Tools and technologies

"A cyberspace is defined more by the interactions among the actors within it than by the technology with which it is implemented." Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer (1991). The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat. In Cyberspace: First Steps, Michael Benedikt (ed.), 1991, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

"Technology is only technology if you didn't grow up with it." Jenny Levine (2004). Blog post on "Instant" Messaging, not "Internet" Messaging (

This chapter of the sourcebook is about tools and technologies for making collaboration happen.

A variety of terms are used to refer to software that supports collaborative work and learning, e.g. "groupware" and "social software". Although virtually any kind of software can be seen as (potentially) social, Stowe Boyd (2003) suggests that truly social software should support one or more of the following types of collaboration:

  • Conversational interaction. This could be real time or asynchronous (as in discussion groups and blogs).
  • Social feedback. Examples are the various peer rating systems which allow people or products to gain "digital reputation" or "karma".
  • Social networks. "To explicitly create and manage a digital expression of people's personal relationships", e.g. "friend of a friend" (FOAF) systems, "blog rolls" (lists of links to like-minded people) and networking maps.

Systems that support these forms of collaboration are discussed in more detail in the rest of this chapter.

As with other software, one of the surest ways of making people not use collaboration tools is over-complication and "feature bloat".  Peter Merholz points out that the most (and best) used collaboration tools are instant messaging, simple bulletin boards, voice telephone calls, weblogs and SMS - so we have also included a section on "older technologies" in the chapter.

Other sources of information on collaboration tools

  • Athabasca University (the Canadian distance education university) has an entire site dedicated to evaluation of online collaborative tools.
  • Xplana has a very useful page with courseware evaluations.
  • Collaborative Strategies have developed a taxonomy of collaboration technologies.

Conceptual discussions of social software

  • Clay Shirky (2003) has written a useful introduction to social software and the politics of groups. He makes the point that: "Social software has progressed far less quickly than single-user software, in part because we have a much better idea of how to improve user experience than group experience, and a much better idea of how to design interfaces than constitutions." And: "Despite a wealth of examples [of social software] we don't have many principles derived from those examples". There are many tools and techniques for evaluating the quality of individual user's experience of software, but none for evaluating group experience (as more than an aggregate of individual experiences).
  • Another good introduction to social software is Smarter, simpler, social by Lee Bryant (2003).
  • Ross Mayfield (2003) has compiled a useful list of readings on social software.
  • Stowe Boyd's (2003) Are you ready for social software is another good introduction in which he argues that what makes social software distinctinve is that it encourages organic, bottom-up rather group formation, rather than requiring (as traditional groupware systems do) that people be assigned to groups in a top-down manner. Apart from this key requirement Boyd also lists three elements that makes software social are support for conversational interaction (anything from instant messaging to blogging), social feedback (e.g. slashdot-style reputation management) and social networks (e.g. the Friend Of A Friend standard).

How to categorize collaborative learning software

Currently the various types of software tools discussed in this book are not presented in any particular order, but we expect that it will soon become necessary to sort them into a smaller number of over-arching categories. The following forms of participatory journalism are listed in Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis's (2003) We Media, and can probably be used here as well:

  • discussion groups - asynchronous (mailing lists, newsgroups, bulletin boards, and forums) and synchronous (chat rooms)
  • user-generated content - articles, reviews (e.g., photographs, events (e.g. Conference Alerts) as well as ranking systems and polls
  • weblogs - including supporting technologies such as rss and trackback.
  • collaborative publishing - such as slashdot "which resembles a cross between a large-scale forum and a collaborative weblog" and and wikis.
  • peer-to-peer - Instant Messaging (IM) and Short Message Service (SMS) and file sharing
  • xml syndication - rss

Check the ONE/Northwest blog for another suggested taxonomy of collaboration solutions.

Judith Meskill has drawn up a very useful category structure and list of social networking services.



Collaborative learning environments sourcebook

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