Using Zoho Projects as an educator

Penrith mature 1I’m a professor and for the past 10 months, I’ve used Zoho Projects for team projects in my classrooms and for collaborations amongst academics at a distance.

I’d just like to share my thoughts on how I use this tool, the things I absolutely love about this online collaboration application, and things I wish could be worked on.  I’m also sharing this with the Zoho support team on their support forum.

How I use Zoho Projects

Collaboration is an important feature of rhetoric today.  People work together on documents and websites and research projects.  They need to be able to communicate effectively and ethically amongst themselves as a team in order to learn from each other, coordinate tasks, compile sections of documents, and finally communicate to an outside audience in an efficient manner.

I teach rhetoric and web design courses in which students create online content for real organizations. I also teach research methods courses in which teams work on small research projects involving surveys and interviews, often for real organizations who need research done.

Most of my courses involve some individual assignments and/or 1-3 group assignments involving teams of 3-6 people.  Therefore, in each course of 25-45 students I may create 5-10 projects in Zoho (one for each team of students, each project including myself as owner/participant).  Sometimes I also create a project for the team leaders in a class so I can give leadership advice and announcements just to them to pass on to their teams as needed. Sometimes I also set up a project space just for me and my community partners in service-learning courses.

IMG_5070Teams use the application to communicate openly and sensitively via email and/or online:

  • Forum messages can be sent to all users or just selected users.
  • Users can reply to email sent from the Forum without going into Zoho.  They just reply as they would to a normal email message.  The reply (sent to a unique Zoho address associated with the specific post) will be posted on the project’s forum as a reply and will be distributed to all who were notified in the original post.
  • Confidential messages are sent via the Users tab and these are not recorded in Zoho; they are sent directly to the recipients and a copy is sent to one’s own email account.
  • Text chat messages provide a more instantaneous and personal way to communicate with one or more members at a time.
  • Twitter-like status updates with a word limit can be posted on the project dashboard to let users know what one is doing or to communicate encouragement or ask a quick question. These are not sent via email but they appear in the list of updates on the “front page” where users enter Zoho Projects.

IMG_4824Teams use it to collaborate on documents and share files and links

  • The Documents tab lets you upload files and add file descriptions and comments to them
  • You can send an email notification to selected users when you upload a file
  • Upload newer versions of files that a team is collaborating on, keeping things organized
  • Store important links under a sub-menu within the Documents tab
  • Associate documents with tags and folder names
  • Documents can also be attached to Forum posts and thus sent via email to users
  • Open a file in online Zoho office software online if you don’t want to download or can’t open it
  • All document uploads and updates appear on the recent activity list on the dashboard

Teams can also

  • Use “Tasks & Milestones” to manage t0-do-lists and internal (team) deadlines and external (course) deadlines
  • Set up meetings with automatic email reminders
  • use a Wiki for collaboration
  • View their meetings, tasks and milestones on a Calendar

Student response

My students and collaborators find it a little overwhelming at first, especially due to the fact that they have other technologies to adapt to as well: I create a Google Site course website for each course, and courses may involve learning to use other programs like WordPress or SurveyMonkey.

However, most students get used to Zoho during their first smaller collaborative assignment, and by the end of a course students say it was essential for the success of their final team project. The most frequently used areas are the Dashboard, Forums, and Documents tabs.

Eternal clock

Account management Pros:

  • I love to pay a reasonable yearly fee to host unlimited free users in unlimited number of projects. It fits within my professional expense budget for the rich resources that come with Zoho.
  • Zoho support has been very helpful and prompt in replying.
  • Zoho account support has been helpful in adapting to my feature/pricing needs as an academic; I have had phone calls and emails and they have worked out issues for me in good time.
  • Its support forums are awesome.

Feature Pros:

  • As an instructor, I can easily monitor and move amongst even 20-30 active projects at a time through the global dashboard interface that gives me a color-coded summary of the activity in each project.
  • The “tab” structure works very well for keeping all its functions visible on the same page.
  • I appreciate being able to have multiple projects open in multiple tabs of my browser.
  • I love the integrated individual chat and the tab for group-wide chat. Many times this has saved me and my students time and misunderstandings, and it makes me more directly engaged with them outside the classroom. Many other project management apps lack this integration.
  • The chat is beautifully integrated: the chat window pops up no matter what tab you are in in Zoho, it’s small and in the corner and can be popped out, and the browser tab starts moving like ticker-tape to alert you that a chat has been initiated even if you are working in another window on your computer.
  • The color-coding and task meter on the dashboard are very helpful and motivating.
  • The forum’s integration with members’ normal email is essential for functionality.
  • A “search” feature allows you to find messages, documents, etc. when you accumulate a lot of information within your Project.

Wish list

Gantt chart

Of course, as a frequent user I wish certain features would be enhanced or added.  To see a more detailed version of this wish list you’d need to be a Zoho user and view the support blog at Zoho.

There was a major update to Zoho Projects in January 2011, with many valuable improvements, but these areas need work:

  • Documents need a better folder system
  • It needs to be clearer and easier to upload a new version of a file and view all versions
  • The calendar is very limited compared to Google Calendar (if you create Zoho Project account as a business user of Google Apps, you can integrate it with your Google Calendar)
  • The Forum needs some formatting help when one posts messages / replies via email.
  • Tasks & Milestones are very complex and time consuming to use
  • New users need step by step help to sign up
  • I’d like a blank tab to put my own messages and widgets as the forum’s host/owner.
  • It needs a mobile app for at least the dashboard and forum

However, the program is already immensely powerful and useful.  It just needs to remain competitive with other online collaboration products that are also improving.

Fortunately, Zoho listens very well to its customers and is continually adding new features and enhancing existing features.  Some of these upgrades may have already been integrated if you are reading this months or years later than June 4, 2011.

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