Over at ReadWriteWeb today, I

this entry
about EtherPad, a
collaborative text-authoring web app. One conspicuous difference between
EtherPad and the other word processing web apps (Google
, Adobe Buzzword,
Zoho Writer, etc.) is that the changes to
the text are nearer to synchronous. Contributors see each other’s writing
almost immediately. Even better: EtherPad does not require an account; no
sign-up is necessary. The site provides
this demo.

It’s easy to imagine using EtherPad for drafting a conference
proposal or something, although Google Docs has proven adequate for that sort of
thing. Where I see EtherPad’s greatest immediate use (in my world, anyway)
is in the online consultation appointments we’ve been offering lately in the
Writing Center. Right now I use any number of chat clients (AIM, iChat,
and Google Talk), but EtherPad features a chat module. I log on to the
chat client, invite the student to a session, and we begin chatting about the
work at hand. Usually it takes five minutes to gain access to a draft.
Because the built-in file transfer processes get hung up far too often
(resulting in further delays), I also have the students email their drafts to, where I can easily access the file. Even with all of this,
commenting the text in real time can be a pain. Absent voice options and
desktop sharing I still find it fairly difficult to identify the places in the
text where I am focusing. Why not copy/paste the document (or a portion of
it) into EtherPad and use the built-in chat module to discuss the passage?

EtherPad does not provide voice or video options, but it would serve as a
terrific complement to Adobe Connect Now, which does offer voice, video, chat,
and desktop sharing. For the WC technology audit I’m working on this semester,
I’ve been thinking a lot about recommending two-app mash-ups as a kind of
low-cost writing consultation-ware. EtherPad’s usability threshold is so
low (i.e., it’s free to use, requires no sign up, and presents its options in a
simple layout), it seems to me a strong choice for use alongside one of the
other audio-video-chat applications. I would think Writing Centers would
be all over this sort of web app for synchronous online consulting.

On the short list of drawbacks, there is the small matter of its ethereal
quality. You can save the text, but you need to keep track of the URL
because there is no other way to track down the saved file. As I was
checking out the save function, I found that the chat transcript is not logged.
When a saved version of the text is loaded, the chat transcript starts from
scratch. It would be nice, however, if there were options for saving (and,
thus, resuming) the chat transcript or for outputting the text file and the chat
transcript (for my purposes, I’d even like to see a one-click option for saving
these to a single file). Might also be nice to see a "scrub" option so that the
document and chat transcript are cleared from the server following a session. But these are relatively minor concerns for what
appears otherwise to be a promising new application.


  1. Derek, I blogged a bit about EtherPad and collaborative writing a few days ago. I just had a conversation with a student who hates group work, trying to explaining some of the pedagogical benefits of collaborative writing, the necessity of including coursework that appeals to the whole range of students (and that you can’t please all the students all the time). It didn’t seem like she agreed with any of what I said.

    Anyway, the ephemerality of an EtherPad collaboration is probably considered a “feature” — that is, it’s not designed as an archive, but the entrance hurdle is so low that it could support spur-of-the moment collaboration. If you take the time to save and return to an EtherPad collaboration, then you can probably take the time to create a Google Docs document or a new page on a Wiki somewhere.

  2. I’ll grant that it is–to a degree-by design. Yet EtherPad does store the document for later collaboration. EtherPad is set up to save the in-progress session. I was thinking about the value of this for discontinuous online writing consultation, where I might work with a student on two days per week. I would like to see EtherPad offer the option of restoring not only the text window but also the chat transcript.

    Of course, even if such a feature never comes along, I’m encouraged by EtherPad’s simultaneity, and I’m sure the folks who use it for Writing Center consultation will be able to use it in combination with other apps where the collaborated document can be saved.

Comments are closed.