About twelve months ago, I started a new job in the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) at the University of Bath, with the somewhat vague title of ICT Project Manager. I intended at the time to write a blog post about what I was expecting to do, but never really found the time.

One year on (and half way through my contract), I thought it would be a good time to look back on what I’ve achieved so far and what’s on the horizon. Plus, it’s at least possible that people who meet me or see my Pecha Kucha presentation at ALT-C 2011 might want to know a bit more a out me.

First, the elevator pitch: I help researchers and research students (mostly chemists and chemical engineers) to use technology to communicate, collaborate and work more effectively.

In order to do that, I have to wear a number of hats, and liaise between several of the university’s central services, such as computer services (BUCS), web services, e-learning, researcher development and the library.

iSusLab: a Virtual Research Environment

My primary responsibility has been to set up a Virtual Research Environment (VRE) for our users in the CSCT, but what exactly is a VRE?

Well, it’s a somewhat more vaguely-defined concept than the VLE, as the needs of researchers in different fields are so diverse. Essentially, though, we’re talking about a set of online tools. Common functionality includes access to supercomputing clusters, research data management, workflow reuse and sharing, and general communication and collaboration tools.

Our VRE, named iSusLab, falls mainly into that last category. We have 25 students and 30+ academics spread across 4 departments, along with 12 industrial partners and 2 international partners institutions, and they all have to stay in touch somehow.

iSusLab provides a safe, secure, flexible online space for our researchers and partners to work together. It’s based on a platform called Sakai, which began life as a VLE in the US but has since grown into a very comprehensive and flexible collaboration system.

It provides a number of tools, including wikis, forums, email lists, file sharing and calendars and let’s you pick and choose from them on a project-by-project basis. Everything is password protected by default, though it’s possible to make things public if need be, and we have complete control over who has access to which project site.

The Connected Researcher: new media training

The customised tools that we can provide our researchers are only part of the story, however. Freely available social media tools on the web can do an excellent job of supporting many core academic activities, including networking, information discovery, collaboration, outreach and teaching.

Geraldine Jones, e-learning support officer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and I ran a series of social media workshops for research students entitled “Connected Rearcher @ Bath”. You can read more about that in our recent article on the subject in Ariadne.

Website maintenance

Web Services’ introduction of a new design for the University of Bath site gave me an excellent opportunity to revamp the CSCT web pages. I’ve rewritten a lot of the content into more web-friendly language, cleaned up the navigation and started bugging academics for more regular news items (that last with mixed success, as you might expect!).

Other stuff

Over the last academic year, Julian Prior and Marie Salter from the central e-learning team have been piloting use of Elluminate (now BlackBoard Collaborate) to support distance learning. As we have a course in sustainable development for our doctoral students which is run by two external trainers who live a long way from Bath, we were able to provide Julian and Marie with a test case for this technology.

In a way, we used the software backwards: we had remote lecturers teaching local students rather than the other way about. It worked fairly well, and though we had a few problems (especially avoiding that scourge of videoconferencing, feedback) we got quite polished by the end of the course.

The future

I’ve currently got my eye on better support for research data management and how we might build it into researchers’ workflows. In particular, integrating our institutional digital repository with Sakai to enable straightforward depositing of data is a very attractive idea.

Building on their success from this year, Julian and Marie are continuing to investigate videoconferencing, and I’m looking forward to getting to help them test some other interesting tools in that space.

Geraldine and I are hoping to run Connected Researcher @ Bath again next year, and in the meantime there may be opportunities to provide similar training for researchers through Bath’s Knowledge Transfer Account.

I also have a few thoughts about how we can develop the use of iSusLab, particularly in the direction of an e-lab-notebook (ELN).

But right now we’re approaching the start of a new year and getting ready for the start of the new cohort and all the challenges that will bring!