Reflections on the NSDL by David Yaron
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This essay is a reflection on my involvement in the NSDL, which I was lucky enough to be involved with from the beginning. My interests are in using online resources to improve chemical education at both the college and high school level, and this work has led to our current NSDL project, the ChemCollective (www.chemcollective.org).
The NSDL has provided an inspiring home for me as a developer. The structure, including especially in-person meetings and workshops, has created a community of like-minded individuals who have educated me and helped guide my work for the past eight years. In this sense, I believe the NSDL project is an unusually successful NSF research program. Working together on a grand challenge, that of creating a national library, provides a structure that encourages engagement among the participants that is far more substantive than the interactions arising in programs built only around a competitive funding model. These interactions have strongly benefited me as a developer. But this is not the only way to perceive the NSDL. At the NSDL kickoff meeting, an attendee who had spent time in the software industry commented “this is an Internet startup company without a CEO or CIO”. This comment highlights the nature of the NSDL as a coalition of projects. The benefits of the NSDL arise primarily from the value added to those projects, and for me, the added benefit has stemmed primarily from interactions with the NSDL community.
Transformation of Learning and Speed of Change
I firmly believe that the Internet will radically transform the way people learn. I also firmly believe that I do not know how this transformation will occur or what education will look like in ten or twenty years. It is especially difficult to predict which technologies and constructs will have the most lasting impact, beyond saying that the current choices will at most be forerunners to what eventually succeeds. The technological artifacts created by the NSDL may indeed end up being important forerunners. However, the most lasting impact will likely be through the people it inspired. Years from now, when I download the best-selling book “How the Internet transformed education” onto my digital book reader, my involvement in the NSDL will mean that I know some of the main characters in that history book. For me, meeting these dedicated and talented people is by far the largest impact that involvement in the NSDL has had on me and my work. The cross-disciplinary of the project was key to this impact. I have been involved in many cross-disciplinary projects, but the NSDL is unique in bringing me into substantive dialogue with a diverse group of people interested specifically in using network technology to advance education.
A supportive developer community is especially helpful given the challenges facing the NSDL. Many of these challenges arise from juxtaposing the formal education system, which is shockingly resistant to change, with the Internet, which is shockingly able to undergo radical transformations on a moments notice. Life at the interface of these differently-paced worlds can instill a professional version of manic depression. Ideas intended to radically improve education most often end up having incremental impacts. Our hopes to change the world hit against stark realities and end up pushing the boundaries by only a fraction of our initial hopes. An idealistic community, such as the NSDL, is what is needed to inspire individual projects to continue to throw themselves against the wall in hopes of pushing it back further and further. Such an incremental pace is to be expected in research. When it comes to curing cancer or developing nanotechnology, the research enterprise is structured around the anticipation that ultimate success will mostly come as the culmination of small advances. But the rapid transformations we sometimes see on the Internet, with sites growing from initial concept to household words in a few years, builds up hope for similarly rapid advances in education.
An equally challenging aspect of life at the interface of education and technology is the speed at which the Internet transforms. The shared experience provided by involvement in the NSDL has helped me learn how to focus my own efforts on projects that are likely to have impact when they are completed in two or three years, and the Internet landscape has once again been redrawn. In particular, some user needs appear to be education specific on the surface, but turn out to be specific instances of broader issues such as the need for improved communication, search, or rapid software application development. Attempting to meet such broad needs will likely lead to a race with much larger entities, such as the for-profit sector. To avoiding such counterproductive races, I try to put all my ideas through a litmus test for educational specificity. This has shifted my development efforts to projects with a strong focus on the chemical education community.