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PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:
17-Aug-2012

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Contact: Anna Rose Beck
anna.beck@duke.edu
919-684-8471
Duke University
@DukeU

HASTAC wins NSF grant to study its own social network

DURHAM, N.C. -- Six years after building a first-of-its-kind academic network for virtual collaborations, HASTAC has received a $294,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to perform a large-scale analysis of the interplay of cyberinfrastructure and scholarly communication.

HASTAC (pronounced "haystack") is the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, a virtual learning network which has its central administrative offices at Duke University. It's a peer-produced virtual network of more than 9,500 members who use the HASTAC site as a collaborative platform, an authoring tool an information commons, a community, an innovative electronic publishing outlet, and a web communication tool.

Community members are using HASTAC for research, classroom teaching and online public discussions of research collaborations.

"HASTAC has managed to live up to its motto of 'learning the future together,' defining the leading edge of innovation in higher education and online mentoring and learning. Now we want to see how we got here--and to figure out what needs to come next," said HASTAC co-founder Cathy N. Davidson, the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Co-Director of Duke's new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.

Computational analysis, data extraction and social networking analysis will be used to examine six years' worth of data from the HASTAC website, which is built on the Drupal platform. Acquia, the developers of Drupal Commons and one of the preeminent hosts of Drupal web sites, considers hastac.org among the largest and most interactive applications of the open source platform on the World Wide Web.

Analysis of HASTAC's anonymized, "clean" individual and institutional data will provide critical evidence about effective ways to support the interdisciplinary collaborations essential to meet what the NSF calls Grand Challenges, complex problems confronting humanity such as energy, water sustainability, or human sciences and policy design. This research is being supported by the NSF's EAGER (Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research) program, which is intended to support high-risk, high-pay-off studies that have the potential to develop into full-fledged research proposals to the NSF.

"Solving massive problems requires that scientists work with humanists and social scientists trained to understand the societal and cultural factors that deter the acceptance of scientific and technological solutions," Davidson said. One particular focus of the study will be on mentoring, and the role played by virtual and peer mentoring of young scholars who are exploring new interdisciplinary research areas.

The study will look at the challenges, opportunities and success of the HASTAC Scholars -- more than 500 students (eighty percent of whom are graduate students) who have been on small fellowships supported by 110 institutions since 2008. The students hold forums and organize projects on bold interdisciplinary topics like "Critical Code Studies" or "Racism After the Internet" within a wide variety of departments, including Computer Science, Art and Visual Studies, Communication Studies, English, Environmental Studies, History, Anthropology, Biology, Gender and Sexuality Studies, African and African American Studies, Sociology, Education, Music, Psychology, Library and Information Science, Media Studies, Mathematics, and Engineering, and others.

Davidson will be convening a committee of experts working in the areas of data mining, social networking analysis and data visualization at Duke, as well as a virtual committee of advisors from across the HASTAC network, to help define a set of questions, concerns and potential methods for this study. A two-year postdoctoral fellow will also be recruited to participate in the research.

"This EAGER grant will allow HASTAC to combine cutting-edge data-mining methods with thoughtful human and institutional questions to examine how virtual interdisciplinary connections and mentoring can promote new modes of research, learning, teaching and career development," Davidson said. "We need to understand more about collaborations across the human, social, and computational sciences, including media artists. We also need to find better ways to facilitate the adoption of wise scientific and technological practices in education and in society more generally. Data analysis combined with complex interpretation of culture and context can go a long way to counter both skepticism and hype."

This EAGER grant will contribute to HASTAC's ongoing work in interdisciplinary social interaction and connected, participatory peer learning. It will also contribute to the Information Futures Initiative" at Duke University spearheaded by Robert Calderbank, Dean of the Natural Sciences.

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