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Group Communication Tools: Big Multi-tools? Pliers and Screwdriver?

I’ve been in a number of collaboration initiatives that aim to use online collaboration tools or “virtual community building” and sometimes it feels like the frustration of combing through one of those 90 function multi-tools when all you really need is a basic knife.

While not convinced the tools make or break the projects (it has more to do with the people, the motivation, a shared purpose, the gravitational pull of Saturn ;-), it sure seems like the tools often get in the way rather than enabling. The creaky 1990s vintage “Worktools” used, or attempted in use last year by the Learning Objects Virtual Community of Practice (LOVCOP) as well as the ePortfolios VCOP (E-PAC) had brief pulses of activity last year, but are now online ghost-towns. Was it the tools fault? I would not know, but I can vouch that the sheer tediousness of using them compelled me not to extend an effort (email notifications of discussions posted- you had to log in, navigate and open threads to even find them) and not many others spent time inside these multi-tool. sites. Worktools was likely a fine effort in the early days of web-based forums, but to me it was the equivalent of a Model T on the autobahn.

So what has happened?

Well, E-PAC has migrated to something hosted by the AAHE WebCenter using the CHEF platform. It took about 4-5 emails to sort out password access details, and even inside this “new” environment, it still looks like tumbleweeds blowing down the deserted streets.
The “portal” screen (see right) provides a summary of messages in the discussion area and announcements, but expecting something akin to RSS Feeds, I keep clicking and clicking them and then remember, Doh! They are not linked. You have to click the forums button on the left, and then ferret out the message. The re-arrangable window like features on the front page are nice for a technical achievement, but I cannot see what they provide me in usability. In fact, it re-creates the functionailty of Worktools, but in biue colors.

Likewise, the LOVCOP “community” recently announced a move to a home hosted on the Angel course management platform. Does it work? Again I had a devil of a time getting in. They had sent access details in January or so, and I thought I had logged in. But when a new announcement came a few weeks back, none of my usual passwords worked. So when I click the “lost password” link expecting to see the standard kind of reset or retrieval tools built into some really low end web sites, I was presented with an email link for technical support. The only problem, was the link was set to mailto:No%20Email%20address. Also, I find the role status bizarre ere- it is a CMS, so I am called a “student” and leaders of this “community” are “instructors”. It is arcane.

Maybe I am just taking cheap potshots, but if I as a technologist, run into basic usability barriers, what should we expect of our garden variety faculty users? I suspect these tools are honed by programmers and technophiles and any problems in using them for other people are just code ID10T.

And there are lots of folks trying to push things like this inside tools like Plone – which does have a nice suite of interesting features, but how do they work out? I am sure there are rabid Plone communities out there.

Does that mean virtual communities cannot flourish in bad tools? No. But are the big multi-tools necessary? Are my experiences just bad luck? maybe. Am I taking cheap shots? certainly.

What else can one do? David Carter-Tod is pulling together an environment for this by rubberbanding together Drupal and a Wiki (Drupal “community plumbing” – great tagline– is the wiki the septic tank? ;-)

I am wandering down this road as I am in the midst of setting up environments for four new faculty led groups that next year will be leading activities, R&D, etc in Learning Objects, Hybrid Courts designs, Electronic Portfolios, and Emerging Learning Technologies. I am leaning on them to use electronic tools for publishing their activities, ideas, resource collections etc, and tentatively this is going to be a loosely connected web of weblog + bulletin board + wiki (all open source or free stuff), and tied together by RSS feeds. It is still in the shop getting assembled.

So my long half baked question is- what works better, the big multi faceted mondo multi-tool or a handful of small tools rustling in my pocket. Or do the tools not even matter as much?

And all of this is a pretense, a teaser for something to be unveiled at the end of the week as D’Arcy Norman, Brian Lamb, and myself introduce a presentation for the June New Media Consortium Conference we are calling “Small Technologies Loosely Joined- Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control”. This is going to be a multi-leveled participatory sessions where we will invite the weblog and educational technology community to electronically participate before, during, and after, and touching on this big tool versus little tools debate.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.