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                An examination of how ideas are discovered in synchronous and asynchronous collaborations, along with a proposal for a new hybrid tool that leverages the strengths of both modes of communication to create an optimal space for creative exploration.

                Developing an idea within a collaborative group is often a Darwinian process.  It is not always the strongest idea that survives, however; it is the strongest package of idea, presentation, and understanding of the group that often comes on top.  A strong personality in a meeting who is presenting a weak idea can often overshadow a dozen better concepts.  An intriguing perspective may be stillborn because it requires a deeper level of thought to grasp what makes it interesting than is possible during the ebb and flow of a conversation.  Often what is needed is a way to increase the ability of the entire group to discover what is going on in the mind of just one of its members, but in a synchronous situation that will usually lead to another individual's ideas being silenced.  To have the broadest possible mode of discovery requires an asynchronous, threaded conversation of the type that humans just are not good at understanding.  But with some assistance, it is at least possible to increase the rate of discovery by using asynchronous tools.

                The idea that an asynchronous collaboration may be more useful for project collaboration than a synchronous one is supported by much of the prevailing thought in the field.  For example, Meyer found that "the evidence does appear to support earlier studies that students involved in threaded discussions are exhibiting higher-order thinking, especially by contributing comments that are exploratory (51%), integrative (22%), or resolution (7%)" (Meyer, 2003).  However, the idea that creative discovery is one of the strengths of asynchronous conversations is not as clear.  Mabrito reported that "real-time conversations produced many more new topics of conversation" than asynchronous meetings, though he also notes that there was far less exploration of each topic in real-time (Mabrito, 2006).  Several factors may contribute to this effect, but the primary one cited is the extra time commitment involved in an asynchronous collaboration.

                Since a majority of tools that support asynchronous learning and conversation are text-based and thus slower than voice, participants tend to both stay on-topic and create an internal filter that decides whether or not a comment is worth the effort of typing out a response.  There is also a sense of permanence to most asynchronous conversations that does not exist in even real-time text chats; a chat may be logged to some dusty corner of a drive, but a post to a message board will reappear to users every time they visit the thread.  The extra level of commitment required to post a message you and your collaborators will see again and again prevents some of the free flow of ideas and off-handed remarks made in a face to face conversation.

                Pointing at flaws in asynchronous tools only leaves real-time communication as a winner by default, though.  A synchronous conversation may expose more topics than an asynchronous one, but that does not mean it is the optimal solution.  In order to examine how much room for improved discovery remained in a synchronous environment, a graduate-level class at the University of Maine recorded their attempts to participate in a 25-minute discussion period.  Each participant, including the instructor, logged into a web site that stored when they had a thought they wanted to contribute and what eventually happened to each thought.  In order to reduce the impact of the recording tool on the conversation, only four general options were given to describe what happened when they wished to contribute:  they spoke the thought, somebody else said what they were thinking, the moment passed and what they wanted to say was no longer relevant, or they forgot what they wanted to say before they had an opportunity to jump in.

ThoughtMesh Image

Figure 1: Thoughts recording interface

In a classroom setting with 13 participants, nearly half of the attempts at contributing to the conversation were ultimately lost.  Of 125 thoughts recorded in the application, only 34% were marked as 'I said it', with an addition 19% of the thoughts marked as 'somebody said it', indicating that those were not unique and the ideas were added to the conversation, albeit by other people.  The remaining 46% of unique contributions were lost, with most of them simply dismissed because 'the moment passed'.ThoughtMesh Image

Figure 2: Resolution of ThoughtsThoughtMesh Image

Figure 3:  Thoughts Spoken or Lost (remaining thoughts were spoken by another person)

                In addition to collecting data, the process of recording thoughts also made participants more aware of their role in the conversation.  Several students remarked that the act of observation changed their perspective on how they participated in the class.

                Clearly, with almost half of the participants' thoughts going unspoken, there is room to improve on a synchronous conversation model.  But given the previously mentioned shortcomings of current tools, a purely asynchronous solution does not fit either.  What is needed is a way to combine the spontaneity of a conversation with the openness of a message board.  In describing one of the defining characteristics of an asynchronous system, Edwards et al. identify the key feature that would make such a hybrid system valuable:  "Independence points to the need to 'insulate' collaborators from the actions of others—collaborators should be able to operate with limited interference from or coordination with others. In particular, they should be able to continue working, regardless of the actions taken by coworkers" (Edwards, 1997).  When an asynchronous tool is to be used in a synchronous environment, the most important aspect that must be carried over is the ability for each participant to not only operate independent of each other, but also independent of the real-time conversation that is taking place around them.

                The hybrid system should provide a method to capture all the thoughts that normally go unspoken by rooting a series of asynchronous thread-starters in the live conversation.  To prevent the system from overtaking the real-time discussion, the interface should be kept as minimal as possible and only allow quick note entry, with further exploration to follow in the more appropriate asynchronous format.  This model takes advantage of a developing behavior pattern Stone calls "continuous partial attention"—the state of mind where a person is not multitasking by switching their complete attention between different tasks but instead is partially focused on multiple tasks at once (Stone, 2008).

                One possible implementation of a hybrid system might look like a message board grafted onto Twitter.  While participating in a conversation, each person would be able to send off one-line thoughts as soon as the idea occurs to them.  Those one-line entries would spawn a new thread on a bulletin board that could be explored as time allows, without interfering with the normal flow of the conversation.  Depending on the context of the collaboration, these thoughts may even be monitored in real-time by a group leader or moderator who can raise important issues for immediate discussion by the entire group.  But the most important function of the system is to capture all the stray thoughts that would normally disappear, allowing a wider creative base to draw from when investigating the topic in more depth.

                While both synchronous and asynchronous collaborations have their strengths, neither is an optimal solution for creative output.  It is often recommended that each be used in parallel with the other, but in practice this is rarely a good fit for all members of a group as some gravitate toward quick thinking and others toward depth of exploration.  In addition, if the goal of a conversation is to start with the broadest possible set of ideas and develop the ones that seem most promising then each method has weaknesses that limit possible routes to discovery.  A hybrid model that takes the spontaneity of real-time and the multi-threaded persistence of asynchronous modes allows all members of a group to participate in generating new ideas and provides a platform for further exploring those ideas in the future.

Edwards, W. K. (1997). Designing and implementing asynchronous collaborative applications with Bayou. Proceedings of the 10th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology (pp. 119-128). Banff, Alberta, Canada: ACM.

Mabrito, M. (2006). A Study of Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Collaboration in an Online Business Writing Class. The American Journal of Distance Education , 93-107.

Meyer, K. (2003). Face-to-Face Versus Threaded Discussions: The Role of Time and Higher Order Thinking. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks , 55-65.

Stone, L. (2008, 6 24). Continuous Partial Attention. Retrieved 12 15, 2008, from