This retrospective essay covers the period from 2001-2008, during which the research group at Utah State University (USU) focused on designing, developing, and evaluating a National Science Digital Library (NSDL.org) web-based service, called the Instructional Architect (IA.usu.edu). Later in this period, the focus was on disseminating the IA service in school contexts by developing and implementing formal and informal teacher professional development opportunities. These efforts have been funded by a series of National Science Foundations grants.
This essay is presented as three sections. In the first section, we describe our efforts to build a simple software system, the Instructional Architect, deploy it with users, and integrate it with the NSDL core technical infrastructure. In the second section, we describe our efforts to better understand the target context of educators, and to develop sustainable and scalable teacher professional development models. The final section reflects on how the IA fit within the NSDL program. Each section also includes a subsection describing evaluation strategies.
This essay also reflects shifts in our thinking over this period. Early efforts reflected a kind of technological determinism (i.e., ‘if we build it, they will come’). This eventually shifted to a more socio-technical approach. An unspoken assumption of early work was that teachers and their students would access and use such technologies in unproblematic and seamless ways. Unfortunately, the history of educational technology suggests that this is seldom the case (Cuban, 2001). Instead, after spending time with ‘real’ people (teachers and their students) in ‘real’ contexts (classrooms), it became clear that we needed to better understand the complex ways in which systems cross institutional boundaries (Agre, 2003).
I begin my personal reflection about NSDL with an analogy that I don’t mean to strain too much but it seems to me that Chicago-style pizza and “NSDL-style” networks share some key characteristics. Both are faithful to core elements of two staples which play a part of modern life in many areas of the world. However, like Chicago’s adaptation of pizza, NSDL-Style networking gains recognition in its own right because of its new and unique contributions to a standard fare in 21st century society (i.e., bringing together different “ingredients” to assemble a new style of networks). While multi-institutional, multidisciplinary networks are recognized as necessary components as we move into cyber-enabled STEM research and learning, NSDL introduced me to a new “flavor” (ok, I promise — I’ll cease…).
My views about “NSDL-style networks” are based upon my experiences and observations from participation in the Evaluation Committee and as a Pathway. In both arenas I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with people from a very wide range of expertise that I likely wouldn’t have met, had it not been for my involvement in the NSDL.
Download PDF: Collaboration, Alignment and Leadership
This essay compares and contrasts—from my personal perspective—four projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that have depended critically upon medium- to large-scale collaboration. This characteristic distinguishes them from most NSF-funded projects, as typified by the Program Officer for one of the four: “The NSDL program is an unusual program for NSF in that its projects are engaged in building an enterprise much larger than the object of any one grant. Indeed, the success of the program rests squarely on the extent to which the many projects can embrace this collective sense of identity and mission.” [Zia 2001] Though similarly reliant on collaboration, the four projects had significantly different outcomes, and the purpose of comparison is to consider why, with particular emphasis on matters of leadership.
Download PDF: Reflections on NSDL
The picture below is one that I’ve used in virtually every essay or presentation I’ve given about NSDL. As you can see, this essay is no exception.
This picture captures three things about our initial vision of NSDL – our aspirations, truly astronomical in scope, and our two goals – making a substantive improvement in the quality of learning in the STEM disciplines and a substantive difference in the extent to which the very best learning reaches all students. The two goals together are what give the vision its character – there are many pockets of very high quality STEM learning and the reach of STEM learning is huge but sadly the reach of the very best STEM learning has been too limited.
Alternative views of the NSDL
This essay is a personal reflection on how early decisions shaped the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) and how the program has evolved over the past decade. It draws heavily on observations from the planning studies in 1997 and 1998, and my experience as principal investigator of the Cornell University’s part of the Core Integration team until 2005. The thoughts expressed here are purely my own.
The underlying theme of this essay is that the NSDL program has two missions: implementation and innovation. Confusion between these two missions goes back to the beginning of the program. The original concept was to implement a digital library for science education. But the NSF’s principal goal is to support research and the NSDL program also gives grants for innovation in digital libraries and science education.
The collaborative process of building the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) has provided many experiences for members of the NSDL community. The goal of this project (see About) is to capture “reflections” on these experiences by encouraging authors to “tell the story” of how they think NSDL was formed, grew and is continuing to grow.
Please read the essays by NSDL participants, comment on them and participate!
Susan, Dave, Flora and Brandon