Facilitating Online Collaboration (Part 2) – A Toolkit for Remote Collaboration in Research and Teaching

Dr Peter Cobb, CDIS

Dr Peter Cobb, CDIS

As an archaeologist of the Middle East, I interact in person with my research team only during fieldwork in the summers.  For most of the year, we collaboratively work together on shared data while at our home universities around the globe.  I also apply many of these strategies to my classroom teaching to engage with students outside of classtime – even during a normal semester.


Communication channels are of course foundational to the effective use of the other tools.  I try to remain highly available to students via messaging apps and by answering emails quickly.  In addition to Whatsapp, Slack is a chat program commonly used by programmers for its ability to integrate with many other online tools. Being part of Gmail, Google Hangouts is readily available to most students, but changes are supposedly coming to this app. The main downside to these messaging apps is, of course, that all users must have the same one.

When arranging face-to-face meetings with Skype and Zoom, my main challenge is coordinating timezones. Did you know it is also possible to call any normal phone number using Skype and similar services (for a small fee)?  I use Skype to make calls in Hong Kong from abroad.

We can even make use of programs like Zoom within the classroom, such as to host remote guest lecturers.  In a smaller technical class I taught at Penn, students shared their database screens on the central classroom projector using Zoom’s screen sharing functionality.  This enabled each student to introduce their work in turn, without leaving their desks.

Integration of the Trello tool in the chat app Slack

Remote Assistance

Another use for screen sharing functionality is to help students with technical problems on their own laptops. It is often easiest to debug a computer issue if you can see what the user sees – with their permission.  You can even take control of the remote mouse in order to try to reproduce an issue.

Scheduling Meetings

Doodle is frequently used to select meeting times by consensus, but I have found the free When2Meet more useful for arranging times around a wide variety of student schedules. With this tool, users can quickly highlight every half-hour block they are available across several days, and you view the results as a type of ‘heat-map’ of available times.

When2Meet showing the ‘heat-map’ of student availability on the right

Screen Recording

To introduce complex technical tasks to students and other researchers, I often use screen recording software to capture myself carrying out all the steps.  This tends to be more efficient and contain more details than writing a protocol document, but I have less opportunity to explain why I am taking certain steps.  TinyTake allows free screen recording for up to five minutes.

One of several screen-recorded videos introducing the steps for 3d modeling an ancient ceramic sherd

File Sharing and Collaborative Editing

Many of us already deploy the easy-to-use Google Docs for collaborative writing, but did you know that all faculty members receive 5 Terabytes of online storage with Microsoft OneDrive? This is a great place to backup and synchronize research data (Office365 Portal).  Another advantage is the direct integration with commonly used software like Microsoft Word and Excel through Office365. You can simultaneously write in the same document as your co-authors while tracking changes and accessing the full functionality of desktop software like Word.  In the background, OneDrive saves versions so you can undo changes.

A major downside of OneDrive is the difficulty in sharing files and folders with external users, a group which unfortunately also includes HKU students.  I often share files by link so that my external collaborators can edit Word docs through the browser (functionality for tracking changes has recently been added here).

Example of sharing a file with a link in OneDrive

Desktop Collaboration

Although all of the fundamental aspects of collaboration can be handled with the basic online and mini-apps mentioned until this point, heavy duty data processing often requires more powerful software designed to function on a computer desktop.  For archaeological research, this entails tasks such as mapping with geographic information systems (GIS), image processing with software like Photoshop, intensive 3d modeling with software like Rhino3D or Agisoft, file management, and relational databases.  In order to centralize our fieldwork database and files and enable our dispersed team to use this dataset with desktop applications, we leverage a Virtual Desktop Server.  Each team member can remotely connect to a Windows Server machine in the cloud (physically located at HKU).  This server presents individual normal Windows desktops to each user, and all users have access to the same harddrive in the server that contains our dataset.  With the help of a powerful 3d graphics card, any application can run in that desktop. I have written more detail about this type of configuration here: “Virtual Desktops: A Practical Solution for Data Collaboration in Archaeology

A virtual desktop running on the local laptop, a Microsoft Access database is open within the virtual desktop

If you would like to exchange ideas about tools and strategies for remote collaboration, please email Peter Cobb, CDIS: pcobb@hku.hk

You can also contact the e-learning team (elearning.edu@hku.hk) if you need support or advice.​