Writing collaboratively with Skype chat and Google Docs

I’d imagine most people find the benefit of Skype to be that of free long distance calls. As long as the person you’re calling is also on Skype you can save airtime or long distance charges. That’s great, but given I do very little long distance calling and use my cell mostly for family chatter, Skype has not typically been my tool of choice to replace the telephone. I’d played with Google Docs a bit for fun, but with no real goals in mind. I’ve always got my MacBook Pro with me so I don’t often need multi-computer access to the same files. Enter the coursework for my MA. We are doing our work in small groups of four or five and, all groups are comprised of geographically dispersed folks.

Skype

While finding times for everyone to meet online is a challenge, I find using Skype chat to reach decisions to be wonderful. It gives you the ability to do public group chats on-the-fly or to set up a more secure public chat by allowing read/write permission by invite only. Promoting the room is done via link which connects them to the chat room instantly. Transcripts are always available as HTML documents written to your hard drive and are cumulative from the time you started the chat – ideal when you need a record going back a couple weeks over multiple sessions. You can send files peer-to-peer and add contacts to the chat at any time, while calling an individual for a quick conversation to clarify something is only a click away.

Google Docs

We can easily carry these discussions over to Google Docs, in deciding who needs to do what by when. I’ve set up one file for us to collaboratively write to and shared it with everyone in the group as collaborators. Formatting is easy and different collaborators can simply colour-code their highlighted changes for one editor to compile, with as many rounds of edits as necessary. Or you could just let everyone write whatever they want if you’re brave – personally, I like safer ground rules.

If anyone overwrites groupwork by accident, the versioning ensures you can revert to the last good one easily. As an extra precaution I’ve suggested everyone back up what they do as an export. Once this is ready for final submission I can easily share it via a Skype chat or simply have everyone review it online quickly. If I could change a couple things (and maybe I’m just missing a feature or two) it would be that of a live change tracker in the interface and that the formatting would be better preserved if you export to Word.

Other options less enjoyed

There are many online collaboration tools, but they tend to have problems inherent. And, truthfully, unless you need to share a desktop presentation or whiteboard something, many of the tools won’t actually be of much use.

Elluminate is a cool e-learning and business collaborative suite, but unless you’re up to paying substantial licensing fees, the free version allows only three participants in a limited-feature collaborative environment. The modules look cool, but the only way you’ll see them is a sales demo.

Yugma is another tool which, while providing a full trial for 15 days after which you’ve got a pretty bare-bones environment, I’ve found to be buggy. The feature set looks good but, in trying to use it earlier in the summer for my coursework and just recently for a contractor to demo some wireframes, it has simply hung when I’ve tried it.

Zoho tools bills itself as a suite to compete with Google Docs and more. A brief overview of their services from their landing reveals a very complete suite and what I’ve read would point to Zoho as a solid choice. However, we needed something without user limits or poor feature sets. You still need to pay to get the full meal deal and, in this case, that wasn’t going to work. I’d be interested in looking at it further though, because if all the tools are truly integrated, there would be a very compelling case to use Zoho.

Twiddla was another option that, had I been looking more at collaborative whiteboarding and drawing, I would be interested in investigating further. It didn’t meet my needs for this instance, but I found the user experience good. Simple, online and easy to use. I’m always big on something that doesn’t require the download of a desktop app, as the experience between users on different OS’s will often reflect which one the developers started with.

Final thoughts

I wish Google Talk was more like Skype. It wouldn’t even have to offer IP telephony. If you use Gmail, then you can search Google Talk web chat transcripts in your inbox. That’s not the same as a self-contained chat tool that gives you a full feature set including full transcripts. Then again, the best tools are ones that do one thing really well. Talking and chatting are great with Skype and collaborative writing and publishing to a number of formats are great with Google Docs. You can make them work together pretty painlessly and that’s probably the best way to go.

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