Beyond Accessibility: “Operational Usability” in Virtual Research Environments and Open Learning contexts

Gerhard Budin
University of Vienna, Austria

Beyond Accessibility: “Operational Usability” in Virtual Research Environments and Open Learning contexts

The paper focuses on two major scenarios in society, where research data are being produced and used: in scientific research (& development) and in education & learning. In both scenarios, web-based work environments have developed over time in the form of virtual research environments (VREs) and E-Learning platforms. While in VREs research data are being produced and used in different stages of research, usually or increasingly in a collaborative way, such research data are re-used in learning platforms in different didactic models and educational contexts, ranging from primary to tertiary education and (professional) training. What these scenarios share is a fundamental value-creation process model with data being used for gaining information and using this for creating knowledge, both at individual and at collective levels. This knowledge is re-used as the source of creating theories, methods, models and tools to collect more data, and so on. This circular model is increasingly the point of departure for research data management plans and policies, as well as for operational data curation, data modeling, long-term preservation, algorithms for data mining and gathering, data aggregation and analysis, etc. Similarly, learning environments are modelled according to learning paths, didactic models, learner knowledge models and learning goals that are specified by educational experts, teachers and trainers.

The need for innovative information services in these 2 scenarios is also evident, in particular in the light of growing expectations of users in terms of usability and accessibility of user interfaces of such VREs and learning platforms. While the concept of accessibility covers all human senses, their potential impairments, and thus the availability of alternative ways of using such systems, the concept of usability has traditionally focused on the ease of use of systems depending on the types of users and their typical competences and skills.

The concept of knowledge organization with its multi-faceted methods of creating and using (more or less structured and formalized) knowledge organization systems (KOS) such as thesauri, classifications, terminologies, nomenclatures, taxonomies, and ontologies, is popular and crucial more than ever before, given the dramatic increase in the sheer volume of data being generated every second anywhere in the world. Innovation in KOS-based information services in the contexts of VREs and learning platforms include personalized and adaptive user models allowing individual users to focus on his/her own specific research interests and/or learning requirements while at the same time being a “good” team member in collaborative work and/or learning scenarios. Visualization techniques are an example of increasing usability and accessibility, also in terms of providing cognitive heuristic support in the research process as well as in the learning process.

The second half of the paper will show some large-scale initiatives and concrete examples (including our own projects in this area) and will finally draw conclusions for future work.