Master of Arts in Educational Technology (OMET) Pepperdine University  
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Journal Entry - Two [posted Thursday, August 21,2008]

I have begun researching existing systems that use technology to support human to human collaboration. I read an interesting article today “Supporting Peer Help and Collaboration in Distributed Workplace Environments,” written by J. Greer, et al, published in the International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education (1998) by members of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan. The authors are proponents of a prototype system called PHelpS (Peer Help System) that acts as a facilitator to stimulate learning and collaboration. The PHelpS system can facilitate the creation of informal peer help networks in which workers help one another with tasks.

I was very excited thinking there was something already in place that I might be able to use for my Action Research Project. Thinking that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, and that there might be a more versatile tool than the ones I am learning about in OMET, I read on. Unfortunately, this is far too complex for what I had in mind for my informal peer-helper network within WestEd. I like that PHelpS has the capability of finding a peer who is currently online and who has the knowledge to answer the request for help. But it requires too much work, money and time to set it up and do the training. I am looking for something much more simplified and easy to use.

The article did confirm many things about the benefits of this type of peer-to-peer help. It is a cost-effective method of sharing knowledge with the potential to effect organizational change. Often co-workers are strangers separated by time and space that impedes development of collegial ties. According to the authors, people prefer to exchange help by way of collegial ties rather than by strong ties such as personal friendships.

Although this system has the ability to locate an appropriate peer to help a worker accomplish a task, it is not what I had in mind. It far too complex and is not user friendly. In fact, it just one more technological thing that one might have to ask help with. It has four elements in its construct, but it is only the fourth component that I am interested in; the human peer. With the PHelpS system, peer helpers are automatically selected based on a volunteer’s willingness, ability and availability to help. These are the same key elements that I require in setting up a support group within WestEd. It is imperative that the helper have knowledge about the problem area, that they are available within the required time frame, and that they have not been overburdened with other recent help requests. I will need to provide safeguards for these issues as well.

The idea is good, and well thought out, but I don’t think PHelpS system is the solution. I haven’t completely ruled it out, but at the same time, I am investigating free tools such as DimDim that can provide a user-friendly environment (without downloading software) that utilizes audio, video conferencing, application sharing and chat-facilities.

I share the same concern as the writers—the motivation of the workers to support each other. This could be a potential problem when recruiting support group members.  I am almost certain that this question, as well as others, will come up during discussions with my advisory group. Why should I help? I don’t have time? What will it benefit me? What if I am always the one that’s helping? It is central to the success of the support group to have a genuine spirit of cooperation among its participants. I am debating whether to ask high-level managers or even our CEO if they could provide corporate recognition, which might help motivate and recruit potential support group members.