Imagining Cyberinsfrastructure

As I settle in at the University of Richmond, I have immediately recognized what I love about what I do: meeting new people and figuring out where and how I can be of use. There are tons of good people here, and I already have a few things to start thinking about, so here I go. As Barbara Ganley often notes, those moments of transition are both inspiring and daunting, and they offer you a moment to both second guess yourself as well as reaffirm what it is you’re about. While I have been balancing these myriad reactions over the last couple of days, my mind starts boiling over with ideas, in many ways capitalizing on the chaos. And when this happens, I know that it is here that I must return and think together with the bavafaithful.

So, needing some inspiration i went to the source and took Gardner’s sage advice a while back to listen to Jon Udell’s interview with Geoffrey Bilder on IT Conversations (this was back in April). It made for quite a morning commute, giving me all sorts of ideas to work through as I start to think about some of the projects already in existence here at Richmond (more on those a bit later).

The conversation between Udell and Bilder is fascinating, tracing some really important questions about how we think through the architecture of our distributed identities (or is credentials) online. Bilder works as the director of strategic initiatives for CrossRef, and his work focuses on thinking through how to maintain some kind of permanence for digital resources online, or as the blurb on IT Conversations notes: “[They are] in the business of combating link rot.”

A term that came up early on in their discussion that offered an umbrella for thinking about a distributed online presence was cyberinfrastructure. An idea which undergirds the means through which we might imagine the implications of thinking though more “informal” publishing tools such as blogs, wikis, and even something like Twitter (which is “the Chimera of web publishing given all the different animals it can contain: IM, Messaging, Micro-Blogging, etc.” as Tom Woodward so eloquently puts it –a post within itself as I think about it more) in relationship to longer-term platforms for presenting, storing, archiving, and generally preserving our online presence. All of which had me returning to Brian Lamb’s unbelievable explanation of this concept in regards to RSS in the comment thread here, this is a refrain I come back and refashion (or is it steal) for conference proposals regularly as I am trying to wrap my head around all this stuff, and I quote:

I’m reminded of something George Siemens said at a symposium on distributed tool strategies: that schools should be in the business of managing data flows rather than in supporting an end to end user experience. We can only dream what might result if the energy going into the campus-wide LMSs would go into creating flexible and easy to use “syndication buses” or to addressing pragmatic instructor challenges to using the “small pieces” approach-things like student management tools, gradebooks etc. And what about providing the service of institutional archiving and data backups to mitigate the risks of using third party tools?

In many ways the “syndication buses” Brian frames here so well has been how I have been imagining this cyberinfrastructure for all things small and loosely joined ever since I read this comment, one which obviously has it’s roots in ideas from George Siemens and others. Making the conversation between Jon Udell and Geoffrey Bilder that much more exciting in that it is working towards a similar way of imagining these, albeit from a different starting point. Here are some of the things I found interesting, as I (mis)understood them:

  • As people increasingly fashion their individual (professional) online presences and receive due credit and garner professional value that is tangible from these informal spaces (something that is well underway, mind you) the impulse to frame an infrastructure that affords a more stable and permanent online presence becomes that much more important (despite the fact it is not getting the necessary attention from both individuals and “informal” publishing applications like blogger, wordpress, typepad, etc.)
  • Yet stability and permanence does not necessarily mean inflexible and static. Rather, moving one’s data easily from one space to another (or from one application to another) without sacrificing your online presence or burying your digital labor is the key to navigating the wilderness of the web thought some kind of aggregation/authorization/management mechanism — OpenID is one that comes to mind — but the possibilities are still varied.

These elements are at the heart of beginning to foster trust, credibility, and a persistent online presence. To echo Brian, universities need not be in the business of promoting applications that lock-in a monolithic online presence though bulky CMS/LMSs, rather they should think about ways to re-imagine how we publish from our respective spaces and feed the relative information out — brining to mind the ubiquitous ideas of personal publishing platforms, e-portfolios, blogs, faculty sites, etc. All which you can aggregate by your identity and re-present for any given audience.

Cole Camplese has had some amazingly thoughtful things to say about this process, and I think his Three Things post nails the issues that we need to consider seriously. Namely, how do we begin to think about the architecture of community based publishing platforms more generally. He and his group have gone a long way towards thinking about the implications of cyberinfrastructure with their quite impressive PSU Blogs project.

Bill Fitzgerald, of Open Academic fame, is another one who has been thinking about this stuff at length and has seen his vanguard work implemented quite recently by BYU (read the post here). Bill’s work with Drupal is an excellent instance of the aggregated bus logic as it relates to a cyberinfrastructure in action (at least from an RSS standpoint and you can see the proof of concept here).

All of this thought and work by folks in my RSS stream goes a long way towards showing just how much of this stuff can and has been done with freely available open source tools and an amazing capacity to share and imagine. In many ways, bringing together and “managing data flows” from disparate sites, perspectives, cultures, etc is something I greatly benefit from on a daily basis in the edublogosphere (or at least the small corner of it I can follow). Why would a university community-based publishing system be that much different?

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7 Responses to Imagining Cyberinsfrastructure

  1. Gardner says:

    And if we don’t engage our students in thinking about, and managing, data flows, we are depriving them of the meta-skill sets they will (desperately) need for the lives they will live from here on out.

    Great post.

  2. Tom says:

    Ah, the pressure of being quoted. I’ll have to watch what I say more closely from now on. . .

    I wonder if the fact that many professors go through life having their own content locked down and buried in various journals impacts things like the decision to use CMSs. I’m sure the way they have to live their lives in order to get published and get tenure really impacts how they teach and how they think about online publishing.

    It’ll be interesting to see what might change in teaching if the electronic options for professors start to change. Here’s the link to the SXSW podcast on Web 2.0 and Semantic Web: The Impact on Scientific Publishing that starts to touch on some of those ideas. It’s been a while since I listened to it but if I recall correctly it has some really interesting points in terms of how academic publishing might be changed.

    Off to look for pictures of chimeras.

  3. jimgroom says:

    Thanks for that link, that will be my easy listening for tomorrow’s commute. I think the way the publishing logic is organized now certainly makes consideration of the cyberinfrastructure less than immediate for many, yet I wonder how long it will be before it becomes readily apparent as a necessity. Much of my thinking through this podcast, Brian Lamb’s genius, and the several other projects is to start framing some of the stuff I have seen online that works along this aggregated bus structure, yet still provides professors and students with their own space. Feeding into the project we are discussing. The difference is the others are all using some philistine inspired application like Drupal, Moveable Type, or something godless like that, while we have the one true solution 🙂

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  5. Greetings, Mr. Groom,

    Another great post — lot’s to comment on, but I’ll save it for a full-out post on a day when I have more time —

    But one thing came up in the comment thread in Tom’s comment:

    “I wonder if the fact that many professors go through life having their own content locked down and buried in various journals” and “It’ll be interesting to see what might change in teaching if the electronic options for professors start to change.”

    In an interesting accident of timing, Danah Boyd just put out a post where she announces that she will never post in a closed journal again, and calls on other academics to do the same.



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