Has Google developed the next wave of online education?

Google Wave marks the next step in collaboration capabilities for group projects, some in education say.
Google Wave marks the next step in collaboration capabilities for group projects, some in education say.

Combining text, audio, and video chat with features like drag-and-drop documents and interactive polls, Google Wave is a free web program that could add unprecedented depth to student interaction, many educators say.

Programmers who designed Google Wave, a tool still in development and only available through limited invites, started with a question: What would eMail look like if it were invented today?

The answer is a format that merges social networking with multimedia in an online meeting space where students and instructors can see each other type in real time, conduct private conversations, and edit documents simultaneously.

Wave also sports a playback option that lets users see the development of an online conversation between students working on a group project. The screen starts out blank and incrementally fills with user activity.

Raymond Schroeder, director of the University of Illinois’s Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service, said an instant replay of students’ waves answers “the age-old question posed to faculty members: How do you know that everyone contributed to the project?”

“With playback, you can view the wave in time-lapse, blip by blip—even those that are deleted. You can see who contributed what at what time to the wave,” said Schroeder, adding that free access to Wave could be a fiscal godsend for IT officials whose budgets have dwindled over the past two years.

“Free is very good,” he said.

Schroeder became one of the country’s first campus IT officials to use Google Wave last month when he connected Illinois’s Internet in American Life course with a class from Ireland’s Institute of Technology at Sligo, participating in a wave that focused on the internet’s role in energy sustainability.

More than a million people have signed up for Google Wave after receiving one of the company’s limited invitations—the same approach the internet giant took during its Gmail rollout.

Google will make Wave widely available after developers rid the program of its rough edges, said Sara Jew-Lim, a Google spokeswoman.

“We are also interested in opening a wider audience for the developers and our partners who have been developing rich integrations, but during this preview, we’ll continue working to improve things like speed, stability, and reliability, in addition to building key features we want in place before making Wave more broadly available,” Jew-Lim said.

The program’s contextual spell check is among the stand-out features that have captured educators’ attention since Wave invites were first dispersed in September.

Wave’s spell checker doesn’t match words against their dictionary spelling, but rather accounts for the word’s context using a complex language model spawned from billions of web pages. Even if a word is spelled correctly, Wave will underline the word in red if it is used incorrectly or out of context.

“It has become so good at spell checking … that we let it automatically correct my errors,” Lars Rasmussen, an Australia-based Google technician and co-founder of Google Wave, said during a Wave presentation last summer.

Google Wave marks the next step in collaboration capabilities that began with eMail and evolved with programs such as Google Docs, which gives users access to the same document so they can edit a project without eMailing it back and forth.

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