Google Wave – Opportunities for communication, collaboration and social learning in education

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed a flurry of links to Google Wave in What I’ve starred this week: June 2, 2009. This coincided with the release of a developer preview at the Google I/O Conference on 27th May 2009. This post attempts to outline what Google Wave is and features which might be of interest for teaching and learning. Whilst reading this post please remember that Google Wave is still in development and won’t be publically available until later in the year. I don’t usually highlight new products which aren’t available yet but feel there are lots of important features of Google Wave that are worth considering before its full launch.

What is Google Wave?

Wave is Google’s attempt to re-examine the way we communicate and collaborate. In particular they wanted to take a fresh look at the model we use to communicate via email. Email predates the internet and the original model used for email mirrors that of traditional postal mail. This model has a number of inefficiencies. In particular, messages are distributed to individuals rather than being stored centrally which creates issues if you want to co-collaborate on documents. There are a number of solutions which create a workaround like using SharePoint or Google Docs which allow you to contribute to a shared document but these solutions don’t necessarily have fully integrated communication tools like instant messaging.

Google Wave attempts to address this with their solution which is designed to merge e-mail, instant messaging, wiki type tools, social networking and re-syndication of data. To achieve this Google have developed a web based service, computing platform and a new email protocol. From the outset Google have designed Wave to be open so that it can be developed to fit particular user needs. The Google Wave API allows this via extensions (similar concept to Firefox add-ins – custom pieces of code which interact with the core programme) and embed (the ability to integrate Waves in your own site). A succinct overview of Wave is available here on Wikipedia.

Key features of Google Wave for teaching and learning

Google Wave was revealed to the world by Lars Rasmussen and his team at Google I/O and here is the full video (1hr:20mins) of his keynote. In this presentation some of the key features of Google Wave were demonstrated. Watching this video I could immediately see how some of these features could directly benefit teaching and learning and I’ve extracted these in a 10 minute highlights package shown below:


Google Wave: Opportunities for communication, collaboration and social learning in education (edit of Google I/O presentation – full version at http://wave.google.com)

In summary, the features I thought were particularly useful were:

Documents centrally stored (00:00)
One of the issues when promoting 3rd party communication/collaboration tools is the security of data. This particularly ties into quality assurance processes which may require keeping copies of student work. Unlike other Google products like Gmail or Google Docs where information is stored on Google servers, Google Wave can be installed on local servers allowing the institution to control security, backups etc. As there is also a common standard behind Google Wave (Google Wave Federation Protocol) it also means it will be possible to share Waves on different servers. [The protocol is also open source which means anyone can build a custom Wave system]

Inline public/private replies (01:30)
Creating inline comments in available on most electronic documents. The difference with Wave is these comments could be used as a recorded discussion between student and tutor. The fact that you can also create private response which only go to named individuals also could be used to directly support group work. The main advantage of Wave is it integrates document management and collaboration tools in one environment.

Character-by-character instant messaging/collaboration (02:27)
Apart from the obvious potential productivity gains if you were solely to use a Wave for instant messaging, the ability to simultaneously edit the same document looks like a very useful feature for group work. Use of this feature doesn’t have to stop here. The ability to transmit almost character-by-character changes to a document could be used in other ways. For example, you could use a Google Wave to collect student questions during lectures which you can choose to answer straight away or at a later date. You could also use Wave as an electronic response system. Google have already implemented forms into Wave allowing you to view responses in real time. Using a Wave to support a lecture could also be an interesting way to capture, disseminate and co-create.

Syndication/embedding information and Wave functionality to other sites (05:00)
This is achieved using Wave Extensions, robots which can automate tasks or provide different ways data can be shared and interacted with. In the video above you can see an example of how the robot called Bloggy is used to simultaneously reaggregate information from a Google Wave into a blog. The potential of this would be to allow students to integrate the full functionality of Wave in a site of their choice. To expand on this a little, institutional VLEs struggle to compete with the draw of social network sites like Facebook or MySpace. Some institutions have endeavoured to create a presence in these sites but information flow and creation is limited and there is the conflict between personal and work related activities. Google Wave offers the theoretical opportunity to allow users to have the features of Wave in a 3rd party site whilst maintaining a divide between work and pleasure. This could allow students to create a personal learning environment within a site like Facebook maintaining the rich set of features available from Wave.

Filtered ‘playback’ (07:20)
Being able to step through the creation of a document isn’t a new idea and there are a number of other applications and web services which allow you see how a document has been built up. The feature of Google’s implementation of playback which most interested me was the planned ability to control who or which parts of the document you want replayed. The immediate use for this could be to assess individual contributions in group work, but there are other uses which could be explored. For example, feedback could be given on the process used to create/structure the document (e.g. preparing an outline of ideas, writing main points, introduction, conclusions etc.). Because Wave combines communication and collaboration it will be possible to capture and playback discussions between students/tutors and the resulting actions.

Summary

Hopefully this post has highlighted how Google Wave could impact communication, collaboration and social learning in education. Even if the ideas behind Wave don’t become fully adopted I think it will have enough of an impact to change our expectations of how we should communicate and collaborate. For example, I’ve already heard that the next version of Microsoft Office will have improved communication tools like the ability for electronic voting style interaction with PowerPoint presentations with any other device running the same software.

Whilst I’ve focused on student/tutor interactions it shouldn’t be ignored that Wave could also support the operation of institutions in other ways. In particular I have in mind the fact that a number of institutions in our region have distributed campuses and Google Wave could directly benefit collaboration in creating course/learning materials (networked learning) as well as the creation and administration of collaborative research projects.

If you would like to see some very early examples of Wave, Scott Wilson at JISC CETIS looks like he’s been having fun (this saved search contains Scott’s current posts on Google Wave) and his colleague Wilber Kraan has a post on Google Wave and teaching & learning.

If you have any ideas of how you could use Google Wave in teaching and learning please share them in the comments below.

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