Thanks to Jez Cope for this article.
The Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) is a cross-disciplinary research centre which brings together academic expertise from the University of Bath with international industrial, academic and stakeholder partners to carry out research, training and outreach in sustainable chemical technologies. In less than two years, the centre has attracted nearly £20m in funding for its activities and has rapidly become an important hub for sustainable chemistry in the UK.
In December 2008 the EPSRC awarded a £7.5m grant to establish a Doctoral Training Centre in Sustainable Chemical Technologies, offering a 4-year integrated PhD programme in Sustainable Chemical Technologies.
Regular face-to-face meetings between geographically-diverse groups of stakeholders would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention environmentally damaging. CSCT has therefore implemented a Sakai-based Virtual Research Environment (VRE), known as iSusLab, as an online place to collaborate and communicate.
The most important features identified in initial discussions with stakeholders were:
- Ability to easily grant access for industrial and international partners;
- Ability to tightly control access rights to protect IP of researchers and industrial partners;
- Good integration with email for less tech-savvy users;
- Good support for file storage to archive research artefacts such as data files, bibliographic databases, reports and papers;
- A variety of collaborative tools (e.g. wikis, blogs, forums) to enable experimentation with communication styles as part of professional development for research students;
- Flexibility for individual users to use it in their own way and with their own preferred selection of tools;
- Consistent user experience across tools within the VRE.
After considering a number of alternatives (including externally hosted tools and general-purpose CMS’s and portals) it was decided to use the open-source Sakai project as the basis of iSusLab. In particular, the following features were identified:
- Out-of-the-box support for a wide variety of collaboration tools, including file-sharing, wikis, forums, email archives, blogs, chat rooms;
- Able to set up separate ‘worksites’ for individual projects, each using its own selection from the available tools and giving very fine-grained control of access rights;
- Able to integrate with other tools, such as embedded video conferencing using Elluminate or BigBlueButton;
- Able to authenticate using CAS for University of Bath account-holders while also providing local access for external users (e.g. industrial partners);
- Mature software under active development, supported by a well-funded foundation involving several key research-led universities worldwide;
- Growing community in the UK of institutions and groups using Sakai (e.g. Lancaster University, STFC Daresbury, University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Hull);
- Customizable appearance using CSS-based skins.
Examples of Use
- Archival of research data, reports, meeting notes and other artefacts by students and supervisors;
- Planning and recording/sharing outcomes of a research sandpit on sustainable water.
- Online submission of MRes and PhD project proposals using a custom web form;
- An online archive of student MRes project reports;
- Course materials and announcements for the Doctoral Training Centre Public Engagement module, run by external trainers.
- General document-sharing and collaboration by DTC management team;
- Online booking of meeting rooms.