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Research, Education, and the Enterprise: Getting The Right Blend Of Ingredients


nline access will never be able to replace traditional education and collaboration. But traditional classrooms and labs desperately need the versatility and value online tools can offer. Like so many other things, it's not either-or. It's about finding the right combination.

There are a lot of things I like about living in Boulder, like the mountains, the weather, and so on. But a lot of its great features, like being a real center of action for science, are because it is a university town, with CU Boulder right in the center of things. It’s the first week of classes for spring semester here, so all of a sudden there are a lot more people in town and most of them are very excited to start a new year, new semester, and new classes. They’re probably also excited about all the fresh powder for skiing, too, but on the work side of things people are definitely ready to get going. There will even be a federal budget, for the first time in years, to help get science moving again.

While there’s no substitute for face-to-face, in-person interactions, it’s not always possible to have everyone in one place. Often a researcher or student in one location will come up with something that needs to be shared with another location or with the wider community, or even publicly. Sharing research, discoveries, data, tools, and education online can be an important part of getting the most out of science and making it available to as many people as possible.

Remote learning and networking isn’t new. Correspondence courses date back as far as1840. Granted, it’s a lot faster with a decent laptop and connection than with envelopes and stamps, but it’s the same thing, just with a different delivery system. Cloud-based learning, enterprise training systems, and MOOCs are the latest incarnations and are great improvements over previous generations. They’re not a magic replacement for other means of research,learning, and sharing. They do have their problems. Campuses and offices aren’t going to go away, technology hype and marketing notwithstanding. Online and enterprise applications for education and science are a fantastic additional venue and tool, however, and do offer some unique advantages.

Does anyone else remember having to buy an expensive textbook for one class in one semester, maybe not even in your major and then getting only a small fraction back on re-sale, if you could sell it at all? Software was even like that for awhile, with students buying full commercial packages at full retail price. Students are an amazing, smart, diverse group but the adjective “wealthy” applies to very, very few in academia. The retail, permanent sale model doesn’t win much for vendors, does very little for academics, and prices some promising students out of the market before they can even start. That isn’t good for anyone.

The latest generation of tools for online collaboration in education and research can fill many of the previously too-expensive needs. Online access to a set of software analyses and some datasets can be provided to all the students in many classes. Students can buy one piece of tech, such as a laptop or tablet, and access information and resources as necessary per class per semester. Access to the tools can be set up with any combination of per class, department, campus, university, semester or year, and logins limited to students only, addressing the concerns of vendors about giving away value outside of the research or educational setting. Faculty and staff would only need to coordinate purchasing access to a site rather than administering a lab full of machines and software. And students wouldn’t be stuck with expensive resources that they used for four months and then never again.

It’s not a panacea. The advanced researchers, students, and professionals will still always need their data on their machines with their tools, and the majority of the hard work of research, teaching, and learning will be in classrooms on campuses. There’s no complete substitute for that as we have seen again and again over the years. Anyone who’s suffered through 8 hours of an online power point for some corporate “training certification” will attest to that. But the sort of apps and online access available now can save a lot of money, create future business and customers for vendors, and make science and learning available to many more than before.

I’m thinking of revisiting some of the courses and materials I’ve taught over the last 15 to 20 years, and packaging up some of the key parts as online apps. The first one I’d like to do is an exploration of different approaches to processing multispectral and hyperspectral data for land cover and material identification. What apps or lectures or exercises would you want to see? I’m hoping some of my friends and colleagues will give them a whirl in their classes and labs, especially here at CU Boulder. And then I’ll see what they think, when we meet over beer at one of our great local breweries. Because some things just have to be done in person.