Research Collaboration in the Ephemera of Web 2.0

Research collaboration over distance is better with the Internet, right? ... Right?

Let's consider just one example. We started a research project in December with e-mail and, long after participants in this new endeavor begged to switch to a wiki and/or other Web 2.0 tools, we stayed with e-mail as our only community "location." Only now, 3 months later, have we started ramping up our interaction by using various Web 2.0 apps and services.

Were we just slow to adopt new collaborative (or social networking) sites and apps? Perhaps. Or were we wise to wait to incorporate new tools? Let's examine our progress in light of our project and what we need for the way we work:

 - E-mail time. Researchers need time to formulate ideas. In our case, the idea behind the collaboration was new and mind-bending. It involves understanding how higher education thinking skills can be developed in Web 2.0 space. Not a one-to-one relationship, obviously, but more like a one-to-let's-go-back-to-the-original-concept-and-start-over relationship.

Examples of our inquiries: testing whether the concept of synthesis could be learned through a mashup. And if so, how? Is reflection learned in a group chat? And how can an instructor manage chat in order to do that? Is the concept of persona understood through developing an avatar in Second Life? And, in all cases, how does one assess such activities and then capture evidence of the process?

Because these are complex questions, we did not have ready ideas to contribute. So pauses -- days, or even a week or two -- were necessary to work through these complex questions. We did not need the quick interaction of a social networking site quite yet. If anything, we needed to slow down and pace our communications.

 - Side conversation time. Researchers need time to create discreet elements of the overall initiative. Many of us talked privately, via the plain old telephone system, about the ideas in this project, and exchanged private or small group e-mails.

 - Social networking time. Researchers need time to develop familiarity and trust. A number of us have not met each other in person. Yet, each of us can make significant contributions to the initiative. In e-mail, we established each other's bona fides. But, being human, we needed a few more social clues. So, we started a Ning (http://www.ning.com/) site where we can post photos, do a thumbnail profile, blog, broadcast to the whole group, and collaborate in several other ways. The initiative then had a new home base with its own URL. We could set this site to "private only" and to "join by approval only" to retain the focus of the discussion.

 - File sharing time. Researchers need to share files. Ning, as valuable as it is to humanize the discussion and build community, does not support file sharing. For this, we have been using Google Docs (docs.google.com/), and we may look at Pownce (http://pownce.com/) to see if this new site might add value.

 - Preserving work over time. Researchers need a record of their work. E-mail was useful to get started and still useful for announcements and updating. The e-mail client must search very quickly, of course, so that the "archive" of e-mail discussions can be retrieved to keep the conversational cohesion elements alive: who said what and when?

But what about our proposals and research reports, and other core documents? We have yet to face this issue as our initiative is still young, but we do see out there The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) -- "universal access to human knowledge" (wow!).

As we disseminate ideas and hold important meetings, we'll of course be looking at Webcasts and or podcasts to supplement face-to-face meetings. We'll need a Wiki to collaborate on documents or for application development. We may need a Sakai account. We may meet in Second Life.

What technology do researchers use at different phases of the project? With the new options available now and, it seems, each month, we consider all the possibilities. Part of research now is not just the research, but keeping abreast of new collaboration technologies. We all need to be ethnographers.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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