I suppose it was inevitable. At a time when even The Chronicle is asking whether Blackboard can be replaced by WordPress, a slick demo of a super-cool product like Wave was bound to trigger breathless speculation about the demise of the LMS. Equally predictably, the most enthusiastic predictions that the LMS will be replaced are being made by people who have already replaced their LMS. It is not terribly shocking to read Jim Groom predicting that this time the LMS is REALLY doomed!!!! (I mean that to be taken affectionately.) If you are comfortable teaching a class using WordPress or PBWiki or [insert hip and free Web 2.0 technology du jour], then there is a good chance that you will be comfortable teaching a class with Wave.
Me, I’m a live-and-let-live kind of guy. I think people who are comfortable using these flexible tools and who don’t want the traditional trappings of an LMS (e.g., grade book, assignments tool, test engine, etc.) should be able to have what they want, while the people who want the full LMS toolset should also have what they want. That’s one reason why I think we need a Learning Management Operating System (LMOS) upon which flexible and individualized virtual learning environments can be instantiated. If you want a grade book and a test engine, great. We got those. If you don’t want ‘em, that’s fine too. Let pedagogical needs and university policies drive these decisions rather than the technology.
So the question I’m interested in is more nuanced than the one of whether the LMS is “dead.” What I want to know is where Wave could fit with the range of capabilities that somebody might want in a virtual learning environment. What is it not good for? What else does it need?
To begin with, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what we mean when we refer to Google Wave. The demo video is pretty overwhelming, and it’s easy to get caught up in the…er…wave. Luckily for us, Scott Wilson has written a very helpful post breaking down the components of Google Wave and even whipping up a quick demo of one possible type of integration between Wave and Moodle. In essence, Wave can be broken down into three parts:
- Wave Server, which Scott describes as “basically a Jabber instant messaging service with some extensions.”
- Wave Client, which is “a web-based IM client with some bells and whistles.”
- Wave Gadget Server, which “lets you use contextualized collaborative applications that can update in real time.”
A lot of the email/discussion board/chat/wiki/floor wax/dessert topping craziness in Wave appears to come from Wave Server. As Scott shows, it is separable from the ability to blur synchronous and asynchronous functionality in a gadget. You could, for example, implement a straight-up discussion board as a gadget that doesn’t have all the crazy amorphousness of a full Wave but still breaks down the a/synchronous barrier. You could do a real-time poll. Or a white board. Basically, any application that can benefit from this sort of blurring should be supportable in a virtual learning environment via the Wave gadget server.
Now, why would you want to do that without the full coolness that is Wave? It’s simple: control. If you’re heavily open education-oriented and tend to have an allergic reaction to anything remotely institutional, then you probably think I just wrote a dirty word. But if you’re more old-school (and I am), then you believe that there is still a role for a teacher to structure learning experiences and assess learning outcomes. As a result, there are times when you want to control permissions, when you don’t want everything to be editable to everyone, when you want to steer a conversation or process in a particular direction. In those cases, the Wave Server as currently being demonstrated will not provide the necessary structure. It is possible that Google will implement fine-grained permissions structures in future versions, but I doubt it. They aren’t trying to create a content management or workflow app. More likely, they will meet these needs through a combination of separation of APIs that can be used by others to develop other capabilities and, more straightforwardly, through export. You produce a document in a Wave, you export it to a web page or an XML document, and you manage it in some other system.
And if you’re a believer in LAMS-like learning design, as I am, then there are times when waves are exactly the opposite direction of where you want to go. I believe that half of good teaching is sequencing experiences such that students are more likely to learn in deep and meaningful ways. (The other half is getting to know your students’ strengths, needs, goals, and progress so that you can ensure the sequencing you are doing will benefit them.) Wave is not designed for that at all. To the contrary, it is designed to get out of the way of free-form communication. This is very valuable, and it is entirely possible that you can layer structure on top through discursive means just as you would in an F2F class, but it’s not the whole ball of wax.
So, to sum up, here’s what I think about the potential role of Wave in virtual learning environments:
- There is definitely a place for a Wave server as part of an LMOS.
- Sometimes Wave will give you everything you need to meet your goals for a particular virtual learning environment.
- Sometimes you will want to export the product of a Wave to another tool in your virtual learning environment.
- Sometimes you will want to use just the Wave gadget server to enhance the functionality of tools embedded in traditional web pages.
- Sometimes you want to have traditional workflows or advanced learning designs, in which case Wave probably doesn’t add any value.