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U of M Technology Tool Review for Online Collaboration

For those of you just tuning in, I have just completed PA8001, Transforming Public Policy, at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute, taught by Barbara Crosby. The course centers on a team creating a policy recommendation and handing in a group paper. I wanted our team to take advantage of as many online collaboration tools as we could. The U of MN makes several tools available but leaves it up to individuals to learn how to use them. Some of the tools are only available to staff and faculty, and not students. (I work at U of M Extension so I have access to anything available to staff.)

The focus here is on tools outside the U of M's WebCT walled garden learning management system. I have found WebCT to be cumbersome and used mainly as a file repository and not a learning or collaborative tool. The discussion area is sometimes used in classes but is very clunky and even the latest WebCT Vista version has not improved on this much. As we browse the web and see the incredible collaborative tools and applications that Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and others are building, you begin to wonder why our University can't do a bit better and provide better learning tools.

Some of the other groups in the class attempted to use WebCT discussions for communication but no single group posted more than three messages during the whole semester and there was very little use past October (classes concluded in early December). In contrast, our use of web and internet tools increased as we neared semester end. (One weekend we exceeded our limit for mailing list messages.)

I initially posted ideas for using online collaboration tools within our team in October (Tools for a Wired Grad Student). I listed the potential tools that our team would try to use in working on our policy recommendation together. In the end, the tools we tried were: a mailing list, UMWiki, social bookmarking at del.icio.us, UMConnect, and Netfiles. All of these tools are free and UMWiki, the mailing list software, UMConnect, and Netfiles are directly supported (to some degree) by the U of MN.

In this article I will review each of the tools. I will look at what the tool does, it's availability to graduate students, how my group utilized the tool, and I will provide some further thoughts and recommendations related to use at the U of MN. I will also provide some useful links relating directly to the tools and to example usage.

Mailing List

Description. A mailing list is a single email address that "broadcasts" the email to subscribers of the list. The subject of the messages usually carries a unique identifier for the list making it easy to spot messages in your inbox and to filter the messages to folders. Although you can fake mailing list functionality with various group features in your email client, that practice requires constant tracking of the email addresses and manually adding new ones or deleting old ones. A mailing list centralizes the process and subscriptions are handled directly by the software. Human intervention is not required.

Mailing lists are easy to establish and they are free. Both Google and Yahoo support lists (They call them groups) and both provide a useful web interface with bells and whistles. For example, Yahoo has a calendar feature. Both support these services with advertising within your email messages. This makes some people uncomfortable.

The University supports L-Softs Listserv software. Listserv is an excellent mailing list tool although it has a somewhat steep learning curve. You can manage subscribers and many other configuration options from a web interface. There is no advertising. Most lists at the U are running on this.

Availability. U of MN Listserv Lists are available upon request to staff and faculty. Students can only directly request a list if they represent a registered student organization.

Group usage. It's interesting to note that in my initial team survey as to most useful tech tool, no one pointed to the mailing list. Yet we used it extensively. I think the mailing list achieved a degree of transparency and ease and no longer seemed like a tool. It was just there.

Recommendation. Email is still the most commonly shared technology tool at the U. Most of us check out email at least once a day. Ergo, every class should have a mailing list for communication at all levels (teacher-to-students, students-to-teacher, students-to-students). Instead of a discussion topic in WebCT, start the discussion on the mailing list.

Sub-lists for work groups should be made available also.

Someone has to start and maintain the lists as students aren't eligible. At Humphrey right now, it would likely fall into the hands of the TA for the class who already have a lot on their plates. In a more perfect system, the Humphrey IT department or U's main IT department would manage the lists and provide service and support.

Link. http://lists.umn.edu/



A wiki is software that allows users to create, edit, and link web pages easily. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. Wikipedia

Wiki software allows you to easily create a web site around a specific topic or for a class or really for any type of project you're working on. New pages are easy to create and to edit. The software tracks changes and you can get at previous data. It is extremely flexible. It is probably the single best tool to use for collaboration and many corporations are using them internally.

The University wiki site is named UMWiki and runs on open source Twiki software. It is open to all staff, faculty, and students. You can create as many wiki spaces as you want. There is lots of documentation to get you started and the U's wiki support staff is very responsive when support is needed. They usually get back to you (via email) within 24 hours.

By default, UMWiki is readable by anyone on the Web and editable by anyone with a U of MN identification (x.500 ID). Security can be tightened so only members of a particular group can view the pages. (You could even make a page visible and editable by only you but that would sort of defeat the collaboration idea.)

Availability. Everybody at the U of MN can have multiple wikis. You can even add non-U of MN persons as participants.

Group usage. Our team wiki is here:

We used the wiki space for storing documents and providing some reference links. At the top, we identify who we are and I've placed links to our final paper and Powerpoint presentation, and photos of our final presentation package.

Recommendation. If it were left to me, I'd throw WebCT in the trash and develop an initiative to use UMWiki as the main learning tool for classes at the U of M. This is probably doable with just the money we spend on WebCT licensing and support. The ease of using a wiki would mean reduced support costs.

Because of it's flexibility, wikis can be used in multiple ways. A teacher could have a single wiki and have students create connected pages (the students can do this with just a little training). Work groups could establish their own pages.

At the end of the semester, the teacher builds out a new class for the next semester.The old class page is available via a link. The teacher has a record of all her classes in the Wiki. It is a place where potential students can browse and see what the class is like.

The flexibility of the system allows students to create their own personal wiki space instead of a page on the teacher's wiki and then link to the teacher.

This flexibility is the hallmark of a good web application because it allows you to do things your way. It is not a feature of WebCT.

Wikis can be used for collaborative writing—tracking changes and revisions. I haven't tried this and NetFiles offers similar functionality that works well with MS Word documents (and many more people are familiar with Word).

Link. https://wiki.umn.edu/view/Main/WebHome

Del.icio.us Social Bookmarking

Description. Social bookmarking is a method for Internet users to store, organize, search, and manage bookmarks of web pages on the Internet with the help of [a tagging system for] metadata. It is especially useful if you access the internet from multiple computers (one at home and one at work, for example) or if you want to share bookmarks with a group. Del.icio.us is one of the oldest social bookmarking sites and one of the best. It's now owned by Yahoo.

Del.icio.us is a free service. You create an account and start bookmarking using the Del.icio.us tools. By default, all of your bookmarks are public. Anyone on the web (whether they have a Del.icio.us account or not) can see your bookmarks. There is a private option available if you're not comfortable with sharing.

Your bookmarks exist on the Del.icio.us network but can be downloaded to your computer in a format compatible with most browser bookmarking systems. Of course that defeats the advantages of access and sharing.

Social bookmarking systems like Del.icio.us utilize some kind of metadata system for categorization. Most of these systems involve tagging which is simply a method of adding personal keywords so you can find the bookmark later. If you are working with a group, you could use an agreed upon set of tags. There's no limit (as far as I know) to how many tags you can add to an item. This gives you multiple ways of searching for a bookmark.

Del.icio.us provides browser-based tools (basically buttons on your toolbar) that make saving bookmarks very easy. When you find a site you wish to bookmark, you click the button and a window pops up so you can add extra metadata including tags and a description. In many cases, Del.icio.us will suggest tags that you've used in the past or that others have used for the web page in the Del.icio.us system. Once you save, you go back to web browsing. You do not have to visit the Del.icio.us site.

Using Del.icio.us encourages exploration and serendipitous discovery. You can see what others have tagged with the same tags that you are using. Del.icio.us indicates how many have saved a page in the system creating a relevance gauge.

If you tag something in your bookmarks "microfinance," you can also see what other Del.icio.us users are tagging "microfinance."

Availability. Del.icio.us is free and easy to use.

Team usage. Our team established a single, shared Del.icio.us account and stored our bookmarks there.

Recommendation. Any group project relies on sharing bookmarks and Del.icio.us provides a centralized system for the sharing. Of course you can share personal bookmark files but difficulties often arise in getting them to work on someone else's system especially if that person is not using the same browser.

Teachers should start a Del.icio.us account for each class and give students the password. Now you have the whole class seeking web resources for you. You can prune when necessary.

Being a great web tool, Del.icio.us has the flexibility for each student to create their own account and share it with the teacher and each other. In fact, you can subscribe to a specific tag from a specific person. This is a bit more complex than simple usage and would probably require some support.

Link. Del.icio.us main site

My team's Del.icio.us site

An example of well-used Del.icio.us account (mine)


Description. At its heart, NetFiles is a five gigabyte secure storage area available for all staff, faculty, and students. That's a lot of storage. Security includes encrypted connections to the system and ability to set permissions so files are only available to you or selected groups. It has a very easy to use web interface and Windows users can download client software with more features including backup of your local files.

But that's only its heart. Netfiles has lots of other features like the ability to create a web page for sharing your files with links to download them. It also has a check-in and check-out feature for collaborating on a document and it tracks old versions so you can always go back.

Netfiles might be the best-kept technology secret on campus. Until I looked into it to write this article, I had no idea how deep the features are.

Availability. Everybody who works or goes to school at the U of M has access to a Netfiles account.

Group usage. We didn't take advantage of NetFiles features. We used it to store a few of our papers but ended up either putting the papers up on the wiki or emailing them to each other.

Recommendation. With its version-tracking, this should be an excellent tool for collaborating on a paper. I would love to hear reports if anyone tries it. It's also the best place to store your files at the U and it allows for sharing with security of various levels available.

A teacher could also use NetFiles as a drop space for papers. It's easier to configure than WebCT and it's easier for students to use.


Nefiles support site at U of MN

Training along with online orientation


Description. UMConnect is really Adobe Connect and that used to be Macromedia Breeze (Adobe bought Macromedia a while back). According to the U of M web site, "UMConnect enables you to create on-demand web presentations and to communicate and collaborate over the web through web conferences and webcasts."

It's a very powerful tool and only requires that users have the Adobe Flash player module for access. (And just about everyone has Flash these days as it comes with most major web browsers.) If you don't have it, it offers to install it for you.

I use the Meetings feature of UMConnect which allows for a group to log to the UMConnect meeting space and view and share documents synchronously while chatting over an internal UMConnect connection. (For techies: Connect audio uses VOIP.) You can also broadcast yourself via a personal webcam to the UMConnect meeting space. We used Skype (see below) to host a conference call while we worked together in UMConnect. The meetings can be recorded for future playback. (Warning: using audio like Skype outside of Connect makes recording more difficult but not impossible.)

You can upload PowerPoint files, Flash video, and images to UMConnect and share them to groups via the Internet. You can also share your desktop allowing groups to see a Word file that you're working on or showing them a way to do something as a form of training.

Meetings can be limited and secured via the U's x.500 ID system. The same meeting room can persist over time and be used for multiple meetings.

Availability. Staff, faculty, and "eligible" graduate students have access to UMConnect. I would hope any graduate student that asked would be deemed elibible.

Group usage. Two of our team members live in St. Cloud, MN (70 miles from Minneapolis) so we were able to make good use of UMConnect to hold meetings and go over both the paper for our project and our PowerPoint presentation.

Recommendation. UMConnect could be a very helpful tool for our non-traditional adult students who often work fulltime. It allows them to meet almost face-to-face with classmates. The problem is with training and support although basic use is not hard to learn.

Teachers should consider implementing an ongoing UMConnect meeting room for each class and adding the current class to the room. Students can use the meeting room as needed. If necessary, a reservation system could be established. This use is going to require training and staff time and should really be in the domain of Humphrey or U IT and not the TA or teacher.

UMConnect main site

More good stuff

Skype (which links the Internet into the phone system but can also provide audio and video access free across the Net to your Skype friends) also came in useful. (Do check U of MN policy on using Skype before you do anything via the U campus network.)

We did not use the UMThink blog system with the team but why teachers aren't using blogs more is a mystery to me. At least make students aware of the system—available to everyone at the U—and discuss potential uses for shared reflection. First and foremost would be a system for class reflections and in this vein the teacher could create a master blog and make all the students co-authors. Or the teacher could be the only author and solicit comments from students. Or students can each blog on their own. (Each student blogging solo would make it harder for the teacher to follow of course.) Whatever the choice, blogging is a way to share your thoughts and create a conversation on the web.

Conclusion We have these somewhat isolated pockets of really excellent tools at the U of M yet the "official" line would have faculty stuck in the WebCT walled garden. (I haven't even mentioned Moodle which is an open source and free learning management system that can directly replace WebCT and the U supports it.) It's not an issue of ease-of-use because most of the tools I've reviewed are as easy or easier to use. Rather than investing in a bloated and proprietary tool, why not put funds towards promoting and (seriously) supporting web learning and social tools of all stripes and sharing what we learn and hopefully choosing the best tool for our personal styles. The potential savings in dollars might allow the U to offer these tools outside of our ivory tower to other educational groups (K-12, MNSCU) in the state.

Having these multiple and personalized choices is really what education in the internet world is about. We don't have to lock-in to any one tool any more.


Peter - what about Google docs - we use that a lot at work. Its free, it has a big file ceiling, it shows edits, multiple users can edit at the same time, it has an instant messaging sidebar built in and its real time. iChat is great too if everyone has a mac!

Simon - I wanted to feature U of MN tools as they are generally available to all the students without them having to create an account at another service. They are also often unknown because nobody evangelizes them. You'll note I talked about the kind of support we need for these tools to make them useful.

On the more official level, there are privacy issues in storing your data on outside services. Some teachers may be nervous about that.

You are absolutely right about Google Docs. I start most of my papers there and I use it as a quick way to give others access to drafts. I also like that Word docs attached in gmail will open there.

Thanks for the comment and the link to your blog.


Thanks for sharing all of this, Peter. I was in Peter's small group last semester and these tools were INVALUABLE!! I mean it. We were able to cover much more ground much more efficiently than if we wouldn't have used them. I still stand by my answer that the listserve wasn't the most valuable tool (for small groups, hitting "reply all" on an email is easy and although the UM email doesn't, my Yahoo account automatically fills in the "To" field with regularly used addresses or strings of addresses, making the listserve for a small group rather unnecessary-sorry Peter).

We were really fortunate to have Peter in our group to walk us through everything, but I would urge everyone to experiment with at least one of these tools every semester. Invest the time to learn how to use them and then reap the rewards in countless ways. You'll be surprised at how quickly you find ways to use them for school, family/friends, work, etc. etc. etc.

Good Luck and Have Fun with it!

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