Thing 5: Collaborative platforms

Dr Russell Butson | University of Otago

Global online collaboration is not new. However, the history of applications used to support digital collaboration has been rather ad hoc and driven by opportunities for wealth over usability. Over the years, I have used many applications, often cobbled together in order to create the type of collaborative experience I am seeking. The problem with this is the lack of seamless integration between the various apps or digital services. This is now changing. Digital services companies such as Google and Microsoft now offer collaborative integrated suites of apps that offer a more comprehensive integrated online experience over standalone applications.

However, these gains are often exasperated by the ‘brand’ war that exists over allegiances to Google, or Microsoft or open source. I have colleagues who will only use open source, others only Google and some only Microsoft. Personally, I base my decision of use on the utility of the application to deliver what I need – productivity, transparency and a strong collaborative presence. For the sake of ease and brevity, I will be focusing on Microsoft’s Office365 suite. In my opinion, Office365 is currently the best platform for supporting collaborative teaching and research.

Here is a quick comparison between Google and Microsoft Suites.

Google Suite

● gmail

● Google Docs

● Google Drive

● Google Calendar

● Youtube

● Google Slides

● Google Sheets

Microsoft Office365

● Outlook

● Onedrive

● Calendar

● Word

● Excel

● Powerpoint

● OneNote

● Yammer

● Sharepoint

● Skype

● Teams

● Stream

● Sway

● Forms

● MyAnalytics

● ToDo

● Planner

● Calendar

● Delve

● Whiteboard

● Power BI

To Know

Office365 is a package of 20+ services. A core benefit of Office365 is the ability to synthesise cloud-based and client-side applications. As a result, our normal use of Microsoft products such as Excel, Word, PowerPoint etc is seamlessly integrated into cloud-based services.

To the novice, Office365 can appear rather daunting, but don’t be put off by this; let’s face it, we live in a highly dynamic, complex digital world – so let’s embrace and accept that the learning curve will be time consuming and intense, but eventually you will be able to start leveraging the power this environment offers.

To Consider

An important caveat. How digital do you want to be? There will be those that openly embrace the digital revolution and those that don’t. I know academics that only work with printed material and others hesitant to engage too much. For example, I have a colleague who loves Outlook, in fact he incorporated all of his digital work within Outlook: email, project planning, document repository and notes to self. Another employs Excel in a similar way. This can become a problem for doctoral students desiring to embrace a more digital approach. It is important to be aware of a supervisor’s ‘way of working’ and realise that this will have a significant impact on how you can and will approach your doctoral research (and vice versa).

It is important to be aware of your ‘digital aspirations and attitude’ and adjust your work approach accordingly. If you feel you are being held back, leverage opportunities to upskill and become more digital. If you believe the opposite, then don’t feel under pressure to ‘keep-up’. It’s important that you adjust your work practices to suit your aspirations; whether its solely paper-based, a hybrid model or entirely digital.

a large pile of papers
Some cultures believe that emails are not real unless you print them

Purpose | Application

For me, digital collaborative environments allow me to work closely and intensely in both my teaching and research endeavours. For instance, I create individual sites for my Masters and Doctoral students where we collaboratively share resources, communicate, project manage, analyse data and write/review/edit. I do the same for my research by creating virtual research environments. These spaces are designed to be transparent, offering continuous access to changes, queries, requests etc via computer, tablet or phone. This means I have access to all of my research projects, student supervision and teaching work, whether I am in my office, out walking, at a café, or attending some event. I have immediate access to my research and teaching projects.

Where to Start

There is only so much that can be experienced through rhetoric with regard to digital platforms. At some point, you just need to roll up your sleeves and get involved in using it.

I have added this section for those of you that would like to delve deeper into the digital possibilities of working within a collaborative digital environment. A recent addition to the Office365 suite is a small app called ‘Teams’ that aggregates many of the features into a useful dashboard. To some extent this removes some of the complexities. The best way to understand what ‘Teams’ is and how it works is to watch this short introductory video

For those more committed, here is a link to a more detailed tutorial


If you are already familiar with Teams, we suggest you set up a group with your pod. It’s a convenient way to share messages, files and appointments, especially if working in different time zones.

You don't have to be using Teams for your pod - many other platforms are available and we know several pods have set up Slack, Whatsapp or Discord. It would be great to hear how this is going in the forum.

We've shared some additional institutional support below - and again, it's great if you have links in your own organisation to share. There's a thread on the Forum for just this purpose.

Some additional resources:

University of Surrey IT Services provide training in a variety of common programmes for students and staff, including Microsoft Outlook, Teams, Excel etc.

For University of Otago, the hub for IT training is:

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