Meet Me Online

Meet Me Online

Collaboration tools allow administrators to work together even if they can't get together.

People rarely work in isolation. But it's not always easy to meet in person to work on a project. Connecting online can be done from almost anywhere. The collaboration possibilities run the gamut from passing a Word document back-and-forth via e-mail to holding a multiparty videoconference.

Read on to learn how a variety of online collaboration tools are helping college and university administrators execute projects more efficiently.

Collaboration of any sort isn't possible if team members can't coordinate their schedules. This makes a shared calendar a simple but powerful tool to move projects along.

When administrators at the University of Pennsylvania started looking for a more robust e-mail client, they settled on the Zimbra Collaboration Suite. "Being able to schedule in one central calendar is very important," says Adam Preset, the university's IT technical director. "E-mail integrated with calendaring, address book, notes, to-do lists, and document sharing is a powerhouse tool." A desire for a single sign-on password and a strategic move toward open-source solutions were deciding factors in the university's vendor choice. The system allows private and shared calendars, which makes scheduling meetings easier since everyone's free time is visible. Pop-up appointment reminders help forgetful team members.

Although Zimbra offers a hosted solution, Adam says the institution self-hosts "because we can control it better. We know it's secure and in compliance with FERPA and HIPPA."

An e-mail migration to Google Apps for Education was also the introduction to online collaboration tools for Boise State University (Idaho). "The collaboration was a bonus," says Brian Bolt, a systems engineer in the Office of Information Technology.

People had to adapt to the new e-mail system since the old one went away, but there is no mandate to use the collaboration tools now available. Getting opinion leaders on campus to use the online documents is helping spread use, with plans to promote use after people become accustomed to the new mail system, Bolt says.

A stopping point for some people has been the difference in the features, such as formatting, available in Microsoft Office but not in Google Docs.

However, Bolt's office has been using Google Spreadsheets to better track tasks and sees great value in the ability for multiple people to edit a document simultaneously.

Sharing documents in advance has also changed meeting discussions because people have more information. "It changes the dynamic of when a document is finished," he says, because people can share ideas and opinions while a report is being drafted, instead of having to wait for the final version when more input might not be needed.

Collaboration can be much more than multiple people editing a single document. Keeping a work group aware of priorities and resources can be a compelling reason to implement a project management solution. "If you classify collaboration tools as being able to initiate a work flow and a central repository of information, then this qualifies as a collaboration tool," says Bruce Bills, software engineering director at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

While selecting a new student information system, campus leaders realized a better way to communicate was needed. More people had to be able to analyze data and communicate efficiently, and then there was a desire to distribute IT staff attention more evenly. These factors led them to select a project management solution from TeamDynamixHE. Without the resources for a dedicated project management office, other solutions were too complex for BYU-Idaho's needs, Bills explains.

The new system is being used to ensure the efforts of the IT department are in line with strategic needs on campus. In addition to having manpower hours set aside for routine tasks, larger projects are easily visible for approval by the president's council. One such project being tracked is rewriting the admissions component of the new Jenzabar SIS to better match the school's needs.

"People see IT is busy," says Bills. "They used to wonder what happened to their project. Now they can see it's in the queue."

Better distribution of IT services and project visibility were the driving factors behind Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) switching from a homegrown solution to the TeamDynamixHE offering. "Our system was lacking in terms of collaborating and providing information in a timely fashion," says Clay Fulton, technical coordinator in Carnegie Mellon's Planning and Project Management Office. Fulton believes that managers needed a better way to track open tasks and communicate project status to their teams.

The department has been able to eliminate regular "coordinator for the day meetings" during which all the managers would present their open projects and receive feedback. Now comments and concerns are provided through the project management system. "The face-to-face meetings used to take a lot of resources to plan and hold," Fulton remembers.

Many higher education institutions are repurposing web conferencing technology originally put in place for synchronous distance learning classes.

A chat function is also available, although in-person meetings or web conferences for remote locations are still the preferred method of real-time communication. As Bills points out, "We use what's familiar. Under pressure, it's really easy to make a phone call."

Neither institution is making heavy use of the document storage capabilities. As Fulton explains, CMU opted for the hosted solution, which takes security out of their hands. "We've provided our team with guidelines about not posting restricted data in the tool," he says.

Other users find the ability to keep all aspects of a project, from open tasks to documents, in one location a valuable way to manage varying work schedules. "As I began the project to overhaul our college's home and news sites, I needed a solution to manage parallel work plans"; says Jay Collier, web communications manager at Bates College (Maine). Ease of use, unlimited users, and collaborative editing were among his top features. "I wanted people to be able to see their small section and not the whole project," he says. He was also in the awkward position of having a project too small for a full blown project management tool but too large for a to-do list. After doing some research, he shared a Google Doc Spreadsheet with an e-mail listserv and used the feedback to select project management software ActiveCollab.

"Access and permissions are important," Collier says, since people might have different roles for each project they work on. The ability to slowly introduce users to all the available features is also helpful so they don't get overwhelmed. The system links to the campus e-mail client, so team members receive notices of open tasks and have the option of responding via e-mail or through the system. Either way, the conversation thread is attached to the project.

Collier also finds the wiki page feature useful for drafting documents, since he can control each user’s ability to view or edit a document based on their role in each project.

"I've seen an increase in productivity," he says. It was easier to coordinate student workers over the summer. "Since they were in two different buildings and had varying schedules, the software helped us stay on the same page."

Reviewing student applications for graduate school can be as much of a collaborative project as updating a web page, an issue familiar to the school of education at Indiana University. A paper-based application review process meant "folders were getting lost or not getting processed quickly so we were losing candidates," says Larry Riss, director of educational technology services. The problem was addressed five years ago when they switched to an electronic process using Microsoft SharePoint.

Now students fill out an online application, which feeds into the SIS, which feeds into SharePoint. Documents received later in the cycle can also be added to the student record.

Once a full application is received, committee members receive a notice from the system that it is available for review. "The committees can mark-up [applications] in SharePoint, comment on the candidate, update the record status, note missing information, etc.," Riss explains. The record for an admitted student can then be pushed out of SharePoint back into the SIS.

Converting to the new system met the usual resistance to a change in process. It was managed by making it "inconvenient" for committee members to continue using the hard-copy folders by requiring them to stay in the office during use.

As the system has grown in acceptance, other uses have been added, such as tracking fellowships. "We captured all the rule sets so everyone can see what the donor intended," Riss says. "As fellowships are suggested, we document it so we don’t over-commit or not use the funds."

"The bottom line is to make data visible, so all the faculty in the school can see all the information," he adds.

Of course, college and university faculty and staff collaborate with more people than those located down the hall. Team members might be located on a satellite campus or at an entirely different institution, in which case video and web conferencing are the collaboration tools of choice.

An initiative in the state of Nevada to adopt a standard learning management system for high schools and public colleges and universities led to the adoption of Wimba for easy communication on the project, relates professor Vartouhi Asherian, an instructional designer at the College of Southern Nevada.

Needed features included ease of use, support for a variety of computer operating systems, synchronous and asynchronous capabilities, and a screen appearance that would work for K-20 students. "We were initially looking for just courses, but realized the administration might like the [on-demand] meeting feature because the use could be expanded," she says.

Web conferencing has increased participation in Administrative Faculty Assembly meetings as faculty members from remote locations can now attend since they don't have to worry about the cost and time involved in travel. "We had to do some by-law changes so we could accept their vote without seeing their faces," Asherian says.

Recent budget cuts have encouraged use of the system for professional development and training sessions since some departments stopped reimbursing for travel expenses. The ability to share documents online during the meeting also saves on printing costs.

But there is a drawback. "If I'm a participant I'm bad," Asherian confesses. "I'm alone in my office so I multitask." However, even in a face-to-face meeting, people can work on a laptop or leave the room to take a phone call. "You can't archive a physical meeting," she points out.

Many higher education institutions are repurposing web conferencing technology originally put in place for synchronous distance learning classes. Clemson University (S.C.) leaders first tapped the existing Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro system for technology support purposes in 2005 when they implemented Microsoft Outlook. "We had about 5,000 employees we were trying to convert from a multitude of legacy services," says Kathy Hoellen, director of teaching and learning services. The university used the system again the following summer for a Blackboard upgrade, and have used it for training and support ever since.

Prior to using a "Virtual Situation Room" through Connect, large-scale deployments required staff to relocate to a physical situation room stocked with white boards and extra phone lines to manage the implementation. Now, everyone can stay put and activity can be recorded and archived for later use.

Routine calls to the IT help desk are also handled through Connect with the screen-sharing capability used to aid troubleshooting. Training sessions are also conducted live online, which is especially cost effective if only one or two people in a remote location are attending. "We can now provide [remote locations] with the same support services and access to support personnel and training," Hoellen says.

As a land grant university, Clemson support personnel are distributed across 50 sites. In addition to increasing efficiency, the online system had the unexpected benefit of increasing team spirit. "We've had distributed personnel tell us they felt more connected," Hoellen says, because they have real-time access to coworkers and everyone receives information and updates at the same time.


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