For example, it's generally believed that collaboration is a good thing and enables productivity. This of course begs the question what collaborative technologies do scholars use?
According to a recent report on the use of digital technologies in the humanities it's fairly prosaic, but none the less interesting:
- Google Docs for collaborative editing and to share documents
- Dropbox for sharing files
- Yousendit to send large files to colleagues elsewhere
- Skype for discussions
- Blogs/RSS feeds/Twitter to keep ahead of the field
- It needs to provide easy access/integration to Google Docs and other tools - Colwiz and Ojax ++ offer possible routes to building a VRE with third party tool integration
- They need a decent blogging platform - which basically means a local install of wordpress. But, they also need a way to do joint blogs and comments with people elsewhere, which takes us to the interesting lands of authorization and authentication. We could say shibboleth, but we need to encompass collaborators overseas and at institutions such as museums and art galleries who may not have access to shibboleth enabled authentication. As we want to maximise ease of use this probably means supporting mutiple authentication methods such as Shibboleth, OpenID and the Google API
- Researchers want to share big files. They may be high resolution photographs of cuneiform tablets, survey datasets, astronomical images and the like, but the key thing is that they are big. Given that no one understands ftp anymore services such as Cloudstor are of great potential value, but remember, if we are talking about collaboration we are talking about AuthN and AuthZ, which means paying attention to collaborators not in the traditional academic frogpond
- Skype - much the same can be said about Skype versus evo, as could be said about yousendit versus cloudstor.
- People also need an RSS feed aggregator. There's just too many potentially valuable feeds out there. It's also interesting the way that people increasingly treat twitter as a curated RSS feed - ie as a feed of interesting miscellanea recommended by colleagues they trust and respect.
It's also very interesting what they didn't mention:
- Microsoft Live docs and Skydrive
Wikis are an interesting case - quite a few research projects make use of wikidot to maintain a project wiki, yet researchers don't mention using wikis. I don't have an answer to this - it could be that the ease of creating content for a project blog is more appealing than a wiki, but then I thought the implicit non-linearity of a wiki might also be attractive for some multi threaded projects.
The other interesting case is Windows Live. Most academic seem to use Microsoft Word. All the previous competitors have fallen by the wayside, and Open/Libre Office is regretably not quite there. Yet given their need to share as part of collaboration there seems little use in the Microsoft alternatives to the Google ecology, despite also being free and integrated with the most recent versions of Microsoft Office.
So, the non-adoption of the Microsoft products tells us that offering an alternative isn't a solution, even if its as good or better than what people already use - if people want to use Google Docs or Wordpress that's what they want to use, not some odd geeky equivalent.
Strangely enough I've been here before. A long time ago I built a managed desktop service for a university that didn't use Microsoft tools and instead used a range of either open source or low licence cost Microsoft compatible tools. The justification was of course cash saving, by not having to pay the Microsoft tax. Users (mostly) loved the predictability and stability of the managed environment but the number one request for optional individually licenced and paid for software we got was for Microsoft Office, and the reason invariably given was to collaborate more effectively with colleagues at other institutions and secondly to reduce the risk of data interconversion errors.
There are a lot of reasons for wanting to use certain tools in preference to others, starting with usability and being compatible with colleagues elsewhere but the important takeaway is that people want to use what they're already using. These tools are of course out there and universally accessible - which means that there is no way their use can be curtailed by mandating an alterative.
The consequence of this is that you need to provide a mechanism to integrate them, meaning your research and collaboration vre starts looking a lot like a portal or a dashboard with gadgets linking to standard tools ...