K.A. Strand, T. Hjeltnes, T.A. Hjeltnes, M. Storvik, A. Wrålsen

Sør-Trøndelag University College (NORWAY)
There exist several studies comparing collocated (face-to-face) and distributed problem solving processes. Although a number of studies point to different strengths and weaknesses of this kind of problem-solving approaches, several studies claim that distributed problem solving is particularly more challenging since elements such as communication, coordination and awareness are more complicated to handle in a distributed environment. This was also the basis for the hypothesis established for this study:

Problem-solving processes provides better results and better experiences among the participants in a collocated group using collaborative writing tools, compared to a group of distributed participants communicating through videoconferencing tools in addition to the same collaborative writing tools as used by the others.

This paper reports from an experiment where we compare interdisciplinary groups of three or four members taking part in a problem-solving process. Three of the groups were collocated whereas the other four were distributed with computer networks as the only possible communication channel. All groups had to solve the same task, within the same timeframe, and they had to prepare and document their results with the use of the same collaborative writing tool (Google Docs). The groups consisted of first-year students at a university college and they were placed in groups of three or four people. The distinction between these groups, in which we wanted to study the effect, was that three of seven were sitting face-to-face, while the other four worked distributed and used a video conferencing tool (Microsoft Lync) with related web cameras and headsets with microphone and speaker. Surprisingly, we found no significant differences between these groups and we got no confirmation that our hypothesis is correct. Conversely, this study shows that current students (with good IT skills) work very efficiently in a distributed environment and they believe that distributed collaboration in many problem-solving situations might be more efficient than the collocated alternative.

In this paper we present the motivation behind this experiment, how the experiment was conducted and the main results we got. Furthermore, we present reasons why the participants in the experiment actually work so efficiently in a distributed environment and we conclude with some suggestions for future work that should give us more knowledge and experience in terms of how distributed collaboration can be implemented and which tasks that are best suited to be solved in this way. The data from this experiment were collected by questionnaires, observation and review of the results that were produced by the participants, when they participated in the experiment.