Education is increasingly described and assessed through interaction rather than through documents. Personal Development Plans (PDP) and ePortfolios are intended to focus the student's attention on his or her own needs and to provide the basis for interacting with peers and tutors. The PDP is expected, in an ideal world, to evolve based on the interactions and experiences of the student. Educational materials are increasingly moving away from the tradition of a static textbook towards interactive multimedia and multi-pathway materials. Even testing, when carried out online, can be responsive to the strengths and weaknesses of the student, probing the limits of their knowledge, or providing additional practice and experience in weaker areas. Education, at its best, is returning to a personal experience, albeit one made more resource efficient by being mediated through technology. Yet despite the potential for personalised interactive experiences, these are often used only at the margins. "Serious" interactions are expected to still occur through static documents such as essays, dissertations and examination papers. Educators have yet to embrace the potential—and the challenges— of delivering a truly collaborative education experience mediated through information technology. Delivering on the promise of such a collaborative educative experience challenges the available set of tools as well as the experience and training of educators. A range of new collaborative tools are appearing: but are they appropriate for education? And can they provide the combination of appeal to students, ease of use for instructors, and rich functionality required? In this article we look at the potential for Google Wave to provide a useful framework for collaborative education.
Google announced Wave (uppercase W) as both an open-source web application and underlying web protocols in May 2009. At the time of writing, access to Wave is by invitation only (while the service is developed), but it is intended that access will become freely available in the near future. Wave (wave.google.com) is a web-based service in which threaded waves (hosted XML documents, lowercase w) consisting of a series of "blips" (messages) are written and edited by multiple participants. The ability to modify a wave lets users create collaborative documents, edited in a similar fashion to wikis. Waves can easily link to other waves, thus a collection of waves resembles an advanced online discussion forum. The history of each wave is stored within it. Collaborators can use a playback feature to observe the order in which a wave was edited, blips were added, and who was responsible for what content. Gadgets are pre-built applications you can insert into a wave to extend the default functionality of the wave. The number of gadgets will grow with time but already include maps, voting, video conferencing, whiteboard and iframes. Google Wave therefore appears like a blend of email and instant messaging wrapped in a shell of collaborative authoring. But Wave goes further than providing a new user interface by introducing the concept of Robots, automated agents which participate alongside human authors in the production of documents, potentially performing tasks such as formatting, researching by searching databases for keywords or tags and referencing in preferred styles.
The Wave interface can be rather confusing, especially on a small screen such as on a netbook (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Google Wave interface
The interface is organized into four panels - Navigation, Contacts, Inbox and the active wave. The panels can be resized or minimized, and it is worth noting that it is possible to bookmark a preferred layout so that it is possible to return directly to it. Each panel has a non-standard scrollbar which is intended to facilitate access on small screen sizes (such as on mobile devices). The user interface tends to become cluttered quickly but can be simplified by marking waves as read, muting (a muted wave will no longer appear in the inbox when updated) and archiving. Further organization is possible through the creation of folders and tags, making it easier to search for particular waves. The interface also includes a wide variety of search options such as content, people, location, attributes (e.g. presence of an attachment or a particular gadget, etc), and public waves. Green indicates activity, such as green highlighting for the currently selected wave and blip, unread items, and a green dot for contacts currently online, who can be pinged to gain their attention.
Wave's XML architecture means that comprehensive multimedia support is built in. In theory, components can be added to waves by drag and drop functionality, although this is not always completely reliable in these early stages. However, the significance of multimedia components as fundamental building blocks inside an extremely extensible framework means that Wave could be the ideal format for small screen mobile devices where text input is frequently problematic. Captured video and/or audio can be woven into a Wave alongside text and static images, turning a web-enabled mobile phone into a powerful collaborative authoring device. Promotion of multimedia elements to the status once reserved for text is one way in which the potential of Wave may overcome the inertia of electronic publishing.
The second key functionality that Wave provides is automation. "Robots" which have all the capabilities of the human participants in the conversation are able to add to, modify, record, or respond to, events in a wave. In combination with Gadgets it is easy to imagine personalised tests that respond to the progress a student is making. This type of functionality is already provided by many VLEs but in Wave it is provided directly within a rich messaging environment, possibly the same environment in which a student is chatting with colleagues, conversing with tutors, collaboratively taking notes on a lecture, writing essays, or recording a laboratory experiment. The key advance in Wave is this integration: potentially enabling collaboration across a diverse set of learning objects, while at the same time enabling educators to aggregate a student’s contribution for assessment. The strong versioning within Wave will make it straightforward for tutors to identify contributions from specific students within collaborative documents but may also make it more straightforward to assess the ability of individual students to work within groups.
The open source basis for Wave is important. Just as no single body "owns" email, so could turn it off, or start charging exorbitant fees for it at some point in the future, so Google does not "own" Wave. Although initially hosted on Google's servers, Google's roadmap for Wave plans that it will move to a distributed network of servers and that anyone who wishes to can host a Wave server in exactly the same way that email servers are distributed around the world. This provides a guarantee that Wave is unlikely to simply disappear at some point, although of course the long term success of the system depends on how widely it is eventually adopted.
Although waves can be used as personal repositories, exploring Wave as an isolated user is a rather sterile practice. Collaboration (in real time or near real time) is the activity that Wave has been designed for. This interactive element is perhaps the most exciting element of Wave in educational terms, challenging introverted approaches to learning in the same way that Wave challenges text-based models of electronic publishing. Of course, educators can choose not to use any or all of the attributes of Wave, but in doing so they run the risk of falling further behind student attention as educational activities become ever more interactive. In our experience, few students are excited by the collaborative potential of wikis, while at the same time most spend a fair proportion of their online hours intensely engaged with technologies such as MSN chat and Facebook. In the future, Wave offers the potential to engage these students in an environment where collaborative knowledge building is central rather than bolted on. For those who feel the need to assess contributions to group work, the playback features which have existed in Wave since the outset but which will undoubtedly be improved as the service develops provide a convenient way of measuring individual contributions to a rich learning environment.
At present, using Wave is rather a painful experience (with its own parody website easiertounderstandthanwave.com), which is perhaps only to be expected from a product at the preview stage. Not accessible or compliant with disability legislation, subdividing screen real estate into many small panes, and often very slow to respond when many authors are working on the same Wave, these technical limitations will no doubt be reduced as the product matures. The real difficulty at present is the limited user base as Google slowly rolls out invitations to the service, meaning that it is rare to be interacting with other users in a synchronous way, making what is intended to be a hyper-connected near-realtime service a rather sterile experience. As the user community grows and as update notifications systems appear, Wave will become a much richer and more enticing prospect.
The educational potential of Wave is enormous, as long as online access is available and educational objectives and outputs are not circumscribed by traditional practices and formats. Possibilities include:
- Home location for course teams, including a repository of all teaching materials, administrative documents such as timetables and mark spreadsheets, and discussions.
- Collaborative multimedia notebook for lectures, practical classes and seminars.
- Communication and recording system for a student (or group) and a tutor in which a task can be discussed, negotiated, constructed and delivered with the complete history recored for assessment purposes if needed.
- Role playing games - Wave could be used to act out a wide variety of role play scenarios for training purposes (ArsTechnica: Google Wave: we came, we saw, we played D&D tinyurl.com/yfygxdm)
- Potential validation of the process by which students produce their work. Staff could playback student assignments, demonstrating how the student wrote and rewrote their work, thereby accrediting the learning process as well as the final product.
- Far beyond being a replacement for email, Wave can serve as a collaborative environment for writing documents including academic papers.
In the educator's world many of these same ideas could be applied to augmenting conferences. We will certainly be experimenting with models for conference Waves at ALT-C 2010. The exciting part of Wave here is not simply in providing yet another communication channel in an area where there is already an over proliferation of channels, salami-slicing discussion into ever-smaller ghettos, but in the potential for robots to interact with conference delegates, perhaps informing them of interesting realtime discussion occurring elsewhere (either online or in the meatspace). Wave offers a uniquely powerful approach to integrating conversations across multiple online and real-space platforms based, for instance, on keywords derived from the participant's prior input. As a space to record the social interactions of the conference delegates, Wave could offer a unique insight into how collaborations and networking at conferences occurs.
Wave is a powerful new technology that is still to find its place. The confusion over "what Wave is" that can be found across the web is indicative of this. There are specific weaknesses, particularly in the design and the usability of the client that have limited its take-up and generated the majority of criticisms that can be found online. It is likely that adoption will be limited until specially designed clients are built for specific use cases or functionality for modifying the appearance and behaviour of the Google client is made available. There are technical and scaling limitations that are being experienced on the current server. For example it is not possible to place contextual menus inline with text at the moment, making spell-checker style word suggestions from robots currently impossible. Much of these issues however are the type of small scale technical problems that will be ironed out as the technology develops.
What Wave does offer is a powerful means of enabling collaboration, either with people or machines on the web, around objects that might be text, conversation, multimedia, or interactive objects. It is the use cases that emphasise collaboration and particularly real-time responsive collaboration where Wave has the most potential to contribute. In particular the ability to interact with peers, tutors, and intelligent agents, through annotating, discussing, and manipulating educational materials holds great promise. Whether or not it is Wave that becomes the dominant framework, tools to enable real-time interaction on the web are developing both in terms of functionality and useability. Wave is still officially at the Preview stage, and from the history of Google applications, could remain there for some time. At least four critical attributes are missing that would assist in it becoming a valuable educational tool:
- The ability to produce read-only waves. While the entire history of each wave is available to monitor what changes have been made, the ability to create optional read-only waves is important to avoid miscommunication in some circumstances.
- The ability to close or 'kill off' a multi-participant wave which may continue to live long after the initiator created it.
- Notifications to pull collaborators into the realtime authoring environment.
- The ability to remove comments or contributions within a wave that are spam/not relevant (troll behaviour)/libellous etc.
Even if Wave is 'what email would look like if it were invented today' (this one-liner is what the developers came up with at short notice for PR purposes at the Wave launch), disruptive technologies augment rather than replace preceding ones. (Television did not replace radio, radio did not replace books, etc.) So while we wait to find out what Wave is good for, please bear that in mind. Paul Buchheit, the creator and lead developer of GMail, suggests the future of Wave may be integration into the other Google offerings, producing a realtime environment for GMail and Google Documents (paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/2009/11/so-i-finally-tried-wave.html). Wave may not be the final answer but it points the direction that the Web is taking and for that reason alone it is worth keeping an eye on.
Alan Cann, University of Leicester
Jo Badge, University of Leicester
Dick Moore, Ufi learndirect
Cameron Neylon, Science and Technology Facilities Council
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