Thursday, November 4, 2010

Creating an online collaborative workspace for a conference

Our medical school is popularly called a "No grades, No tests, No lectures" program. One of the jewels of our program is a competency based assessment system that is based on an electronic portfolio that we built from the ground up. We have had many visitors come to see this system first hand and next year we are planning a conference of some of the most well- known names in portfolios use in medical education. This is an invitation only conference and we expect to produce a white paper on this topic.
To facilitate the various activities of this group leading up to the conference and after the conference, we decided to create an online collaborative workspace. There are several platforms like Basecamp, for example can serve this purpose but we decided to try and use Google sites for this purpose.

The required features were:

  1. Restricted access
  2. Members could upload links to useful websites
  3. Members could create a bibliography on this topic
  4. Discussion groups
  5. Shared calendar
  6. Collaborative authoring of documents
  7. Data collection form

We found that it was relatively easy to accomplish everything we wanted with minimal effort.  The site was ready to be populated with content.

The Home Page of the Collaborative Workspace

We learned a lot along the way:

  • Google sites can be set up to have access restricted to invitees only
  • It has a very intuitive WYSIWYG site creation interface
  • You can have left side bar and horizontal navigation and bread-crumbs are built-in
  • You can use a number of existing themes or create your own custom theme
  • You create a "file cabinet" page that allows members to upload files
  • You can create list pages that allows members to add items to lists. The columns of the lists can be customized easily - we used this to create the Bibliography and list of useful web sites.
  • The collaborative authoring requires the use of Google docs. You can start a Google doc by adding a title of the document. You can then share this document with all the members giving them editing rights. You then insert the goggle doc into a page on Google sites. This displays the entire document on the Google site with a link at the bottom to open the document for editing. Clicking this link opens the document in Google docs.  We used this to let members work together on the white paper.
  • For the data collection you again use the spreadsheet function in Google docs. You create a form that connects to the spread sheet. Then you insert this form into a page on Google sites. If you want the embers to see the data collected by the form, you can publish the spreadsheet and insert it into a web page on the Google site.

Data Collection and Report using Embedded Google Spreadsheet

  • For the discussions groups, we used Google groups. Again we gave all members access to the group. Then we used a gadget from the library to insert the Google group discussion into a page on Google site. iE8 does not allow this due to a cross-site filter. Even after I disabled the filter and restarted IE it did not work. It works fine on other browsers (I tried Chrome, Firefox and Safari). A workaround would be to provide a hyperlink to the Google groups discussion page on Google sites, or take the RSS feed from the discussion group and insert it using a gadget into the Google sites page. This last method will provide a read only view of the discussions, but members would have to go to the group itself to participate fin he discussion.

Discussion Groups using Embedded Google Groups

Once we did all this, we were ready to go. The whole effort took us <10 hours of work to be up and running. It was a great experience. Aimee who worked with me on this project was so enamored with Google sites that she is going to create something like this for one of her daughter's projects. Google has provided a very versatile set of tools that can be mixed and matched to create very functional collaborative web spaces.  With the recent Google decision not to allow uploading of files on Google Groups, this ability to integrate Google Sites with Google Groups becomes more important.

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