Implementation and Innovation in the NSDL by William Arms

September 18, 2008 at 2:07 pm 2 comments


The NSF must be congratulated on persevering with the NSDL. It would have been easy to abandon the program after the first round of grants. If so, it would now be looked on as an overly ambitious venture that supported a number of isolated projects – some good, others less good – which in aggregate had little impact on education and did not survive after the initial funding expired.

While it is still too early to declare success, there are some hopeful signs. Here are some lessons that can be learned from the first eight years of the NSDL program.

First, the NSDL is a fascinating contrast with the usual way that implementation projects are managed in the federal government, which is to issue a request for proposal and choose a contractor to build the system. The NSF has followed its usual process of issuing open-ended solicitations, selecting projects on merit, and giving them remarkable flexibility. Sometimes this leads to waste, but it also leads to creativity and energy far beyond the ordinary.

Second, the decision to expand the NSDL from undergraduate education to all of science created a colossus without clear direction. The Pathways program rescued the program, by dividing the NSDL into a group of motivated projects each with its own emphasis and enthusiasm.

Third, sustainability has proved to be a chimera. The only effective way to support digital libraries for science education is continuing funding from external sources. This is no different from other libraries and from most scientific research.

Fourth, everybody over-estimated the willingness and ability of independent investigators to form a collective governance structure, even while directly funded by the NSF. With research grants, the NSF provides little direction beyond the words in the solicitation. An implementation program needs a more formal management structure.

The NSF is committed to fund the NSDL until 2012. It is providing substantial central funding for the Technical Resource Network Services and the Resource Center, but the bulk of its resources are for the Pathways. In 2007-08, the letters “NSDL” were redefined. The new name of the program is the “National Science Distributed Learning”. Hopefully, it will provide a continuing framework in which the two missions of the NSDL can both thrive: implementation combined with innovation.


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Entry filed under: NSDL Core Integration. Tags: , , .

Welcome to NSDL Reflections! Reflections on NSDL by Frank Wattenberg

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Flora McMartin  |  March 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Bill writes that NSDL has been faced with two challenges: supporting education at all levels and mixing the missions of innovation and implementation. He adds that the “aim was to implement a digital library, but the funding program was more suitable for a broad program of research and development.”
    Given the broad and mixed mission, does NSDL need to focus its resources in particular areas to ensure longer term sustainability? What would those areas of focus be, and can digital library services be created that provide value to some set of users or funders?

  • […] explaining its 1996-1997 roots in NSF-funded planning studies (see NSDL Reflections Weblog, “Implementations and Innovation in the NSDL” by William Arms). Dr. Linda Slakey, NSF Division of Undergraduate Education Division Director […]


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Welcome to NSDL Reflections!

We are collecting the "reflections" on the collaborative development of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). This site is a place for NSDL participants to “tell the story” of how they think NSDL was formed, grew and is continuing to grow. And for the community to discuss and learn from these reflections.

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