In summer 2002, twelve undergraduate students, located in four different states, discuss their research on global environmental change. They are part of the Human-Environmental Research Observatory's Research Experience for Undergraduates (HERO REU) program, and their conversation isn't taking place in one single classroom. Instead, these students are videoconferencing with each other, discussing the vulnerability of their individual sites to global climate change.
The Human-Environmental Research Observatory
(HERO) network is a research collaboratory of four universities sponsoring
HERO sites. The university observatories involved are Penn State
University (Susquehanna River Basin Observatory), Clark University
(Central Massachusetts Observatory), Kansas State University (High
Plains-Ogallala Region Observatory), and University of Arizona (Southwest
and Mexican Border Region Observatory) and are funded through the
National Science Foundation.
Students discuss the geography of "Happy Valley" from the Jo Hayes vista located in Pine Grove Mills, Pa.
Students in the summer REU program, three undergraduate geography students at each of the four sites, used field and secondary research to work on HERO's vulnerability protocol. The protocol asks the question, "How does land use change affect the vulnerability of people to climate variation and change?" Each student on a HERO site team was assigned a different piece of the vulnerability assessment: natural hazards (like sinkholes), technological hazards (like superfund sites), and land use (the people element, including socioeconomic factors).
Part of the REU student's task was not only to complete but also to evaluate the protocol they were following as they worked on completing their research. Students also evaluated the geo-collaboratory-a set of tools for collaborating between sites synchronously and asynchronously. The geo-collaboratory consists of video-conferencing, the eDelphi technique, and the e-notebook.
"In the beginning," says Brent Yarnal, principal investigator for HERO and Penn State professor of geography, "we organized weekly videoconferences. Students were so engaged that they were videoconferencing almost daily by the end of the project." They stopped using the phone completely, since it was more cost effective to use a local network to set up a videoconference, and the REU students also preferred the synchronous nature of videoconferencing to e-mail, where dialogue doesn't flow in real time.
"The videoconferencing was invaluable. In a lot of ways, the protocol now is very different than it was, and it wouldn't have gotten that way without videoconferencing. We couldn't have done this over e-mail," says Steve Weaver, a Penn State senior who participated in the REU program and is continuing to work with the Penn State HERO site this semester.
REU students also used HERO's eDelphi technique, an online version of the Delphi technique in which collaborators all brainstorm on a concept anonymously and submit their ideas on that concept to a central moderator. The moderator then sorts through the ideas and brings them to the table for discussion. Completing this process using the online eDelphi tool is not only easier and less expensive than bringing together all collaborators in one place, but also has the additional benefit of removing hierarchy and politics from the conversation because ideas are submitted anonymously. The eDelphi tool "is a rich, Web-based instrument that can tabulate and track the discussion, yet keep identities from all but the moderator," says Dr. Yarnal.
A final method of online collaboration, the e-notebook, was less successful than eDelphi or videoconferencing. In theory, the e-notebook allowed REU students and researchers to post their research data online so that it would be accessible to the other collaborators. In practice, the e-notebook became muddled through lack of a file management system and naming conventions, and researchers couldn't always be sure which data was where.
Mark Gahegan, HERO co-principal investigator and Penn State professor of geography, is working on redeveloping the e-notebook. He is moving away from the notebook as a central repository for data and toward a metaphor of the notebook as a knowledge discovery tool. The distinction is that in addition to sharing data, researchers will also be able to visually explain and track the evolution of their individual and collaborative ideas.
The new e-notebook model, tentatively dubbed Codex, uses conceptual diagrams that map how the researcher conceives of a problem. A conceptual diagram shows the web-like relationships between the elements surrounding a concept, and the Codex diagrams allow more specific information regarding an element to be viewed via a rollover button. "It allows people the flexibility to organize information according to how they view it, and they can attach a file to each node in the conceptual diagram to explain the context of the analysis-why they did what they did, not just what they did," says Dr. Gahegan.
Another feature of Codex is the ability to track the evolution of concepts by viewing older models and looking at the changes from one model to another. The new e-notebook also allows researchers to pinpoint the differences between one conceptual diagram and another and to search the notebook by concepts.
"We're trying to strike a balance between obtrusiveness and usefulness (with Codex)," explains Bill Pike, a graduate research assistant with the HERO project. "This summer's REU students will serve as a test for the new notebook version. We'll get usability feedback from them and work on fine-tuning it. The tool has to capture the deeper thinking behind the analysis without being too time consuming or burdensome to use."
The versatile uses of the geo-collaboratory tools have exciting implications for other disciplines engaging in distance collaboration and communication about a multitude of ideas. As it continues to develop this suite of tools, the HERO network hopes to use the geo-collaboratory tools to attract other groups who are undertaking local environmental investigation to set up their own HERO sites and to grow the HERO network.