Timothy D. Stephen and Teresa M. Harrison
Professors of Communication
Language, Literature, and Communication
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY USA
Education, higher; Education, continuing or distance; Research, academic
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; More equitable access to technology or electronic information Creation of new ideas, products, or services; Local commitment to network-based activities; Volunteer contributions of time and energy
Supporting Documentation (contact author for more information):
Department of Communication in the Global University
One of the most important advantages of the global networks is their ability to bring into contact individuals who, because of geographic, financial, or time constraints, would otherwise be unable to interact with one another on a regular basis. Applied to the world of research and scholarship, this means that it is technically feasible to use the networks as a method for facilitating interaction between students, educators, and researchers who are members of a discipline of researchers and scholars, even when they are dispersed throughout the country and even across the globe. In other words, it is possible to use the global networks to create new online disciplinary centers enabling educational events involving participants from many places, facilitating access to repositories of online information relevant to research and teaching, and allowing new trans-global research and educational organizations to be formed from the interaction of emergent communities of scholars.
These were the kinds of goals RPI associate professors Timothy Stephen and Teresa Harrison had in mind when they initiated the “Comserve” project in 1986. Comserve, the oldest and most extensive online disciplinary center on the global networks, is a software system designed to serve the research and educational needs of both students and scholars engaged in studies of human communication and related areas (e.g., journalism, mass communication, social linguistics, rhetoric, and political discourse). Comserve functions as a sort of software robot with its own network addresses that perpetually watches for and takes action on messages users send to it over the global networks. Its responses can be sent in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, with further language support scheduled to be added in the future. Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at no charge to users, Comserve offers, in addition to a host of minor functions, four primary categories of service.
First, Comserve provides free access to an online repository of over 2,800 research and educational resources (survey instruments, syllabi, bibliographies, grant announcements, job announcements, etc.). A scholar or student can send a message to Comserve requesting a file and the file will be returned immediately over the network. Second, Comserve allows users to participate in over 40 electronic conferences and news services. Twenty five conferences represent standard areas of research and instruction in the communication discipline. These conferences facilitate free exchange between over 6,000 scholars and students from sixty countries. Fourteen other private conferences are used on rotation to enable interaction within smaller groups of researchers and students (e.g., in focused seminars, for collaboration on research projects, to link students taking similar classes in universities in different parts of the world, and to enable the joint authorship of books). Oneway news services convey information about such things as newly published books, academic positions in the field, as well as what’s happening in new projects and initiatives undertaken through Comserve by groups of students and scholars.
Third, Comserve provides a way for users to search indexes of an international collection of the discipline’s primary research journals. In fact, Comserve hosts the most comprehensive index of the discipline’s research literature in existence, print or electronic. Finally, Comserve provides a self-service network registry or “white pages” for members of the discipline. Users can add themselves or search for others.
In seven years, Comserve has been accessed by more than 35,000 students and faculty and has a sustaining user community of approximately 7,000, representing over 60 countries. In 1990, the non- profit (U.S. Federal Tax Code 501(c)(3)) “Communication Institute for Online Scholarship” (CIOS) was created to oversee the future of this online community and disciplinary resource center. The CIOS has evolved into a membership organization (one of the largest scholarly societies in the discipline), which publishes a hard print book, “Comserve User’s Guide”, network software to facilitate access to Comserve itself, and personal computer software that facilitates access to Comserve resources for those who do not have network access. The CIOS also publishes the bilingual “Electronic Journal of Communication,” one of the world’s first peer reviewed scholarly journals, now in its third year of publication. The CIOS looks forward to exporting its software and experience to other disciplines that want to establish similar online centers for their own academic disciplines. In so doing, the CIOS hopes to hasten the emergence of an online global university.