In this post a class/seminar about collaborative e-learning was mentioned in which I took part in 2004. The seminar was called “Ikarus”. I just noticed that the seminar, which was made accessible online in an anonymized fashion was taken offline recently (somewhat justifying the naming ikarus ;)). Since I found no documentation about the seminar, I would like to use this post to document a bit what this seminar was about, because I think it was a truly innovative occasion.

First I like to explain a bit about my personal motivation for taking part in the seminar. I feel a bit pressured to justify what this seminar had to do with math/physics (and also with art/design):

personal motivation

As one can see at the daytar exhibition, the issue of communication via virtual means is a central topic of our media experiments – especially in the aspects which are related to math/physics. The seminar was one occasion to learn more about this issue in general.

It is an issue about which I thought since a long time. Like in 1987 I wrote about the future possibilities in scientific visualization with a part on interactive math as part of a class assignment in computer graphics at MIT’s media lab. (Unfortunately I loaned out my only copy of the report to someone in Berlin who threw it away accidentally and I doubt that the media lab professor of that class kept a copy:)).

The emphasis of the Ikarus seminar on the collaborative aspect was of particular interest for me, since I hoped to learn more about the crucial inputs for online collaboration. Admittingly the motivation was fueled by a more or less failed attempt to encourage an online discussion (in hope for collaboration) on the mailing list of the European Women in Mathematics (EWM).

What happened with the EWM mailing list? Before 1998/99 the EWM mailing list was usually used for job and conference announcements and a little bit for discussions about issues concerning women mathematicians. However due to the war in former Yugoslavia the discussions became suddenly very political and heated. So quite a bit of women wanted to be taken off the list, because they didnt want to be involved in these discussions.

Some people proposed to forbid the discussions, in order to avoid that the network gets distroyed. I found this idea not so good, since I think especially in wartimes one has to discuss and so proposed to introduce two lists, instead of one. One list, where all participants are included, which distributes the announcements, i.e. an “ewm-announce” list and a second list, which is a sublist called “ewm-discuss”, contained in ewm-announce, where people can in addition discuss and whose participation is optional. After a discussion the two lists were established in 1999 via the JISC mailing network and they still exist, however there is not much discussion going on in ewm-discuss. So my contribution didnt really further collaboration, although it enabled it in principle.

Hence for the Ikarus seminar I hoped to learn more about how to FURTHER online collaboration (rather than e-learning in the classical sense) and indeed – the Ikarus class spurred my thoughts about this more than I tought. Last not least it helped me to set up an Moodle environment, inluding a library, fora, wiki, chatrooms etc. as an environment for string theorists to discuss scientific issues. I was not fully content with Moodle, in particular the structuring of groups was a bit unfortunate, however it was the best open source environment around at that time in my opinion. Unfortunately the attempt to set up a collaboration for the string theorists also sort of failed, in that that the involved scientists were not interested in using it:)

In addition in 2004 I asked the head of the mathematical Oberwolfach Institute Prof. Greuel, if Oberwolfach wouldnt be interested in setting up an Internet platform network for scientists in order to allow to post-collaborate on mathematical issues (as a kind of extended online seminar). However Oberwolfach was not interested.

Nevertheless the idea of an collaborative online platform/network for scientists kept me haunted since then. And in fact Tim and me tried to think about how to improve tools for such a task, like in this post our (very slowly) ongoing project witgiz/jsymbol was already mentioned (the project was actually summarized in a proposal which was submitted to the first issue of vectors called evidence in 2005 (but not accepted:)) Moreover the paper focuses on the (3D) visual aspects, however the extension to other organoleptic accesses (please look at the images of a talk in Tokyo in 2003 about this issue) is straightforward. It is clear that the technical design and ressources of a collaboration platform are important. In particular more or less self-organized growing social networks, like facebook, or e.g. the nature network will allways be of a different type than a network, which comes from a given long established structure, like global academia.

As a matter of fact the modern scientist has to compete with his/her knowledge against a market of brain occupying psychological founded instruments, so I became a bit more interested in marketing, psychology and likewise measures. Like in this post I wrote about the scientific method and marketing. Or here about semiotics and marketing. In general art and design which are -among others- concerned with the psychological and perceptional subtleties of representation are a very important ressource for exploring these issues, they are in particular important for visualization. Likewise serious games are belonging into this category and thus among others we tried to gain some competence with games. a.s.o.

The communication of mathematical contents by other then “traditional means” which was made accessible via the development of computers will in my eyes transform the ways mathematics and physics is perceived and transmitted by quite a bit and it had done already so in some branches and education (last not least by the kind of products kids have to deal with nowadays).

Finally all these thoughts on online collaboration and communication, but also my personal opinion that scientists shouldnt stay out of societal discussions made me write the proposal for an collaborative global network.

What do I mean with societal discussion? Let me ilustrate this at an short example:
Before I studied physics I was doing an internship at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biochemistry in Munich. It was the time of eighties nuclear arms race. I asked the Max-Planck officials wether it would be possible to set up a bookshelf in the library in the Institute on which people could leave political informations, like leaflets etc. In the end I discussed this issue with the head of the Max-Planck-Institute Prof. Hofschneider. He was against it, fearing that the scientists may feel politically indoctrinated.

My opinion was that first scientists should be professional enough to be able to abstract from indoctrination and secondly, that everybody could place information on the shelve, allowing for enough diversity. I am still indebted to Prof. Hofschneider that he devoted his whole lunch break to this issue and tried to make me understand. In the end we agreed that it is right that scientist SHOULD be professional enough to make the divide between personal opinions and science, but that in practise this OFTEN ENOUGH DOESNT WORK OUT.

Last not least this is also one reason why I emphasized in the proposal about the global science platform that the questions to be treated should be of scientific nature. And if there are questions of moral and ethics then these should be reflected as broadly and scientifically as possible.

But now lets get to the

content of the Ikarus online seminar:

Warning: what I write now is what I remember of the seminar, so there might be some flaws in the documentation.

The Ikarus Online seminar was organized by three european universities, including one spanish, one I forgot and the university of Saarbrücken, who was main organizer. Participation was free and possible world-wide, so participants came from everywhere in the world. I think a bachelors degree and fluent english was required for participation. Moreover students interested in the seminar had to pass a little entry exam.

The seminar was divided into three partitions: One partition was about studying the social aspects, one partition was about studying the juridicial aspects and one partition was studying the technical aspects of collaborative online e-learning. Goal of the class was to gather material about collaborative e-learning itself and to design in the end a mini-course about collaborative e-learning. I chose to take part in the technical part of the class.

In the end the three partitions were merged.

The platform itself was based on Moodle. It contained several fora, libraries and a chatroom. Participants were also able to communicate via email.

The seminar was working in the following way: students had to study aspects on certain e-learning issues, like in the technical part e.g. compare different existing virtual learning environments, learn about technicalities such as about authentication and authorization, but also about rather “soft skill topics” like about various learning types, and general agreements on a collaborative process, like the always problematic feature of redundancy versus brevity or the question wether to filter key features versus to assemble key features were part of the discussion.
This “soft skill part” was important since e.g. the technical tools for online collaboration are not always appropriate for all thinking types and it is hard to find adaptive measures.

There was a moderated online discussion on these topics and the contributions were graded. There was a multiple choice quizz on the to-be-gathered knowledge concerning the respective learning parts.

After the discussions (one for each topic) students were oblidged to write summaries/little papers about the learned contents in relation to the previous discussion and based on their professional background. These summaries were intended to provide a “course content”. This methodology is by the way similar to the first part in the “scientific method” in that it gathers material in order to justify a hypothesis on online learning paradigma.

After each summary it was decided upon whose summary was the best to function as a guideline for an online course on collaborative online learning.

In the end it turned out that there was quite an overlap between the respective partitions, i.e. questions like the one of authenticfication had of course also be discussed by the juridicial partition, tools like mind maps etc. where likewise discussed in the technical as well in the social part a.s.o.- and it was interesting to compare the different approaches.

Besides the content part of the seminar – at least for me – the social aspects of online collaboration where interesting. In particular I found the communication was extremely polite. There was no sign of flaming wars or any other kind of unrespectful behaviour. This may have been due to the moderators, which guided each discussion, but it also may have been due to the fact that the real life identity of each participant was known to the organizers and that the participants were rather well educated. In the chat room and the “cafe like fora” cultural and interpersonal topics could be discussed which helped to promote collaboration. The time-delay of presentations on the fora helped people to focus on the essentials and to contorl their temper.

It is a pity that the seminars are currently not taking place anymore and that the anonymized course is not accessible at the moment.

General remarks about online collaboration/conclusion:

I wrote here about several failed attempts to set up an online collaboration.

This is maybe not the best thing to do in order to market a global electronic platform/semantically connected network :). However one should be honest. It IS difficult to get such a thing working.

Moreover I learned from these failed attempts. In particular it is crucial that the involved scientists are fairly well motivated to work on a question. This depends to a great extend on the contents of the questions themselves. Like e.g. in the example of climate change/IPCC report, it was clear for all involved scientists that this is an important question to work on. And thus they were motivated enough to go to Paris and write reports.


an interesting problem is a source of motivation to collaborate.

Likewise this was also the reason why the above mentioned online string seminar didn’t work out, or in other words: there was no central set of questions, everybody would identify with in order to overcome the obstacle of logging in, getting a password and deal with the time-delayed communication. This explains also why people would heatedly discuss about war in the EWM email network, despite the anonymity of an email list – a war is certainly a method to overcome passiveness, albeit an ugly one.

Michael Nielsen lists two other sources of how to set up a good collaboration namely:

Collaboration should recognize individual effort appropriately

In the Ikarus seminar this was partially done by the grading, partially by the participants congratulating each other, which I think is important if it is meant true and not fake.

It was by the way used in the German Democratic Republic as a major source of motivation:

“§ 9. Die Staats- und Wirtschaftsfunktionäre sind verantwortlich, die Leistungen der werktätigen Jugend entsprechend dem sozialistischen Leistungsprinzip zu entlohnen, zu prämieren und auf vielfältige Art und Weise moralisch zu würdigen. Sie sichern, daß der Lohn und die Prämie die werktätige :Jugend daran interessieren, hohe Arbeitsleistungen zu vollbringen, höhere Verantwortung zu übernehmen und die erforderliche Qualifikation zu erwerben. (http://www.verfassungen.de/de/ddr/jugendgesetz74.htm (Die Förderung der Initiative der werktätigen Jugend)”

I personally think that the recognition of people one personally respects and estimates highly is probably one of the strongest sources of motivation (especially for collaboration), much stronger than money and power. Money is only really important if the basic needs (food,living,information) need to be decently satisfied. Power is suggesting that there is a lot of recognition, however this is usually only halfway true.

Besides the already mentioned mere interest in a certain matter or mere hunger etc. (for more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation motivation), the socalled personal believe in “a cause” might be another (often doubtable) source.

The above also displays a bit how much damage can be made if these mechanisms are abused. In the GDR this was unfortunately often the case.

Collaboration should involve people with complementary skills.

Due to the internationality of the string workshop and the EWM network the lack of complementary skills was not really the reason for failure. On the contrary the interests were rather too complimentary. If the interests are too complimentary one needs a great deal of social binding instruments, like e.g. singing together etc. So why not -establish an Online platform chorus?

4 Responses to “Ikarus”

  1. O. Condor Says:

    On the contrary the interests were rather too complimentary.

    What do you mean by “too complimentary” ? Do you really think an online chorus helps to resolve problems in string theory?

  2. bembo Says:

    nad is not responding.

    @operation condor

  3. nad Says:

    What do you mean by “too complimentary” ? Do you really think an online chorus helps to resolve problems in string theory?

    With “too complimentary” I mean what I described above “there was no central set of questions, everybody would identify with in order to overcome the obstacle of logging in, getting a password and deal with the time-delayed communication. “. That is string theory is a rather big terrain given the necessary detail. Like it comprises a lot of different mathematical models. So I got the impression at the workshop that people were working on rather different models in sufficient detail and so that is was difficult to find something to work on together and that things appeared too far apart for a lot of people. But maybe I am wrong that is I am no string theorist and I have and had giant difficulties to understand the string theory jargon. I don’t know however, how problematic this “jargonization” is among string theorists.

    The online chorus comment was more a tongue in cheek comment. I do think that a good working atmosphere is important and in principle social bindings might eventually help to get the extra energy to keep things together and further research, but then this might also increase group stress. Finally the social rituals in some choirs are rather repelling.

    In general I think whats more problematic is that apart from maybe their family, researchers have usually all their “social life” within the work community, often alone because the job is so time demanding. When I had no academic job anymore almost all the job acquantainces, with which one would previously hang out -poff- vanished rather instantly.
    Here a chart how social life looks like in the US, but I think this probably similar in all “developped” countries.

  4. O. Condor Says:

    When I had no academic job anymore almost all the job acquantainces, with which one would previously hang out -poff- vanished rather instantly.

    Well a job is not thought for enhancing your “social life.” Networking is important for your business (even for research “business) and you shouldn’t confuse networking with relaxation.

    Anyways I now understand that what you mean by “too complimentary”, i.e. you mean no overlap, which includes always a little redundancy. I have though doubts that things were like that. I don’t know wether you heard of M-theory which provides a connection to on the first sight disconnected parts.
    I am sure the participants were aware of those connections and it was just you as a newcomer who perceived this differently.

    But maybe I am wrong that is I am no string theorist and I have and had giant difficulties to understand the string theory jargon.

    Considering your communication problems – I think a problem could have been that the knowledge gap was too big. Think about how much your contributions (may have) helped (if there weren’t any at all) and vice versa. May I ask, why you attended this conference?

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