Technologies Reach Across Campus, State—and World

The word "collaboration" used to mean simply working together and sharing information. Today, with a whole range of software products and technologies available claiming to "collaborate," the term can mean that and much more. Now, collaboration on campus often refers to using technology to extend the way students and faculty work together. Collaboration can happen not just in one class or on one campus, but across many—and even between different institutions and around the globe.

From e-mail, to shared applications, to instant messaging, to collaborative course content management, and even to advanced multimedia uses, recent rapid advances in collaboration technologies mean campus IT administrators, CTOs, and CIOs need to stay ahead of the collaboration curve.

That’s partly because as valuable as collaboration is proving to be, it can still sometimes be a hard sell on campus. Administrators are often overworked trying to support existing technologies and ensure security, and budgets may not allow for what some see as pie-in-the-sky technology investments. But promising new ideas in collaboration technologies spell big advancements to come in a wide variety of areas, and some technologies already in use on some campuses. By knowing what’s here and what’s coming, you can guide your school in making decisions now to lay the groundwork for successful collaborative projects.

Collaboration is Growing
According to a recent paper by the Meta Group, an IT analyst firm based in Stamford, CT, "One of the biggest technology innovations of the next decade will be the broad and deep deployment of collaboration technology throughout the extended enterprise." The analyst group, which studies IT trends, says that services such as instant messaging, Web conferencing, and software that helps teams work together "will be ingrained in business processes."

That means colleges and universities too, of course. Already, companies like IBM and Oracle offer business collaboration products that work across applications and draw on the concept of a central database for true collaboration.

The Meta Group report suggests that the way to prepare for a workable set of collaborative systems in the future is to plan carefully now, saying that it’s "imperative that organizations create a strategic business plan about how collaboration services will be sourced, managed, and consumed during the next five years."

Three collaboration tools will dominate, Meta predicts. First is instant messaging, once an innocuous tool for teens, now more and more used in business and academia to see if a colleague or shared interest group is online (so-called "presence software") or to initiate a quick conversation. Companies are seeing the potential in instant messaging and are now including ways to integrate it into their collaborative software packages.

The second important tool in collaborative technologies is Web conferencing, which allows geographically dispersed users to see and talk together using the Internet. Again, the implications are clear for academia, which often needs to link physically faculty and students in distributed buildings and campuses.

The third collaboration tool is teamware, a generic term for software that shares common databases to allow users to collaborate. An example on campuses might be collaborative courseware management software that allows many schools and diverse faculty to share the same courseware content.

In this article, we look at some of the ways that campuses across the country are using collaboration technologies to work together within classrooms, across campus, across the state, and even around the world.

Collaboration Within the Classroom

At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a product that’s not intended specifically for classroom use has become a popular collaboration tool. Rob Ditto, senior IT project leader at Wharton, explained that the school is in its sixth year of using eRoom, a Web-based collaboration product from Documentum, to create a collaborative classroom environment. The Web-based eRoom product provides a universal data repository that can store and manage a number of data types, and an application programming interface (API) that allowed Wharton Computing and Information Technology to customize it further.

Specifically, the school has created a customized version of eRoom, which the school calls webCafé. The software not only provides easy-to-use Web-based tools for courseware management, but the IT group at Wharton has customized the product to offer additional interesting collaborative features. The software is now used each year by all 11 Wharton academic departments in over 400 courses and 6,900 students across all of the school’s curricula.

For example, webCafé provides virtual "rooms" for collaborative purposes. Using a variety of Web browsers, faculty and students can use the rooms to discuss and vote on topics of interest; share and search for documents, group calendars and task lists, and collaborate on projects online, regardless of location.

"We saw an opportunity when we selected this platform to tackle two problems at once," Ditto said: "[It offers] a good and easy way for faculty to put class information up on the Web, and collaborative possibilities for students working in groups."

"We saw an opportunity when we selected this platform to tackle two problems at once"

The popularity of the program is evident—faculty are free to elect to use the tool or not, and over 60 percent of courses now incorporate webCafé. Its popularity may come at least partly from the software’s fundamental ease of use. Faculty actually use the product themselves, Ditto said—a good sign with any technology tool.

One collaborative way that Wharton uses the software is in helping groups of students work together on a project. Every course’s eRoom at Wharton has the ability for ad hoc groups to create project folders, share files and track revisions. Some faculty have opted to use a custom tool that the IT group has developed to allow students to use eRoom to check online, see who is in a group and which groups are full, and join a particular group.

Another popular—and somewhat unanticipated—collaborative use of the software has been its voting function. "As soon as we started to offer it," Ditto said, "we saw faculty starting to use it [as an] informal voting tool to help a collaborative group arrive at a decision." In some cases, Ditto said, other tools might be better for actual secure voting, but the use of the product points to a truth about software, whether collaborative or other—users will bend a popular technology to make it fit their needs.

As popular as the collaborative classroom technology has proven to be at Wharton, why haven’t more schools adopted similar strategies? Cost might be one reason, Ditto hypothesized. "We’re a bit of a lone wolf in using relatively expensive collaboration software," he admits. Also, administrators facing myriad other challenges, especially security, may see collaboration as "an extra," Ditto said, "something nice to have but not essential."

Also, when he helped the school choose eRoom in 1998, more specific classroom-intended products weren’t fully mature. "It helps that at that time, course management wasn’t a well-defined software capability... Blackboard and WebCT were just getting started." Today, it might be tougher to sell top administrators on using eRoom as the collaborative tool it’s become for the school.

Collaboration Between Classrooms
At Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, innovative approaches to collaboration are both in place and under further development, including work on a distributed learning environment that allows students in different locations to review multimedia lectures. That project, directed by Lonnie Harvel, is called eClass, and builds on Classroom 2000, an earlier work at Georgia Tech by associate professor Gregory Abowd and Jason Brotherton. Harvel is a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; he’s also the director of the Digital Media Lab and associate director of the Arbutus Center for Distributed Engineering Education.

The Classroom 2000 project integrated technology and multimedia in the classroom by freeing students from frantic note taking during multimedia lectures. Instead, electronic whiteboard, audio, and video equipment capture the classroom experience, allowing students to access it on a laptop computer later—along with instructor notes and student comments. After the lecture, a program weaves the recorded events together into material that can be viewed through a standard Web browser. Students can replay the entire lecture, or can choose a portion of it from a timeline.

In the new project, eClass, Harvel is taking things farther by creating a distributed environment for Classroom 2000. "We sometimes have classrooms in multiple locations, and they may not even be connected to the Internet," he explains. "You can use [eClass] to transfer information—and also to capture everything in every class." Students can now access the information alone or as a group over a wireless connection using laptops or even PDAs—meaning students can review a specific classroom experience anywhere with an Internet connection. Harvel explains that to him, distributed education means that learning "can happen at any time or anywhere" and "collaborative means collaboration across geographic distances."

"[Learning] can happen at any time or anywhere" and "collaborative means collaboration across geographic distances."

Georgia Tech has captured and is making available well over 3,000 lectures and 117 courses. One of Harvel’s challenges has now become search and storage capabilities, as he works on better ways to store and access the data. For example, he wants to allow a student to search for just those classes he or she attended, since the system tracks who was present. The relationship between students, their captured learning experiences, and their notes is maintained in the Concept-Context Cache, an XML-based data system. An information storage technique, the software keeps track of what students are working on, and with whom. "Part of the design is to allow them to share segments with others," Harvel explains.

Harvel is also doing work on a collaborative technique called classroom capture, in which "a group of students are brought in [and] handed a problem that’s beyond them. They collaboratively explore it, find out what they know and don’t know, and figure out how to solve it—and even what constitutes an answer."

This summer, Harvel plans to put "the final tweaks on eClass," with the intention of launching it into 11 classrooms in the fall. The goal by fall of 2006: to have it in use in 150 classrooms, and to make sure the program is simple enough from a user’s point of view that, "If the professor has a laptop and projector, they can use it."

Collaboration Across the State
In a just-launched program centered at Kent State University in Ohio, collaboration is happening on a large scale across the state. In the brand-new program, at least six Ohio universities so far have agreed to collaborate using the eLearning platform WebCT Vista. The product uses the Oracle Internet File System in Oracle’s 9i database to allow each participating school to access a common central database and create, store, manage, and share content beyond course boundaries. The system’s content will include more than 400 programs and participation from over 1,400 faculty members. In the shared services model, KSU is hosting WebCT Vista for a number of universities. The Ohio Learning Network, a consortium of Ohio colleges and universities joined to enhance distance learning, is serving as an overall project facilitator.

KSU, the largest school in the group, will bear most of the initial costs and will be responsible for providing a project manager, applications and systems administrator, and other support services as needed. Participating schools will contribute in a cost-sharing model, providing their own hardware, additional software, support staff—and will contribute courses to the collaborative pool.

Participating schools will use APIs supplied with the WebCT software to tailor it to their own needs. Each school will also provide adequate T-1 lines for transmission of course materials. Individual schools will have access to the software and will provide local administration of courses.

One way that the Ohio project is unique, according to Rosemary DuMont, associate VP of academic technology services for Kent State University, is that such a diversity of schools are cooperating. "We have a great variety of institutions working together" to create a statewide shared learning system, she said. "There are a lot of positive feelings about this." One result of the collaboration for smaller schools will be access to a relatively expensive program, WebCT Vista, which they might not have considered before because of budget constraints. And the result for students across Ohio will be access to a greater diversity of courses than would have been possible without sharing.

Collaboration Around the Globe
Taking collaboration even further into the future is James Oliverio, a professor at the University of Florida and director of UF’s Digital Worlds Institute.

The institute serves as a center for innovative research, technology development and learning in digital arts. A collaborative effort itself between UF’s College of Engineering and College of Fine Arts, the institute uses advanced multimedia technologies and high-speed telecommunications in innovative ways to encourage collaboration between artists, scientists and engineers around the world.

Students in UF’s Digital Arts and Sciences program can work with the institute while they earn a degree that spans both the arts and engineering.

The collaborative technologies available at the institute are impressive. For example, the institute has four nodes across campus that connect via the "Access Grid"—a network of sophisticated Internet2 nodes across the U.S. and around the world that allow multimedia collaboration between people in geographically diverse locations. The nodes can be used for group collaboration such as large-scale distributed meetings, collaborative work sessions, seminars, lectures, tutorials and training. "The Access Grid was established to bring people together into a shared space over a distance," Oliverio said. "But not just point-to-point - I talk to you and see you, you talk to me and see me—but many people see and talk to each other in the same shared space."

"I talk to you and see you, you talk to me and see me, but [with the Access Grid,] many people see and talk to each other in the same shared space."

Oliverio and the institute are well-known for innovative high-tech collaboration projects. For example, some of the most advanced projects have involved collaborative multimedia dance performances in which artists in different parts of the world, using the Access Grid, participate simultaneously in a performance art piece. A recent performance, "Non Divisi," used audio and video equipment, huge projection screens at the institute, and real-time distributed collaboration over high-speed connections to allow dancers and musicians on three continents to perform together simultaneously.

The advanced, collaborative digital learning environment at the institute is available to any group on campus, Oliverio said. He sees the institute’s tools as being for anyone. "I tend to say that what we’ve created here at the REVE, the Research, Education and Visualization Environment, is a twenty-first century blackboard, and everybody gets to write on the blackboard, not just the people that can draw really nicely or just the people that can write the equations."

Preparing for the Future
As collaboration technologies advance and as software companies release new collaborative products, innovative schools will continue to take advantage, often in surprising ways. Because working together is so innate to how people teach and learn, collaboration on campus sometimes takes place without much notice. But just as e-mail has quietly grown to become an indispensable tool, so will collaborative technologies eventually come to underlie nearly everything we do with computers. IT leadership may want to prepare for that now by carefully choosing the right software products, studying what others are doing, and planning for a collaborative future.

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