The LiNC project seeks to facilitate and investigate Learning in Networked Communities. The project develops and evaluates software tools and applications, and effective collaborative learning activities. It is a testbed for leading-edge research and development in educational and communications technology.

Research over the past decade has compellingly established the importance of learning communities. When learners work together on authentic tasks, they naturally describe, explain, listen, and interpret. They develop language skills, collaboration skills, and self-monitoring or meta-cognitive skills. Shared knowledge building allows learners to integrate creation and reception, to negotiate meaning and purpose, to divide and manage collective work, and to regard themselves as persons who solve problems and develop conclusions.

We have developed a project-oriented, active learning approach to instruction. We follow John Dewey’s dictum that "Wherever an activity is broad in scope (that is, involves the coordinating of a large variety of subactivities), and is constantly and unexpectedly obliged to change direction in its progressive development, general education is bound to result." More specifically, we believe that it is pedagogically valuable to reclaim the problem-solving breadth and the social authenticity of education as it occurs in traditional cultures by means of the community-oriented use of computer networking. Thus, our project vision is about possibilities for using information technology to facilitate learning and collaboration throughout communities of people working together.

The project originated in 1994 in partnership with Montgomery County Public Schools. A virtual school infrastructure was developed, linking four classrooms (in Blacksburg Middle School, Blacksburg High School, Auburn Middle School, and Auburn High School). We have developed, applied, and evaluated participatory design techniques that span the entire system development lifecycle, engaging teachers and students as co-analysts and co-designers. A key to this is our development of scenario-based design.

Our major software product is the virtual school, a Java-based networked learning environment, emphasizing support for the coordination of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, including planning, note taking, experimentation, data analysis, and report writing. . The software employs component architecture that allows notebook "pages" of varying types (e.g., formatted text, images, and shared whiteboard). The central tools are a collaborative notebook and a workbench. The notebook allows students to organize projects into shared and personal pages; remote or proximal students can access it collaboratively or individually. The workbench allows groups including remote members to jointly control simulation experiments and analyze data. The virtual school also incorporates email, real-time chat, and videoconferencing communication channels.

A significant focus of the LiNC project is the development of science learning activities. Although the project began with a focus on synchronous interactions, we have refined this vision to include an integration of synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. The collaboration centers on group projects that are multi-faceted and extended in time, and in which collaborative episodes are diverse and often ad hoc.

We are investigating issues in component software by attempting to incorporate existing off-the-shelf components and evaluating the wrapping effort required. The central tool in our system is a collaborative notebook that allows students to organize projects into shared and personal pages; remote or proximal students can access it collaboratively or individually. The notebook uses a component architecture to manage heterogeneous page types. It allows viewer or editor components to be mapped to different content types. A custom Java object, MIME-encoded data, or a raw byte stream may represent the content of a notebook page. Our testbed provides interesting constraints for component software research: we are attempting to support coordinated synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. We support collaborative report writing in our notebook (we currently manage floor control through explicit locking/unlocking of particular pages) and a workspace page we are developing allows collaborators to jointly control and analyze simulation experiments in real-time.

We are investigating design rationale and design history as approaches to sharing information among stakeholders in a project, and to managing project goals. The LiNC project directly involves about two dozen people with varied backgrounds. We are investigating the use of a repository for project documents and communications as a management tool for distributed work. We are interested in the how the relationships among project stakeholders can be mediated by sharing perspectives on project history and rationale.

We have developed a multifaceted evaluation measurement framework for human performance in groupware contexts. Most evaluation methodology is developed for traditional single user, single workstation, single time and place usage situations. There are a number of hidden simplifications in such methodology that become apparent when one considers its extension to computer-support cooperative work usage situations. For example, various event streams are transparently synchronized (actions the user takes via the keyboard, echoing and consequences of these actions, comments uttered aloud, manipulation of physical objects in the work context, and so forth. Our framework incorporates qualitative and quantitative methods spanning different disciplines, philosophies, and traditions. It is field-oriented: We believe that significant usability evaluation of CSCW applications must be carried out in authentic organizational work contexts. It is also process-oriented: Different types of evaluation questions are addressed with different methods at different points in the evaluation-design cycle that satisfy differing evaluation goals.

We are investigating the establishment and maintenance of collaborative awareness. The ability to effectively use shared computer tools in distributed groups requires understanding who else is working, what activities are occurring, and who is communicating with whom. Many mechanisms in the virtual school support awareness. Several tools allow for explicit, user-initiated awareness information such as comments, email, chat, and video. Implicit information generated by users is supported through a planner for division of labor, work annotations, and changes to the shared work itself. Through a notice board, the system keeps users apprised of changes to the work, the coming and going of others, and present users' location within the system. User lists identify group affiliation and user presence. Various system states and audio and visual cues provide awareness information as well. These features are intended to provide general awareness that allow fluid transitions between proximal and remote groups when moving between individual site work and focussed collaboration between all sites.

There are two current extensions of the project. We are integrating the virtual school with the Blacksburg Electronic Village through a framework provided by the community multiuser domain MOOsburg. A person’s capacity to learn and motivation to engage in learning are fundamentally shaped by family and peers, by community values and expectations. A classroom community, no matter how well-engineered, is but a part of this more significant social matrix. We believe that direct guidance, participation, and feedback from the community can be keys to more motivating and effective school instruction. Computer networks can allow members of the community, who otherwise would not be able to visit the school, to participate in the community’s educational function. Our project will specify how a community network infrastructure could be used to support a real community as a learning community. We are trying to develop MOOsburg as a model for enhancing the integration of communities and their schools through technology. A second extension, now being planned, will explore the application of the virtual school framework to shipboard education. The LiNC project is partially supported by the National Science Foundation, the Hitachi Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research. Corporate sponsors include Apple Computer, IBM, and Sun Microsystems.