A Digital Collaboratory for Scientific Collaboration and E-Learning

Collaboration Network for Biomedical Scientists
Posted on: 
Monday, November 25, 2013

At the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE), more than 80 groups perform research in the university's main research area Biomedical Sciences. The groups and their doctoral students are affiliated to three different faculties (Biology, Medicine and Chemistry), a couple of scientific centers, several BMBF or DFG projects and currently three DFG research training groups, as well as the university's biomedical graduate school BIOME with 6 further research cores. They are distributed over several separate locations on the Campus Essen and the University Hospital Essen.
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Shared virtual platform
The Collaboration Network for Biomedical Scientists (CoLab Biomed) as a shared virtual platform came into being as part of a long term digital strategy of the UDE Centre for Medical Biotechnology (ZMB). We aimed to provide young scientists (Master's and PhD students) who share their field of study with a common and modern digital infrastructure suited to support them

  • to get to know each other,
  • to get an overview of the available research facilities and expertise,
  • to communicate and collaborate,
  • to share research facilities and knowledge,
  • to support and inspire each other,
  • to learn and improve, and
  • to get used to modern digital communication, collaboration and learning technology.

Knowledge repository, collaboration and e-learning
Moreover we were searching for a solution to preserve the research data and related specialized knowledge and expertise that accrues in the context of the performed PhD lab work and research and -if possible- make it available for the biomedical research community for the longer term. Scientific knowledge can be represented in multiple forms (not least in an individual's brain), but digitization allows to store, search, serve, and reuse some of them easily now, as a new and very valuable service. For a context where this makes sense, we wanted to provide a web based platform where different forms of available relevant data and expertise support current and future young scientists in their performance (communication and collaboration) and further advancement (e-learning) with the help of provided accumulating information commons and associated digital service tools.

Own tailored system on the basis of open source software
Since e-learning for Ph.D. students has to fulfill different needs and is not such a common thing, no ready-to-use software application was available. Establishing the utilization of different third party services wouldn't have been an adequate solution either and out question for several reasons (privacy, data sovereignty, long-term provision, costs). So we decided to build our own tool, putting Web 2.0 technologies as already established collaborative e-learning tools at its core and therefore chose Drupal as our basic code framework. Drupal is an open source content management system (CMS) with already in-built Web 2.0 and social network features. In comparison to other available open source CMS, Drupal provides the most opportunities for customization and extension to tailor a system to individual requirements.

CoLab Biomed Beta
While the open source framework Drupal prevented us from having to write every necessary code line from scratch, what would have been unfeasible, customizing a given system with its own logic, mode of operation and specifics (like flaws and strengths) to suit our individual needs came with its own challenges. To put up a complex web application on the basis of a CMS, kind of "architectural skills" are needed as well as creativity in the means of always finding appropriate and available workarounds for unexpected problems and for own solutions. And, of course, sometimes we had to lower our sights to balance effort and utility. Moreover, much more than pure technology is needed to start a sophisticated project like this and some parts are still in the making.

Nonetheless and thanks to Drupal, we are now happy to provide CoLab Biomed Beta as an open test version and are looking forward to gather experience with the live site. Based on experience and the feedback of its users CoLab Biomed will be continuously further developed. Biomedical scientists and coworkers of the University of Duisburg-Essen are welcome now to register and participate.