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I was interested to interview Simone about her use of collaboration software with her Industrial Design honours program. In particular I wanted to find how she is using Corus which has gained considerable traction in the school of Architecture and Design. Corus reminds me of how enterprise social software is used in industry, adapted for education.

Do you use Blackboard?

I use Blackboard to lodge course outlines and official documents but I find It’s not a great environment with which to engage and communicate with students. It is adequate for registering and filing documents but it lacks the functionality to accommodate serious collaboration that I now couldn’t do without. It was designed ten years ago so its architecture was conceived differently to how we might see sharing, filing and communication flow now. It was progressive for it’s time but delivering content and managing engagement around information has evolved to the point where I prefer alternative solutions. I see Blackboard as a back-end platform but I certainly don’t see it as an exciting learning and teaching environment.
Now I primarily use Corus a cloud collaboration platform. Prior to discovering Corus I used wikis and email. I used Facebook at one point and I also set up several blogs but I experienced issues in that they have privacy issues and are not designed specifically for collaboration. Blogs and Facebook pages don’t deliver all of the functionality I like and more often I see them as sites for self promotion, for facilitating conversation around content or for sharing of files I find them a bit clunky. I am also aware of students’ behaviour when it comes to uploading and sharing. They are more inclined to self-edit and post what they think is cool and interesting rather than canvas ideas, ask questions and engage in genuine peer-to-peer tutoring. It’s fine using those platforms for other purposes – for social networking they’re great but when used for a learning and teaching environment I find students can’t help but carry over pre-existing behavioural patterns. Collaboration isn’t simply posting and making comments, a teaching and learning environment isn’t simply uploading content for students online. Its about effective communication flow and giving space to the individuals, the group and teacher to engage in a number of ways.

Corus3

The nice thing about using Corus is that the students see it as a dedicated learning environment. While much of the functionality is modelled around social networking and this means that they don’t need to learn a lot of new functionality, which can be a hurdle, the environment delivers good search capability, logs time around activity and you can populate topics with in a variety of ways. Importantly students can clearly see who is contributing, engaging and who is not. When I introduce students to Corus I emphasise the fact that it is a collaboration platform and what we aim to achieve are conversations on and around learning in view of a topic area. I position it as ‘our’ virtual, private learning environment, where both students and I are on the learning journey together. It is easy for me to be generous with my feedback and compiling and posting references for both individuals and the group. I am constantly bookmarking web references and posting videos and articles for my students on Corus over a week because its so easy to do without interrupting my workflow.  Over the years I have learnt to engage effortlessly online and I think students really respond when you demonstrate interest in their learning outside of formal class time.

Comparatively, I always found that wikis and blogs needed serious project management, otherwise they go stale very quickly. My experience is if an environment isn’t exciting for students they are inclined not contribute. With Corus a student’s post or file upload can link to websites, research papers, Google docs, videos and to-do tasks. Other students and I can both add comments, upload further references and web links etc in the same message field so as not to interrupt the workflow and conversation initiated by the original student. It also tracks and records uploads, downloads, web links and site visits by time and date. For example,  I can see when a student has logged on and I can see when, what and how a student is engaging. I enjoy this because as a sessional teacher with limited face-to-face time with students I can use the online space to manage submissions and feedback effectively, saving valuable class time. There is a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I can support my own teaching using the program. Interestingly, we place a great deal of emphasis on self directed learning and field research in our program, Corus allows me to monitor this by providing a space for students to report on their activities and even demonstrate they process. Students often need a great deal of coaching and support when embarking on independent learning and Corus allows me to assist them with a light touch. I simply can’t do this face-to-face in the classroom when I have twenty or so students because there’s only one of me. So online I can tailor and deliver tuition for each student spending very little time. Its amazing how valuable students find even a small amount of online feedback and guidance extremely helpful.I also have a memory of the online discourse with each of students individually that I can build on in class. Its true that some of my colleagues see my commitment to online tutoring as a time sink. Some have blatantly said that they couldn’t imagine spending the time online at home, nights or weekends. But I guess I have learnt to integrate a minute of engagement here and there easily. It simply makes my time in the classroom far more effective and its extremely useful when managing student absences and even mine!

What are the features beyond social?

Much of the activity centres around content such as file sharing, for example, I have an industrial design honours group comprising seven students. These students come together with me once a week for three hours. In honours they are all pursuing their own design journeys and they express enormous anxiety and stress. Because Corus is a peer to peer environment they don’t feel so alone. We can all see, engage, share and support each other. Nothing makes me feel more rewarded when I see one student provide feedback or guidance to another at 2am on a Sunday morning.

Importantly, Corus is unlike Dropbox or any other file sharing program because its not simply about delivering, filing or storing content. When students upload files all students and members of the topic can be alerted with an email or if simply posted unread or attended content will be highlighted. I find my students checking into Corus everyday and those now using the new Corus iPhone app are able to read, respond and reply to posts on the go.

I learn’t pretty quickly why my students took to using Corus. I realised that the environment allowed us to do things that we wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise do in class. Also, you don’t always get the best out of students at 9am on a Thursday, they’re inclined to listen but they’re not always very animated. Corus allows each of my students to participate in class discussion or assessment of a reading in their own time and because they are writing and posting their ideas, remarks and thoughts online, everybody can read the feed anytime and respond. I know this sound fairly simple but I simply haven’t experienced this student activity using a wiki, blog or facebook. I think this is largely because Corus is a private space and students understand that whatever goes up or appears in our environment is secure. While the majority of my students are digital natives I happen to believe that trust is a big thing for them. Specially when they are learning and offering ideas and work for feedback and critique.

You also use Corus for project management

Yes I was in charge of delivering a large component of the Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery Victoria in 2013/14 within an extremely short lead time, it was an enormous workload. I was also lecturing and running my own studio practice at the time.

The Melbourne Now project involved considerable research, gathering of information and image files, endless administration, paperwork, and correspondence with more than 90 designers. I turned to Corus because short of a personal assistant I needed a lot of help. But I also needed a very effective one-stop shop system to log and record everything – from information to correspondence. So, I negotiated the functionality of the platform  in a different way. I literally took myself off email and only used Corus with my colleagues and contractors. Every conversation, file, document and image was all managed and chronologically logged. It was on this project that I learned how to use, integrate and embed Corus with Google Docs and spreadsheets with Corus. I used no MS word docs. I tried to eliminate all that ugly mess you encounter with email and word docs. I maintained my sanity and accountability. The result was a great deal of peace of mind. As a secondary gain the numbers of folders and files on my hard drive diminished. I have moved so much on to Corus.

Overall the colleagues that I have introduce Corus to say that it has been a life saver for them – we’re all time poor and looking for more effective ways to manage our loads. That said, I don’t understand why there isn’t greater adoption of platforms such as this. I know I speak with evangelical zeal – but it really does make my work-life so much easier. I don’t understand why people show resistance to new online tools and platforms when there is so much to gain.

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