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.

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