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How to cyber-collaborate

Options:     Print Version - How to cyber-collaborate, part 4 Print view

Creating the right infrastructure

To a large extent, the right infrastructure is about people: how you draw them in, manage and communicate with them.

However, having the right software and using it in the right way can help make a project like this more user friendly. We use technology to save time – can you imagine life without word processing or e-mail? The right sort of software, which makes key project tasks easier while not introducing unwanted complications, will make the project run more smoothly.

As stated earlier, wiki software is now commonly used to produce collaborative works. Wikis are built round a database and resemble content management systems for uploading material to the Web. They allow for communal entering, editing, revising and subsequently viewing text. There are two particular features that make a wiki suitable for collaboration:

  1. It is built so that multiple people can access and edit a document: if B edits A's contribution, a history page retains A's version and may even allow for comparison with B's, while a discussion area allows B to explain what he has done.
  2. It allows for the creation of large documents, with a system of linked pages and folders.

Image: Screenshot from Wikispaces showing comparison of two different versions of the text.

Screenshot from Wikispaces showing comparison of two different versions of the text

Wikis are not, it should be said in fairness, the only software to support collaborative working: Google Docs, although it lacks support for editing, can be used effectively if the collaborative team is small.

The authors of a book on agile coaching (Davies and Sedley, 2009) used Google Docs to work on it. They agreed on a "collective code" approach to the book whereby they held themselves equally responsible for its content; they set themselves mini deadlines to have sections ready by and had regular reviews on Skype. They put together a Google spreadsheet which defined the status of each section according to colour coding.

For MTC, each team develops its chapter through a wiki; as previously mentioned, chapter teams are self-organizing so there is no set way for them to operate. Most use Wikispaces software, but others will use Zoho (see the "Choosing wikis" section, below).

Although the MTC teams aim to produce material to finished copy standard, with the final features in place, i.e. learning objectives etc., markup and style are left to the publisher. This means that, as both Wikispaces and Zoho are WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get"), text can be inputted in much the same way as if one were writing into a word processor.

There are cases, however, when people have to work to an output which is the final one: as in self-publishing a book, for example, or perhaps more commonly, a website. In such a case, users will have to learn the markup language used by the wiki system.

It is very important, however, to keep the effort involved in technical styling as simple as possible. Creating a user-friendly technical infrastructure is an important part of community building: if you raise the technical threshold too high, then you will lose contributors. Which brings us to a vital question: the choice of wiki.

Choosing wikis

WikiMatrix is an excellent site which helps you choose the most appropriate wiki. It allows you to compare particular brands of wiki, or, possibly even more usefully, find suitable wikis by going through a set of multiple choice questions (called a wiki choice wizard) which get you to define your requirements.

For example, I looked for a wiki which gave me a history of pages and allowed me to keep old versions; which had a WYSIWYG editor which enables one to add content without using markup language; and which was hosted on an external server, so that I did not need to set up my own. Further choices involved considering whether I needed my own domain or branding, or additional languages.

The result is a comparison table which lets you compare features. Particularly interesting is the intended audience, and the examples of markup language (not shown in screenshot).

Image: Screenshot showing a comparison of the two wikis used in MTC: Zoho and Wikispaces in WikiMatrix.

Screenshot showing a comparison of the two wikis used in MTC: Zoho and Wikispaces in WikiMatrix

After you have shortlisted your wikis, there is no substitute to trying them out; that way, you can find out which are the relatively minor features that it is important to have. I found that Wikispaces set things out much more clearly: there is a tabbed menu with the page you are working on, discussion about changes and history. The history page was particularly useful in that you could compare different versions to see whether or not you approved changes, a feature that was lacking in Zoho. On the other hand, Zoho has more editing features: those in Wikispaces are rather limited.


Enabled by wiki-based technologies and other advances in software, cyber-collaboration emphasizes the power of the group and its ability to offer a broad range of expertise and perspectives to provide richer content. The MTC publishing project demonstrates the importance of collaboration to academia and provides a blueprint for anyone seeking to embark on a collaborative publishing project.


Davies, R. and Sedley, L. (2009), Agile Coaching, The Pragmatic Bookshop, available at: [accessed 25 January 2010].