Collaboration | Feature

All Together Now

You might envision the typical cartoon artist hunkered over a drafting table, chewing on the end of a pencil, and trying to come up with clever graphics and witty dialog. This image may have been accurate 20 years ago, but today the art of cartooning is a highly collaborative, technologically oriented process that far surpassed a single artist and his or her own imagination.

No one knows this better than Michelle Ollie, president of The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, VT. "We built our whole school around the concept of collaboration," said Ollie, who founded the two-year college with cartoonist James Sturm in 2005 with a focus on the creation and dissemination of comics, graphic novels, and other types of visual narrative.

"We're constantly looking for ways to collaborate not only internally," Ollie continued, "but also externally with businesses in our industry." For example, students work with publishers in New York and Los Angeles, and with designers and cartoonists around the world. That outreach helps form CCS' foundation, said Ollie, "in a much stronger way than if we were just working in our own little studios, by ourselves."

As many other post-secondary educational institutions have learned over the last few years, effective and efficient collaboration within classrooms, across campuses, and across the miles, is often facilitated by technology.

At CCS, for example, 12 employees, 15 visiting faculty members, and over 100 students use Google Apps for Education to work together. They manage core courses and keep students on task with Google Sites; track schedules with Google Calendar; communicate electronically with Gmail; and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).

"When we revised our school's strategic plan three years ago we relied heavily on Google Docs to work through the revisions and get feedback from team members," said Ollie. "It was a lot easier than having to email revised versions back and forth between users."

Gaining Efficiencies Through Online Sharing

The artistic process at CCS has also been streamlined by cloud-based technology. While working on a recent Adventures in Cartooning project, for example, two recent CCS alumni collaborated remotely with Sturm to write, draw, and design a cartooning adventure. Based in Vermont, England, and New York City, the trio used Gmail for communications, Google Drive for writing and editing, the Adobe Creative Suite for desktop design and production, and Dropbox for sharing drawings, publication files, and digital assets.

Administratively, CCS uses online project management application Smartsheet to share key documents with different collaborators, track project progress, facilitate online discussions, send automatic email updates and reminders, and generate Gantt charts that are used to visually track key project milestones and their deadlines. Most recently, CCS used the application to manage the self-study, internal accreditation process that takes place every five years.

"It's a huge undertaking that involves every aspect of our organization and many different constituents," said Ollie. "We were able to build a pretty robust Smartsheet, assign documents to specific tasks, and track all of the milestones online. Doing it that way saved a lot of time and hassle."

CCS' online collaboration tools also save the institution money. "Our operation costs are definitely lower," said Ollie, who was director of another private arts school before opening CCS. "I remember shopping around for $100,000 CRM systems that were clearly going to be obsolete within a few years. Today you can get a free or low-cost app or subscription and get the same functions and benefits."

Ollie said CCS, which recently launched a technology-driven industry center focused on creating more partnerships with publishers and corporations, has effectively leveraged online applications to the point where it can handle more projects with fewer staff members. "People are blown away by the number of projects that come out of our school, which is only staffed by a handful of people," said Ollie. "Online collaboration has made us very efficient."

Managing Big Events on Campus

California State University in Chico (Chico State), is another institution that's using online collaboration tools to work smarter, better, and faster. According to Wendy Bentley, administrative support assistant for the school's First-Year Experience Program, collaboration is crucial to the smooth running of events like The Great Debate (in which communications classes hold debates on specific topics) and the biannual Town Hall (where students, faculty, administrators, and community members gather to listen to speakers discuss public-interest topics).

To effectively manage those and other events, the First-Year Experience Program uses Mindjet, a cloud-based collaboration application that organizes ideas and information, keeps teams in sync, and coordinates people and tasks. For The Great Debate, for example, about 1,400 students – many of whom use their smartphones for the collaborative activities – and 500 community members work together online to plan and manage the event.

Previously managed manually, the Town Hall events are developed and attended by the First-Year Experience Program, Chico State's political science department, 70 consultants-facilitators, and 700 students. "It's a logistical challenge because we have to get everyone organized and on the same page for this one-night event twice a year," said Bentley.

Chico State decided to test out Mindjet in the fall of 2011. Using the online collaboration tool, project leaders map out the various aspects of the event and then create action tasks around those different components. Student workers, the political science department, and the event coordinator know what they're responsible for and can track overall progress from their laptops, desktops, or smartphones. "For a tool that's pretty easy to pick up and use," said Bentley, "it's made a remarkable difference in the way we handle these campus events."

Bentley said the collaborative tool also helps with post-event activities. After every Town Hall or Great Debate, for example, her department exports a list of tasks from Mindjet and immediately begins working on them for the next round. "We're becoming much more efficient at producing these large events because we can see how things worked last year," Bentley explained, "and then take that information and use it to make small changes where we need them moving forward."

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