distributed to all households in England and a video.

So what are some of the issues that have been raised about care.data?

Anonymisation

NHS England has stated that the records will have identifiable information removed but the HSCIC has conceded that there is a small risk that records would be potentially identifiable as records will be pseudonymised rather than anonymised.

How the data will be used

The data will be used within the NHS nationally to inform research and improve practice, as well as by the NHS locally to understand local needs and for the NHS to commission services accordingly. It will also be made available (for a fee) to insurance firms and private organisations such as pharmaceutical companies. Some people are fundamentally opposed to this, but NHS England has sought to reassure patients that the data will not affect insurance premiums or be used for marketing purposes. NHS England has in place information governance measures designed to ensure that it complies with relevant legislation with regards to how care.data will be shared, stored and used. The same laws will apply to any non-NHS organisations using care.data, however, some critics have are concerned that any misuse of data would only be apparent after the fact and that law in itself is not necessarily a deterrent.

Having to opt-out

The new database is based on an opt-out system and patients who do not want their data included in the database are instructed to contact their GP in the leaflet being posted out. This has been criticised on principle by some, because people may not opt-out (perhaps due to laziness or lack of awareness) but in doing so are not necessarily positively consenting. Others have criticised that an opt-out form has not been provided, although some GP surgeries have created opt-out forms for patients on their websites (such as this Durham-based practice). To opt out you simply need to contact your GP surgery (not your actual GP), you can phone them or write to them (medConfidential has an opt-out form you can print out and send to your GP surgery).

The decision is yours to make, but a little reading can ensure that it is an informed, empowered decision rather than an unwitting opt-in.