Collaborative Learning

Martin Terre Blanche

This is a diary of my involvement in a project on collaborative learning in the psychology department at the University of South Africa. Most recent posts below and links to previous posts on the left.

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Despotic versus open content management

The university where I work is in the process of setting up a content management system - co-developed with a smallish local IT company. It's the usual sort of thing - separation of content and presentation, allocation of different roles (author, editor, publisher), a staged approval process for new content, and so on. These sorts of systems can be nightmarishly over-complicated and prescriptive, but can also be empowering. For example, content management systems often do away with a whole class of gatekeepers - always-busy HTML experts who in the past had to be cajoled into updating one's pages. Where functions like determining at least some elements of the appearance of sub-sites and creating new content items (not just editing existing ones) are devolved, a content management system is likely to lead to more material being published more frequently. I am hopeful that the system being set up at my university will have this effect.

Where things go wrong is when there is over-centralisation, over-complication and an unhealthy obsession with the approval process.

Content management systems are, in theory, first class collaboration tools - allowing many people to contribute bits and pieces to a larger, still reasonably coherent, whole. I think they could be even better if they focussed a little less on ensuring that material is perfectly polished as it trundles along the approvals conveyer-belt before becoming officially published. The glitsy corporate sites that content management systems are typically associated with are despotic texts - the sort of thing one cannot talk back at. I am more than happy for whatever 'content' I produce to move through different spaces - more or less public, more or less formal, more or less collaborative, more or less critical. What I don't like is for it to slither along some dark funnel where it is only myself and the next-higher person in the approvals process who get to see it before it bursts into the light of day as an offcially approved piece of content.

posted by Martin on Thursday, January 30, 2003
Collaboration as big business II

Lotus Software, IBM and a host of other companies are also very much on the collaboration bandwagon. See Third-party vendors aim to ride IBM's pledge to integrate collaboration technologies with business processes by Gregg Keizer of TechWeb News

posted by Martin on Tuesday, January 28, 2003
Collaboration as big business

So Microsoft has bought out PlaceWare and is reviving its "Real-Time Collaboration Group". The story quotes Michael Sampson of Ferris Research - "Competitors could feel a chill if [Microsoft] Office applications come with a direct link to PlaceWare."

posted by Martin on Monday, January 27, 2003
Organizing documents (and why Windows is so frustrating)

OK I know this isn't strictly about collaborative learning, but here goes anyway. There are, I think, basically four ways of finding documents (or other content):

1. Via nested folders. This is the most familiar way, sometimes (rather misleadingly) called the desktop metaphor. It helps to keep things organised, but a) requires a lot of discipline to keep up (and recall) and b) can get tedious to navigate as the hierarchy of subfolders expands. This is what Windows does best, but still not very well. It loves presenting the folder structure in glorious squinto-vision so that one easily loses the context of where one is at.

2. Via mindmaps, i.e. visual arrangements (but it could be as simple as a list of links) with similar items clustered together and more important items shown more prominently. The Windows desktop is a feeble attempt at this, but a) the "shortcut" icons are so big one can't fit in enough items, so most people just have shortcuts to programs rather than documents; b) there is no way of making some items larger than others; c) every so often Windows "forgets" one's desktop settings and reverts to showing the shortcuts in mindless alphabetical sequence.

3. Via searches. Three things make searches a good way of getting to documents: a) A good search algorithm (like google's) that can identify the best possible matches. b) Displaying potential "hits" in some sort of context. c) Encouraging people to add meta-information (such as keywords) to documents when they create them. Windows doesn't make the grade on any of these criteria.

4. Via "streams". These are documents arranged in terms of a time line and current relevance. Two minimalist examples are e-mail programs' in-boxes and blogs such as this one. The ideal "stream" system would include provision for multiple project-streams and for documents to be anchored not only to past dates, but also "upstream" to future deadlines. Again, Windows sucks. The "sort-by-date" option for documents in a folder is not much use - one wants to see current documents irrespective of which folder they're in. The documents list off the start button is too short and doesn't have multiple streams. The "recent documents" list (off the file menu in most programs) is way too short. The e-mail system we use (Groupwise) at my university has a promising "folders" feature, but unfortunately it has been set up so that older e-mails are deleted from the these folders after a couple of months. Also - why should e-mails and other documents go in different sorts of folders? I want them all in one system.

So anyway - I'm still looking for a system that does the above four things well.

posted by Martin on Monday, January 27, 2003