Saturday, March 12

O Collaboration - Where Art Thou?

For those that know me (all three of them) know that I am pretty passionate about the power of the Internet being its ability to connect people to people, not people to content. I was reading an entry called Learning Conversation from Jay Cross' blog and was provoked enough to start writing a comment. A really long comment. So long in fact I thought I would post it here instead and get other people's reactions rather than have it buried there as a comment.
[yes, I believe that the comment format in blogs hinder more than help collaboration. Why, for example, can't blogs by default show comments to the right of the original post, in parallel, or even better have the option of the comment appearing as a footnote numbered so that you can precisly situate your comment relative to that section in the orignal post]

To get the context of what I am writing about play the archive of Jay's event before reading further.

I believe that for any effective learning event (events come together to form a continuous learning experience) a structure of before/during/after applies. For example during university my most effective classes were the ones that we prepared for ahead of time by reading the materials and then came to class ready to discuss. The same principles still apply online because they apply to effective learning, regardless of the delivery medium. One learning event flows into another one; the After phase of one event ends up being the transition to the Before phase of the next event and so it goes on to create the learning experience.
(as an aside I was recently talking to a generic courseware provider and expressing amazement that they were still in business given that no one has ever wanted a generic course but a solution to a specifc problem and he replied that they may be a dinosaur but that dinosaurs survived for thousands of years and it took a meteor hit to wipe them out - good point!)

To me Real Time Collaboration (RTC) solutions like Macromedia Breeze, Centra, WebEx, Elluminate etc replicate oh so many of the problems we face in the traditional face-to-face model. Yet on the other hand I don't want an unscripted, wandering presentation format. I want, I need, structure - just not the structure of the traditional classroom where it was so rigid that you felt that you were a captive unable to do anything let alone contribute in a meaningful way (i.e. sit and listen).
If you don't engage me then I'll vote with my web browser and go elsewhere. You need to keep me involved - the most effective way is to set my expectations before, during and after the event. I don't want just the agenda, tell me what the framework is going to be but keep it flexible. But remember, as a host, you are my guide and I trust you to be the ring master to keep us together as we explore the framework.

Let me give some quick general examples of what I mean by Before/During/After:
(1) Before - offer links of your related articles and blogs entries. If you really want to engage me I need to know the context of who you are (at least as expressed through your writings). You're the expert - you tell me what I should have passing knowledge of in order for me to understand you (context).
- Why ask me to email topic suggestions? Why can't I go to some place and post them out in the open for all to see. At least that way I can see other people's questions which may provoke questions from me. Email is so one way and runs counter to effective collaboration. Post a summary of the accepted questions ahead of time
(as some questions you can roll into one question) so that I too have time to think about my own responses. Lets start the conversation before the event!

(2) During - it's online so of course all of us are going to be multitasking while attending. If you are PowerPointing us to death than at least show one web link at the top of each slide that allows us to dive in deeper on that particular slide topic (I'm going to be multi-tasking so you might as well try to give me some things to do).
- Give me profiles of my follow viewers so that when I participate in the chat room I know more about the person I am chatting with.
It may be shocking to some but I don't care about videoconferencing. I will take a static picture of Jay over watching a video stream any time. I will get enough of the nuances from the audio, the video doesn't add much, if anything it is a distraction. The power is in what you are saying, not in what you look like (this is the fundamental principle of the Internet).

(3) After - so now the online event is over but in reality the learning is still continuing. This is where RTC really needs to be improved because I basically feel that in today's world when the RTC event is over then it all fades to black . Sure creative sparks may fly during the event and a good conversation was had by all but (and this may be just me) I need to time to think about what was said before being able to really articulate my thoughts and contribute. Give me a place to go to afterwards.
- And in the archive why can't I fill out the survey that was presented to the live viewers? You sure would get a lot more responses!
Macromedia - stop asking for my mailing address when I go to view the archive. If I want you to have it I give it so make it voluntary. And forget about getting my phone number, I don't even know you do, so here it is: 555-555-5555. It is an annoying barrier to what I came there to do - watch the archive. You already have what I consider to be my most precious piece of information - my email address.

For effective collaboration you need to synchronize not only the tools and people but also the processes.
(1) tools - the thing I hate most about Real Time Collaboration events is the lack of pre and post follow-up using other collaboration technologies. As Jay suggested at least link a blog to the archived event so I have a place to give my feedback and thoughts on the topic. Feedback keeps the underlying event alive and frankly the value of such an event increases over time as the comments will keep the topic fresh and current.

(2) people - most of your visitors will come from those viewing the archive version, often outnumbering the live viewers 100:1 (and more as a function of time). Keep that in mind when doing your live web cast.
- Don't just give me your email address at the end; give me a way to interact with other viewers because I know they are at least interested in the same topic. Even if I attended the live event why can't I keep up to date with the comments being added to the archive. Discussion group software has the ability to notify me by email of new postings, why can't the event archive do this?
And by the way, don't allow anoymous comments. If you have something to say then put your name to it (even better if it is a validated name or email address). This isn't AOL, this is a place for learning.

(3) processes - we need better ways of engaging people before, during and after an event. Like Jay said the Breeze technology technically worked fine but event was not as effective as it could have been. I felt that during Jay's event that there were two things going on - Jay and the guys talking and the interactions going on in the chat room. Sometimes the two worlds connected but not often. I wanted more crossovers to occur.

Real Time Collaboration works best when it acts as a springboard to something else and is viewed as one aspect of an entire learning experience. I'm sorry but no single RTC event by itself is going to change my life. The best events make me think about the topic so that I will continue to explore that area so that over time my habits will change. Until RTC vendors get this, that they are part of something bigger, then real time events will continue to leave the viewer turned off (pun intended).

So this is my rambling rant -
What do YOU think about my comments? Yea or Nay?
What do you think can be done to improve real time collaboration?
Click on the "comments" link below.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Ben and as far as I understand, I believe that Jay agrees also.
We've passed the point of talking about learning being a live long event and we should start doing it. Every time we face a learning need, we should think in the terms expressed in Ben's Blog.
The biggest challenge I see is that although everyone understands is, when it comes to actually "walking the talk", we usually reverse ourselves to the most conventional modes ( at the max some minimal blending).
Meir Navon

jay said...

I think of Mark's and my freeform conversation at Macromedia as the first of what will probably turn out to be a long chain of experiments. At first I was really disappointed, but as I got some distance, I'm glad we had a session:

* driven primarily by audience questions
* totally unrehearsed, spontaneious
* PowerPoint-free
* informal

The new Emergent Learning Forum will continue the experiment.

Ben Watson said...

I think it is great what you did as it gave us a chance to learn from it. It's easy to criticize when you're not the one doing it. At least you are out there trying new things and new ways, taking us from the abstract to reality.

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