Working and Learning Better: Virtually Together

Working and Learning Better: Virtually Together

Collaborative software creates new options for students and educators.
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THERE'S A NEW TYPE OF workspace these days. It's a "virtual office" in cyberspace that allows files to be accessed and worked on from anywhere. The concept has morphed into education, allowing students in disparate locations to work together. The innovation fits well with new trends in learning.

"A lot of student learning takes place outside the classroom," says Andrew Milne, CEO of Tidebreak, a collaborative solutions company. Higher ed has moved beyond the lecture-driven "sage on the stage," and many lessons are now centered around teams of students solving problems and digesting case studies. MBA students are writing business plans and students are working on urban planning or economic models as groups. They can do this on desktop computers, laptops, or PDA devices.

It has pushed administrators to turn every nook and cranny of campus into learning space. With this movement comes new hardware and software requirements.

Collaborative technologies' development, begun in the mid-1990s, has spawned a number of options. Approaches can include software that creates virtual desktops to hardware that gives multiple users a better view of their work. Some analysts categorize online applications such as Yahoo- Groups and similar solutions from AOL and MSN as collaborative technologies.

Group collaboration software, which allows people to work together on projects, is a test of "sharing" skills, allowing users to access the same address book, calendar, email clients, and work files. The users could be together in the same room, or located at various points around the globe.

Major company options include Microsoft's collaborative program SharePoint. Users can collaborate on files while conducting enterprise searches for information and management content, creating and entering portals to other information, and running business intelligence applications. Other programs available for use in education include TeamSpot, a collaborative learning system from Tidebreak, and software from South River Technologies that creates virtual desktops for remote access.

Those having trouble can show others what they're looking at online and ask where they're going wrong.

In higher ed, distance education is driving the need for collaboration. Students and faculty need flexibility. There's no more need to be in the same place at the same time to add to a project or learn material.

It has become more common to offer students server space for storing work. It seems a logical step-and a safer one in terms of network security. Prior to collaboration software, users might e-mail files as attachments back and forth from campus to home-a practice with inherent dangers. Files can become corrupt and introduce viruses to the network. Also, using e-mail in this way creates unnecessary traffic.

"Everyone is looking to reduce the load on the e-mail server," says Tracy Welsh, VP of Business Development for South River Technologies. E-mail accounts can receive up to 500 spam messages per day. Is it wise to have more important documents traveling in the mix? "You don't want to be pushing graphics and PowerPoint presentations through that pipe," she says. There's also the possibility of having multiple versions of a spreadsheet or Word file floating around.

But file sharing brings new challenges. Creating collaboration processes took three years at the University of Portland (Ore.), reports Byron Fessler, vice president for Information Services. IT administrators began creating a collaborative strategy in 2004 to give ubiquitous access to files and e-mail. That year collaborative file sharing was the "talk of the town" at EDUCAUSE and other IT conferences, Fessler recalls.

UP's plan became a reality last year, when collaborative software was first used in the School of Engineering. That plan required the university to replace the school's outdated network (which meant students had to actually go to the building to access their files) with one that was much more convenient. Fessler needed to make sure students had access during the upgrade and that other utilities were compatible with the new virtual system.

The end result: Group Drive from South River Technologies. Along with the convenience of anywhere file access, students can use any operating system. Engineering students, says Fessler, like to dabble in various operating systems, including Windows, Mac, and UNIX. After installing collaborative software in the School of Engineering, Fessler rolled out the program this spring to the entire campus. "We used the Oregon Trail approach," he jokes. The project was broken into four distinct phases: pioneer, migration, settlement, and just rewards. The latter would include the benefit of working easier with others.

Fessler then outlined and followed an IT blueprint. Adequate storage was one necessity. "We had grown over time-a reality that required many more terabytes of data storage," he says. Next, UP had to standardize its e-mail clients. Until the installation of collaborative software, seven different e-mail systems were used. Yet, only one of them was for remote access. Now everyone uses Microsoft Exchange.

A portal was also a key component. Users need a secure website as a gatekeeper to the learning management system, calendar, and other applications. With collaborative software, students can now send and receive homework and links without having to blast e-mail attachments to each other.

The University of Portland's communications staff uses a secure network "dropbox" to get items to the printer.

The administrative side has also seen benefits, says Fessler. Marketing and communications department staff , for example, can drop drafts of brochures that are ready for printing into a file, instead of paying for them to be sent by courier to a print shop. With a secure "dropbox" on the network, staff can simply post a link and then let the vendor get the job done. "This cuts the expense of sending the files back and forth," Fessler says, adding that $20,000 was spent on South River Technologies' collaborative software solution. (The move also meant IT infrastructure investments, including $50,000 for more storage space and another $50,000 in hardware to support that.)

Virginia Tech has found other administrative uses for the software, relying on South River Technologies' WebDrive to assist with the content management of its 1,100 various websites, says Betsy Blythe, director of general enterprise applications. These sites feature the school's many departments, schools, and interest groups. Prior to having the collaborative software, Virginia Tech relied on FTP sites for uploading and downloading content. Security issues led to a virtual software solution.

Now the website administrators and those who need to send upgraded information to content editors can drop content into folders on their desktops.

Emory University (Ga.) began its collaborative effort five years ago with a computing center redesign. "We saw collaborative computing as a distinct and separate type of computing," says Alan Cattier, director of Academic Technology Services. Observations of how students were using computers drove the effort. They were working together, but their workspaces didn't accommodate the technology needed to work effectively. One student might be at the controls of a computer with other students hunched over the monitor, looking on.

A traditional cubicle layout led to students struggling to work together in spaces designed for individuals. In the end, students weren't using the computing center for its intended purposes. "It became the prime gaming center," says Cattier.

This prompted a re-visioning of the computer lab. Over eight months in 2002, the entire computing center was transformed into a collaborative work space. "We tore out the cubicles and gave people more space to work in groups," he says.

The 10,000-square-foot facility also became home to several new classrooms and a number of interactive whiteboards to facilitate group work. Multiple computer monitors were clustered around several seats so that students could see the material.

Once the physical setup for collaboration was in place, Cattier cast about for software to support the model. He decided on TeamSpot as one of the software packages. The software's developer, Tidebreak, has its roots in Stanford as a project funded in the Computer Science department, says Milne. The software was then showcased at an older campus building chosen by Stanford earlier in the decade to highlight new multimedia learning technology.

TeamSpot allows for "virtual desktopping," explains Cattier. Students can show their work to a defined group of users, or the entire class, while others can add information or instructors can add comments and corrections. A French class, for example, has used the software to conduct a hunt for an apartment in Paris via a series of web pages on the internet. Those having trouble can show others what they are looking at online and ask, "Where am I going wrong?"

TeamSpot is licensed on an annual basis, with a license for a single location costing $4,500. Pricing drops as additional locations are added: five locations are billed at $2,950 each; 10 at $1,995.

While giving students and educators new options, collaboration does require an attitude adjustment. Instructors are giving up some control, says Cattier, because collaborative technologies and virtual desktops shift more power to students. They're no longer passively waiting for professors to push information at them.

"You have to have a different attitude as a faculty member," Cattier says. "These technologies are posing some very important social structures."


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