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Collaboration Tools

Taking the 'A' out of Asynchronous

As mainstream collaboration modes evolve, the way schools are tackling online information sharing is changing, and it's changing fast.

Taking the 'A' out of AsynchronousWIKIS AND BLOGS MAY BE THE DARLINGS OF THE WEB 2.0 movement, but the eLearning they promote is asynchronous; it does not happen in real time. Not surprisingly, this has left many institutions and eLearning professionals hungry for the substantial funds needed to make online learning viable in real time-- or else looking forward to technology that is affordable enough to spur campus innovation.

The good news is, that time has arrived: As mainstream technology has advanced and the cost of web conferencing has dropped, a growing number of institutions are finding creative ways to achieve synchronous collaboration. What's more, the innovations are infinite, and have uses even beyond eLearning or blended learning in real time. At institutions such as Ivy Tech Community College (IN) and the University of Houston, these tools are revolutionizing traditional faculty office hours; at The University of Georgia and a school in the California State University system, they're allowing students to redefine teamwork in virtual space. Elsewhere, synchronous collaboration technology is enabling IT workers at Rice University (TX) to build programs together. And at Arizona State University, a campuswide rollout has boosted collaboration across the board.

At least anecdotally, the results of these efforts have been overwhelmingly positive, sparking creativity and enhancing the learning process as a whole. That's encouraging for the rest of us, since it appears these collaboration trends will continue with vigor in the years ahead. According to consulting group Ambient Insight, the market for synchronous collaboration is growing by an average of 30 percent anually. If your institution hasn't yet adopted this technology, now is the time to take a closer look

Taking the 'A' out of Asynchronous

AT THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON-Clear Lake, real-time collaboration allows instructors to immediately clear up breakdowns in students' understanding and let the educational process advance seamlessly.

Transforming Office Hours

As a computer information systems instructor at Ivy Tech Community College, Bonnie Willy holds office hours for hundreds of students every week, helping them with everything from programming Java to configuring web servers. The difference between her office hours and those in a more traditional setting: hers are in virtual space.

Using Pronto instant messaging technology from Wimba, Willy conducts her office hours in a chat room, and invites students to log on and ask her any questions they might have. While she has the option of opening up private chats with individual students, Willy notes that she prefers to address most questions in the public chat, so that everyone can benefit at the same time.

"It's a good way to have one conversation rather that several, and it lets students from different sections talk about the same assignment or article," she says, likening the software to a "virtual student lounge." Willy adds that in many cases, students who've never met face-to-face strike up friendships in the chat room and frequently respond to each other's questions before she can even interject. "Once I get them talking to each other, they usually take it from there," she adds.

Kara Monroe, executive director of Ivy Tech's Center for Instructional Technology, agrees. "You'd be amazed by how much a bunch of students collaborating with each other in one of these chat rooms can improve the overall lesson," she maintains.

Other Players, Other Products

THE VENDORS MENTIONED in this article aren't the only big-time players in the synchronous online collaboration space focused on higher education; a number of other companies recently have attracted major buzz, as well. Here's only a sampling of what's happening in this market space.

Adobe, for one, is a newsmaker: While the vendor's Acrobat Connect solution enables educators to set up on-demand virtual meeting rooms where students can communicate in real time, spokespeople for the company disclose that a new version of Connect is expected to be released before most schools open their doors in September.

Another big player in the synchronous space is Elluminate, which through its Elluminate Live! product offers a different kind of real-time meeting environment, complete with the capability to host breakout sessions. According to Gary Dietz, the company's product marketing manager, these sessions can serve as one-onone tutorials for individual students who might be struggling with particular concepts. "It's all about working with students to help them learn at a pace that's good for them." Dietz notes that Elluminate Plan, a new component of the product suite due out this summer, is aimed at helping educators better strategize curriculum.

Some additional vendors in the world of synchronous collaboration certainly are familiar names: WebEx, now a part of Cisco Systems, pioneered the web conferencing space, and continues as a leader in this area. This past January, global research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan named Citrix 2008 North American Web Conferencing Company of the Year. And-- no surprise to anyone-- Microsoft has jumped into the collaboration arena with its SharePoint technology, now being enthusiastically adopted by MS devotees.

For more on the subject of collaboration, see "Collaboration Makes a Comeback," CT March 2008.

At the University of Houston- Clear Lake, Tyler Delane, an adjunct professor in the School of Education, utilizes a different technology for a similar purpose. There, as part of his online course in web development, Delane turns to a synchronous collaboration tool from Vyew to run office hours in which he helps his class of mostly pre-service teachers work on their HTML. The office hours are scheduled once every two weeks. From his home office, Delane logs on, opens up a chat room, and waits for students to join him with questions. As students stop by, Delane has them upload their HTML code and then discusses with them what changes they can engineer to make the code run more smoothly. He also asks students to explain the different ways they did things, so that others can understand an alternate approach.

Delane reports that in the past, when he conducted this process via e-mail, some counseling sessions required back-andforth correspondence, and in some cases, it could take hours to resolve a single issue. However, with real-time collaboration (up-and-running since January) he can pass along information and immediately clear up any breakdowns in students' understanding, enabling the educational process to advance seamlessly.

"Because it's an online class, and because most of my students have busy lives and can't get to a physical office, this technology truly does offer the next best thing," he says. "It guarantees that even though students are logging on from home, they can still interact with classmates and collaborate in much the same way as they would if they were sitting right across from each other."

New Take on Teamwork

Educators at other schools are turning to synchronous collaboration tools to revolutionize the traditional approach to teamwork. Case in point: California State University-Fullerton, where Katherine Kantardjieff, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, recently used technology from iLinc Communications to enable students in her computational biochemistry course to collaborate in virtual space, as part of a final exam on genomics. For the purposes of this exercise, Kantardjieff turned to iLinc to set up a virtual meeting place.Once students had their assignments, she opened the meeting area and encouraged them to gather there on their own time.

Over the course of the semester, Kantardjieff says she logged on at various times of the day and night and was shocked to see students working together in the room almost constantly. "I'd come in at 11 pm on a Sunday night and there were 10 students in the room," she recalls, noting that the 30-student class was a blended offering with both physical and online components. "As an educator, it's pretty exciting to see students working together so eagerly."

Use of the technology has paid huge dividends thus far. While Kantardjieff says this was the first time she used the technology, she admits that final projects for the genomics lesson were some of the best she's ever received. She adds that she was so impressed with student response to the virtual collaboration space that she plans to ask future students for permission to record the sessions; she'll factor the online collaboration efforts into class participation grades.

At The University of Georgia, Chi Thai, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering, is using a different technology to enhance teamwork in other ways. There, with the one-two punch of NetSupport Manager and the Camtasia Studio screen recorder from TechSmith, Thai can set up elaborate modeling equations on his computer, then push them over a LAN to student computers so that his students can step in and finish the job, or simply follow along.

Thai says this kind of real-time, hands-on collaboration is a great way for students to learn equations by doing, instead of by mimicking (a pedagogical approach that many educators have followed for years). He adds that settings in both programs also enable him to record the interactions so that students who have trouble following along in real time can go back and review the material on-demand, from home. "Real-time collaboration doesn't only have to benefit students in the present," he claims. "Once students use technology to work together synchronously, it's great to know they can call upon that very same content asynchronously as well, to review the material."

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ARIZONA STATE'S ADRIAN SANNIER will deliver the keynote "A 'New' American University for Next-Gen Learners" at Campus Technology 2008, July 28-30 in Boston.

Building Programs Together

Not every higher education institution has turned to synchronous collaboration tools to help students directly. At Rice University, technologists have deployed a new product from Daptiv to facilitate collaboration exclusively inside the IT department.

Derek Rabuck, IT planning and project manager, explains that he and his colleagues practically "live" inside the Daptiv system, using its document repository to share spreadsheets, and to brainstorm new ideas. If a staffer is working on a particular project, he will store related documents in the system so others can contribute. During conference calls, technologists use a special markup feature to make notes in the files. Any individual who has access to the project can log in and obtain a status report. Rabuck says he and his colleagues also have written their own financial tracking system in Daptiv; it enables Rice's IT workers to collaborate to track financials on any given project, in real time.

"With things like wikis or even e-mail, you've got to download a document, make a change, then upload it again or send it along," Rabuck says. "But with this [technology], I can log in at the exact same time as some of my colleagues, make changes that everybody can see as I'm making them, and work with others to make sure we're heading exactly where we want to go."

Another benefit of the Daptiv solution is a series of protocols that allows Rice IT staffers to track projects over time. Rabuck says the solution includes notification and accountability alerts that create a document approval path on every project. With this feature, rather than having to "pull" notifications or check in constantly, notifications are pushed to the relevant users in real time, so nobody drops the ball.

Perhaps the only downside to the new technology has been the learning curve: Rabuck admits it took a few weeks for his colleagues to embrace the Daptiv system, largely because they had grown accustomed to doing things asynchronously. Today, however, all 51 members of Rice's IT department use the tool, and university officials are contemplating rolling it out to other departments as well.

"You can't argue against something that helps people work together," says Rabuck. "Increased communication, better efficiency-- these are things people all over this institution hope to achieve."

Sharing Ideas, Sharing Docs

Most of the synchronous collaboration examples highlighted above focus on one or two specific applications but, moving forward, the most intriguing deployments of collaboration in higher education may be those that mix and match a diverse set of enterprise-level tools such as those offered as part of the free Google Apps Education Edition. In fact, Arizona State University was one of the first schools to adopt Google's new solution back in 2006. According to Adrian Sannier, ASU's VP and chief technology officer, the tools have fundamentally altered the way students, faculty, and staff members work on campus-- both individually, together, and with colleagues from outside the Tempe campus.

The system works just like any other learning management platform. Users sign into the Google Apps system, and they have access to Google-sponsored e-mail, Google Docs, Google Sites, and more. The Google e-mail, dubbed "Gmail," works just like any other e-mail program, and sends messages asynchronously. The other applications provide collaboration in real time.

With Google Docs, for example, users can create or edit word processor or spreadsheet documents in virtual space, in real time, from separate computers on opposite sides of campus, just as they would if they were sitting next to each other in the library. Google Sites, on the other hand, permits users to work together on a website to add file attachments, free-form content, and information from other Google applications.

"With these two very simple applications, there truly is no limit to the ways in which our users can work together," Sannier remarks. "As a user-- even if you don't know how to use a particular application-- you just log in with some friends and fiddle around. Before too long, you'll not only figure it out, but you'll wonder how the heck you ever did anything differently." Sannier says ASU users have even embraced the Google applications to collaborate with colleagues on campuses outside the state. Still, most of the institution's Google Apps users are students; only a handful of educators have jumped on board, to date. This is perhaps the biggest challenge with synchronous collaboration: Many of the tools are so new, it takes time for users who have formed certain habits to change their ways.

To combat this problem, ASU recently kicked off an awareness-raising campaign to familiarize faculty members with the technology. Google has helped out, too, dispatching representatives to assist with workshops and other tutorials. Sannier says that ultimately, maybe as soon as a year from right now, he sees a scenario in which tech-savvy educators encourage students to submit files in Google Docs, and offer to provide instantaneous feedback right there in the interface. "Think of a writing instructor who can use the technology to look in on the process by which a student creates work, and then can evaluate things like how quickly a student is getting started and where he or she is getting stuck," he suggests. "The ability to intervene in that fashion and work with the student in real time is incredibly powerful. It could change everything about the way we teach."

Collaborate! Teaching and learning is reaching new heights via powerful (and sometimes, unexpected) collaboration tools: meeting, conferencing, class capture applications-- even wikis and open source course management systems.
American and Brazilian Students Collaborate via Virtual Classrooms. Four universities-- two in the US and two in Brazil-- are testing intercontinental distance learning.

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