Thursday, 22 April 2010

Blending VLE and VRE? - time to re-examine the issues

This post is designed to stimulate debate on how to manage ever increasing demand for Virtual Research Environments (VRE) and linkages or differences between VREs and VLEs. An earlier post in this blog highlighted that at Lancaster University Management School we have platforms that can be used for both; but this is a rare find. At other universities reports are emerging of increasing demands being placed on learning technologists to support research collaborations. Often, they will apply VLEs to the researchers needs. Importantly however, most VLE technologies don't fit research agendum and do not always carry sufficient tools to engage research users. On the face of it, the difference between learning and research, in human process terms, is quite small. In some sense, both processes are about making learning and resource discovery convenient. We are presently in a far better position to do this than ever before. Approximately 6 years ago the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC, which funds UK core academic information systems infrastructure in the UK) funded research looking at the possibility of applying VLEs as VREs. The following quote highlights, unsurprisingly, that VLEs are not usable as VREs as researchers required a broader set of research tools than VLEs of the time had.

“The first phase of the JISC VRE programme in 2004 experimented with the use of VLEs for research, but came to the conclusion that, although a shared environment works well for research, researchers’ requirements are too diverse for a single solution. One of the biggest differences between a learning and research environment is often the much greater diversity of specialised tasks and the need for security of research data and files. Researchers may also require an area in which they can experiment with the VRE.”

We now believe that the issue of ‘too diverse for a single solution’ is no longer the issue that it once was; based on initial findings at Lancaster. We now successfully use a VLE as a VRE; it's called a collaboration environment. It works well for students (as a course site and to set up group work collaborations; students prefer the platform over the existing home grown technology) and researchers (collaboration worksites and e-community development). Times have moved on and since the 2004 VRE study several key changes to the human condition have occurred. People are now fully connected to internet (if they want to be connected at least); this is especially true of researchers in UK institutions. Researchers are now much more aware of their IT needs, but university based technology leadership is often quite weak due to political/financial pressures. Often, all researcher's need to speed up knowledge generation/exchange are supported online spaces to centralize project resources (e.g. works in progress docs, bid information, web resources), engage in academic discussion securely using forums or chat tools and make online presentations.

An issue in all of this is that we now have 2 distinct VLE and VRE research streams whereby the interplay between VLE and VRE are ignored. We at the Lancaster Centre for eScience propose that the agenda on the interplay be re-opened, to re-examine the issues in light of new technological developments. If you have any views relating to this blog please provide comments below.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Exciting times lay ahead, for the technophiles among us at least!

Sakai 2.7 is due to be released shortly bringing a host of bug fixes and new tools for you to use. Several key developments will appear in 2.7. For instance, we'll be hosting a new web conferencing service allowing all users to communicate to each other (via video or just voice), share power point presentations to groups and produce basic webinars. It works a bit like Adobe Connect but is simpler to use.

We will also be launching a new profile tool. The current tool is at best cumbersome, the new tool is much neater and allows people to build top notch profiles of themselves and their activities. Adding personal photos is much easier also. It also contains a general photo gallery and messaging tool. The new profile tool works in unison with a social networking tool that will allow users to search each other out, form private social networks and special interest groups. Be assured however that users don't have to participate and must select options to make their profiles visible to other users. Also be assured that any information contained within worksites will remain entirely confidential. Later this year we'll be deploying tools so people can create new worksites for their own purposes also. We hope that these tools will help empower people to work together more effectively and creatively. If you have any views, concerns or queries regarding this upgrade feel free to comment below.