I have been thinking about virtual research environments.

In this context I’m not so much interested in all singing all dancing high-end research environments but rather the provision of a set of tools that will assist academics in the kind of research collaboration I believe many of them are engaged in.

We have recently been asked to set up a WebCT course so that a group of academics worldwide can edit a book. We set up a wiki link to a web site for a European wide research project. Anthropology want some kind of virtual research environment to work with colleagues in China and elsewhere. We’ve also had several requests for blogs and wiki is linked to groups a PhD students or research groups. I also suspect that a number of academics are exploring the research potential of the Google suite of tools.
I suspect that for many collaborative research involves working together on books, journal articles papers and the like and what they need are some fairly simple and easy to use tools that can support this process particularly when collaborators are disbursed both geographically and temporally.

I think a requirement of this environment is that it can easily be made available to anyone the academic wishes to collaborate with regardless of their institution affiliation or location.

So what might be required?

When I looked at some of the JISC virtual research environment outputs , they seem heavy duty portal type approaches that would have considerable overheads in development, adaptation and maintenance.

I don’t think we should be going in that direction rather I would suggest that we start with an environment that is a simple and as flexible as possible and gives academics the choice of which tools to use or not. I also suspect that most of the “bits and pieces” are lying around and that it shouldn’t be too difficult to assemble some kind of prototype environment that could be piloted.
So here are some suggestions for starters, academics should go to select what they need.

  • We need an archive where drafts can be stored with a good clear versioning system.
  • We need the ability to edit collaboratively, Word or Google docs?
  • we need the ability to capture and share references. This could be via social bookmarking software e.g. delicious or some of the academic variants e.g., Connotea or H2O or maybe some of the Windows live academic features.
  • I think a discussion board would be good as would an instant messaging client that works across all the main providers.
  • also the provision of a blog and more likely a wiki.

All of these bits and pieces could be put into a container such as Moodle.

This kind of environment could also be used to enrich teaching e.g. making selected elements available to students.