Collaborative Writing

I attended the E-Learning 2009 conference in Berlin this past week - a combination of the GMW and DeLFI conferences with around 400 people in the new conference center of the FU Berlin.

During the first talk I sat with a friend from another university in Berlin. He knows I like to play with software, and he showed me their experiment in collaborative writing: They were using EtherPad to take notes on the conference online. There were three people participating, who could not all be at the conference for the entire time.

I was intrigued, logged on, and watched them write while I continued to take my notes long hand on paper.

Then my fingers started to itch. I like to copy & paste a link and put it in a digital document after tagging the URL for delicious. And I love to make comments on things online. I couldn't resist commenting on a note my friend was taking. EtherPad color-codes each person, so it is easy to see who wrote what.

He responded by correcting my German, as he is wont to do ;)

The next talk got us mostly writing nasty comments about the pictures. I was a bit irritated at all the pictures being used (let's not get started on the lady with the pointy breast) with no reference. I want to know where I can go to see the pictures and perhaps use them myself. Why can't people include a small caption? Oh, and slide numbers in the form of x/44 so I know how many more are coming.

We split into sessions, and suddenly the usefulness of this tool proved itself. We were sitting in different sessions, but writing on the same page. One of the talks we attended together, and with two people concentrating we managed to get a good bit more of the meat from the talk noted. Someone asked me if a wiki would not be better for this. I think not - I would not see the others writing if I had my own Wiki-Page, and that was a very important aspect of our writing, being aware of who was reading and who was currently writing where.

More and more we could jump to the parallel session, make a note, ask a question, and jump back to our own sessions to continue writing. We eventually developed a style for delimiting the talks, copying over the titles and abstract links from the conference home page, and formatting our work. Little things like a long line between talks and setting the talk titles in bold and including the organization of the speaker emerged as useful.

When we again attended the same session, it was a bit strange when both started writing the same thing down at different places, and my habit of not copying directly but summarizing sometimes got in the way. Also I have lots of typos and der/die/das problems ;) I began to adapt how I write to my audience - my collaborators.

I was twittering in parallel on this first day, and by the end of the day I was exhausted - it was hard to write together in one style and to twitter in another and to listen to the talks and to think and reflect....

On day two I dispensed with most of the Tweets, concentrating instead on getting a good record of the conference. Okay, that was also because I had my OLPC with me and was fussing with the keyboard layout setting and trying to figure out which of the 73 WLAN dots was the conference one while listening to Michail Bletsas talk about what he learned at OLPC.

My friend could not be there this day, but he dropped by occasionally and read what was written, asking questions about things we has written. In the parallel sessions we discovered that writing too much caused a few cursor problems, with the screen jumping from where it should be to someplace the other person was writing. We tried the "undo" functionality, unfortunately that (and disconnections) undo too much.

There is a little chat window next to the writing area, I asked the other collaborators to please meet me after the day's sessions - I wanted to know who these people were in real life!

We continued on the last day, and I discovered that I was developing collaborative writing "muscles" and was back tweeting again.

At the end of the conference I exported our work to PDF - 28 pages! The text would need work before being published (like getting all my German fixed), but it would be easy to have someone else do this, and then remove all the comments and colors.

It was hard to keep from writing comments in the text - they belonged in the chat, but sometimes you just had to put a comment right into the text. I spoke briefly with Michail Bletsas about our experiment at lunch the last day. He asked if we were using Google Docs, I said no, I don't like the delay. He nodded, the OLPC's editor was designed for collaboration with a quick turnaround after typing. Google collects up stuff first before it gets bundled off to the server.

I don't know how the system would scale to > 4 writers at a time, but it does seem to be a nice array of export formats so that you can move your collaboratively written opus to other platforms. A very interesting experience - I think I want to know more about this tool!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations...