Cyberinfrastructure and Cyberlearning: Bringing Information Together

The term cyberinfrastructure first evolved in the context of long distance research programs. According to United States federal research funders, cyberinfrastructure describes:

[…] research environments that support advanced data acquisition, data storage, data management, data integration, data mining, data visualization and other computing and information processing services distributed over the Internet beyond the scope of a single institution. In scientific usage, cyberinfrastructure is a technological and sociological solution to the problem of efficiently connecting laboratories, data, computers, and people with the goal of enabling derivation of novel scientific theories and knowledge.[1]

Instead of researchers being limited by the amount of resources available at their research center, researchers can now access any information database, as long as it is digitized and the researcher has been granted access to it. Thanks to innovations over time, this access now extends to tools as well. For example, astronomers often use remote viewing techniques to conduct research at distant locations without having to spend the time or money to travel there. This also opens up new possibilities for research methods themselves. The University of Alabama recently acquired remote viewing capabilities for a telescope in the Canary Islands. Now, as one professor notes, the Canary Islands telescope is “very different in longitude from our current most northern telescope at Kitt Peak, so it’s dark there at different times […] So, if someone is studying a pulsating star, for example, you could follow that star uninterrupted for 18 hours.”[2] Previously, it would have been impossible for a single researcher to study the same star in the dark for 18 straight hours.

According to a 2003 National Science Foundation report,

Digital computation, data, information, and networks are now being used to replace and extend traditional efforts in science and engineering research, indeed to create new disciplines. The classic two approaches to scientific research, theoretical/analytical and experimental/observational, have been extended to in silico simulation to explore a larger number of possibilities at new levels of temporal and spatial fidelity.[3]

Not only are virtual laboratories assisting researchers, but they are replacing physical laboratories and creating new disciplines.

One new discipline, while not related to science, is the emergence of cyberlearning. Cyberlearning is “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning.”[4] In a very similar way to how science uses cyberinfrastructure, cyberlearning uses virtual tools to connect people across the world with classrooms and learning opportunities.  Christine Borgman states:

Cyberlearning has the potential to transform education throughout a lifetime, enabling customized interaction with diverse learning materials on any topic – from anthropology to biochemistry to civil engineering to zoology. Learning does not stop with K-12 or higher education; cyberlearning supports continuous education at any age.[5]

One concern, voiced in the WGIG’s Education Human Capacity report, is that the “low use of languages and cultural representation of marginalized peoples [is] likely to perpetuate and even enhance the digital divide.”[6] Additionally, many online teachers need ways for them to break larger groups into smaller teams and methods for differentiating between student and teacher roles.[7]  Derrick Cogburn and Diljya Kurup identified 15 web conferencing must-haves for web-conferencing:

VoIP; video; participant roles; interactive capabilities for participants; diverse session content options; live application sharing; recording and archiving capabilities; break-out rooms; bandwidth management; accessibility, including Americans with Disabilities Act compliance; security; integration; session management; customization and support; and cross-platform functionality.[8]

These same must-haves translate to business conferences as well. Globalization is bringing more and more people into contact – in business, education, science, and even every-day life. The tools discussed in this entry help make all of this possible, but of course there is still a long way to go. Online tools are imperfect, concerns about a widening digital divide are valid, and glitches abound. However, considering how far online infrastructure has come in the last 10 years, there is certainly hope that the future will solve these issues.

[1] “Cyberinfrastructure,” Wikipedia, accessed 22 November 2013 at
[2] “UA to Gain Remote Access to Canary Island Telescope,” UA News, 29 August 2013, accessed 22 November 2013 at
[3] “Revolutionizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructure,” National Science Foundation Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cuberinfrastructure, (January 2003).
[4] Christine Borgman, “Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge,” NSF Taskforce, (24 June 2008) 5.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Draft WGIG Issue Paper on Education and Human Capacity Building,” WGIG.
[7] Derrick Cogburn and Diljya Kurup, “ The World is Our Campus,” CMP Media LLC (13 April, 2006).
[8] Ibid.

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