January - 2002
Technical Evaluations Report
2. Selection of Collaborative Tools
Centennial College, Toronto
Centre for Distance Education
The previous report summarised the findings of an online survey concerning Master’s of Distance Education students’ attitudes to online collaborative tools. The respondents in the study were 135 graduate students and faculty members of Athabasca University’s Centre for Distance Education (CDE). They demonstrated particular interest in tools that offer the following features: file sharing; automatic synchronisation of documentation for the group; audio conferencing; text chat; and privacy. In the effort to respond to this interest, the Centre conducted a series of trials of conferencing and other file-sharing products. This report discusses the merits and disadvantages of current collaborative methods, and problems faced by distance educators and their students in seeking to adopt them.
Trials of Free Products
Seven online products/ services were reviewed (April to June /2001) in their most up-to-date versions. Emphasis was placed upon whether or not each provided the online collaborative features found to be useful by the needs assessment study (Report 2 in this series). The relevant features of each application are summarised in Appendix 1.
- NetMeeting: At this point, no free product appears to provide
all of the features that the students find potentially useful. NetMeeting
approaches this level, though it is not a cross-platform application (i.e.
Macs as well as PCs), and provides only multi-point audio for a limited number
of users only. This product is also infrequently updated: version 3.01 has
currently been in place for over a year, although we observe that it is being
included as a useful ‘Accessory’ within Windows 2000 and higher
- ICQ: provides text chat, instant messaging, file transfer,
and two-party audio, using the same protocol (H.323) as NetMeeting.
However, ICQ uses the business practice of providing its subscription lists
to advertisers, which many of the students surveyed in our sample found instrusive.
ICQ is not a cross-platform application.
- Roger Wilco: provides audio chat rooms, though few other features.
(A similar product, HearMe, ceased operation since these product trials
- PalTalk: provides reliable audio and text conferencing, including
private groups, instant messaging, and a file transfer facility. For many
online groups, PalTalk appears to be most appropriate application so
far examined in these trials. It is not a cross-platform application, though
is reliable, available in free and fee-based versions, and requires little
technical sophistication. The free version is supported by pop-up ads that
appear at launch and shutdown, though these can be blocked by anti-popup software.
PalTalk has recently subsumed the subscription list of FireTalk
(the reliable though now defunct audio-conferencing product previously favoured
by the CDE faculty and students).
- Stuffincommon: is a free online service that provides many
of the functions requested by the students. The service provides room(s) containing
whiteboard and chat facilities, for self-defined communities. The Stuffincommon
whiteboard is superior to other common whiteboard tools in allowing users
to add URL shortcuts, files, Post-it notes, and images. Each community has
its own rooms, into which only invited parties may enter; and a community
can create rooms for specific functions that it may define. Each community
is a separate Web site, and is thus, it is not platform-dependent. It requires
Web browser software though no other software download. Stuffincommon
lacks an audio facility, though could be used in conjunction with a product
such as PalTalk. Privacy is provided by a login requirement and a community
An Integrated Product Trial
In view of the difficulty of identifying no-cost products satisfying CDE students’ perceived needs, it was decided to test a product which, although not free, integrates all of the desired online learning tools. A new product named Groove was identified, a peer-to-peer collaboration application providing a wide variety of functions: audio conferencing, text chat, privacy, file-sharing, automatic synchronisation of meeting notes, private discussion boards, and a high degree of personal security. At the time of testing (Summer 2001), its first edition was available at no charge (Groove 1.1, Preview Edition). It was a work in progress, with the fully licensed application due for release later in the year. A team of eight CDE members took part in the tests, including six students and two faculty members. A features comparison of all seven products featured in these tests is presented in Appendix 1.
- The Product: Groove operates across a network in a peer-to-peer
mode; i.e., communication among participants is direct rather than via a central
server. This provides privacy and security, and a potential decrease of data
transmission time. The product’s design is based on the concept of “shared
space” (i.e., a private meeting place), within which alternative modes
of communication may be employed. Groove is implemented as a set of
encrypted files on each participant’s computer. Each “space”
contains a list of members, their shared applications, and their accumulated
data. An individual user can use several shared spaces, and can define each
of them on multiple computers. Membership in a shared space is by email invitation
only, thus, security and mobility are provided.
- Results of Testing:Faculty and student members of the CDE tested
Groove during the period of May to September 2001. The product involves
a 14 MB software download, and is resource-intensive, drawing upon approximately
32 MB of RAM memory during usage. Its use in the CDE program at this time
would therefore be a problem for some CDE users, if only for the 9/ 135 survey
respondents with computers limited to this amount of RAM.
The bandwidth requirements of Groove represent a more serious problem.
Severe data loss and break-ups in audio transmission were observed during
the tests. In addition, we found that a text box message could take up to
several minutes to reach the other participants. This problem has been reduced
in a subsequent version of the program (Build 940). A member of the Groove
technical support group confirmed that the break-up of audio transmission
is a bandwidth problem, at least on dial-up. Sixty-nine of the 135 respondents
to the CDE poll use dial-up Internet access.
Groove is a ‘message-intensive’ application: i.e., much
status messaging is transmitted during a meeting, with regard to the session’s
progress. The product provides pop-up displays for many of these functions
(“message being sent”, “message sent”, etc.,). It
even displays “xxx is typing a message” during text chats. This
heavy message load may contribute to the product’s high bandwidth requirement.
The process by which the application coordinates the simultaneous contributions
of participants is known as synchronisation. This is required when participants
wish to make simultaneous entries into a shared tool (e.g., the notepad),
when some members of a group are absent, or when a member makes entries whilst
offline. The tests of Groove v1.1 indicated that connection to a Groove
meeting can take three to five minutes, owing to this synchronisation process,
even between computers in the same room, connected by a 100 MBS local area
network (LAN). During the synchronisation of these two computers, audio transmission
halted while the data was being transferred from one computer to another.
Once the computers were synchronised, the audio time lag between them increased
from almost imperceptible to approximately three seconds.
- Groove's Future Status: Groove’s support technician
states that improvements in audio transmission are a high priority, though
they could not provide a date for this to be achieved. Groove will continue
to offer a free preview edition after the licensed version is released, but
this will not contain feature upgrades, and will not receive the same maintenance
priority as the licensed version. The product’s support staff advised
us that a Mac version is one of the company’s highest priorities, and
that Groove and Apple Corporation were still negotiating this issue. They
indicated that the size of the product download package will not be reduced
from its current size of 14 MB.
These tests led Athabasca University’s software evaluation team to the following conclusions.
- Integrated applications offer more products than all or most other collaborative
tools. However, the problems with integrated software are similar to those
encountered with the integrated tape-slide educational technologies of the
1970s. For the users that need to use all of the features simultaneously,
the package can be bulky and cumbersome; while for those who only need one
or two simultaneous features, the package’s contents are excessive.
The CDE will continue to monitor the evolution of the new integrated product,
Groove, in graduate classes that cover technical issues.
- Simpler products that provide fewer simultaneous applications (e.g., PalTalk,
with its superior audio-conferencing and ancillary functions) are the most
immediately convenient for students to download and install as collaborative
- The Stuffincommon Web site can be recommended to the general CDE
population, as a convenient means for text chat, sharing files and Web links,
images, and notes on digital Post-its. It can be used in conjunction with
a product such as PalTalk, and is a cross-platform application.
report in this series will review text-based conferencing applications.
N.B. Owing to the speed with which Web addresses become outdated, online
references are not cited in these summary reports. They are available, together
with updates to the current report, at the Athabasca University software evaluation
Italicised product names in this report can be assumed to be registered trademarks.
JPB. Series Editor, Technical Evaluation Reports.
Appendix. Features comparison: online collaborative tools (as at Summer
- Two-way dialogue only
- Comments can be targeted to individual participants
- Shared browsing using the same application
- Contents can be saved on the user’s hard disk
- Contents can be copied/pasted to and from the whiteboard
- Contents can only saved within the Groove application; copy/paste only by separate picture tool; and
- Severe break-up of audio transmission.