Internet fuels global learning community


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University of Pittsburgh epidemiologist Ron LaPorte said humanity benefits when the world's leading researchers share information about disease prevention.

He put that theory into practice seven years ago by creating Supercourse, an online library of 3,300 lectures in epidemiology, cancer, diabetes and other diseases. The lectures, accessible for free, were culled from Nobel Prize winners, professors and government researchers in 175 countries.

It's one example of the global, interdisciplinary learning fostered by the Internet. In field after field, the Internet is breaking down classroom walls and giving students and researchers unparalleled access to data and one another.

"This is the revolution I'd been dreaming about," said Dr. LaPorte, director of disease monitoring and telecommunications at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center at Pitt.

Each day, the Internet is used to bundle the power of hundreds of thousands of far-flung PCs and laptop computers, and the collective mathematical might is deployed for experiments that push the frontiers of science.

For example, the World Community Grid encourages PC and laptop users to donate their unused computer time to research projects benefiting humanity, such as experiments on climate and disease in developing countries.

"We can make a difference there," said Robin Willner, vice president of global community initiatives for IBM, a grid sponsor. The grid has tapped more than 760,000 computers worldwide, and IBM says it has generated as much power as one of the world's top five supercomputers.

The Internet has opened new avenues of scientific inquiry and fueled data-driven specialties such as proteomics (the study of proteins), bioinformatics (the intersection of computers, math and biology) and e-social science (the simulation of markets or human behavior, for example).

The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, was a 13-year, international, interdisciplinary effort to map the human genetic code. But the work is just beginning; the tremendous amounts of data posted online are being used as the starting point for other projects, just as organizers of the Human Genome Project intended.

"To my mind, this has been one of the most extensive opportunities for education in biology that there has ever been," said Dan Drell, biologist program manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, who worked on the Human Genome Project and now works on the Microbial Genome Project.

Ron Larsen, dean of Pitt's School of Information Sciences, said the Internet has ushered in a new era of research, epitomized by collaborative genetics and astronomy projects, in which high-powered analysis of huge data sets reveals patterns and anomalies hidden to the individual researcher.

Dr. Larsen observed the dawn of that era. As an official at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA in the mid 1990s, he helped lead a multi-agency, two-phase Digital Library Initiative.

"Google, by the way, came out of the Phase One projects," he said.

Now, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and other schools have extensive digitized collections, covering the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Undergraduates can do research without setting foot in a library; financially strapped graduate students might be spared research trips to other cities or make better use of their time in places they must visit; and libraries routinely field inquiries from people using the digitized collections from afar.

"We're just reaching so many more people than we were ever able to reach in the old environment," said Gloriana St. Clair, dean of CMU libraries.

Nonprofits and other institutions also launched digital initiatives.

Universities may subscribe to nonprofit ARTstor, which offers about 600,000 images of paintings and sculptures located worldwide. James Shulman, executive director, said a zoom-in function allows users to better explore colors, textures and details than they could in person at the museum.

But there are downsides to the easy access.

Indira Nair, CMU's vice provost for education and professor of engineering and public policy, said some students don't bother to learn material these days; they only learn how to find material on the Web. To be expert at something, she said, a person must internalize some material.

She also said students sometimes fail to distinguish between authoritative and questionable sources, between the deep and the superficial. She said she sometimes surfs the Web for sites her students might visit for extra help, then steers them toward those she finds respectable.

The Internet created new vehicles for professors and students to communicate, e-mail being the tip of the iceberg.

An article on the Bryn Mawr College Web site said professor Michelle Francl's podcasts of chemistry lectures generated a "worldwide listenership of struggling physical-chemistry students." The Montgomery County professor also has also put her lectures to screencasts and chronicled the everyday applications of chemistry in a blog at www. cultureofchemistry.blogspot.com.

At Geneva College in Beaver Falls, students on overseas study programs, often in developing countries, use blogs and video posts to capture their experiences for friends and family back home. Jo Willits, a senior from Lewisburg, Union County, is studying in Spain and chronicling her experiences at jowillits.blogspot.com.

"I find it valuable because it lets other students know, 'This is a good thing. You should be doing it, too.' It's also a good education for students who don't get to go. They get some insight into the world through these blogs," said Ann Burkhead, who oversees foreign students and overseas study at Geneva.

Internet-based research has attracted tens of millions of dollars from governments, foundations and companies. NASA and the National Institutes of Health helped launch Supercourse, which can be found at www.pitt.edu/~super1.

Dr. LaPorte said he developed Supercourse with Faina Linkov, research assistant professor of medicine at Pitt's Cancer Institute, and Dr. Mita Lovalekar, a research assistant in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Ali Ardalan, assistant professor at Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, said in an e-mail that he's used Supercourse lectures to improve his own lectures on epidemiology training. He said he's also contributed material to Supercourse lectures on the Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Indonesian earthquake last year.

In the same vein as Supercourse are www.arxiv.org, a Cornell University repository for articles on math, physics and related subjects; NIH's www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov, a site for biomedical and life sciences papers; and www.opencontext.org, an archeology site developed by the California-based nonprofit Alexandria Archive Institute.

The Internet has broken barriers between academia and the everyday world. For example, hobbyists, high school students, graduate students and top researchers share online material from the Human Genome Project and the National Virtual Observatory, which is part of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance.

Because so much material is "open source," University of Washington astronomer and former Pitt faculty member Andrew Connolly called the Internet a democratizing force in science. Or, as Pitt's Dr. Larsen said, "You have the same chance as a Nobel guy."

Graduate students still compete intensely for time on a premier telescope -- and hope the weather cooperates with them when they're lucky enough to get it. However, Drs. Connolly and Larsen said any number of issues can be explored far from observatories, no matter the weather, with online images and data other people collected for other purposes.

Adding to the access is Sky in Google Earth, a virtual telescope available free to anyone online, which Dr. Connolly helped develop while on sabbatical. Meanwhile, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., are among those working on a system, called "voeventnet," in which telescopes will alert other telescopes, astronomers and astronomy buffs in real time to gamma-ray bursts and other events in the night sky.

Large collaborative research projects are conducted through grid computing, the pooling of cyber-resources.

In some cases, big tasks are broken into pieces and parceled out to computers and users in various cities or countries. Partial answers are added together to complete the puzzle, said Joel Smith, CMU vice provost, chief information officer and director of the Office of Technology for Education.

Another major project will be launched next year in an underground tunnel outside Geneva, Switzerland.

The Large Hadron Collider will accelerate protons to the speed of light and smash them together to recreate the moment after the Big Bang, yielding data organizers hope will unlock secrets of the universe.

About 2,000 scientists who signed up for the data will have it available online; analysis will be distributed across a network of computers; and teams of researchers in various time zones may take turns monitoring the collider, said Kurt Riesselmann, spokesman for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

"These large-scale international collaborations couldn't be done effectively without the Internet and the World Wide Web and Internet tools," Mr. Riesselmann said.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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