Researchers in all disciplines increasingly expect to be able to undertake a variety of research-associated tasks online. These range from collaborative activities with colleagues around the globe through to information-seeking activities in an electronic library environment. Many of the tools which enable these activities to take place are already available within the local IT infrastructure. However, in many cases, the tools are provided through discrete, bespoke interfaces with few links between them. Researchers face a number of challenges in this environment, including multiple methods of authentication and authorisation, finding information and sharing information between applications.
The EVIE Project intended to address these issues by testing the integration and deployment of key existing software components within a portal framework.
A portal is intended to provide a seamless, Web-based interface to a range of university systems and services. The key benefit of a portal framework is to bring together disparate resources and systems into a single environment, so that end-users can utilise these tools in an integrated fashion, thus aiding efficiency and effectiveness, and improving the overall user experience.
The University of Leeds is using the Luminis Portal product (from Sungard HE) as its framework for a portal. Luminis is built upon open standards and v4 is both JSR-168 and Shibboleth compliant, based around uPortal, elements of the Sun JES stack and, optionally, Documentum for content management. Luminis is widely adopted in the UK and internationally. Currently the University has a live Student Portal based on the Luminis platform.
The University of Leeds has also developed and deployed a Virtual Research Environment, known as the Virtual Knowledge Park (VKP); although this is now in the process of being withdrawn by the University. The VKP supported 11 large-scale research programmes which included national research centres, regional research networks, technology institutes and European research consortia within which there were over 200 active research networks.
The University has also developed an in-house VLE - the open source Bodington system, and has extensive electronic library services. The EVIE Project therefore intended to build on this expertise by integrating the VRE, VLE, e-library and other selected corporate resources within an overarching portal framework. The integration was expected to deliver a range of benefits to researchers, including widening awareness of the tools available, increasing familiarity, uptake and use of tools, aiding ease of use, and improving the ability for researchers to share information across disparate systems.
The aims and objectives of the EVIE Project, as stated in the original project plan, were to:
The EVIE Project has been carried out over three key project phases:
The Project has been developed as a series of inter-linked work-packages, broadly covering these key phases.
The research phase included a 6-month user requirements gathering exercise, which incorporated a series of focus groups, semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders, and an online questionnaire. This work was undertaken jointly by the University of Leeds and the British Library.
The research phase also included a scoping study on systems integration requirements, which resulted in a systems integration route-map, and a full technical and functional specification. These activities drew closely on the outcomes of the user requirements exercise, which provided us with a valuable tool for prioritising development requirements. As part of this activity, the Project also produced a visual design criteria, accessibility requirements and standards requirements. A demonstrator system was also produced and tested with key stakeholders, leading to sign-off by the Project Steering Group.
The research phase also included scoping exercises for preservation requirements and taxonomy requirements.
The user requirements gathering phase indicated that respondents were keen to see a unified interface which brought together the various research systems and tools within a single environment. They flagged that this needs to be easy to use, and that it has to be available to them when they are off-campus.
Respondents prioritised the different aspects that they required as follows:
Within these initial priorities, respondents flagged the following issues:
Other issues raised:
From this, an initial priority listing for development was drawn up:
The implementation phase drew closely on the outputs of the user requirements gathering exercise, and on the resulting functional and technical specification. The specification was further developed as a channel development plan - which broke the development work down into key phases for delivery.
Phase 1 was a fairly small phase for delivery, aimed at being easily achieved, and during which valuable skills and lessons would be learned which could be applied to the later phases. The early phase was intended to be quickly completed, in order to allow for iterative testing and improvements and to maintain project momentum. Further implementation phases allowed for more complex developments to be undertaken. The full channel development plan is available on the EVIE Web site .
The portal components were installed on the live Portal system at the University in order to allow for a full user testing phase to take place. A range of user testing and evaluation activities were undertaken; these included:
Several characteristics of VREs have emerged from the evaluation activities. In particular it has emerged that researchers have a requirement for highly granular flexibility of both tools and presentation, driven by recognition of the diversity of user needs and requirements the environment is designed to support.
A Portal framework provides a proven architecture for a VRE, in that it has the potential to provide a high level of granularity of service and the flexibility for personalisation and customisation.
VRE frameworks need to be developed with flexibility in mind. Researchers increasingly expect that they will be able to take a 'plug-and-play' approach, in order to integrate their own personal choice of collaborative tools, library resources etc within the VRE framework. This presents support and development challenges for institutions, in that a fine granularity of roles will be required.
There is also a requirement to integrate not only with systems within a single institution, but also, driven by the dispersed nature of research communities, with a variety of systems and resources outside the institution. These might include:
Researchers expect flexibility so that they can obtain maximum advantage from the investment being made in this area. If, for example, they are not using an institutionally-supported blog, they expect that they will be able to switch off this functionality and easily plug-in their own preferred tools. This fits well with the concept of Web 2.0, but does provide challenges for centrally supported institutional systems in trying to manage this level of flexibility.
Researcher behaviours are extremely varied and it is unwise to attempt to categorise these by discipline. VRE frameworks therefore need to be built with the flexibility to cater to a wide range of support needs and expectations.
Access to the VRE framework by external collaborators is an expectation rather than an exception, and requirements for this should be considered from the outset of any project.
An external preservation services approach is recommended for the curation of data and objects within the VRE environment. Such an approach would require policy decisions to be taken at a high level within the institution, and it would also be necessary to have a detailed understanding of the long-term costs and benefits of using such a service.
Taxonomy developments do not appear to be sufficiently mature to facilitate their integration within a VRE, and many of the broad taxonomies currently available would not be sufficiently detailed to enable them to be used in tagging highly specialised content. Further research on the issues associated with the use of folksonomies is required.
Cultural change issues may act as a potential barrier to VRE take-up within institutions. Facilitating cultural change is highly resource intensive, and is not often costed into IT development projects.
High-level institutional commitment is necessary in order for a VRE to succeed. In particular there must be a demonstrable level of commitment to ensuring that existing systems are integrated within a single environment to ensure maximum functionality. Support for embedding is required over a number of years - working practices will change gradually, and a VRE will need time to become widely embedded in institutional practices. A business case for institutional VRE development should therefore span at least five years, and sustained, long-term support for innovation and development is also required at the national level in order to provide strategic direction for institutional efforts.
It is clear from Phase 1 of the JISC VRE Programme that substantial strides have been made in understanding how a VRE might contribute to supporting research. EVIE has demonstrated that researchers would welcome a seamless environment where they can access the tools that they need to support their research activities.
However, it is also clear that a number of challenges remain to be addressed before VREs enter mainstream use by researchers. In particular, it will be necessary to address the cultural challenges to VRE adoption, and this can only be achieved if VRE development and adoption is promoted and resourced by institutions.
The emerging picture of a VRE also contrasts interestingly with the prevailing current perspective of a VLE. This is usually seen as a relatively tightly integrated set of tools and services bundled in a discrete package or application. The majority of VLEs are still characterised in this way, despite recent demands for greater pedagogic flexibility. The JISC e-Framework  provides the main challenge to this approach, with its emphasis on a service oriented approach.
The emerging characteristics of a VRE are increasingly linked to requirements to support the development of 'virtual research communities', as identified in the OST Report of March 2006 . This report raises the national and international profile of VRE developments, and flags them as a significant objective for future development.
The viable architecture for a VRE, therefore, seems to fit well with the approach being promoted by JISC, and there is an opportunity for the next phase of the VRE Programme to make a substantial contribution to the emerging e-Framework. The increased use by researchers of social networking applications, for example, adds urgency to the requirement for VREs to adhere to open and published standards and specifications. Future VRE development must build on a range of existing components, including both collaborative and portal frameworks and standards, and must provide the ability for researchers to customise and personalise the environment. The extent to which researchers will want to do this is highly dependent on individual characteristics. For example, some researchers will welcome the provision of a set of standard tools within a VRE, which will significantly reduce the need for them to get involved in setting up tools and services for themselves. Others will prefer to be able to personalise the environment, adding their own tools and preferred services.