Jim Slotta, Professor of Education at the University of Toronto, reached out to Atlassian praising Confluence for how well it works for him at the university. He proclaimed “We have used it for every dimension of our research. Everything from designing materials, keeping records, technology development, helping to write grants, managing partnerships, and then actually bringing K12 or university students into the loop to aggregate their content, etc.”
With such enthusiasm for our wiki software, there was no way we could let the opportunity slip by. I reached out and scheduled a chat as soon as I could.
In talking with Jim and researching the university, it was interesting to learn that ‘U of T’ was founded in 1827 as the first institution of higher learning in Upper Canada. The university was originally controlled by the Church of England and is comprised of twelve separate colleges that differ in character, history, and maintain their own autonomy. Jim confides that there are not a whole lot of universities with their caliber of research including, but not limited to: music, arts, humanities, science, engineering, and law.
JIm has research funding as a Canada Research Chair in Education and Technology. He’s expected to manage a larger number of projects and PhD students and is an international example of what the U of T does. Canada Research Chairs, or CRCs, is a program which Canada started 10 years ago. Canada put in $20B in the program, and JIm claims the program has really paid off. Jim’s Chair is used to run a set of 6-8 research projects looking into technology. Amongst other things, he has looked at wikis in K12 education, and how to get a classroom full of kids to collaborative create meaningful content and how to use that content for learning.
How did you come across Confluence?
We first needed a wiki to help coordinate our research, back in 2002. This is when I first came across Confluence. I was at the University of California, Berkeley at the time, co-directing a research project that was concerned with education and technology. My team was developing a major new Java platform that would replace an older Web-based inquiry environment. This was going to involve a lot of Java coding, a lot of problem tracking, project management, and collaboration around the world. We knew right away that wikis, a new thing at the time, would be helpful for collecting and coordinating our ideas and designs.
We evaluated every wiki option that was available at the time: MediaWiki, TWiki,… it was so long ago, I don’t remember all of them! We found Confluence as the best fit for us, and I have been using it as a satisfied customer for nine years now. It has only been in the last three or four years that I have gained an understanding of what wikis can do in the classroom, as part of my research with Web 2.0 for learning and instruction. A new kind of learning is enabled through the collaborative editing and collaborative maintenance of knowledge that a wiki allows.
|A Ruby on Rails web page, that includes a script (launched on “submit”) that creates a Confluence page, with authoring permissions, and metadata set in this form.|
How did our enterprise wiki end up at the University of Toronto?
After leaving Berkeley, I immediately installed Confluence in Toronto and got moving on a couple of wiki projects. I started an Educational Network and Community for Open Resource Exchange (ENCORE) that used Confluence as an application. I had one of my coders build a Ruby-on-Rails front end for Confluence to automate the template process, and we made a whole online community based on Confluence. Then, some of my students started using it for their PhD research, including that Ruby forms trick. It was a huge success, with three PhD dissertations and some very good curriculum and theoretical ideas coming out of it.
Why did you choose Confluence?
I think the grouping and permission of spaces, and Atlassian’s support for open source were big reasons for us. Supporting open source is something we have always advocated strongly, so, this made it a bit of a philosophical fit. The functionality is also great. It was a chance to get Enterprise-level software for free, because we are an educational and open source project. Somehow it was just the right fit – both at Berkeley, and in Toronto. I should note that Berkeley is also still using the Confluence wiki, going on almost 10 years now.
How do you guys use our collaboration software?
There are several ways we use the wiki. Starting with my use as professor: I create the structures for building knowledge – could maybe think of it as an ontology. I will create a space, for example, that I’d want myself or my team to populate over time. I create the bins and boxes into which we place our ideas, where structure grows and content is factored and re-factored, improved, or possibly even replaced over time. For example, we are now building an open source smart classroom called SAIL Smart Space. It’s a technology infrastructure that is a complicated software framework with numerous dimensions, both technological and pedagogical. It’s got an XMPP network, an intelligent agent framework, and a whole bunch of different device and display paradigms. So, to help our group make progress in thinking about this overall project, I would create the master wiki page with different links to other pages that would capture the specs of SAIL Smart Space, as well as use cases, mock ups, etc. We use it in kind of a design mode, but also a knowledge-capture mode – keeping track of all relevant projects, resources, and even random ideas and open questions. My goal at the end of the day is to have that page (or space) be an evolving representation of the knowledge of the group, as well as my own personal knowledge as a researcher. In this way, the wiki is the knowledge-capture of my work, and a place where my group builds knowledge together.
If you had to do research or design work to get that knowledge, knowledge management software like Confluence serves to make sure it doesn’t get lost and make sure it’s visible for others to build on. My students will take that, and use the knowledge to do their own dissertations, place in their own talks, and put back into it. It’s truly kind of a knowledge-building community. That’s my role with the wiki; someone to build those pages and spaces and lay it out as a structural container.
I have also used Confluence to organize and coordinate a lot of workshops and events. In my line of work, you invariably end up organizing and running workshops and conferences, and Confluence is just fantastic for that. It’s great, especially when you’ve got students who can help. We all need a common place to keep track of our details, participants, room arrangements, etc. I’ve probably run between 20 and 30 workshops of various sizes over the past 10 years, all using Confluence.
Are students using Confluence the same way?
Students often get involved in guiding a project like a smart classroom physics project. That involves working closely with the teacher and technologists, and really figuring out specifications, drawings, and other technologies. They’ll use Google Docs and SketchUp, and they’ll link to those things from a wiki page. Typically they’ll use the wiki to make sure it hooks back in to the knowledge base of the lab and the collaboration software will sort of be the structural page. We call it ‘messy space’ and ‘clean space.’ The wiki tends to be the clean space, because if the wiki becomes too messy, people can’t find anything. So, we are using Google Docs as the messy space, cleaning up the info before moving it into the wiki, and continuing to work on it in there as well. It’s an evolving process! And new technologies are always coming and going. The students use Confluence as their active research design place and a way to keep track of all their resources.
Other students have used Confluence as their research technology environment, where they’ll actually bring 100 tenth-graders in, and have them collaboratively populate a wiki on Ontario biodiversity, over a six week timespan. So, there will be a huge educational activity that itself was the topic of a great deal of design work. What are the templates of those pages? How do you do groupings on those pages? How do you do re-grouping? How do you build an in-group project that uses an index to the content of those pages? There have been several studies where Confluence is the medium of the educational research, but maybe two-thirds of the time, it’s been the place where we designed the work that would occur in a more high-tech medium.
Have you opened the wiki up to other departments or faculty?
I have given spaces away on my Confluence instance. For example, I created a space for the Center for Innovation and Excellence in Nursing Education here at University of Toronto. I had some students in one of my courses that were studying nursing and I think they used it quite a bit. I also made a space for the Collaborative program in Global Health Research because I had some colleagues who were doing research in Global Health and I knew that a wiki could really help them. Another one is Ocean Sciences Education Research – I made a wiki space for a colleague of mine, and his students. This is one of the things that ENCORE (which is the name of my lab) is about.
So, with about 50 wiki spaces, we have about 10-15 that are actively used by other groups – but not to the same level that my group and I use it.
How would you say you and the students feel about using Confluence?
We would all be very reluctant to leave it. We have a Drupal site for our lab, which offers a public web page that we keep updated. But, for the ease of letting knowledge grow and letting people have access to it, and quickly creating pages and letting those pages fit and be factored and re-factored – everybody is comfortable with the wiki.
The wiki has a stable place in the overall ‘pie chart’ of our design and management technologies. This knowledge space is being seen by the group as something that is the product – an ongoing, active representation – of our collective work: representing the ideas and products of all the people that have come before and that we will leave behind for people that come after. There is the feeling that it’s the “knowledge base” of the group, and that is part of the theoretical space that we work in – related to “knowledge communities.”
With Confluence, it would be hard for us to let go of it. For example, I see that there have been thirty pages updated in the last two days, so… it’s actively used.
How do you on-board new students to Confluence?
It’s not a very common thing because I only take a few students a year, but new people do come into the lab. We’ve had 4 or 5 this year. The people that I work with are tech savvy people – I just send them to the wiki and have them crate an account. They love it. Or I should say: they are fine with it. It’s easy. They can make pages right off the bat. It’s part of the lab, so it’s also how I run the group.
Are people using Confluence in ways you hadn’t expected?
I was a little surprised when one of my students ended up with something like 3,500 pages in her personal space. That was interesting!
Are you able to quantify the results from using our enterprise wiki?
I can’t imagine doing the work that I’ve done in the last 6 years without a wiki. It’s hard to say I would have done better or worse with a different wiki product, but it would have been worse without a wiki. Confluence has been very reliable. For me, it’s mostly about the functionality of being able to do group permissions, spaces and templates. The ease of getting new users in and into groups with permissions they need has been the most important thing for me over the years. It’s about flexibility and agility of creating pages and organization and factoring and re-factoring. It’s a building block paradigm that let’s us do our work.
Do you have advice for other universities considering Confluence?
That is a tough one because for me, it’s so intimate. My group has such a close connection between its own growth and this knowledge resource. I would say that if you were an administrator in charge of what tools to plant that could give birth to productive, digital activity and productivity – getting a very good wiki with low overhead of how to use it, manage user accounts, make templates and spaces, etc – Confluence is the best I’ve seen.
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