RLA Research Activities
Positionining our research
We have a research agenda which complements our systems delivery processes.
Before I dive into the nature of the research we do, I want to outline WHY we are engaged in research and what we hope to achieve, which then leads to our research philosophy and approach.
Within the developing world, the needs are urgent, and a pure research agenda is often counter-productive to development, economic growth, and the eradication of poverty. The core outcome of research is knowledge, but it is often applied knowledge which is the most pressing demand.
However, herein lies the contradiction - since research is measured by its contribution to the world body of knowledge, and by articles published in the top scholarly journals, and not by the outcomes and impacts that this knowledge can achieve. It seems to me that there is a perception that applied science is somehow not science at all, as science, technology and research pushes the boundary of knowledge while the world sinks deeper into its problems.
I was asked a question many years ago which went something like this "If the world is now producing more scientists and technologists, and this generation has produced more knowledge than all previous generations combined, then why are the problems of the world not being solved as a result?". In essence, there are increasing divisions between the rich and the poor, at the level of nations, and between cities and rural communities. There is an increasing digital divide. There is also a key problem in our inability, as a united humanity, to deal with disasters such as the Somalia drought which threatens the lives of 12 million people.
In effect, there is also a massive divide between those pursuing knowledge and those needing to applying for the good of humankind. Perhaps this is the knowledge divide, which is as large and serious as the economic divide and the digital divide.
My position is clear - that research in today's world MUST have both a short-term and a long-term agenda and that a failure to use the knowledge for the IMMEDIATE betterment of humanity is unethical - unless of course the research is pushing boundaries that have no immediate value such as atomic physics and cosmology. The situation is that those living in poverty do not benefit from the exceptional research reports sitting on the shelves of the university libraries throughout the world - rather, those will only benefit when this new knowledge is transformed into products and tools that make a difference in people's lives.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on the discipline of research as a whole, and perhaps my issues are too broad-brush and fail to identify much good work that it being done in applied research and product development. However, I do believe that, in the large, research has lost its direction and is not serving those that it was meant to serve. If the utlimate purpose of research is to create knowledge in order to serve humanity, perhaps we have only created the knowledge and then stopped, and have failed to now use this to serve humanity.
Whereas we can gain new understandings of the world and can create new causal explanations of phenomena we observe, it is our commitment to using these understandings and explanations which should be the core driver of our research outputs. Rather than stopping at the publication and moving on to the next project we have a commitment as researchers to see our results being implemented into practice with measurable benefits for those that they are intended to serve.
Whereas we researchers are among the thought leaders of the world, and have immense wealth of creativity and innovation resources to draw on, perhaps we should also be project managers for the delivery of outcomes and impacts so that we see the real fruits of our labours on the ground.
Our company position on research is a coupling of practical solutions delivery with a longer-term research agenda.
In the short-term we seek out solutions using existing technologies, in order to accelerate changes for those that can benefit from these technologies.
Coupled with this, we explore how we can do things better, and establish research programmes which take us into new realms, new ideas, new solutions, and towards a better understanding of the problems.
One side-effect of this approach is that by actually doing practical work in conjunction with research, we use the practical implemenetation to help gather data to provide evidence for our research process.
We consider a "programme" as a long-term commitment to delivery of outcomes that have tangible benefits to one of more communities. Each programme will have both short-term product deliverables and longer-term knowledge outcomes which then drive the evolution of the products.
We have a few programmes that are selected because of their potential for large-scale impact and which may be considered to be "silver bullets". We tackle problems that rqeuire innovative solutions and in which there urgency in delivering these solutions.
ETHER : Digital Heritage, Digital Libraries, eHeritage
The ETHER Initiative is our programme for digital libraries and the digital heritage.
Our short-term deivery consists of collection management systems for small and large-scale museums, libraries and archives, using best practice collection management procedures. This also includes capacity development activities and a range of support for digitisation of collections.
Our long-term research is on the creation of improved semantic-based digital repositories, as well as policy research to support very long-term agendas.
Heritage has the longest agenda of any human activity. It is the only activity in which there is no time limit to the lifetime of the products produced - we expect them to live forever and we want them to be preserved forever.
Heritage is also the most complex of all human activities, since by addressing the needs of information management for heritage we are implicitly taking into account the background knowledge of each and every other discipline, and also having to connect these into an integrated whole. This is why we find this an interesting and challenging area for research.
The XtownX Initiative : Local Economic Development, eDevelopment, eGovernance, and eTourism
The economic divide is increasing between rich and poor nations, between urban and rural areas, and between privileged and under privileged communities. The digital divide is one contributing factor to this, and our focus in this programme is on the role that information plays in economic development. This includes not only the benefits that accrue from having the right information, but also the penalties in not having access to this information.
Our work concerns the usage of mobile phones and the mobile web as the medium for distribution of information to small towns and rural communities within South Africa.
The three legs of this work are eDevelopment : creating economic development by using information to promote supply chaining within the local community; eTourism : providing support for visitors in finding access to the full range of tourism services on their phone; eGovernance : providing a link between government and the people.
We call this programme the XtownX Initiative, with our focus being on town-based information management to encourage local economic development.
Web-Based Mathematics - Defining the Digital Classroom
My personal area of research interest, beyond the work we do in RLA, is automating mathematics education using the web, with a particular thrust on diagnostic assessment.
My theoretical model is based on the Piatetian concept of Genetic Epistomology, understanding the source of knowledge structures as they are created during the learning process.
Based upon the experiences we have in the real world (which for pupils in the classroom is limited to the examples posed by their teachers) the knowledge structures will form based upon the feedback given on what is right, what is wrong, and how this is explained.
Throughout this process, misconceptions form as a natural part of the process, and it is the resolution and remediation of these misconceptions which is an integral element of successful (and economical) learning.
This programme is exploring the entire prospect of on-line assessments, for any subject of learning (mathematics, science, biology, English, geography, ...), and at any school level (Grades 3-12), and for any purpose (diagnostic, formative, summative, systemic, baseline, recognition of prior learning).
My particular project is focussed on diagnostic assessment on the rational number curriculum from which I am concerned with validity and effectiveness in the detection of misconceptions using completely automated assessment processes, and also the manner in which general principles can be applied into the broader programme goals.
Lead Consultant and Principal Research
Roger Layton Associates