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Technology, International Consortia, and Geographically Dispersed Research Teams [Global Higher Ed]

December 18, 2008

By Kris Olds, Global Higher Ed

The Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) is one of several international consortia that have been created, since the late 1990s, to deepen linkages between universities. I’ve been involved with two of them (the WUN and Universitas 21) while working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National University of Singapore.

As Lily Kong (Vice-President, Global Relations, National University of Singapore) noted in her 7 October 2007 entry (‘The rise, rhetoric, and reality of international university consortia’):

[o]ne of the challenges of making such university alliances work is the lack of clarity of intention, and the lack of a clear articulation of how such alliances, often formed from the top by senior university administrators, can achieve the stated objectives. In almost every new alliance, establishing research partnerships and collaboration among member universities is said to be a priority. Are alliances really an effective way to develop research collaboration though? Member universities that are chosen to be part of an alliance are often chosen for political reasons (”political” in the most expansive of its meanings). They may be chosen because they are thought to be “research powerhouses”. But different universities have different areas of research strength, and university administrators sitting together to decide an area/s among their universities for research collaboration can be quite artificial. Such alliances can then at best facilitate meetings and workshops among researchers, but the collaborative sparks must come from the ground. Throwing a group of people together once or twice and asking that they produce huge grant applications to support collaborative research is not likely to happen. Those with the responsibility of developing alliances, however, will be anxious to show results, and sometimes, just the act of bringing researchers together is hardly sufficient result.

Given these challenges, some of us have been trying to think through ways to use the international consortia framework as a vehicle to deepen regular connections between geographically dispersed researchers. In doing so, though, we’ve been faced with debates about the costs of facilitating relatively frequent human mobility between member universities, not to mention which types of people (Graduate students? Faculty? Staff?) to target with available support. To be sure there is nothing quite like face-to-face engagement: intense sessions in meetings, workshops, summer institutes, and in situ collaborative research. However, these face-to-face moments, which can never be replaced, need to be supplemented by regular virtual gatherings. Furthermore, the ongoing financial crisis is now generating troublesome ripple effects in research networks where bodily movement across space is the ideal.

In the course of thinking about the development of UW-Madison’s WUN website, we have been considering the establishment of some web-based resources for researchers who seek to collaborate virtually, including via sound and video in synchronous (ie concurrent/real time) fashion. [Click here to read the full article.]

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