Monday, December 4, 2017


Like many academics, I have many things going on and it is easy to get them mixed up or have something important get dropped. I keep a todo list on paper and one on the board in my office, that helps with the daily buzz of Department Chair duties. But the main bottleneck is students that I advise, a group consisting of 1 undergraduate honors, 8 masters and 1 PhD candidate. Each has a committee, sometimes more than one. Our PhD students, for example, have a candidacy exam committee and a thesis committee which may, or may not, consist of the same individuals. Easy to miss something in that quagmire.

But then I heard about Basecamp_3, or just basecamp, from email traffic on the SEG Research Committee. For several years there have been efforts to establish a networking environment using SEG internal IT resources. But it is a big job and a moving target with several commercial or free alternatives. The research committee is experimenting with basecamp and so am I. My first impression is very positive.

For academic users, basecamp is free after you jump through a few hoops to prove you are academic. Not a big deal, but it is there. Basecamp was developed for business use to give "a 10,000 ft view of everything that's happening across your whole business." Imagine a not-so-small company with teams and projects shown organized into a snazzy web layout and you have a first understanding of basecamp. The elements of each project are customizable, but usually contain a message board, schedule, todo list and documents area. Unlike group emails, the messages and responses are permanently archived in an easily accessible form with full history. The todo items point at one or many individuals, but everyone in the project sees the todo items for everyone.

On 21 September of 2017 I jumped in to basecamp with the goal of organizing the students I advisees, their committees, deadlines, documents and todo lists. To the left is a screenshot of my basecamp as it appears today. At the top is my headquarters (Prof. Liner HQ) where announcements can be made that everyone in the tree will get. Very dangerous power, use it sparingly. The only team I maintain are my advisees so that I can communicate common information to all of them at once. In the projects area, each student is a project, either honors (HON), masters (MS) or doctorate (PhD). The small dots with initials are people associated with a project; the student, the advisor (me) and the committee. One MS student has two ex-officio members from Houston who are also able to keep with with progress via basecamp.

One project is experimental: we are using it to organize the departmental geology curriculum committee that is looking at an overhaul of undergraduate and MS requirements. Early indications are also good for this use.

Inside a particular student project are the elements shown in the figure below. A nice feature of basecamp is insulation of each project from all the others. Project chatter is confined to the members of that project and is well organized. Notice the schedule items show up in the project view; no more drilling down into calendars with items for all students to find out what is coming up for a particular student.

We have developed a method for thesis revisions that works beautifully within basecamp. At the early stages, the student composes a complete chapter and posts it to basecamp for advisor review. This is an MS Word document that is edited with track changes on. Figure call-outs are in the text, but the actual figures do not reside in the word file. Figures are in an MS Powerpoint file with one slide for each figure and caption in the notes area of that slide.  Let's say the files are SmithMSChap1_R1.docx (text) and SmithMSChap1_R1.pptx (figures). When the advisor has edited both, they are reposted to basecamp using the nifty feature that a file can be replaced with an updated version by anyone on the project member list and all the previous comments remain in place as a history file. In this case, I would replace SmithMSChap1_R1.docx with SmithMSChap1_R2.docx and use the same convention for the figures file. After each committee member has reviewed R2 (and possibly uploaded R3), then we move on to the next chapter. After this process, all the chapters are pulled together into SmithMSThesis_R1.docx and the review process iterates to conclusion.

The documents area allows creation of folders to hold related material, so you can have folders such as Proposal, Thesis, Defense, etc. It is hard to see how I kept it all straight before basecamp, but I do not want to go back to that time of chaos and confusion. 

No comments: