Thursday, December 15, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Easy Online Collaboration

I love this question. A longtime reader writes:

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday. As we talked, a common theme emerged: neither of us has found a way to do the following
1) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on our college’s content management system
2) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on our college’s course management system (or on other open-source course management systems used on campus) e.g create a moodle course for a particular committee or task force and use this as a space to get some collaborative work done on a project.
3) Easily and collaboratively share and revise documents or other materials on an independent webspace such as a blog.
As this came to light in our conversation we also expressed the same argument: the ability to easily and collaboratively share and revise documents and materials is one of the key things that we need to do on campus in order to effectively and strategically get things done. Whether it be a new project involving faculty collaboration on the development of a new course or the writing of a program review report within an instructional department, sending back drafts and forth with changes tracked ain’t cutting it. Yet, say, uploading a google doc to a campus webpage is clunky and doesn’t work for all faculty based on my experience. Likewise, while we’ve been experimenting with the use of moodle and other systems for this type of collaboration, we haven’t yet found one which is satisfactory.
Have you or anyone else out there figured out a simple and effective way to do this type of collaborative authorship which has been, at least to an extent, institutionalized at your college?
Also, side note—I think that our need for this is somewhat specific to academia. For example, my husband works in the corporate world. His schedule allows the flexibility to schedule meetings to talk about drafts of presentations, documents, etc. Especially for folks who are teaching a full load of courses, scheduling a time where schedules don’t clash can be incredibly challenging. Unfortunately, in my estimation, this would then have a more pronounced effect on the ability of faculty who are primarily teaching to collaborative discuss or address issues connected to teaching and learning. Without an easily usable virtual space for dialogue and discussion, it is really hard to move forward with these types of projects because it’s often not possible to find a time to meet.

I don’t have a quick answer, but I need one.

On my campus, we’ve had many of the same issues. Venues like blogger require either openness to the world or a level of password/username specificity that quickly becomes clunky. Moodle seems more labor-intensive than a simple task warrants, especially for people who aren’t already teaching online. Google sites aren’t awful, but they’re pretty basic. It’s possible to ‘share’ google docs, but the functionality is pretty limited. I’ve heard people swear by wikis, but they’ve never really caught on locally.

I’ve seen potentially interesting collaborations die on the vine because nobody wants to learn an entirely new platform. (One of them memorably involved sending “yams” to each other. Seriously? Yams?) Given the half-life of social media platforms, the learning curve needs to be short or people just won’t bother. And it needs to be both reasonably secure and not a pain in the neck.

Wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Is there a tool that lends itself to the kinds of online collaborations that faculty at teaching-intensive places actually need to do?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

A shared Dropbox folder, while not perfect, might be a workable solution. Files in the folder will automatically sync to the cloud and to the local folders of each person with whom the folder is shared.

Collaborators use the tools they're already accustomed to using (Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint, presumably), and since the files are all saved in the same place for everyone, version control becomes an almost nonexistent issue.

This post on Lifehacker explains the benefits better than I can:
I've started using Dropbox for this sort of thing, too. But as you say, the half-life and variety of social network media presents challenges. Honestly, I don't have time to learn 10 different social networking tools this semester in between teaching my ridiculous course load and doing everything else I'm supposed to do.

So, another approach is to get our instructional tech support folks to set up a blackboard site (or whatever CMS you use) for committee use. The plus is that most folks are at least minimally familiar with the existing CMS on campus. The negative is that it usually requires the instructional support people to set it up - and that adds another layer of bureaucracy and makes it harder to just "get it done."
You might think this is a joke, but it's not: Google Wave. Too bad it's dead, because this is exactly the kind of thing it was designed for.
Check out Jive and their social collab platform. We are just piloting it now but so far so good. For both local collab and cross country collab.

Intuitive and easy to learn. Minimal training. Very customizable.
0) What you are looking for is called an "editor", one with knowledge and the intelligence to blend compatible suggestions and define choices between incompatible ones that require a vote, all written in a common style. In my experience, that is the job of the committee chair. Reward those who do this well.

1) Nothing will work for "all faculty", so forget that fantasy. The correct goal is "most" or "all that care". The limits on Google docs are there to prevent the more awful features of tracking in Word. All have flaws. Pick one college-wide and train people on a set of common best practices to limit damage from the flaws.

One thing you can't eliminate is the person who un-does changes made by another, who re-does those changes, ad nauseum. See point number 0.

2) If meetings are important, you have to schedule classes to accommodate this priority. For example, I know departments where no classes are ever scheduled in two blocks that are set aside for colloquia, seminars, and meetings. Colleges can do this also, but it gets harder as you get bigger.

3) If you have a CMS that makes it physically impossible to sync different sections of a course with a single change or allow the person in charge to share control without intervention from IT, like we have, you got what you paid for. Ask better questions next time.
We are using our Google Apps accounts for this, for accreditation prep. Sites are used to house everything, Docs to draft the text, Spreadsheets for completing forms. There's one person in charge of finalizing it when the time comes, but it's been working very well. Groups could be used, as well, but we haven't done that yet.
Whatever technical option you choose, there will be someone who doesn't get it and doesn't want to get it. They may be 20-something, they may be 50-something: digital ability and energy are not tied to your physical age or even your degree of technical expertise.

You can implement a collaboration with Dropbox very easily but you need to have a leader who's capable of tracking who's done what. Google Docs moves you into somewhat different editor/software which can cause endless hours of tech-support headaches if your collaborators aren't already up to speed on the system. I've had nothing but bad experiences attempting to use CMS platforms as a basis for faculty collaboration and would discourage this alternative unless you have a kickass CMS and a tireless tech support team.

Academia is full of Luddites, prima donnas and others who declare themselves unable or uninterested in mastering new technology: this is the terrible truth about trying to mandate digital tools. Good luck, longtime reader!
I've had some success with pbworks - free for academics. Yes, there is the new platform issue - but it can handle multiple documents and supporting material.
We have a Moodle page for our (very small) department, which we use as a sand-box for this kind of work when we need to. Admittedly, we all use Moodle for teaching anyway, so we're familiar with it, and because we're small we can (fairly) easily meet up in person as well, so this isn't a substitute for meetings. But we've used it very happily for designing new team-taught courses this year, for example.

I'd be reluctant to use any platform outside of college's firewalls for anything beyond teaching design, simply because of issues of data protection and confidential material (I'm not in the US, so I don't know how much of an issue this would be there, but in Europe we have very stringent data protection laws applying to a lot of the information we have on students, staff, public money etc.).
I love the 37signals ( tools, but admittedly, they don't scale up to more than 100 people. They might be very interesting to take a look at?
Two tools that have started to catch on at my Canadian University are Doodle and Wikis.
Helps with planning a meeting by polling members for acceptable meeting times.

In-house Wikis
Wikis are designed to be collaborative, to monitor changes over time, and are fairly simple to learn. Members can upload files and create PDFs of pages. One downside is that spreadsheets aren't fully supported.
Pretty good suggestions here. Anonymous @5:37 has the most straightforward. Google Docs is pretty straightforward. One can not only edit together in real time, you can add comments; you can see who edits what. You can use Google Hangouts with Extras and edit the document together with video chat--easy virtual meeting. Yes, you might need to have someone go train the people who don't know how to do this, but in my experience, people pick Docs up a lot easier than a CMS.
Google isn't bad. And it's often free, or close to it.

Acrobat Online also has some good markup tools. It's not free (boo!!) but it can be better than Docs for some things (yay!)


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