Posted by Rory on May 13th, 2011 @ 4:53 pm
The news from Skype has been coming thick and fast recently. In late March the launch of Skype in the classroom, a new Skype service aimed at teachers. Then earlier this week the blockbuster: Skype purchased by Microsoft.
I this post I’d like to look how Skype already is being used as a collaborative tool by researchers, and look ahead to ways in which Skype could be integrated with other tools to put it at the center of research collaboration.
Stage One: Skype for calls about research
Lots and lots of people are using Skype to discuss research these days. For one to one calls, and also for calls with multiple collaborators to discuss ongoing collaborations and grant proposals. Michael Mitzenmacher tried to capture the appeal:
“Yesterday, I used Skype on three different research projects to synch up with my collaborators . . . . Most of what I do with Skype I could do as well on the phone. [but] Somehow, the real value of Skype is that it’s running on my computer, where I’m doing the research work as well. I can look through relevant old e-mails or read relevant documents while Skype continues managing the conversation. Somehow, it all works more conveniently than using the phone and the computer.”
In this current usage paradigm, Skype is just being used as a cheap (free) and convenient calling channel. Its wider potential is hinted at in Michael’s comment that the real value of Skype is that it leaves him free to access and play around with his research materials during the call.
Skype in the classroom points the way to Stage Two: Skype as a tool for finding new collaborators
Skype in the classroom is basically a ‘platform’ or directory, that allows teachers and students to find others with similar interests, and then, using Skype, make contact with each other and speak to each other. So it adds a discovery mechanism to the basic communication capability. Or, as Skype explains it:
“Teachers create a profile that sets out their interests, specialties and location, they can create projects. Projects are a way for teachers to find partner classes, partner teachers or guest speakers for a specific learning activity. You can browse through projects or even search by keyword, which makes it easy for teachers to share expertise and collaborate on projects even when they don’t already know each other . . . Once teachers find someone they’d like to connect with, they can add that person as a Skype contact. “
If Skype has created this platform for teachers, there is no reason it couldn’t create a similar platform for the much larger community of researchers engaged in science.
Stage 3: Skype as the spoke of a collaborative hub
Discovery and communication are two essential elements of collaboration, but they are just scratching the surface of what’s needed for a rounded collaborative environment. The real win would come if/when Skype was integrated into the research materials that Michael Mitzenmacher refers to. That is a realistic possibility because scientists are now beginning to use tools — Google Docs and electronic lab notebooks, for example — in which these materials are collected under one roof and accessible not only by individuals but by groups. So it’s possible to imagine a group of researchers in different locations talking about their research on Skype, and all looking at — or even jointly editing — the document they are discussing, and for that conversation to be captured on Skype and/or the collaborative tool in which the document is kept, so that it is searchable along with the contents of the document itself.
Will Microsoft take Skype in this direction? Presumably not in the direction of easy integration with Google Docs! A bolder strategy would be to use Skype integration as a backward way of making Office Web Apps more of a serious competitor for Google Docs. But as long as Microsoft maintains Skype’s platform neutrality, it may not matter too much because the door will be open for third parties to produce market driven integrations with Skype.