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Collaborative Computing at the University of Washington

Perhaps more than anything else, the sight of a group of students clustered around a single computer screen, jostling for space and a better view, made Karalee Woody aware of the need for better collaborative computing tools at the University of Washington.

At UW, where Woody is director of Catalyst client services--Catalyst is an IT group serving the university--the handful of collaborative computing "studios" on campus are nearly always busy. The six installations, set up in areas ranging from a corridor in the graduate library to a classroom building to several in the university library, are highly popular, according to both Woody and Help Desk Manager Ari TenCate.

It's not just students who are finding the collaborative computing stations useful. Woody said faculty and staff have been using the workstations as well. "We've seen groups of staff come in and be quite excited about using TeamSpot as well," Woody said.

The collaboration areas are generally basic: Each consists of a table, a few chairs, a simple whiteboard with markers, and a large 50-inch plasma computer display. But the key to facilitating the interactive, small-group meetings that make the areas so popular rests with a final item: a networked computer at each area that is running collaborative computing software called TeamSpot, from Tidebreak Software. Once students download a simple client onto their laptops--"It's pretty quick and easy. It takes two clicks," TenCate said--and cluster within wireless range of the workstation, they can share the contents of their desktops with anyone else in the group. TeamSpot works with Mac OS X and Windows systems. The university also offers a laptop loan program; the TeamSpot software client comes pre-installed on those units.

Through the TeamSpot software, group members have remote control of the shared desktop on the plasma computer display through their own computers. They can also share files and information between the shared desktop and any of the group's computers, using a simple click and drag operation. "If there are six students [in the space]," Woody said, "they could be in three different groups of two, sharing back and forth on their laptops, while simultaneously contributing to a shared group space up on the plasma screen."

UW installed the first three TeamSpot stations a few years ago; last fall, they added three more stations based on the success of the first ones. Some of the studios are simply available on a first-come, first-served basis; others can be reserved in advance in two-hour blocks.

Collaboration technology commonly refers to the sort of remote teamwork made possible by the Internet, especially Web 2.0 technologies. But TideBreak CEO Andrew Milne pointed out that wireless networking on campuses has changed the definition of what makes up a technology-enabled learning space. While schools have traditionally invested heavily in classroom technologies, with the advent of wireless, students can gather and learn throughout the campus, in virtually any nook and cranny that has a wireless connection.

For now, the TeamSpot software requires that all members of the group be present; the software doesn't support remote collaboration, although Milne said his company is "working in that direction."

To make remote collaboration possible at UW beyond TeamSpot, Woody's group has created a tool called ShareSpace that allows online collaboration. Using both TeamSpot and ShareSpace, groups can begin the collaborative process together at one of the stations using TeamSpot, then load the shared content into ShareSpace and continue with the collaborative process later online. "We find that the two of these work really well together," Woody said, for students who want a combination of in person and remote collaboration capabilities. "The two tools complement each other quite well."

There are no software-based restrictions on how many students can participate and share information during a collaborative session, but the UW areas--some of them rooms, some simply partitioned-off spaces--generally aren't designed to accommodate more than six or eight people. That hasn't been a significant restriction, since group collaboration itself, Woody pointed out, becomes difficult beyond a certain number of participants.

The software idea originated with a research project at Stanford University several years ago, where Milne and Tidebreak co-founder Brad Johanson were working on their Ph.D.s.  A previous job in which Milne was a consultant for architectural renovations got him thinking about the growing number of technologies available to present media content to groups. None of them, however, allowed the audience to truly engage with the content. "What happens when the room itself is the computer interface?" Milne wondered.

For Woody, the answer can be seen in the popularity of the six TeamSpot areas: "It's filled a real need. We had students who were crowded around [a single computer screen] and needed to find a more comfortable place to work." Also, she said, the university wanted to encourage more collaboration, something it has been able to do by offering TeamSpot.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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