Document Management in Team-Oriented, Project-Based Courses: Evaluating a LaTeX/Subversion-Based Approach

Yost, Sandra, and Mohan Krishnan

Most engineering and technology programs place a high value on team-based assignments and projects. At the University of Detroit Mercy, a written project report is often one of the required deliverables from each team. When the size of the team exceeds two or three, collaborative report writing becomes problematic. Ad hoc processes aimed to keep track of who is working on what, and which version is actually the correct current version often break down, and chaos ensues. It is also difficult for an instructor to find clear evidence of an individual‟s contribution to the report.

This paper discusses a low-cost approach to the implementation of a document versioning system for technical reports. Several alternatives have been considered, including commercial document collaboration services such as Next Point 2 (NextPoint) and SharePoint (Microsoft), open-source versioning applications such as Subversion, wikis, and free web-based services such as Google Docs.

A versioning system-based solution was judged most appropriate for our requirements. Versioning systems (e.g. CVS, Subversion) have enjoyed extensive use by the opensource software development community because they allow many users to work on a project while keeping track of the complete history of changes and the most current version of the code. Unfortunately, these systems operate on source code stored as text files and are not designed to work with Word or other documents stored as binary files. However, they do work with LaTeX files, which are stored as text files. The important issue here is whether or not compelling students to learn LaTeX places an unnecessary burden on them. This paper reports on a pilot study conducted in Fall 2006 to evaluate whether or not and how a LaTeX/Subversion-based approach might be adopted by the EE program as a standard for the preparation of team-based project reports.