Tools trial number four in our ongoing series took place on Thursday, 24 September. About a dozen members of our community of practice (request to join here) met to try out the new video chat integration on Etherpad, an open-source collaborative note-taking platform.
A big thank you to community member Malika Ihle, who co-hosted this trial and kindly shared her expertise and experience with Etherpad.
Our previous trials covered Qiqochat, Mural/Jamboard/Padlet, and Gather. If you have any ideas or requests for future trials, or would like to co-host with us, let us know by emailing us: email@example.com.
1 October 2020
Note from the CSCCE blog editor: Since this blog post was published, we received feedback from a programmer with Etherpad. Many of our critiques of the platform can actually be addressed with plugins and more advanced coding options. You can find out more about Etherpad plugins in this Wiki, and if you have any questions, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is Etherpad?
In the platform’s own words, “Etherpad is a highly customizable Open Source online editor providing collaborative editing in really real-time.” Similar to Google docs in a lot of ways, but without the for-profit company backing, Etherpad allows users to click a link, join a doc, and work together synchronously or asynchronously. With the new video chat add on, however, Etherpad has added something that Google does not currently offer.
Notably, Etherpad+Video runs on your own server, so there is some initial setup needed. However, this means that international restrictions that might apply to other platforms would not cause an issue for this platform.
Given the platform’s similarities to Google docs, much of our feedback took the form of a direct comparison, so here’s a brief rundown of Etherpad vs Google docs.
Round 1: Collaborative work
Having built-in videochat definitely added a new ease to working together online. CSCCE regularly runs writing sprints to work on collaborative docs together while also staying in touch via a Zoom meeting running in the background. We noted how nice it was to not have to keep switching between windows.
Both platforms have a text chat option, which works well in both, but notably, in Google docs the chat disappears with each new session whereas in Etherpad it persists with the document.
However, there are some glitches with the current version of Etherpad’s video integration. Several of us noticed our computer fans kicking into high gear, at least one person had issues with audio, only hearing part of an ongoing conversation, and as far as we could tell you cannot screen-share.
Round 2: Word processing
Etherpad’s formatting ability is extremely limited – restricted to text-only, but whether this matters to you will depend on your goals. If all you need to do is write together, no problem. But, there is no capability for creating tables or inserting figures, pictures, or other media which could quickly become an issue for scientific projects.
Etherpad does also have the ability for user’s to assign a color to their contributions in the doc so that anything they type is highlighted in that color. With many authors this creates a rainbow effect in the text which might be distracting, but does give an interesting perspective of how collaboration can involve building upon one another’s ideas.
Round 3: Organizing and archiving
Unlike Google docs, Etherpad does not have an overarching organizational layer like Google Drive. This was a big sticking point for our group, as many of us already organize our work in Drive. Malika also noted that Etherpad documents hosted on the free server are not persistent; after three years your document link no longer works. However, Etherpad does have a neat version control feature, allowing you to play back the “time lapse” of the document to see what changes were made when in a way that’s more visually interesting than regular version histories.
Another feature missing from Etherpad but present in Google Drive is the ability to reshare the document and apply different permissions to different audiences e.g. view only. Both Google docs and Etherpad do allow exporting of the document though – to Word format or PDF. Etherpad additionally allows embedding of the pad elsewhere – although the limited lifespan of the etherpad means this will result in broken embeds in the future.
Related issues of persistence include the fact that chat histories stay with the doc, so new users joining the doc later could read a conversation. This is the opposite of how chat works in Google docs and may or may not cause issues with context collapse when new visitors can see conversations that were potentially not meant for them.
And somewhat confusingly for us, we realized we could turn off the rainbow highlighting of individual contributions – but this was a one-way feature – removing the colors and not allowing them to be restored on the existing text (although you could turn highlighting back on for future text). This could have been clearer.
So, in nutshell…
…if you are looking for an open-source collaborative note-taking platform that allows you to video chat with your collaborators, this is the platform for you. However, if your needs extend beyond this (document archiving, word processing, etc) then you might be better off sticking with a combination of Google docs and a separate video conferencing platform like Zoom.
I want to know more…can I access the notes from this call?
Yes! ten members of the CSCCE community of practice joined this tools trial, and, along with CSCCE staff, contributed comments to a shared Google doc (you are welcome to add your own thoughts as comments to this doc). A big thank you to Malika for leading us through this trial, and to everyone who attended!
The next CSCCE tools trial: Remo
Next, we will be trialling Remo, a virtual conferencing platform, at 4pm UTC / noon US EDT on Thursday, 1 October. This trial will be co-hosted by community member Mate Palfy. We would love to see you!
Please note that neither CSCCE nor any of the participants (or their organizations) who attend these trials are endorsing the platforms. We will, where possible, ensure that participants have the option to enter the event as a guest and we will not provide any identifying information to the platform.