Fayetteville leads in digital research initiative for the state

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 128 views 

A new virtual initiative at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville has the potential to change the way researchers at state public universities share research and to revolutionize the way professors teach and students learn, officials said.

The revolution is called Kenex Cloud — an initiative that uses high-speed Internet infrastructure to allow researchers to upload massive amounts of data to a single, shared online repository.

Researchers can use each other’s equipment and build on each other’s work, said Bobby Holleman, project director for Kenex and for the Information Technology Services Database Administration Team at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

UA-Fayetteville is leading the initiative.

“I don’t think anybody’s done anything like this before — especially not in Arkansas,” Holleman said. “What we are looking at is virtualizing access to the software so that other researchers in the state can use it.”

Kenex, a nascent program, uses Internet infrastructure laid by the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON), Holleman said.

That infrastructure will connect all the state’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities by next July and will act as the “glue” that holds together Kenex, said Michael Abbiatti, executive director of ARE-ON.

Eventually, Kenex could be used by professors to upload instructions and allow others to use materials to teach classes. Or, students might soon look at information on Kenex that their own professors upload instead of spending hundreds on physical books, Holleman said.

In fact, Kenex could replace Blackboard software — a learning management program used by many universities and colleges nationwide, said Dennis Brewer, interim director of Information Technology Services at UA-Fayetteville. Money universities save with Kenex can go to other needed projects, officials said.

“Funding for education is shrinking — it’s shrinking at the federal level, and state funding is shrinking,” Holleman said. “We need to be smarter about how we spend our money. This is an experiment to see if we can do the same service at a fraction of the cost we provide commercial providers.”

Officials working on the project say the initiative could save universities money by allowing the sharing of needed equipment or services. That could mean millions in savings. One electron microscope, for example, can cost about $1 million, but universities possibly could share that technology and research, Brewer said.

Essentially, universities could see more collaboration in research in areas like biomedical research, more sharing of technology expertise as they maintain their own software, more free knowledge and a better state economy based on increased research and more federal grants, officials said.

“Kenex is our first real big open-source project that deals with academic resources,” Abbiatti said. “Kenex is going to have a tremendous future here in Arkansas.”

Kenex is already starting a dialogue on how students are taught, how data is shared and keeping information technology specialists at universities, Holleman said. Recently, Holleman gave a presentation about the cloud to representatives of ARE-ON that  was well received according to Abbiatti.

People are paying attention, Abbiatti said. Already, Holleman is working with two colleges in Arkansas to start a pilot version of the open-share system, Holleman said. Kenex is a long way from where officials hope to see it but the potential that has those in information technology and science excited.

“We have a vision,” Brewer said. “We can share resources.  This Kenex Cloud is sort of the Arkansas movement toward freely available knowledge — that’s what’s exciting to me.”