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October 30, 2000

Building a virtual community

By Stacia Brown

Being one of LearnLink’s public faces has its moments. There’s the satisfaction that comes from seeing more than 648 Emory courses each semester utilize Learnlink to enhance their learning environment. Or there’s the feeling of accomplishment from teaching technology-wary faculty to navigate the system with ease.

But it also has its ironies. “I have to buy a new pair of glasses every six months,” admitted Adam Lipkin, educational analyst for ITD’s Teaching and Research Services. “They don’t even last long enough for me to donate them to Lenscrafter’s charity giveaways.”

For Lipkin, who began his technology career with an unlikely degree in English, working for LearnLink requires two kinds of vision: the foresight to construct a user-friendly educational tool for faculty, staff and students, and the imagination to shape a “network community” at Emory and beyond.

Lipkin’s liberal arts training is more relevant to these visions than one might think. Being able to talk Shakespeare or Marlowe helps him connect with humanities faculty, particularly those whose eyes glaze over when phrases like “ethernet connection” or “file transfer” are used.

“My work is actually helped by the fact that I studied English rather than computer science or technology,” he said. “I can go into a humanities classroom and understand more quickly the project or course that a professor wants to put online.”

An increasing number of faculty are taking Lipkin and his colleagues up on their offers of assistance. Carol Herron, professor and chair of French and Italian, uses LearnLink to house a number of course conferences. “Anyone can do it,” she said. “It has helped to create the paperless classroom in our French language classes; all compositions are sent to instructors via LearnLink.”

The growing number of LearnLink enthusiasts also means an increasing amount of traffic. ITD reports indicate system use has risen by nearly 50 percent since last year, with anywhere from 75,000 to 250,000 messages routed daily and 40 percent of the University’s classes online and active.

Since the system’s creation in 1992 by Sean Murphy and Pat Marsteller, LearnLink has expanded to more than 20,000 users, including both Emory users and K-12 teachers across Georgia.

The LearnLink gurus have their work cut out for them. While Lipkin works primarily with faculty, Kathy Gardner serves as educational analyst for students. Patricia Goddard works as LearnLink’s business analyst, and Kelly Laurie is the system administrator for Enterprise Service Systems.

Their combined vision is one of the reasons Lipkin feels at home with LearnLink. As an Emory senior, he worked as a sales clerk in the Computer Store. Shortly after he graduated, ITD offered Lipkin a position as a local support specialist within teaching and research services.

But it was not until Gary Falcon’s departure from LearnLink in 1999 that the possibility of working full time with the system presented itself. It was an opportunity Lipkin couldn’t pass up.

“I want to stay in academics and technology,” he said. “It’s an incredibly rewarding area. And although it’s more work than if I worked in a business or technology firm, it’s actually less stressful. We’re not in it for the bottom line; we’re in it for education.”

This pursuit of an online educational community keeps him hopping. “There is no ‘typical’ work day for me,” Lipkin said. “I answer e-mail questions. I present to classes. I train faculty and graduate students and facilitate orientation sessions. I work on special projects. I use LearnLink to help coordinate major Emory events like the president’s town hall. I work on grant proposals.”

Despite his busy-ness, Lipkin doesn’t believe in all work and no play. When he’s not solving faculty conferencing crises, he’s writing reviews for, an online journal for mythic fiction and music reviews.

“There’s this horrible fallacy of fantasy being all elves and hobbits and Mercedes Lackey-style pap,” Lipkin said, “when most of the best—and adult—works are much more subtle.”

That passion for the imaginative also has Lipkin envisioning the future of LearnLink. “I’d like to see it help Emory students overcome the sense of apathy they are reputed to have,” he said. “And I’d like it to provide a way for Emory to be more involved in metro Atlanta.”

Lipkin imagines LearnLink as a place for public forums on local concerns such as environmental issues and MARTA restructuring. “LearnLink could be a tool for this on the web,” he said. Since LearnLink is accessible through the Internet, he explained, the possibility exists for certain conferences to be opened up for public or local discussion.

While these public forums are still in the envisioning stage, the success of various internal Emory forums bodes well for future expansion. Anthony Martin’s “Ask a Scientist” conference offers students the chance to ask any and all questions related to scientific study. Steven Kraftchick’s “Ask a Dean” site offers theology students the opportunity to pose questions to their administrator without having to schedule appointments first.

“LearnLink is becoming our online community,” Lipkin said. “In fact, some Emory students develop friendships with each other that are almost entirely e-mail based.”

While a “virtual relationship” may be unsettling for those who associate their undergraduate years with typewriters and mimeographs, for today’s students, it’s just another way to find connections.

And for Lipkin, it’s a reminder that envisioning the future sometimes requires the willingness to put on new glasses.


Back to Emory Report Oct. 30, 2000