The potential of open computer-mediated communication channels to facilitate collaboration in geographically disbursed collaborations

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Lynne Siemens

    University of Victoria

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1. Introduction
1.1. Overview

Digital Humanities (DH) is becoming an increasingly global community of practice 1 with international initiatives such as centerNet 2, Global Outlook::Digital Humanities 3, the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (nd), the Digging into Data Challenge (2013) and many others. With advances in telecommunications and information technology, these types of collaborations are no longer bound by geography. However, as documented elsewhere, challenges stemming from geographical distance must be managed to ensure that teams are work together successfully. One of the primary challenges is finding ways to facilitate communication and coordination across distance and time (Olson & Olson, 2000; Siemens, 2010b; Siemens & Burr, 2013). Skype and other internet-enabled tools provide some potential to accomplish this; however, little knowledge exists on the best way to use these tools within a geographically dispersed collaboration. This paper will contribute to this discussion with an examination of the experiences of a DH lab using an open communication channel through Skype to connect team members located in different sites.

As Olson and Olson (2000) outline, despite advances in information and telecommunications technology, distance between members still impacts on a team’s functioning at the task and personal levels. As they suggest and confirmed by others (Kennedy, Vozdolska, & McComb, 2010; Kraut, Galegher, & Egido, 1987), some amount of social presence or visible awareness of others is needed to allow for the sharing of advice, feedback and support among each other and the teams as a whole. Team members build on this social presence to task coordination. For co-located teams, face-to-face formal meetings and informal interactions in common rooms and around the proverbial coffee pot is the primary way to create and reinforce social presence. (Belanger & Allport, 2008; Kennedy et al., 2010; Warkentin & Beranek, 1999). For dispersed teams, the challenge to the creating this awareness exists because fewer channels and fewer personal cues in the communication exist. Without these, individuals are less likely to pay attention to each other (Short as cited in Warkentin & Beranek, 1999). Less personal forms of communication such as email tends to produce an “out of sight, out of mind” effect. (Hiltz as cited in Warkentin & Beranek, 1999). So, the question is how might computer-mediated communication like an open audio and video communication channel, through something like Skype, overcome distance and sustain social presence so that the team can achieve its tasks?

1.2. Methodology

This project grew from the desire of a DH lab that wanted to connect members who were split between two locations. As one initiative, the lab wanted to experiment with an open audio and video communication channel between the two offices. Using Skype, cameras and monitors would be installed and operating during work hours, allowing for communication between the two sites.

In order to understand the effectiveness of this communication channel in facilitating task and personal relationships, lab members were interviewed on two occasions. The interview questions focused on the participants’ understanding and experiences of this type of technology to facilitate collaboration between geographically disbursed sites (Marshall & Rossman, 1999; McCracken, 1988). The first round occurred before the cameras and monitors were installed (pre interviews). The second happened after the communication channel had been in place for several weeks (post interviews).

1.3 Findings

At the time of writing this proposal, final data analysis is being completed, but clear patterns are emerging and, after final analysis, these will form the basis of my presentation.

As found in the pre interviews, these participants had little to no experience with this type of communication channel and were not sure what to expect. At the same time, they could see its potential for increased collaboration because they would be able to see their colleagues who located elsewhere and could more instantly communicate, much like if the person was seated next to them. While some participants expressed some concerns about privacy, as a whole, they were more curious about the ways in which the communication channel would actually work. Some of the questions focused on the location of the monitors and cameras, hours of operation, camera sight lines, and the ways in which communication would be facilitated. Overall, they were intrigued and excited to see how this open communication would work and support the lab’s work.

After the cameras and monitors had been in place for several weeks, the lab members relayed that they became quickly accustomed to the presence of the cameras and monitors. In fact, when asked, they had difficulty recalling the day that when these were installed and the communication channel was opened. As several noted, the cameras and monitors were perceived to be “just there”. In terms of challenges, noise was an issue from the outset. The microphones amplified all sounds that caused much distraction. As a result, the microphones were turned off after several days. Participants also noted that uneven coverage of team members due to camera placement. Some were very visible while others sat outside the sightlines.

Despite this, the participants were very positive about the experience and the benefits produced. Many noted that this open communication channel reinforced the feeling of collaboration by providing an “extension of the existing space” and a “hole in the wall” to the other members. As a result, the lab felt less divided by distance. The interviewees noted several benefits. First, because they could constantly see each other, members were reminded of the presence of those in the other office. In some cases, those in the other office might come join conversations that they had seen on the monitor. Second, an opportunity was created to model professional and academic work habits, such as reading, writing, thinking and discussing, which reinforced these for the others. And while the lab is a professional space, the participants also had a sense of play with each other. They would wave at each other and make visual jokes.

1.4 Conclusion
While this paper reports on the experiences on a small DH lab, it suggests potential for other geographically dispersed collaborations. Open audio and video communication channels can create the sense of social presence by reminding members that they are part of larger efforts, even working at a distance. These tools also complements the other well-established online ones, such as basecamp, github, email, and others, as well as face-to-face meetings for project coordination and decision-making (Ruecker, Radzikowska, & Sinclair, 2008; Siemens, 2010a; Siemens & Burr, 2013; Siemens, Cunningham, Duff, & Warwick, 2011).

1. Siemens, L., & Burr, E. (2013). A trip around the world: Accommodating geographical, linguistic and cultural diversity in academic research teams. Linguistic and Literary Computing, 28(2), 331-343.

2. centerNet. (nd). About Retrieved October 6, 2011, from

3. Global Outlook::Digital Humanities. (2013). Global Outlook: Digital Humanities, October 28, 2013, from

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO