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Considering Immersive Collaboration – at the innovative end of the scale

For the last 18months I’ve been working as part of the management team of the JISC Trialling Online Collaborative Tools for BCE project. The project has had 8 Trial Projects, each examining the use of technology to enhance some form of collaborative activity between a higher or further education institution and its business or community partners.

The project is coming towards a close – indeed the Showcase Event was just last week – and I’m busy reviewing final reports. However, one thing I’m aware of is that the majority of the focus and discussion is regarding use of the online tools rather than the actual collaboration.

It strikes me that “collaboration” is a much overused term, often used to refer to varied modes and methods of collective working or thinking. I’ve done some reading about different definitions of collaboration and particularly like the sub-categorisation of “collaborative endeavours” offered in this 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit/Cisco publication (pdf). They offer the following distinction:

  • Collaboration: a more open-ended series of interactions intended to go beyond individual strengths to create a new source of value.
  • Co-operation: a project with a clearly defined goal and some freedom around the means to accomplish the goal.
  • Co-ordination: a trivial project requiring individuals to follow instructions.

I don’t see these as mutually exclusive, rather being on a continuous scale. It is my feeling that much of our Trial Projects’ work has (understandably) been concerned with the use of online tools for co-operation, not the top-end collaboration. At this extremity is where new innovation happens. “Collaboration pushes beyond the limits of existing conditions or a single stakeholder.” It’s not necessarily goal-orientated and outcomes don’t have to be pre-planned or even achieved. (Note the notion of the creation of “a new source of value” in the definition given above).

I’ve been mulling over the role of technology at this innovative end of collaboration for a while, thinking about it’s effective use perhaps facilitating the process and enabling disparate people to come together. This tweet from @GoCollaboration today linked me to a post that uses the term “immersive collaboration” that adds further insights. It references a video about a collaborative design process regarding a “patient-centered future for health care”. This fully-adoptive, immersive use of technology oils the collaborative process with the primary focus remaining on the new source of value, not the technology.

There are plenty of resonant issues raised in the video, it’s well shot and worth a watch. But, in the interests of getting this posted, for now i’ll stick to my points about collaboration. Further thoughts regarding use of language, stakeholders, empowerment, and future thinking can wait…

Learning to love snails

I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Cuba last October. What a fantastic country; such warm, friendly people with a thirst for life and incredible resourcefulness, fabulous and varied scenery and an abundance of Mojito!

Polymita PictaBefore setting off i’d arranged to visit La Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba and offered my services to deliver some training for researchers (postgraduates and lecturers) on writing basic web pages and the potential of online tools for collaboration. I was traveling with my father, accompanying him on his second fieldtrip to Cuba, hunting down his chosen subjects – snails. Now, searching for snails isn’t one of my preferred pastimes, arousing childhood memories of being coaxed out on the odd dark, damp snail-hunt through the Hampshire countryside in the very early hours. But these are Polymita picta – brilliantly bright and colourful and found only in the sandy, palm-fringed eastern corner of Cuba. Perhaps that explains my sudden attraction!

So, i’d arranged to deliver some training… kind of … well I wasn’t really sure what i’d arranged or what to expect, but was taking a “go with the flow” attitude. I’d sent a number of emails to my contacts at the University in Santiago de Cuba. Just a relaxed Cuban attitude to email, I thought, no worries. But eventually, a reply:

“Sorry for my delay. Many rainy days (18 days!!!) on Santiago de Cuba… and we have been off-line a lot of time.”

And more the next day:

“It is raining… again!!! (19 days). Frogs and snails are very happy…”

But not internet connections it would appear! I was to find out more on arrival; tropical rainfall and web servers don’t go hand-in-hand. In fact, the servers are turned off to protect them when it rains, which it does a lot during the rainy season. Thoughts of home and our reaction to the briefest lack of connectivity… Hmmm, first lesson learnt I think!

Life’s a beachWe arrived in Cuba to sweltering, sweaty, sunshine; such a glorious change to the fast approaching UK winter. After a night in Holguin we traveled to Santiago de Cuba where we rested, slept and headed the next day to the University. My first session was to be at 8am, definitely the earliest start to a Netskills workshop i’ve delivered. However, due to the rains there was no connection, so my workshop was postponed – for a week! – and I was taken on a tour round campus. It was immediately evident that there was an extremely open approach to teaching, learning and working. Seminars were being held outside and there was a general hubbub of noise as lecturers lectured, students discussed, and staff held meetings. Not so different to home, but I got the distinct impression nobody was ever going to be shusshed or caught sending an email to a colleague down the corridor in shouting distance!

“The Googleroom”I was taken to the library which had also been shut for a number of days due to the downpours, but seemed well stocked and with plenty of open areas for self study … Just watch out for the puddles and the damp tables by the open windows! Downstairs in the library is the Laboratorio de Información, more commonly referred to as “the googleroom.” Unfortunately it was also shut due to the power outage but I was told (by the slightly scary Library manager – no comment!) that it’s an extremely popular room; inside are ten networked computers that can be booked for use in thirty minute blocks.

Next we popped into the Centre for English Studies where I had an interesting chat with a professor of English and his linguist colleague, whose eyes lit up when I mentioned my former research areas; phonetics and sociolinguistics, talking about second language aquisition and various models of language representation that I really should remember more of. Actually the professor’s original field was Russian Studies, but demand dwindled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. I asked if they had any partnerships with Universities outside Cuba, but no, they said, unfortunately not.

Puncture at Guantanamo Bay

After a week away from Santiago snail hunting near Baracoa on the far east of the island, and after an eventful return journey including a puncture two kilometres from Guantanamo Bay(!), we returned to fine weather, no rain and a 100% intermittent internet connection – quick, time to deliver my training!

Training at La Universidad de Oriente, Santiago de CubaThe sessions were a great success and thoroughly enjoyable to run. Attending were a mixture of staff and research students, keen to learn and also to cascade knowledge to colleagues and friends. The main focus of the sessions was on creating structured HTML content for teaching and research purposes, attendees keen to know how to keep file sizes and images small for quick transfer. Interestingly demand for our ‘Web Pages From Scratch’ workshop, popular pretty much since Netskills started, has dipped over the last year or two, probably as we see people move towards more sophisticated web-based tools and services. But the framework for any website, whatever your connection, however elaborate your design, and wherever you are around the globe, is provided by a sound structure. Another lesson for us back home, where we tend to be wowed by the (admittedly exciting!) possibilities provided by faster and faster network connections.