Computers & Texts No.13
Table of Contents
December 1996

Review: CommonSpace

A Collaborative Working Environment

Sarah Porter


The desktop technology explosion of the last ten years has made its effects felt across all disciplines, including the humanities. Text editing tools and word-processors allow the preparation of high-quality copy, which can be quickly edited, produced and reproduced. The Internet has begun to provide a cheap and effective means to quickly communicate electronic text to a potentially large and widespread group. Other Internet technologies will allow computer users, either in pairs or in groups, synchronous written communication.

These developments are clearly allowing large amounts of information to be quickly and efficiently disseminated to large groups of people. However, there is perhaps some basis for questioning the direct pedagogic value of these technologies when used singly; there is little doubt that the learning process is maximized when some form of interactivity is allowed, either between the learner and the source (or text) or the learner and others (other learners or tutors). In areas where the analysis of text is key, pen and paper can be seen to have distinct advantages in terms of flexibility for annotation. Despite the available technology, one frequently resorts to note-taking onto paper from the screen; there is no easy way to annotate a standard word-processed document, without using footnotes, short of printing the document and making notes on the paper-copy; hardly appropriate in the paper-free environment which we are led to believe we will soon inhabit.

Houghton Mifflin's CommonSpace proposes one possible solution to this deficit, with a single tool which effectively allows annotation of a source document (by a single user or group of users), automatic comparison of text or note variants, and the creation of 'guided questions' to lead a reader through a source document. Other functions include real-time conferencing and the possibility to include images and sound-clips as well as hyperlinks between a set of CommonSpace documents. The package is intended to be suitable for relative novices to IT, with a shallow learning curve for the creation of simple documents. One of its major strengths is its multi-platform capabilities; CommonSpace documents can be swapped between IBM-compatible PCs and Apple Macintoshes without the need for conversion (though sound and image files are excluded from this). Files created in several well-known packages (Word, WordPerfect, Claris Works, Ami Pro amongst others) can be directly imported into CommonSpace, as can files saved in Rich Text Format. Conversely, it is also possible to export CommonSpace files into the formats of the other packages, though CommonSpace-specific features such as columns will not be replicated and will necessitate the saving of separate files.

Description and Use

The standard CommonSpace interface has the appearance of a text editor. On exploration, most of the basic word-processing functions are available with an additional option of changing font colours within a document. Sophisticated features, such as tables or footnotes, are not available. CommonSpace is not intended to serve as a replacement for an advanced word-processor. The functions which it does provide have been specifically selected for their usefulness in collaborative writing. CommonSpace also provides fairly thorough online help and spell-checker.

Its greatest strengths, for both teaching and co-working, lie in its other functions: it is simple to attach one or more columns of annotations to the original document. Each annotation can be linked to a specific part of the original, to the content of a second annotation column, or to a second (edited) copy of the original document. Columns can be created as either 'linked' or 'unlinked'. A linked column is associated with another column, of any sort, and all annotations made in the linked column refer to specific words in the other column. This may be used to annotate the draft of a text, for example. An unlinked column can contain any information at all but does not allow for linking with another document or column. Columns can be given names, which proves useful for collaboration and file merging. They can also be 'hidden' (i.e. made invisible to the user) and re-revealed at an appropriate point.

A typical scenario for the use of CommonSpace would be as a means for tutors and students to work together around a key text, (for example, an essay). In the scenario described in the very useful 'Getting Started' set of tutorials which accompany the package, an essay written by one student is passed to a tutor and second student in CommonSpace format. Each of them add their comments into a separate, linked column. The files are then passed back to the originator of the text, who uses the 'file merge' function to bring the various annotation columns together in a single file. Finally, this new, collaborative file is copied to each participant.

A second scenario might be a more traditional, tutorial approach. A tutor prepares a key reading for a course in CommonSpace form; adds a 'Question Set' and other annotations; inserts sound comments and some hyperlinks to further files of information. Students could then use this for independent study, group collaborative work or for the collation and evaluation of responses to the text.

The individual user may also find some potential in CommonSpace. The annotation columns can be a particularly valuable tool during the writing process (used, for example, in the writing of this review). Columns can be easily compared and the variants between texts can be output to a separate column.

CommonSpace includes conferencing software available to any machine using standard Internet protocols. Comments about a text during a realtime conference are automatically 'threaded' to maintain continuity and are displayed synchronously to each connected conference-member. A final version of the paper can then be collated and circulated to participants.

CommonSpace Screenshot

Using CommonSpace to compare the drafts of an article.

Other features

A further function of the package is the possibility of including links to extracts of sound within the text. Sound can only be entered directly, using a microphone connected to the computer. There is, however, no option to include an already existing sound file, for example. The intention seems to be to allow the user to 'personalize' their document with pertinent quotes, comments and sound-bites. However, the usefulness of this function is limited by the amount of memory-space that is generally taken up by even a short sound excerpt‹there are warnings about this within the documentation‹ and, more crucially, by the fact that the sound files will not cross over platforms.

A function with more potential, included in a recent update, is the inclusion of hypertext links within a set of CommonSpace documents. The software uses a standard file-location scheme (similar to that used to locate files on the World Wide Web) to indicate the path to the file which the hyperlink will open (e.g. /CommonSpacepace/tutor/mary.csp). CommonSpace files transported between machines and platforms should maintain the hyperlinks between the files. Constructing the link is only slightly more complicated than inserting an annotation, with the link appearing underlined and in a different colour. Selecting the link will open the new file in a separate window, so that the original document remains in view, a well thought-out feature. Links are limited to opening the file at the beginning; it is not possible to specify a more precise 'jump-to' point within that file. Neither can links to external documents, such as those available on the WWW, be included; such a function would be extremely useful in both a teaching and research context. The link function is therefore somewhat limited, but has potential for the creation of a basic hypertext system.

The documentation which accompanies CommonSpace is itself worthy of comment. It is generally clearly written and comprehensive aiming itself not only at a relatively inexperienced IT user, but also at one who might wish to use the package without having to understand a detailed manual with accompanying IT jargon. In addition to the clear, well laid-out manual and quick reference cards, the software pack includes a 'Getting Started' guide. This gives four short, step-by-step tutorials, of increasing degrees of complexity, covering the main features of the package. It even includes an optional introduction to the basics of word-processing. The intention is to get a person who isn't really interested in the technology to a level of knowledge where they can use CommonSpace; the tutorials accomplish this aim with some success.


CommonSpace has many features which make it attractive for use in collaborative or tutorial, text-based work. The most basic feature, the potential to add note or annotation columns to a text, is certainly its strongest, adding flexibility to virtually any kind of work around a central text. Moreover, it is simple to work with and kind to its users.

Although its entire ethos seems to be a fairly uncomplicated, low-key approach, it does make heavy use of the computer system and requires more RAM, for example, than many who require unsophisticated software might currently own.

Its shortfallings concerning sound and images, both of which are catered for in a basic, fairly inflexible fashion, are not central to the requirements which it aims to fulfill; CommonSpace is definitely aimed towards text-oriented use. It's most sorely felt omission, and one which similar packages are surely racing to provide, is the inclusion of hyperlinks to external World Wide Web addresses. The addition of this feature would certainly add great value to the package and hold potential for individual note-taking, the creation of individual reference libraries of WWW addresses and WWW-based tutorials.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 13 (1996), 17. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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