Saturday, 4 April 2009

Synchronous communication in e-Research

A day of navel gazing, that is blog writing, helps reflection on specific issues of the day. My earlier blogs have explored the necessity of bringing together e-learning and e-research under one roof. The reason for this is quite clear. The process of learning and research are not that different as its all about discovery, hence software tools required to conduct these activities are likely to be similar, to a point at least. This week saw members of the Lancaster Centre for e-Science revisiting a tool set that we created some years back but due to funding constraints, was placed on the back burner. Agora (see brings synchronous, or real-time, communication into the Sakai collaboration and learning environment. As with most virtual research environments (uPortal, Sakai) or learning environments (Sakai, Moodle) communication occurs in text format via forums, chat rooms or announcements. Agora brings voice, video and real time data share into the equation by providing researchers and learners access to cloud based web conferencing. This technology is about 12 months away from deployment within the Sakai portal and should unleash a new level of learning/research ability. All users need to access this technology is a web connected computer, microphone and web cam, and the web cam is optional for pure VoIP communication. As with all of our technology, no software needs to be installed on the computer itself. The question we are now focusing on is what functionality, based around the Agora tool set, should now be developed? Lancaster e-Science has a sizable user base, and this resource is used to guide technology development. To understand user needs we regularly poll our user base on what the technology should do from their perspective. For instance, we developed a new Sakai forum tool, and its creator (Adrian Fish) regularly meets with users to look at extensions to its functionality; this way of working has been very successful. Our position is that too much 'navel gazing' fails to meet the need of users. Developers, and this is not a criticism as it's the way keen minded individuals work, will always produce what they see as a need yet the final user, with much lower ICT knowledge may need a complete redesign of the final tool if they are to use it successfully. To overcome this issue, my role is to formally evaluate the interface of the technology in various situations (e.g. the business/university interface) and how it should be developed to enhance knowledge exchange activities based on user evaluations. We are now starting a project to look at the Agora web conferencing facility in this way. Yesterday, I met with people at the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (IEED). This organisation conducts research on enterprise development and provides courses to enterprise and business professionals to enhance business activity (Google LEAD Programme Lancaster). Impacting around 1300 enterprises it faces a very typical problem, how to engage with enterprise and maintain 2 way communication (i.e. the interface)? The IEED uses the Sakai portal to leverage communication. I asked how valuable would the web conferencing tool be in this environment? The response was fairly clear, in a world where green issues are becoming 'the issue' web conferencing is a natural next step; particularly so if integrated into an existing framework (i.e. Sakai). Now that the Agora web tool exists, it can be regenerated for different uses. For example, would it be useful to have a video blog? A tool where you can record a 2 minute snippet of footage via your webcam, it is then automatically stored online and published as you need. It isn't a major step for the Agora tool to be redeveloped in this way. And what of additional functionality? Hmmm.... we have plans but you'll need to keep and eye on us for the results of the research.

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