In this post I beat up on email…but I’m doing so for the purposes of identifying possibilities and changes in our own work process. Your own use cases may vary.
Group planning for projects and research
The #WalkMyWorld Project is an open education, open publishing, and open research initiative. In it we develop and facilitate a mentored, open, online learning community in which educators and their students use social media (e.g. Twitter) to connect and share. As we develop the project for the upcoming year, we post our planning sessions openly online. If you’re interested and you want to get involved…awesome. Come to one of our Hangouts-on-Air. If you want to see what we’re working on and help out…awesome. Go to one of the Google Docs and dive right in.
I think there is a tremendous amount of value in conducting this work openly online. We’re treading new ground in research and hopefully by putting this out there we’re guiding other researchers. We’re also (hopefully) building up karma or good will with potential participants that might want to join us and share their work as well.
There is only one channel in the system that notoriously gets clogged up…and that channel is email. We have been testing out the possibility of using a Slack channel and a Discourse thread for discussions. I think email and the Slack channel are good for general…”hey, did you read this” posts. But, IMHO, anything a bit longer and more thought out doesn’t work in email.
The closed link in the chain
Email is a great tool and fits specific purposes. My problem is that our emails for the project currently have about 15 to 20 in the address list. One of the facilitators will ask a great question, and then a couple hours will go by. Finally, there will be a great, detailed, long response to the question. This will be followed by two or three longer, even more detailed responses in which we further unpack the original question.
The problem with this is that (at least I) have a general challenge with deep reading in email. Maybe it’s just me, but most times the environment is not conducive to close reading. The other main challenge that I have with email for these longer responses, is once the new response(s) come in…I’ve automatically moved on to the newer posts and not given the earlier responses their time and respect.
In my experience, email becomes a pit where ideas go off to die. Keep in mind, this is not just email…I think this is possibly also true of discussion threads and Google Groups. 🙂
Use of blogs & Medium
One possible way to possibly open up and unclog this situation is to use blogs and re-posting to Medium to conduct longer, more thoughtful discussions. To make this happen, you’ll need a blog of your own and a Medium account. I post my content to my blog and Medium. The reason for syndicating my content and posting it twice online is to make sure I always have an archive of my work in case Medium suddenly disappears and my posts with it.
To get started in Medium, I wrote up posts on how to start reading/annotating, how to draft & write, and how write long form responses. I’d recommend checking these out to get a better understanding of how to proceed.
The basic premise behind this is to move the emails and responses to blog and Medium posts. This allows the decisions and dialogue to be documented and archived online. It also allows readers to single out elements of the post/response and comment on that line/section. Finally, it allows the public to read and respond to the discussion as well.
An example of this in action
In one of our recent email threads, Greg McVerry asked the group how they felt about adding a stream to the upcoming iteration of #WalkMyWorld. In his email, he closed with a brilliant twist. He indicated that he was also posting the content from the email into a blog and Medium post. He invited us to respond with a post of our own.
I jumped on this invitation with a post of my own. I shared this out…and then shared a link for the post back to the email thread. This was followed by posts (and shared links) by Stephanie Loomis and Kate Booth. In these three responses we each unpacked the original prompt and expanded it a bit. The use of the blog/Medium combination enabled us to expand our thinking about the work.
As I wrote and shared out the post as response I needed to think a bit more broadly about the content and open audience of the post. I also wrote a bit more…and expanded my thinking as I felt the platform provided those affordances. Finally…the Medium integration brings in some social features to the writing. Medium allows readers to highlight specific lines of text. Medium also allows the readers to add in-text comments. This is powerful as your audience can highlight a single line/section and comment on it. Try doing this in an email conversation. The best I’ve seen is the dreaded…”I’ve left my responses to your email below in red.”
Continuing to test and plan
Once again, this is an experiment to test out possible ways to build open discussion and dialogue as we plan online. The use of blogs allows for archiving of thinking over time. In an email, time and thinking are often swept aside by the next email blast. Integrating a tool like Medium brings these posts and responses together into one space allowing for more connectivity and connection. This may create a digital fishbowl discussion in which the public may get involved and add their own commentary to the narrative.
Following this model also allows us to carry on these discussions in the public. It is possible for us to go back in time and revisit a discussion point. We can also easily archive and access thinking over time as we plan and iterate. I’ve been involved in research projects in the past that iterate and vacillate between email blasts. Decisions are made, and positions swayed based on who, and when an email response is sent out. Hopefully the use of open blogging and platforms like Medium allow for different perspectives as we plan and collaborate.
One of the challenges you’ll have is that colleagues will ask…why are you linking out to your response instead of just emailing it like normal person? Colleagues might also feel left out if they don’t also share this love of open or blogging. Finally, you may be leaving colleagues out that don’t want to post their ideas online for whatever reason.
What other tools and systems would you recommend for planning and collaborating openly in a group?
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Also published on Medium.