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Selected TechNotes June 2006

Workplace literacy

We all speak about how times change, but seldom stop to think just how the technology changes really are affecting the way we work. In the mid 90s, it would have been "normal" for many people to not have an email address. By 2000, most people had email addresses, but some would have had an assistant print out emails for them to make responses to on paper, with the assistant then typing and sending the reply. By 2005, thankfully, this practice had mostly ended and most people now seem to respond to their own emails. In some cases, an assistant may respond on a busy manager's behalf, but they have at least stopped printing out the emails.

A trend that started around 2000 has been slowly catching on and is now transferring into the general workplace. These are the practices of collaborative document creation and self-publishing. I've written about these technologies before (e.g. Blogs and WiKis), but have not previously stressed how these are now transferring into being "the way things are done". The creation and management of a website is another area that has undergone a major shift. Let me explain more . . .

Whereas five years ago, we might have had one web developer responsible for a website, the newer software (e.g. SharePoint, Jahia) now allows teams of people to create web pages, which are then added to a to-do list for the final web publisher/editor to check and accept. This task of passing drafts around could generate a slew of emails (possibly 5 to 20 emails for a draft page). This can now can be done with no emails, or possibly just one to remind everyone of what the task is and where to check the page. The entire job is done online as opposed to by multiple email exchanges.

The creation of documents for proposals, reports, etc. is a regular task in all organisations and one that can generate dozens of emails, each carrying a different draft. To ensure that everyone is informed, we have a habit of copying everyone we can think of as well! This fills people's inboxes and increases the overload of information coming at us each day. This task of collaborative document development can be done in a number of ways today, requiring almost no emails. I will not bother to describe the expensive ways of doing online collaboration, anyone with money for this can find out quite easily. Two no-cost ways of adding collaboration tools are: WiKiEducator [1] and ThinkFree [2]. Both services are free; WiKiEducator focuses on supporting the education sector, while ThinkFree is open to anyone. WiKis are essentially an easy way of publishing a document on the internet. It allows anyone else to read and edit the same document. All versions of the document are kept so that an administrator can "roll-back" to a previous version. The online tools on WiKis (including WiKiPedia []) are simple to use and enable people with an internet connection from any country to participate.

ThinkFree [3] is an online service that provides word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation program functions like an office suite. The free service provides 1 gig of free online storage for documents, which allows you to roam the world while accessing your documents from internet cafes and other peoples' computers, simply accessing your programs and files via a web browser. Once created, documents can be made visible to a selected group of people for review and possibly for editing (you can select what others can do with your document) and you can make it available to the world. Thinking about publishing a few pages of your writing? How about this as a means for free publishing for others to read. To show how this works, I'll publish this edition of my blog to ThinkFree so that you can try it out. Just click here.

Other services are budding in the area of free online collaboration; watch out for Writely [4] and Google Spreadsheets [5] - both are free services by Google, presently in beta.

Backing by files

I've written on previous occasions about backing files and still hear of people who say they had some major PC crash or the theft of a PC and how they lost years of work. Rule one: BACKUP your files! Rule 2: have a copy of the backup in a location other than where you live and work!

Some of the problems with backing up are the hassles and cost with buying backup devices (tapes, DVDs, external hard drives) and making them work. It's quite understandable why many of us don't get around to it. Another problem is that if a thief is serious, when they strip the valuables from your home - they will take the backup devices and media as well, leaving you nothing.

Online backups have been available since the late 1990s, but were less than popular because of bandwidth limitations; this situation has improved for a lot of people. Another problem was that the companies were sometimes bought by other companies that did not seem to care much about the service being offered - and shut it down. The good news in all this is there is a new online backup service. It offers up to 2 gig of free online storage and you can buy storage above this level at a very reasonable rate.

The company, Mozy, asks you to download a little program that enables you to select the folders you want to backup and then it does it whenever it can with no further interference to you. You will no doubt want to check their statements about privacy and encryption of data. The service seems really simple and I hope they stay around for years to come! You can try my reference for Mozy [6] Congratulations to Mozy for making the service available for "normal people" - I hope you keep the service running and don't sell the company!

4th Pan Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF4)

PCF4 is looking like it will be a major gathering of educators from developing countries. It has 4 themes: Innovation, Learning, Collaboration and Foundations. Online conferences will be hosted in the weeks before the main forum and will be announced shortly. Information on the Forum is on the web at: [7]

The copyright holders make no representation or warranty, express or implied, as to the accuracy or application of the material in this report which represents the opinions of the authors, nor does it warrant the claims of any of the products. The results and recommendations may or may not apply to the specific circumstances of third parties. Third party use, therefore, is at the discretion of the user.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License: [8]