Collaboration in the Cloud

I am going to continue to explore the Blogs at Penn State as a note and workflow tool to support in and out of the classroom work … I am going to focus on something a little different than the individually focused approach I discussed last week. Collaboration within the context of coursework among our students seems to be growing on campus. This is encouraging because it seems to me that it points to new approaches in our classrooms and indicates that more faculty are encouraging students to work together to solve interesting challenges. I think cooperative problem solving is a 21st century skill, so helping students develop them while in college is critical. The FACAC survey indicates that both undergraduate at 40% and graduate students at 56% report sharing documents to complete coursework. What we didn’t dig into was how they are sharing documents to complete coursework, but from my experiences in the classroom it is probably to wrong way — emailing them back and forth still seems to be the norm.

Last week I was thinking out loud about students creating individual blogs to be used as notebooks across their classes. Today I’d like to ask how blogs could be used to create a team or group based set of collaborative opportunities to support coursework. I have a couple things in mind and would be more than happy to expand on any of them as a follow up post.

With the Fall release of the Blogs at PSU anyone can easily add additional authors to a blog so they can contribute, edit, create, or manage posts. I would love to see students skip using Word as a “collaborative” tool and find new ways to work together. Blogs aren’t ideal for collaborative authoring, but I can’t see how they are worse than passing Word documents back and forth. Collaboration can be easily achieved via multiple posts, comments, or even by managing drafts. This is an area we should be investigating more.

The best tool I’ve seen for true collaboration is the word processor in the Google Docs suite. With an email address it is easy to set up an account and even easier to add others to the document. More and more Universities are signing up with Google under the Apps for Education program … we’re thinking about what it would mean to be a part of that world and there are some very interesting opportunities there. The funny thing is as I walked into a meeting with some folks from Google I was thinking that the best part of the suite had nothing to do with email, but with the google docs tools. It was great to hear they feel the same way. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they think real collaboration happens during the document creation, not after.

If you’ve never used the word processing application in Google docs then you’re missing quite a bit. It has all the power of Word, but cloud based and the ability to actively collaborate. What that means is that people can be in the same document at the same time and see each other’s changes. Where things get really interesting is that a document can be instantly published into a blog. That means teams can work in the best collaborative tool on the web for group writing and then push it into a personal repository (Blogs at Penn State). The document can be edited repeatedly in Google Docs and instantly republished into the blog. This combination of group and personal editing is a big step forward for empowering collaboration and taking advantage of personal repositories.

Publishing from Google Docs to Blogs at PSU

Publishing from Google Docs to Blogs at PSU

I’d really like to hear more about ideas and scenarios where we could more actively explore these ideas. We are building quite a team within ETS to explore how blogs can impact teaching, learning, and scholarship in general. Help us form the right kinds of opportunities to continue exploring.

5 thoughts on “Collaboration in the Cloud

  1. I’d love to see them pass over using the Microsoft suite, which in the best cases takes up time merging tracked changes and emailed copies of versions as well as takes up allocated email attachment space, and in the worst case is not used with tracked changes at all.

    However, having used Google Docs on more than a few collaborative projects, I would not say that “It has all the power of Word”. As a self-proclaimed “formatting freak” who sometimes prefers the full-power of Microsoft styles, and footnotes, I don’t think Google docs is quite there yet as a one-size-fits-all solution.

    I’ve often started slide presentations in Google with groups, only to find the it clunky, export it to wiki for group edits, then have one of use move the final product to PowerPoint, S5, or Keynote.

    That said, the best approach is to provide them with the knowledge and skillset to use all of these tools, to be able to understand and evaluate which one to use under a certain set of circumstances, and to feel comfortable switching between them during the course of a project.

    Perhaps they brainstorm in a Google doc or wiki and move to Microsoft Office (or iLife, Open Office, etc.) for the final product? Perhaps they start in one tool, find out it does not meet their needs and migrate for the sake of experimentation?

    The point is that sometimes we get wrapped up in teaching and advocating a tool, but not in perhaps doing a comparative analysis of the tools or allowing for the possibility that students and other users may need or choose to use more than one tool to do a job.

    True, it may intimidate some, who fear, “just one more thing to learn”, but to a student population, we owe it to them to introduce and advocate as many tools as they may encounter in the real world.

  2. Nikki — I call that “the last mile in Word.” What you describe happens all the time with Google docs and many wikis. “The last mile” or “kilometer” is a telecommunications euphemism for the fact that networking providers are very efficient getting the signal to the point where it has to “fan out” to individual customers/subscribers. The “last mile” is the hard and often expensive part. Google Docs especially, but wiki software in general, really works so much better than using “track changes” in Word and e-mailing your version around to others. The problem is when you go to format it for something else, most people go the “last mile in Word” or some other document processing software. My advice to those last milers: Please make sure that the collaborative part is over BEFORE you go that last mile. I’ve often seen projects messed up in the last mile when this wasn’t adhered to.

  3. Jim, couldn’t agree more … I’ve had too many experiences where the jump to Word happened to quickly — typically in the name of presentation and formatting. We then have to wrestle with getting back to collaboration in the Word space. It kills it.

    I am wondering if others find the publish to Blog from Google Docs useful?

  4. I have used the publish to blog in Google docs a great deal. It works best with Blogger but can also work with Penn State blogs. Google docs gives you more space to work in than most blog editors.

    Sharing spreadsheets in Google docs is also useful. An instructor can create a model and then share it with students who can enter their own data or modify it. I am still a bit foggy on the difference between collaborating and posting a file that someone else can copy. It seems like they would be two different things.

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