The History of Collaboratories

William Wulf coined the phrase "collaboratory," in 1989, to describe how members of a scientific community could use the Internet to communicate, collaborate, share data and software, and operate remote instruments in a "laboratory without walls". The National Science Foundation, along with a number of other federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, developed the National Collaboratory Program, which was legislated in 1991 under the High-Performance Computing Act and referred to as the National Research and Education Network (NREN).

This federal program was the precursor to the World Wide Web. Its goal was to build a collaboratory infrastructure that could support scientific research in the United States. Using this infrastructure, a number of specialized collaboratories were developed representing the spectrum of scientific disciplines. Researchers use these collaboratories to share observations, large sets of data, scarce resources, and expensive tools. Dozens of these collaboratories for the natural sciences are in operation today; such as, SPARC: The Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory, the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research (NCMIR), The Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, and the Diesel Combustion Collaboratory.

While most funding and attention has focused on scientific collaboratories, there have been a number of early collaboratory applications in other domains. For example, the Alaska Quill project involved a distributed community of K12 teachers who shared information and resources via linked networks in the early 1980s.

Traits of a Collaboratory

All collaboratories share common traits. They are socio-technical systems, comprised of human activity, networked virtual spaces, centralized or decentralized artifact libraries, various kinds of shared software, and communications media. In the last five years, Internet based collaboratories have multiplied. Some are extremely successful:

A collaboratory is somewhat of a holy grail in educational technology and is the goal of many systems designed for pedagogical purposes such as;

Collaboratories can be centralized, with the collection in one location, or distributed, where the collections of many locations are pooled.

Read more about the StoneSoup collaboratory