A Brief Note on Collaborative Technologies for Loosely Coupled Academic Projects

At work, Simon Peyton-Jones is involved with a loose team of academics interested in the teaching of computer science to school kids. We chatted about whether social software, especially the more recent Web 2.0 breed, could help the team. I said I’d pull together some pointers for him, here they are.

Models of Social Software

First off it’s interesting to define Social Software. Early definitions of online communities are relevant. For example Howard Rheingold’s definition captures their anarchic feel:

“virtual communities are cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace.”

Academic and ‘how-to’ guides to online community help tease out the dimensions. For example Jenny Preece defines an online community as consisting of:

  1. People, who interact socially as they strive to satisfy their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating.
  2. A shared purpose, such as an interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the community.
  3. Policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that guide people’s interactions.
  4. Computer systems, to support and mediate social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness.

As online communities were folded into the ‘Web 2.0’ aims (to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing between users) other definitions became useful.

First up Clay Shirky’s wonderful definition of the term “Social Software”:

“all uses of software that supported interacting groups, even if the interaction was offline.”

There was an online debate between blogs about this definition and Tom Coates revises it to:

“Social Software can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from human social behaviour [e.g.] message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking.”

Tom’s slide deck on how social media is produced and encouraged contains an excellent and pithy overview about what (post ‘Web 2.0’) social software is and does.

Technological Choices

Simon and I talked about several requirements for the loosely coupled team, and the technologies providing them. Although Microsoft’s SharePoint does much of this, it’s important to keep the provision non-partisan, i.e. to be seen to be technology agnostic so I’ll concentrate on non-Microsoft solutions.

Mailing lists

The heart of what’s wanted is a mailing list. The academic participants are familiar with using email to coordinate activities and to discuss ideas. There are loads of providers (including many academic ones, e.g. JISCmail).


Though blogs can be private, we wondered if the project could host some discussions publicly – seeded by blog posts. This sort of ‘thinking aloud’ is typical of many blogs.

Blog threads also differ from mailing list threads in the sense of ownership. In a mailing list a thread isn’t owned, and it might feel as if the last contributor, the most frequent contributor, or the most prestigious contributor holds the thread more than its originator. In a blog the thread of comments is clearly secondary to the post itself (though trackbacks may trump originals).

There are many sites providing blogging software or and/or hosting blogs. WordPress is popular and excellent.


We talked about the way in which discussions might be summarised, so that a definitive sense of what was discussed or decided could be recorded and referred back to later on. Wikis would provide a useful way to achieve this. Other than MediaWiki and SocialText I’m not familiar with the key names in wiki software, nor good places for hosting.


Though we didn’t discuss this I think del.icio.us may be a useful tool. It allows one to bookmark sites ‘in the cloud’. These can be tagged (for organisation) but also briefly commented on. For the people who do this it makes a great way to keep up with their zeitgeist and I can imagine it working well for a team account. Here’s some examples:
http://del.icio.us/dumbledad (mine) and
http://del.icio.us/rbanks (Richard Banks’).
However I cannot see how del.icio.us accounts can be affiliated into a team – I’ll post if I find out.

File storage

Though there are lots of solutions available for file storage ‘in the cloud’ this feature is most useful when integrated into a more encompassing group site single solution.

Single Solutions

The technologies above could be used in tandem to provide what’s needed, but some of the big players have single solutions that do most of the work.

Yahoo Groups

Yahoo groups has covers mailing list, that members can receive in their inbox or can read (threaded or not) on a web-view. The groups posts can be viewable publicly or not, though that’s a group-wide setting.

Yahoo groups also provides storage, so that files an photos can be added to the group.

They have a link area so that people could bookmark relevant pages they encounter for the group to read, polls, a calendar for events, and a simple database.

They do not provide a blog or a wiki (neither does the beta of their next version)

Google Groups

Google Groups has changed lots since I last looked at it. Like Yahoo they provide a mailing list (with threaded views available on the group’s webpage), file sharing, and customized group pages. In fact the group pages promise that “any member can view, contribute to, and comment on the pages” which may enable blog-like and wiki-like functionality.

Social Networking Sites

Social Networking sites like Facebook sometimes include groups, but these are not email based. The sites are designed in a person-centric (not a group-centric) way and so are not suited to this task. Their core is the user’s profile and the user’s links to other users, not the group’s activity.


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