Thursday, December 15, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Easy Online Collaboration
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.
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: http://lifehacker.com/5792938/how-to-use-dropbox-as-a-killer-collaborative-work-tool
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."
Intuitive and easy to learn. Minimal training. Very customizable.
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.
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'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.).
Helps with planning a meeting by polling members for acceptable meeting times.
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.
Acrobat Online also has some good markup tools. It's not free (boo!!) but it can be better than Docs for some things (yay!)