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Teaching with Google Wave

Google WaveThe initial announcement of Google Wave one year ago produced—well, let’s just call it a lot of enthusiasm—within tech circles, as everyone oohed and ahhed over the idea of reimagining email as a social communication technology. That enthusiasm hasn’t exactly borne out, sad to say; the letdown came in part because of the difficulty of getting into the system (invitations were hard to come by, early on), in part because of the difficult of using the system (a series of technical glitches made the ride pretty bumpy at first), and in part because… once we were all in there, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do. Except talk about Wave.

After a semester of using Wave in both of my classes, however, I’m increasingly convinced that the problem with the way the system has been marketed. Most internet junkies heard the connections being drawn to social software and leapt to the conclusion that the system was meant to serve the kinds of social connections that we currently engage through services like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, Wave is extremely powerful groupware, designed to facilitate the interactions of groups working together on projects—which turns out to be a pretty good description of many college classes.

If you’re not familiar with Google Wave, you can get a super-quick introduction—at least to the ideas that were initially floating around about Wave—from the following video.

Marc Parry discussed some of the possibilities that Wave presents for teaching in Wired Campus back in January, but by that point, few such experiments had been conducted. Given that I teach classes in what sometimes gets referred to as “new media,” though, I figured I had a mandate to have my students experiment with the system and see what it might be able to do for us.

Inspired by Jason’s use of wikis in the classroom, and particularly his wikified class notes assignment, I decided to ask my students to use Wave as a means of collaborative notetaking. My plan was a bit more laid-back than Jason’s—I wanted this to be a real experiment—so I described the assignment in the syllabus like this:

Class notes project (10%): Over the course of the semester, you will compile a set of collaborative notes for the class, detailing the important issues from our readings, the main threads of our discussions, any questions that we raise that remain open, and so forth. You’ll use a combination of Google Wave and Google Docs for these notes, Wave for the initial notetaking and discussion and Docs for the final product. Each of you will serve as lead notetaker during at least one class session, though you’ll be expected to contribute to the collaborative notes for every class period.

In order to put this plan into action, however, a few things were required:

  • Google accounts: Each student needed an account within the Google system, and they needed to be willing to share that username with me and with the rest of the class. I let my students know that if they had a Gmail account they were willing to share, they could use that, but if they preferred to keep their personal accounts private, they could create a new Gmail account specifically for this class. (However, as I planned on using that account for most of our class communication, they had to swear that they would check this account frequently.)
  • Google Group: As I received each student’s Google account information, I added her to a Google Group I’d created for the class. The primary function of the group was to ease the sharing of basic information, such as announcements, that didn’t require the weight of a full wave—simply email your-group@googlegroups.com, and the message goes automatically to all group members. It also eased the wave-creation process, as I’ll discuss shortly.
  • Google Wave accounts: Accounts on Wave are linked to but separate from your regular Google account, and so these had to be created as well. In January, as I started this process, obtaining a Wave account wasn’t simple; you had to receive an invitation from someone already in the system. So the first thing I had to do here was to scrounge a sufficient number of invites to hand out. Thanks to some friends, though, I quickly got those, and sent an invitation to each of my students. This is no longer an issue; Wave account creation is open, and any email address can be added to a wave.

Happily, all of these Google-facilitated technologies are freely available, but there’s one more key bit of technology that was crucial to the process, and that wasn’t free:

  • A networked teaching lab: I teach most of my classes in a laptop-based lab, one that allows me to pull the computers out whenever I want to use them and tuck them safely away when I don’t. This semester, I decided to use them every day, and invited any of my students who had their own laptops to bring them to class if they preferred working on them.

Once all the accounts were created, I added our Google Group as a contact within Wave, by clicking the “+” at the bottom of the contacts pane and entering the group address, our-group@googlegroups.com.

Google Wave
[Click for larger image.]

Having done this, it was time to create our first class wave. To do so, I found and clicked on our class group in my Wave contacts, and then clicked “new wave” in the resulting pop-up. Once I typed in my initial information and clicked “Done,” my students were able to join the wave. To find it, they (1) clicked on “All” in the Navigation pane, (2) selected the wave from the resulting list in the center pane, and then (3) clicked “Follow” in the wave editing pane at right.

Google Wave
[Click for larger image.]

Once in a wave, you can add to it in one of two ways. To edit an in-process document, double-click within the document and then click “edit” on the resulting pop-up. Wave keeps track of who edited what, much like Google Docs (in fact, Docs borrowed the technology from Wave), which can help facilitate the assessment of collaborative assignments.

Alternately, to comment on a document or reply to a threaded discussing, click below the document or the comment you want to reply to. You can also insert comments within documents; just double-click, and instead of choosing “edit,” select “reply.”

There are tons of other things that can be done in Wave—sophisticated formatting, embedded gadgets, and so on—and my students quickly started experimenting with those bells and whistles. But mostly they just used it as I’d asked, for collaborative notetaking.

Each day, one student was assigned to be the “lead notetaker,” responsible for ensuring that all the basic information was accounted for, and for cleaning up the collaborative notes after class. But everyone was encouraged to add in every day, and most days, everyone did.

At the end of the semester, in conjunction with my course evaluations, I asked my students to assess their experiences with Wave—and to a person, they liked it. Several said that they appreciated the ways that seeing their classmates’ notes as class discussion was happening clarified the discussion in process; a few noted that they liked being able to follow the wave from their dorm rooms if they were out sick; many said that they were grateful to be able to return to the notes in the days and weeks after that class session had ended.

What didn’t work? I’d had the idea before the semester started that my students would “finalize” their notes in Google Docs and keep them stored for future use in our Google Group space. As yet, however, waves aren’t easily exportable, even to other Google platforms; our class notes remain solely accessible in Wave. That said, all of the members of the class will have access to those waves as long as they keep their accounts, and the waves could continue to develop, should their authors be so inspired.

It was an extremely positive experiment, on the whole, and one I plan to use with future classes. But I’d love some more ideas about how the platform might be used in the classroom. Have you experimented with Wave in your teaching? What should I try next time?

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