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Electronic Tools for Collaboration

People working together to achieve a common goal - collaborating - always involves some form of communication hence the issues of communication and collaboration are closely tied. There is much evidence in educational literature that collaborative work has an important place in the learning process. In the past decade, several studies have set out to test hypotheses on the role of collaboration in learning. For instance, Batson (1988) describes the use of networks to allow the instructor to move from being lecturer to director of discussion and ultimately collaborator in writing. Collaborative tools often distribute student participation more uniformly. It has been demonstrated that the focus of student work in a networked environment changes from writing for a single audience (the teacher) to writing for a community of reader/writers. The use of open, collaborative tools encourages students to write to inform and persuade rather than to write for evaluation (by the teacher alone). Studies have shown that networked, textual collaboration allows writing to become more conversational (Langston and Batson, 1990). Many collaborative writing tools exist; they engage students in each others' writing process - development, brain storming, outlining, drafting, review and revision.

Traditional means of communication - face-to-face meetings, telephone conversations, writing - are not likely to be replaced completely by newer, technology-based tools for communication. In fact, both traditional and electronic forms of communication have strengths and weaknesses. Our purpose here is to explore briefly some of the advantages and tradeoffs of using electronic means of communicating and collaborating.


Electronic mail is the dominant form of networked communication. While many users of e-mail know how to use it at a basic level, many are not aware of advanced features which make e-mail an effective tool for office management (see also "E-mail as an Office Automation Tool", in this workbook). Much more importantly however, many users of e-mail have not considered the unique dynamics of e-mail communication. For example, body language which constitutes more than half of the information being conveyed in a face-to-face conversation is lacking in e-mail. Tonal qualities of the spoken word are similarly missing. E-mail is information in a much less elaborated and complex form than the spoken word. These differences are not entirely disadvantages, however.

It is more difficult to type than it is to speak for most of us. Thus, composing e-mail takes more time and we tend to choose our words more carefully. E-mail tends to be more organized than speech. E-mail can be stored, retrieved and forwarded to others which also encourages the e-mail author to choose words carefully. While reading e-mail as soon as it arrives at your electronic mailbox tends to become an obsession for some, e-mail can be handled at the convenience of the reader, unlike telephone calls. Dependable e-mail systems deliver mail whether you're there to answer it or not, unlike the phone. E-mail can substitute for an answering machine. Some computers can "read" your e-mail to you in a synthesized voice so even our definitions are being challenged.

E-mail is not without controversy. It can be sent out via large, community-wide distribution lists, in which case some readers may define it as "junk e-mail." E-mail can be used to offend, harass and even threaten. It can be used to obstruct one's use of the network. But in all these instances, the higher order principal in question is "medium-independent." Harassment can be delivered in many ways; that it is delivered in e-mail is not the issue. Unwanted mailings are a routine if not a staple for the U. S. Postal Service, and yet it is the responsibility of the recipient to remove their names from mailing lists.

Guidelines for the use of e-mail as a communication (and collaboration) tool are called network etiquette or "netiquette" and while some guidelines are universal, effective guidelines usually come from a community consensus on proper use. A sample of such guidelines might include:

DON'T SHOUT IN E-MAIL!!!! Using all capital letters is usually interpreted as shouting. Try using only one exclamation or question mark instead of a dozen.

Make certain you are using the correct e-mail address for your intended recipient. John Smith's username may not be SMITH.

Don't use e-mail when a direct conversation is more appropriate. No one should learn of a death in the family over e-mail!

Do use an appropriate subject line for your mail. Mail sent without any indication of its subject is often unread.

When using a large distribution list, ask yourself if you would stand up in front of these assembled readers and say what you're about to write in e-mail.

Selected text characters are often used in Internet e-mail to indicate emotion (hence the name emoticons). For example, the following is a listing of the most commonly used Smiley's:

:o Wow!

:v Speaking

:, Smirk

:V Shout

:|| Anger

') Wink

:[ Pouting

:)Your basic smiley. This smilie is used to inflect a sarcastic or joking statement since we can't hear voice inflection over the Internet.

:(Frowning smiley. User did not like that last statement or is upset or depressed about something.

:IIndifferent smiley. Better than a frowning smilie but not quite as good as a happy smiley.

Internet-style Discussion Lists

Groups of individuals sharing common interests often use e-mail on both the local and global level within what are termed "discussion lists". Other names for these e-mail based fora are discussion lists, mail reflectors and listservers. Discussion lists resemble magazine subscriptions. You subscribe and then receive all the e-mail submitted to the group by all other subscribers. Depending on the group, the postings can be moderated and of fairly high quality, or unmoderated and of little value. It all depends on the character of the group, and this changes from time to time as any conversation will change.

When you join a discussion list, you can listen to the e-mail "conversations" carried out by others, or you can participate with your own postings. You can send out mail either by sending your comments to the discussion list itself, in which case all subscribers receive your mail, or by sending e-mail to a particular participant whom you've identified through the group. Discussion lists can have a handful or thousands of participants and can distribute e-mail only among subscribers on one campus or across the globe. An active discussion list can fill your incoming e-mail box each day (in which case you might want to read the article "E-mail as an Office Automation Tool", for hints on how to mange the overflow). Most discussion lists are far less intense, but regardless of the volume of e-mail, you can think of Internet discussion lists as ever-changing resources there for your use. For example, you can subscribe and retrieve the archives of recent correspondence before posting an inquiry. Look for FAQs within the archives - frequently asked questions. Once you're informed of the purpose of the group, post your inquiry or comment and then listen. An active group will respond within hours. Unsubscribe from the group when you no longer find the material relevant. For additional information on how to participate in a discussion list, see the article "Internet Discussion Lists" in this workbook. For information on how to sponsor your own discussion list, see the article "Participating in Discussion Lists at Kenyon" also in this workbook.

As tools for collaboration, discussion lists have several advantages over other methods.

Discussion lists are based on e-mail, a tool with which nearly every student and member of the faculty have experience at least at a basic level, including the text editor.

In general, managing discussion lists requires less time of the sponsor or moderator. The manager of a discussion list can play a significant role in managing the group, or can play little if any role. For example, you can control who can subscribe, or make a group totally public. You can moderate each contribution, or allow anyone to post to it.

Discussion lists are a global, Internet standard for collaboration and focused discussion. Students well versed in discussion lists will encounter the same collaborative tool after graduation.

Mail from a discussion list can be managed (categorized, filed, retrieved and forwarded).

Discussion lists can be cross-posted to Usenet newsgroups (see below) which are archived, and structured by topic which can be followed very easily from posting to associated replies. Anything sent to a group that is cross-posted to Usenet news is sent not only to the group, but also circulated within the corresponding newsgroup, and vice versa. This cross-posting feature allows you to select which style of interface you want from your electronic collaboration: an active style, as in e-mail which is sent to you, or a passive style, as in Usenet news, in which you must go the newsgroup to read the postings.

Usenet News

Usenet News presents a compilation of all postings to 2,500 or so newsgroups each day. E-mail postings to each of these many newsgroups are combined and redistributed over the Internet each day (Kenyon's newsfeed sends us nearly 30 megabytes each night!). News is a completely open forum. There is little if any editing or quality control. Individuals routinely create new newsgroups, some on topics which you may find trivial at least, offensive at worst. Many newsgroups are unofficial and fade away for lack of interest. Others are scholarly in nature and have endured within the list of newsgroups for years. Read the article "Usenet News" in this workbook for instructions on how to use our Usenet News reader.

It is possible to establish "local newsgroup" within NetNews. Local newsgroups are not distributed beyond the local campus. A local discussion list cross-posted to a local Usenet newsgroup is a flexible combination of tools for collaboration. NetNews archives all the postings by subject line in the order in which they were received. The reader can follow the theme (or "thread" in Internet terms) through the postings. There are commands in NetNews which allow the reader to find quickly each subsequent reply to a posting of interest. At the same time, postings to the discussion list are circulated to subscribers directly for those who care to mange their own archives, or for those who wish to be notified of each new posting in the conversation.

Computer-mediated Conferencing

Computer-mediated conferencing, or CMC, is often based on e-mail or on tools very similar to e-mail. Electronic conferences are thematic and facilitate the exchange of ideas by storing, organizing and allowing the retrieval of each participant's postings to the conference.

VAXNotes is one such conferencing tool. A VAXNotes conference typically covers the content of one course. Within the conference, there can be many topics. Often the instructor creates these topics,possibly as questions or components of the broader focus of the course. Participants reply to the topics, and can view each others' contributions to the continuing conversation. New issues can be raised and these moved to a new topic area for elaboration by the group. Conferences can be reset each year or can be continued from class to class.

Procedures for using, creating and managing VAXNotes conferences at Kenyon are included in the article "VAXNotes" in this workbook.


The term "whiteboards" has been applied to the newer computer programs which allow several individuals to interact on a virtual whiteboard over a local area network. The more sophisticated versions of this class of collaborative software provide the means to view and manipulate text, graphics, data and in some cases, to see and hear each of the participants via a video conferencing feature. At a more basic, affordable level, each participant can mark up a document or graphic image while maintaining either an e-mail or telephone linkage to other participants. Whiteboard tools are not in wide use yet, and it has been said that this is a solution searching for a problem; however, this technology is likely to find application in its facility to enable spontaneous and distant collaboration, and to provide a more complex mode of communication. Talk Show, a whiteboard tool demonstrated in this Institute, is one such application.

Video Conferencing

New technologies make it possible to conduct fully interactive video conferences over local and even wide area networks. While the best of this technology remains fairly expensive for each workstation, some local area network versions allow for full speed (30 frames per second) and full screen windows in which each conference participant can view the others. Corporate uses of this technology are growing; in many cases, the availability of video conferencing has cut travel costs. Educational uses outside of distance learning have not been explored as fully.

Wide area network (i.e., over the Internet) uses of video conferencing are quite basic at this time, but are not expensive. Cornell University's public domain CuSeeMe program allows individuals running this program on a microcomputer (Windows or Mac) to see all participants who have connected to a CuSeeMe "reflector" (a computer which gathers then resends video to all recipients). The frame rates for this video are slow (usually less than 5 frames per second) and audio channels are not yet available for all versions of the program. The Windows version of CuSeeMe is being demonstrated in this Institute.

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