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This article is mostly based on Nova's (2002:21-27) master thesis (PDF) done at TECFA, i.e. a quick effort to cut/paste into the wiki + some additional information - 19:01, 12 May 2006 (MEST). In Mai 2013 it was extended by a German (Saarland University) EduTech Master's student.


When people work together in a shared environment (virtual or not), they need information about the action and the intentions of their teammates. Those information are critical to a successful collaboration, especially in groupware systems (Dourish & Belloti, 1992). This knowledge of others, result of the interaction of the participants and their environment, is named awareness. Dourish and Belloti (1992) have given one of the best-known definitions for awareness: awareness is an understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity.

More precisely, Gutwin and Greenberg (1999a) state that awareness:

  • Is knowledge about a state of the work environment in a limited portion of time and space.
  • Provides knowledge about changes in that environment.
  • Is maintained by all the interactions between the team-mates and the environment.
  • Is a part of an activity (completing a task, working on something). Maintaining awareness is not the purpose of an activity. Awareness is used to complete a task.

Therefore, awareness is a process that sums up the knowledge extracted from an environment and updates it thanks to the interaction between the participants and their environments.

See also: Shared cognition, learning analytics

Kinds of awareness

Greenberg, Gutwin, and Cockburn, (1996) make the distinction between four different types of overlapping awareness

  • Informal awareness, that is knowing who is where, whether people are busy and what kind of activity they're engaged in. Greenberg (1996) thinks that this type of awareness plays a role of social glue between people.
  • Social awareness, that is all the general knowledge about the others in a social or conversational context. It can indicate whether a partner is paying attention or being interested.
  • Group-structural awareness: it is all the information about the composition of the group: status, roles and responsibilities of the others.
  • Workspace awareness: Gutwin & Greenberg (1999a) define it as the up-to-themoment understanding of another person's interaction with the shared workspace. It is awareness of people and how they interact with the workspace, rather than awareness of the workspace itself.

Cooper & Haines (2008) discovered -reviewing literature- even more kinds of awarenesses that will be mentioned briefly: activity awareness, availability awareness, concept/task awareness, conversational awareness, environmental awareness, process awareness, perspective awareness and peripheral awareness. Another important kind of awareness is called situation awareness (Endsley, 1996): This term originally comes from the aircraft pilot community and refers to the awareness needed while working with highly complex and dynamic systems. According to Gutwin & Greenberg (2002b), workspace awareness can be seen as a specialization of situational awareness, although these high awareness demands are not a result of the highly complex system, but are generated through the double task (working with the workspace and collaborating with the others) and through the impeded gathering of awareness information.

All those elements are a starting point from which individuals can infer their partner's activities, availability, troubles and so on. From Table 1 and 2, it can be seen that the most important awareness information are the elements that answer who, what, where, when, and how. In a groupware system, all those information are captured and distributed by awareness tools. Thus people can keep track of these things.

Workspace awareness

Workspace awareness is the up-to-the-moment understanding of another person's interaction with the shared space [7, 8]. It goes beyond the notion of feedback and gestures by insisting that all actions are seen within the context of the entire workspace even when people are working in different parts of it. (Cox and Greenberg, 2000: 291. According to Cooper and Haines (2008) workspace awareness can be broken down in three components: presence awareness (How many people are in the workspace and who are they?), behavior awareness (What are the others’ activities in the workspace?) and insight awareness (Why are the others doing what they are doing?).

In contrast to face-to-face situations, where awareness of each other is easy to maintain and the collaboration happens in a very natural way, this is harder in situations where people only can communicate through groupware (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b). This has three main reasons (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b):

  1. The perceptual information is limited due to the input and output devices.
  2. Less information are generated anyway, because the user is interacting with a computer and not directly with another user.
  3. Awareness information that would be available in the system theoretically is not displayed.

Workspace Awareness for Groupware

Gutwin and Greenberg (1996:209) define the following overall framework for workspace awareness:

Element Relevant questions
Presence Who is participating in the activitiy ?
Location Where are they working ?
Activity Level How active are they in the workspace ?
Actions What are they doing ? What are their current activites and tasks ?
Intentions What will they do next ? Where will they be ?
Changes What changes are they making, and where ?
Objects What objects are they using ?
Extents What can they see ? How far can they reach ?
Abilities What can they do ?
Sphere of Influence where can they make changes ?
Expectations What do they need me to do next ?

Let's quote Gutwin and Greenberg (1996:209) for a short explanation:

"Many of the elements fall into two rought groups: those that deal with what is happening with another person (e.g. amount of activity, nature of actions, changes, and expectations), and those that deal with where it is happening (location of focus, view extents, area of influcence, or objects in use)"
"These elements "provide a basic vocabulary for thinking about awareness requirements and groupware support. Desingers can use the framework to analyze existing fact-to-face situations."

Which information is shown ?

According to Gutwin and Greenberg (1999a), elements of workspace awareness can be divided into two parts: those related to the present (cf. Table 1) and those related to the past (cf. Table 2).

Category Element Specific questions
Who Presence Is anyone in the workspace?
Identity Who is participating? Who is that?
What Authorship Who is doing that?
Action What are they doing?
Intention What goal is that action part of?
Artefact What object are they working on?
Where Location Where are they working?
Gaze Where are they looking?
View Where can they see?
Reach Where can they reach?
Table 1 : Elements of workspace awareness relating to the present (from Gutwin & Greenberg, 1999a)

Category Element Specific questions
How Action history How did that action happen?
Artefact history How did this artefact come to be in this state?
When Event History When did that event happen?
Who (past) Presence history Who was here, and when?
Where (past) Location History Where has a person been?
What (past) Action history What has a person been doing?
Table 2 : Elements of workspace awareness relating to the past (from Gutwin & Greenberg, 1999a).

All those elements are a starting point from which individuals can infer their partner\u2019s activities, availability, troubles and so on. From Table 1 and 2, it can be seen that the most important awareness information are the elements that answer "who, what, where, when, and how". In a groupware system, all those information are captured and distributed by awareness tools. Thus people can keep track of these things. Workspace designers should ensure to answer these basic questions through the display of awareness information. Not all kinds of these information have to be supported equally: Which information are needed more or less is always dependent on specific features of the working group (for example the degree of interaction) and the task (for example the dynamism) (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b).

How awareness information is gathered ?

Gutwin and Greenberg (1996:209) define the following basic mechanisms through which workspace awareness is maintained:

  • Direct communication, either speech or gesture
  • Indirect productions, speech, actions etc. that are not directly aimed at others, but are intentionnally public
  • Consequential communication: visible or audible sights of interaction (seeing somebody work)
  • Feedthrough: observable effects of someone's actions on the workspace's artifacts (seeing an object move or appear is an indicator that someone did it)
  • Envionmental feedback: feedback from the environment or the overall workspace that caused by the indirect effects of someone's actions.

In a shared environment, workspace information is gathered according to (Gutwin & Greenberg: 1999a) in three major forms:

(1) Visible activity appears to be an essential flow of information. Auditory sign may also be useful. It can be bodily actions, gestures, the posture of the other person's body in the workspace, the movement of a limb, the sounds in the environment, etc. Those information are the consequence of a non-intentional communication: the producer of the gesture do not move intentionally to inform a partner. This kind of communication is named consequential communication. An example given by Norman (1993) relates that, in aircraft cockpits, when the captain reaches across the cockpit over to the first officers side and lowers the landing-gear lever, the motion is obvious: the first officer can see it even without paying conscious attention. The motion not only controls the landing gear, but just as important, it acts as a natural communication between the two pilots, letting both know the action has been done. (p. 142).

(2) The manipulation of the workspace artefacts provides visual or acoustic information. For instance, the scratch of a pencil indicates that someone in the environment is writing. This mechanism is named feedthrough. It is different from feedback in the sense that this kind of information is not only given to the person who is performing the action, but also to the others who are watching or hearing. Information gathered by an individual provides cues about a modification of an artefact manipulated by a teammate. Hence, it is possible to determine what is being done to an artefact by seeing and hearing changes in the environment.

(3) The conversation and the intentional communication are also significant. Verbal communication is the most important medium to collaborate in a group. The authors distinguish three ways picking up information from conversation: hearing someone's conversation, asking a question like what are you doing? and by picking up others' verbal shadowing (commentary people often produce to themselves when they perform a task). For instance, navigation teams on navy ships talk on an open circuit in order that everyone can hear each other's conversations. Therefore, member of the team listen in on these conversations to learn from more experienced partners or to monitor the actions of a junior member.

How to display workspace awareness information?

To answer the basic questions how and where to present the workspace awareness information, Gutwin and Greenberg (2002b) consider the following two dimensions: presentation and placement. Concerning the “how”-question, the dimension of presentation can be subdivided into the aspects “literal” and “symbolic”. Literal presentation means here to present the information in the same way that it was produced by other group members, whereas symbolic presentation is based on the extraction of particular information that is displayed explicitly. Concerning the “where”-question, the aspects “situated” and “separate” constitute the dimension of placement. Situated information appear integrated into the workspace representation, but you can also think about presenting the information separately from the workspace in another interface. Combining the two dimensions with their associated aspects, there are four possibilities to present workspace awareness information: situated-literal, situated-symbolic, separate-literal and separate-symbolic. According to Gutwin and Greenberg (2002b), the most promising approach is the situated-literal approach, because the information is already integrated into the workspace, where your attention is anyway, and it is shown in the same form as it was produced; therefore this approach is able to imitate best the information-presenting and -gathering processes in the real-world (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b). As it is always the case, according to Gutwin and Greenberg (2002b), the display of workspace awareness information doesn’t guarantee that the user perceive the information and even if the perceive it, that they interpret them correctly and that they are able to use them in a beneficial way.

To enhance the situated-literal approach, you can make use of the following two design elements (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b): The first of them are “embodiments”: Embodiments represent the “bodies” of the group members in the shared workspace. They are small visible representations of the users that can have many forms, for example being pictures of the persons or small symbols. Embodiments have the potential to answer these questions: Who else is in the workspace? What are the other users doing? Where are they working? The second design element is called “expressive artifacts”: Expressive artifacts, for example specific sounds that are associated with specific data manipulation actions, support the information gathering mechanism feedthrough (see above: “How awareness information is gathered?”).

The use of workspace awareness

Workspace awareness information may be used for a large variety of ways in collaboration. In general, augmented awareness contributes to fluid and natural communication, is believed to improve the usability of groupware and therefore supports successful collaboration (Gutwin & Greenberg, 2002b). Gutwin & Greenberg (1999a) describe five types of activity aided by the information described in table 1 and 2.

First, workspace awareness can be deployed for the management of coupling. Coupling is the degree to which people are working together. The coupling is tight when people see an opportunity to collaborate. It is loose when somebody sees that his/her partner is too busy to interrupt his/her task. By allowing people to know what a team-mate is doing with the appropriate awareness information, they can recognize when the collaboration is possible, when they can confront their work to a partner, etc.

Second, simplification of communication is a way to employ awareness information: by simplifying verbal communication and making it more efficient. For instance, in a referential communication, if an individual talk to me about an object that I cannot see, an AT can show what my addressee look could be useful. Consequently, my partner has not to describe or to cite the object; he has just to refer to what is being shown by the AT. It can be a way to overcome the grounding problems (see part 2.2.1) due to the medium.

Third, workspace awareness aids to coordinate actions in collaborative activity. By informing partners about where the team-mates are, what they have already done or what they intend to do, it allows people to know when they can collaborate

Four, the expectations of what is going to be done by the partners can be made thanks to workspace awareness information. Anticipation and predictions are based on extrapolating forward from present. By seeing that a partner is catching an object, one can infer that this artefact is going to be used.

Finally, assisting others is a way to use workspace awareness. It can be employed to know if a partner needs help and how. Knowing what he has done, where he is and what he intends to do is useful to help him.

Gutwin and Greenberg (1999a) sum up the process by the figure 1. This schema shows how information gathered as we have explained in part 1.5.3 is employed. One of the most striking features is that it is a cycle. As a matter of fact, the use of workspace awareness can be seen as a perception-action cycle. People gather information about their environment, integrate it and use it to perform actions. Consequently, this leads to more efficient collaborative interactions.

Empirical evidence of the use of workspace awareness

Cooper and Haines (2008) conducted a study containing this main research question: Does workspace awareness influence the decision quality and consensus concerning a decision task in a groupware situation and if yes, how?

The chosen task is described as not very complex and as having a clear answer. The study participants were 240 undergraduate students that worked anonymously (they had fruits as nicknames) in small groups either in a control chat room or in the treatment chat room. In both types of chat rooms messages were presented chronologically and with the senders’ nicknames. Additionally, in the treatment chat room the following information were available: How many people are in the chat room? And for each participant: Does he/she understand the technique that is currently under discussion (and that should be applied in a later task) and if so, does he/she agree with it? (These information are generated by participants’ correspondent clicks in the interface.) The treatment chat room was supposed to support presence and insight awareness. The perceived amount of presence awareness, behavior awareness, insight awareness and consensus was captured by a post-questionnaire. The decision quality was assessed as high or low (as there were clear good and bad decisions).

Cooper and Haines (2008) could confirm seven of their eight hypotheses with these main findings: Enhanced workspace awareness has a positive impact on decision quality and also on task performance that results from this decision. Exactly said, it is the enhanced insight awareness that augments the chance to reach the best decision and this insight awareness is increased by behavior awareness which in turn is increased by presence awareness. The positive influence of the awareness on decision quality is probably realized through the fostered mechanisms of coupling, coordination and assistance (see above: “The use of workspace awareness”). Furthermore, insight awareness positively influenced consensus concerning the decision. The underlying process is explained through enhanced coupling and assistance which are results of the higher insight awareness and which give the participants the feeling that the decision made really expresses their views of the topic. In a nutshell: Cooper and Haines (2008) provide evidence that enhanced workspace awareness has the potential to improve decision quality, consensus concerning this decision and therefore also task performance, at least in the context of a small group that is working together at a rather less complex decision-finding task.

Awareness in educational technology

DSchneider thinks that educational technology (and in particular fields like e-learning) show not enough interest to instructional, cognitive and emotional issues related to awareness.

under construction, more to come ...


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More papers by Gutwin et al: See The interaction lab University of Saskatchewan - publications