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The Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET) at the University of Cambridge has been exploring the use of web-based online collaboration tools to support distributed research groups since 2000. In 2002 we deployed CamCommunities, an open-source community system (OpenACS) with a portal layer developed for MIT Sloan Business School (.LRN), for use on campus. The system has over 3,000 users and there are several large, distributed, research groups using the platform including the 'Silent Aircraft Initiative' consortium (involving Cambridge, MIT, Boeing, Rolls Royce, and others); the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (44 UK universities and 300 researchers); and the Single Kilometre Array European collaboration.

For some time we have felt that the functional overlap between this collaboration environment and the Course Management Systems we host (CourseWork from Stanford and BlackBoard) was sufficient that a common platform would be desirable. We had been tracking the CHEF project as a candidate platform when the Sakai Project was announced. Since Sakai will displace CourseWork at Stanford and offers support for research communities alongside course management, we joined the partner program immediately. The Sakai project has rapidly attracted a large partner group and so has good prospects for a sustainable development. CARET participated in the Edinburgh eResearch workshop and we concur with the conclusions in the report of the workshops and with the recommendations in the Roadmap for a Virtual Research Environment published by the JISC Working Group. We intend to participate fully, freely and openly in JISC and other international efforts to advance the concept of the Virtual Research Environment. In our work so far with the ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), we have not only provided online collaboration tools to the projects, but we have also worked with the project to incorporate a DSpace digital repository to promote data sharing and report dissemination. Because the programme has a major focus on ‘user engagement' with the projects and their outputs, a new tool has been developed to dynamically create ‘interest-based' or ‘themed' self-maintaining websites using RDF metadata collected via the DSpace OAI-PMH interface.

Aims and Objectives

The JISC VRE project intends to provide and support the Sakai platform for large, distributed social sciences research projects. The focus of the project will be on activities to investigate the needs of the TLRP researchers and to evaluate the extent to which Sakai meets those needs. We will work with other projects in this programme and elsewhere to track new tool development and to assess the utility of these new tools for the social sciences researchers across the TLRP. The proposed project also includes some development activity to migrate to the Sakai platform the tools that have already been identified and prototyped to meet the needs of TLRP researchers. We feel strongly that the tools that have been prototyped for this group have generic usefulness to all research groups. Tools developed at Cambridge by this project will be shared using a BSD-type open-source licence.

By the end of the project, we expect to have shared with the UK HE research community a detailed analysis of how the collaboration (and other) tools of the Sakai project can support and enhance collaborative research projects in the social sciences. CARET intends to share and embed best practice and will sustain the support environment for at least the life of the TLRP project (to 2008) and expects to be vigorously active in building on the results of the project. We believe this programme will lead to a shared research support environment and we expect to be active in using and supporting that development.

Project Methodology

The project team will work with the steering committee to agree the requirements for each phase of the project to ensure each phase is meeting the overall project objectives and to accommodate a process for change should project activities indicate modifications to the project plan are beneficial.

The planned approach for the research aspects of the project involves considerable intervention from project team members who will observe and record processes of the community and mediate to introduce new practices using the Sakai tools and new tools from the migrated prototypes and other outputs from the JISC VRE programme and other international efforts (where relevant to this community and depending on release dates).

TLRP projects will be provided with access to a Sakai based VRE and specific projects selected to be involved in the research aspect of this project.