5 real-world uses of technology for collaboration

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It’s been a long week, but it’s Friday at last! Today I’d like to follow up on Amber’s recent post about iChat, and talk about five ways we use it and other communication and collaboration tools to do the work we do.

1. Instant Messaging

When iChat was first released, it was text-only. No audio or video–just brief, real-time, text-only back-and-forth, kind of like sending a text message on your mobile phone. The first thing we all do when we sit down to work is fire up iChat and set status to “available.” If a project requires my full attention and I’d prefer not be disturbed, I can update my status accordingly to let people know I’m on the clock, but busy at the moment. Think of it as a virtual in/out board.

When one of us is working from home, instant messaging is critical. It’s much easier and quicker to get answers to quick questions or to share files and web links via iChat than it is to pick up the phone or wait on an e-mail reply. In fact, we use it for these purposes on a regular basis even when we’re all in the office at the same time. It’s saved lots of wear and tear on the carpet between our doors.

2. Screen Sharing

iChat and its instant messaging brethren now almost universally include support for audio and video. In addition, you can share your computer screen with up to three other people. This means you can give live software demonstrations, provide some quick tech support, or collaborate live on a Word document. (Yes, I know there are a lot of ways you can share your screen. This is how we do it. Please share your favorite methods in the comments.)

True story: We’ve been making some gradual updates to the Coaching Calendar interface to make it easier to modify coaches’ schedules. Amber was working from home and had a question about why something was working. I couldn’t immediately replicate the problem so we fired up screen sharing so she could show me what she was doing. Turns out there was a bug in our update–I was able to see what was going on from her perspective and fix the problem in minutes, as opposed to hours of back-and-forth.

3. Document Creation

David Gnojek (CRL’s Art Director) and I needed to create a matrix to compare features of a handful of different ways to create websites like the 2009 SIM Conference site he put together earlier this year. Instead of passing an Excel file back and forth over e-mail, we co-constructed a spreadsheet online with Google Docs, Google’s web-based office suite. When working on the document at the same time, each contributor could see what the other was doing in real-time, and we could talk about changes via the built-in chat feature. Google Docs isn’t limited to just spreadsheets–people can work together on documents and presentations as well.

If Google’s not your thing, there are plenty of other online office suites available. Microsoft is even preparing a web-based version of Office.

4. Learning Labs

We bill Stratepedia’s Learning Labs as a multi-purpose collaboration tool, and we use it for several group projects ourselves. One thing people may not know is that this part of Stratepedia is the only part we didn’t build in-house–it uses an open source learning management system (LMS; think Blackboard, Angel or WebCT) called Moodle behind the scenes to allow us to create private areas with discussions, wikis, file sharing, and more.

If you’ve got a SIM-specific project with online collaboration needs, send us an e-mail and we can set you up with your own space in the Learning Labs. (Or, if you have access to your own web server, you can set up your own Moodle server.)

5. Collaboration Server

This is our newest collaboration tool: A server running Mac OS X Server Snow Leopard, Apple’s newest server-specific operating system. In essence, it’s just like the Mac operating system running on your iMac or MacBook, with extra server-specific software. The key feature for us is the wiki server, which makes creating group wikis, blogs, calendars, and e-mail lists simpler than ever. Since it’s all web-based, collaborators don’t need to use Macs–any modern web browser will do the trick.

Unfortunately we’re not able to make this available to anyone outside of the core Stratepedia group, but we’re excited about the potential to host this great collaboration tool for others down the road.

How about you?

What’s in your collaboration toolkit? Share your additions to the list in the comments below.

Photo: nikki on Flickr

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Aaron Sumner

Aaron Sumner is the Director of Technology for Research and Development at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has worked in web development and instructional technology since 1994.