Now that I’ve had a little while to think about it, I’m ready to distill my initial enthusiastic reaction to Google Wave down to a manageably short (and hopefully non-fanboi) post. Let me say at the outset that I have no idea whether Wave will succeed. I am convinced, however, that something like Wave will succeed, in part because much about it is not new. My initial thought was was, “Hey, somebody finally got Apple’s OpenDoc to work.” Scott Wilson twittered that Google had reinvented ActiveX. In some ways, Wave is, like many great inventions, an old idea with some new twists. This is not to minimize the value of those twists. To the contrary, they are astonishing. My point is simply that the essence of Wave will survive whether ore not Wave itself is a success because many of the core ideas have been proven to be compelling in the past.
At any rate, there are a number of elements to Wave that are particularly attractive and likely to change practice in the field of e-learning:
Wave completely demolishes the line between synchronous and asynchronous communication. Now, if you are a propeller-head, that may not seem terribly shocking. After all, Twitter blurs the line already, there have been some collaborative text editors for some time now, etc. But keep in mind that the foundational generation of work in online pedagogy drew a hard distinction between syncrhonous and asynchronous interaction and came down squarely in favor of asynchronous. Consider, for example, the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. This school of thought has yet to be replaced by, or even rivaled by, a fully articulated alternative.
There are good reasons for this. To begin with, e-learning in higher education has tended to emphasize access as a goal, and requiring that all students be available at a particular day and time tends to work against that purpose (especially when you have students in the class who participate across a range of time zones). Second, it’s hard to beat a discussion board for all-around utility. For many online teachers, the second tool they use after shared file storage is the discussion board. Many a class has been taught with those two tools and an online grade book—and nothing else.
One of the brilliant aspects of Wave is that it breaks down the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous tools while preserving the basic form of the threaded discussion. I believe this approach has a strong potential for adaptation and adoption for e-learning purposes.
A while back, I wrote a post imagining a wiki’ed learning environment, or a WeLE. The basic idea was to make a radically editable learning environment in which students as well as faculty members could rearrange content, functionality, and navigation in the learning environment. Wave does this in spades. First, it makes no hard distinction between content and functionality. Text, images, video, and functional gadgets are all mashed up on the page. Second, permissions are wide open. At least in the current iteration of Wave, there are no fancy graduated access controls. If you are a member of the Wave, then you have full editing privileges. Rather than setting hard controls, Wave provides contextual clues and tools for users to negotiate control through the establishment of social norms. This is much more like the way normal, F2F communication (including classroom communication) works.
One of the tools that Wave has for both managing the synchronous/asynchronous blurring and providing users with the context they need to collaborate in an environment with open permissions is playback. One way to think about playback is like wiki versioning on steroids. As such, it can be used both as a way to negotiate collaborative norms and to understand how they work in shaping the discourse. Anybody who has watch Jon Udell’s famous Heavy Metal Umlaut: The Movie archeological exploration of a Wikipedia page has seen the power of playback in action. Imagine using this tool to monitor a student-created wiki page that was a group assignment. Or, for that matter, to display the student’s interactions with a teacher through successive essay drafts as part of an ePortfolio.
Whether we are talking about teacher-assigned group projects, student-initiated study groups, or spontaneously organized teacher/student meetings during office hours, group work is critical to the classroom. And in many cases these groups are spontaneous in formation and dynamic in membership. They change frequently. They are ill-suited to the relatively stilted grouping tools in today’s LMS. Even in relatively well-designed systems, group creation is just heavy enough as a process to act as a deterrant. In Wave, creating a new group “space” is not any more complicated than adding people to an email you’re sending out. Futhermore, these, groups can branch off the main group organically, much the way people at a party might form little clusters to have side conversations and then rejoin the main conversation a little later on. This can be highly productive, especially in synchronous conversations.
I have long believed that the storied Personal Learning Environment (which has roughly the same epistemic status as the ivory-billed woodpecker), if and when it is finally spotted in the wild, will look something like an Outlook or Zimbra client. It will connect to multiple servers, aggregating content from all of them, provide some tools for composition and organization, cache local copies of student-owned content, and work offline. Of course, Outlook and Zimbra are not quite flexible enough to act as PLEs today. But the Wave client might be. It provides a clean separation between the institional VLE (which I believe will and should continue to exist), and the student’s personal management tool for learning content and interactions.