Technology, international consortia, and geographically dispersed research teams

The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) is one of several international consortia that have been created, since the late 1990s, to deepen linkages between universities. I’ve been involved with two of them (the WUN and Universitas 21) while working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National University of Singapore.

As Lily Kong (Vice-President, Global Relations, National University of Singapore) noted in her 7 October 2007 entry (‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia’):

[o]ne of the challenges of making such university alliances work is the lack of clarity of intention, and the lack of a clear articulation of how such alliances, often formed from the top by senior university administrators, can achieve the stated objectives. In almost every new alliance, establishing research partnerships and collaboration among member universities is said to be a priority. Are alliances really an effective way to develop research collaboration though? Member universities that are chosen to be part of an alliance are often chosen for political reasons (”political” in the most expansive of its meanings). They may be chosen because they are thought to be “research powerhouses”. But different universities have different areas of research strength, and university administrators sitting together to decide an area/s among their universities for research collaboration can be quite artificial. Such alliances can then at best facilitate meetings and workshops among researchers, but the collaborative sparks must come from the ground. Throwing a group of people together once or twice and asking that they produce huge grant applications to support collaborative research is not likely to happen. Those with the responsibility of developing alliances, however, will be anxious to show results, and sometimes, just the act of bringing researchers together is hardly sufficient result.

Given these challenges, some of us have been trying to think through ways to use the international consortia framework as a vehicle to deepen regular connections between geographically dispersed researchers. In doing so, though, we’ve been faced with debates about the costs of facilitating relatively frequent human mobility between member universities, not to mention which types of people (Graduate students? Faculty? Staff?) to target with available support. To be sure there is nothing quite like face-to-face engagement: intense sessions in meetings, workshops, summer institutes, and in situ collaborative research. However, these face-to-face moments, which can never be replaced, need to be supplemented by regular virtual gatherings. Furthermore, the ongoing financial crisis is now generating troublesome ripple effects in research networks where bodily movement across space is the ideal.

In the course of thinking about the development of UW-Madison’s WUN website, we have been considering the establishment of some web-based resources for researchers who seek to collaborate virtually, including via sound and video in synchronous (ie concurrent/real time) fashion. We have used a variety of such technologies – Skype, video-conferencing, Access Grid Node – before, though we have not formally identified, at UW-Madison’s Division of International Studies (the host unit of WUN staff), the full array of options, which ones are best for what activities, what the full cost (if any) of using each of them are, and how researchers can access them (if they need to be booked). Yet a search for a model website via an associated consortia (the Committee on Institutional Cooperation) failed to identify examples of one.

Given the above, we met with the Division of Information Technology (DOIT) a few days ago. DOIT’s savvy staff ended up having more questions for us – very simple yet telling questions – than we had for them.  They wisely helped us think through the forms of collaboration being undertaken via WUN-funded initiatives, and what types and level of resources we had to enable such collaboration to occur.

Now, the vast majority of WUN-related research collaboration does not involve the transmission and analysis of large-scale data sets – the type dependent upon the Internet2 cyberinfrastructure and collaborative platforms like HUBzero.  Rather, it tends to involve formal and informal dialogue within and between research teams, fora such as workshops and conferences, virtual (video-conference) courses for students in multiple sites, and formal and informal graduate student advising. Given this, DOIT’s staff recommended that we explore, more intensively, options for web-conferencing. There are, of course, many other options but we settled on web-conferencing as the likely best option.

Web-conferencing is a form of collaboration that enables geographically dispersed research teams to connect via computer desktops, while allowing engagement throughout the link-up process. Deliberative engagement, versus ‘passive learning’, is important for research teams typically do not want to sit quietly while someone they know is speaking.

Typical features of web-conferencing include:

  • Slide show presentations – where PowerPoint or Keynote slides are presented to the audience and markup tools and a remote mouse pointer are used to engage the audience while the presenter discusses slide content.
  • Live or Streaming video – where full motion webcam, digital video camera or multi-media files are pushed to the audience.
  • VoIP (Real time audio communication through the computer via use of headphones and speakers)
  • Web tours – where URLs, data from forms, cookies, scripts and session data can be pushed to other participants enabling them to be pushed though web based logons, clicks, etc. This type of feature works well when demonstrating websites where users themselves can also participate.
  • Meeting Recording – where presentation activity is recorded on a PC, MAC or server side for later viewing and/or distribution.
  • Whiteboard with annotation (allowing the presenter and/or attendees to highlight or mark items on the slide presentation. Or, simply make notes on a blank whiteboard.)
  • Text chat – For live question and answer sessions, limited to the people connected to the meeting. Text chat may be public (echo’ed to all participants) or private (between 2 participants).
  • Polls and surveys (allows the presenter to conduct questions with multiple choice answers directed to the audience)
  • Screen sharing/desktop sharing/application sharing (where participants can view anything the presenter currently has shown on their screen. Some screen sharing applications allow for remote desktop control, allowing participants to manipulate the presenters screen, although this is not widely used.)

Note, though, that this is not a new technology: web-conferencing has been heavily used in some disciplines (e.g., Chemistry), and of course the business world, for some time. It has also moved through a number of development phases, and is increasingly affordable and simpler to use.

There are, as you might expect, plenty of platform options for web-conferencing. I’ll cut to the chase and state, given our needs and the evolving discussion, that Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro software emerged as the most likely option for enabling the type of engagement that we are seeing in the vast majority of WUN-supported projects. Link here for information about other platform options including the relatively popular Elluminate and WebEx. See a brief YouTube summary of Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro below.

We’ll be testing out this platform in the near future and will report back. We’ll also be comparing notes with WUN staff who have been using Marratech, a platform bought up by Google in 2007. But from what I can detect, this type of web-conferencing software, in conjunction with weblogs and wikis (to aggregate research group output, and enable the joint development of papers, presentations, and so on; see a brief YouTube summary of what a wiki is below), should satisfy the majority of our needs given the dispersed nature of WUN-sponsored research networks.

Synchronous communication technologies, that operate via computer desktops, are increasingly important when working to deepen network relations between members of small-scale yet geographically dispersed research communities. This said, such technologies can never create nor determine; they simply enable. Yet the enabling process is hindered by lack of knowledge about the technological options at hand, and how they mesh with the nature of the research communities (and cultures) associated with the creative process. It is at this level – that of the textures of practice – through which international networks are brought to life, and international consortia show their worth, or not.

Kris Olds

PS: please let me know if your institution has developed a single portal/website that outlines (and ideally evaluates) the wide array of technological options that enable geographically dispersed small-scale research teams to function. I’ll post the links that come through below, assuming such sites exist!

2 thoughts on “Technology, international consortia, and geographically dispersed research teams

  1. Pingback: Technology, International Consortia, and Geographically Dispersed Research Teams [Global Higher Ed] « International Studies at UW-Madison

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