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Communication Tools
for Online Collaboration: Part I

A Companion to the Presentation made by
Dr. Thomas Treadwell

A presentation at the American Psychological Association's
1999 Miniconvention on Education and Technology
Paula Edmiston       Georgia Tech Research Institute


Collaborating Online

Collaborating online presents special problems in communication. Since people cannot meet face to face, but must share access to documents and searches, a framework for online communication is necessary. Sometimes the collaborators need to share text and other documents.

The most popular method of online communication is email, but this collaborative group decided early in the program that webboards would be used as the formal medium for student and faculty communication. Since the students were working in a very specific time frame (the academic calendar), their motivation to visit and interact with the webboard was high, and the use of the web-based discussion was successful.

THe major problem in using he Internet has been the variable experience of the members of the project. Among both the students and teachers are people with skills ranging from to high level abilities to use software, to those who have just begun to use the Internet and need a great deal of help to learn the class tools. This has caused a certain level of frustration among those who find additional, unexpected amounts of time have to be devoted just to learn how to use the tools necessary to communicate with other about the primary material they've come together to learn.

Overview of the tools used

This collaborative group has seen an evolution in the tools used to support online communication. Initially a web-based discussion board was implemented to provide interaction rather than email. Students were so new to the concept of the Internet that it was felt offering a discussion area that was independent of email would facilitate their exchanges. The advantage of the webboard over email lay primarily in the fact that any web browser could provide the access they needed. The problems surrounding acquiring and configuring email programs, unstable email accounts and the difficulties in exchanging documents across platforms were considered too great for immediate productivity. So, rather than try to teach myriad email programs to the students (with their associated routines for reply, forward, etc) we decided to use a webboard so that all students would be learning the same interface to the discussions area.

Eventually the students were introduced to Athenaeum, an academic talker. The talk site made it possible for both students and professors to meet together in real time to discuss the research being conducted and to review the documents they were creating.

A series of web-based calendars were provided to assist in scheduling meetings and deadlines.

Acquisition and Installation of the Tools

Matt's WWWboard, the original calendar, and the talker code are freely available at archives and FTP sites. There is a small charge ($50) for the current calendar but we felt it was well worth the fee for the powerful configuration routines.

I usually meet with Dr. Treadwell at Athenauem to talk him through installations and archiving, but on occasion he gives me telnet access into his site so I can work on the files alone. Other times I'll place step-by-step instructions on a message board in Athenaeum to give him more permanent documentation for maintenance tasks. See the message board in the Athenauem office for a series of instructions for archiving a board.

Webboards
For years we've used the WWWBoard from Mat's Script Archives. This is a free script that is moderately difficult to install and configure.

Four boards are installed each semester: one for each student group (boards One - three) and a board for faculty discussion.

While WWWboard doesn't come with a module to archive discussions, we worked out a webboard archival system, using a patern of subdirectiories under each group directory. The boards were initially istalled in directories, "group1", "group2", "group3", "group4" the last, group4, was the board for faculty discussion). Subdirectories were created under each of these, first for years (1999, 1998, etc) and within the years, often divided into months or quarters (we were a little inconsistant here!). The board scripts with their "messages" subdirectories, were moved into the archive directories.

We wanted, but haven't found in Matt's or any other web board script, a method of archiving to a database that could be used to analyze the discussions.

As you can see in the Group 1, Spring 99 WWWboard the discussions were lively and indepth (link removed 12/12/2007).

A number of other web-based discussion boards were tried in the summer of 1999 but none met the needs of the collaborative group as well as Matt's boards. We looked at WebX, but found it awkward to use, difficult to customize and frustrating to learn. We tried WebBoard, one of the better alternatives. WebBoard is similar to WebX in one's ability to customize and individual user profile. It's modules to return and edit existing posts and the spell checker were its strongest features. It's a trade-off: the advanced features made it more difficult to learn to use and even today many of the students in these courese have little to no experience with Internet tools (other than the relatively passive link clicking of the World Wide Web). So once again we searched for another script. The last script we tried was Discus, a free script that allows for personal user customization, spell checking but no editing of existing posts. Again we felt the advanced features were more difficult to adapt to than the return of better interactivity with the script.

And so we returned to Matt's scripts.

Calendar
We started out using WebCal from Extropia, a pretty good, free calendar for groups. See the Spring 99 Group One Calendar for March as an example of entries made.

We recently switched to Lozinski's Calendar. Although it costs $50.00, it's well worth the purchase price! One can create as many calendars as necessary and the web-based configuration routine makes setting up the individual calendars very convenient. This is a moderately difficult script to install, and as far as I can tell, can't be installed in an account with a tilde! The calendars will be used for this first time this fall, 1999. You can see an example of a group calendar not yet in use.

Talker
The Athenaeum Talker was used by both students and faculty. A room was built, the Collaboratorium, for the group. Students met here to work out assignments and writing tasks and faculty used the site, both to work with students and each other. Athenaeum is based on NUTS, a C program that runs in a UNIX environment. The NUTS program is freely available at ftp://ftp.ccs.neu.edu/pub/mud/servers/misc/nuts and is moderately difficult to install and configure. This program is accessible via a telnet program, or through a java gate that runs in a web browser. The java gate in use is Cup O Mud, available at http://www.du.org/java/CupOmud/

 



http://paula.edmiston.org/conf/1999apa/index.html
Last Edited: 10 Mar 2012


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