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Working The Web

Interactive Web 2.0 technologies may help improve teaching and learning, as well as staff productivity.
University Business, Apr 2007

Think of the early World Wide Web as version 1.0.

Progressive for its day, it primarily served as a reference tool and provided a static experience for cybervisitors. Now we have entered a second phase, dubbed "Web 2.0," and it's a whole new ball game. This next generation of web-based offerings is designed to foster collaboration and encourage interactive activities.

The shift toward user-generated content is having a major impact on education. Already the new version of the web is providing learning opportunities that just a decade ago were unimaginable. Educators are taking advantage of photo and video sharing services, podcasting, wikis, blogs, and other social software to instruct learners through the latest in internet technologies.

Although not specifically designed for classroom settings, such web-based technologies provide a fertile source for creating excitement among faculty and students. These technologies are not only useful for educational purposes, but for administrative processes as well.

What distinguishes the Web 2.0 phenomenon from earlier online educational tools is its connective nature. Key aspects of the movement include web architecture that encourages user contributions, the continuous updates of software and data, and the freedom to share and edit content. Essentially, anyone with an internet connection can consume and remix data while collaborating with others.

Educators can use social bookmarking as a tool for locating, organizing, and sharing online resources. Think of social bookmarking as version 2.0 of the personal bookmarks on your browser. In contrast to the bookmarks on your computer, social bookmarking sites are available to you from any computer. Also, you can: add tags (free-text keywords) to your posts; see what others are posting and what tags they're using; and sort items of interest by tag, project, or user.

In essence, social bookmarking allows users to organize their resources in a tailored manner and share this information with others. The research and administrative applications of such a system are plentiful. Researchers of all stripes can set up social bookmarking pages to assist them in their inquiries. They act as a giant electronic file capable of storing links that might otherwise be lost over time, either dispersed across different browser settings or distributed in printouts and languishing in forgotten folders. Also, discovering others with similar academic pursuits can lead to collaboration.

Harvard's collaborative "H20" project is an example of how an open source, educational platform can connect educators, researchers, and students online. The project encourages the free creation and exchange of ideas within and beyond the university setting. With H20 playlists-a shared list of readings and other content about a specific topic of intellectual interest-visitors can turn to broad communities of expertise for educational recommendations.

The site is designed to aggregate knowledge by promoting an exchange of ideas and expertise. Interested parties can subscribe to "playlist updates" and receive the latest information related to their prospective fields. Reading lists of renowned scholars and cultural leaders can be shared. And instructors can transform traditional syllabi into interactive global learning tools.

Staying true to the Web 2.0 mantra of collaboration and user contribution, H20's source code is open, so its users can play a central role in its continued development.

"We wanted to accept the internet's invitation to its users to build new things as users, rather than waiting for dot-com firms to provide them for us," says Jonathan Zittrain, cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

Jeff Clark hatched the idea of using video sharing for faculty orientation purposes after watching a PBS segment in which YouTube's cofounders were interviewed. YouTube, the immensely popular social website that allows users to upload, view, and share video clips, could be the ideal platform for instructional mini-videos, Clark reasoned. YouTube uses Adobe Flash technology to enable video content to be viewed on virtually any system.

"YouTube seemed a very quick and flexible way to mount and modify our own content on the fly, while the management issues of serving it were taken care of by an outside service open to everyone on the web," explains Clark, James Madison University's (Va.) director of media resources and classroom technology.

In short time, members of Clark's media resources team, armed with miniDV camcorders, shot and edited footage and then had the content up and running by faculty orientation last fall. The video shows educators teaching in technology classrooms how to operate such items as projection screens and laptop connectors.

The benefits of utilizing YouTube's services have proved plentiful. Faculty members strapped for time and unable to attend orientations can access the short instructional video on how to use a classroom teaching system. The technology staff is freed from an abundance of one-on-one meetings. University administrators don't have to actively manage the platform-they just put the content up and update as needed.

While the experiment has succeeded, Clark did have some initial concerns. Some of his worries included: Could problems arise from sharing staff and service contact information to viewers not associated with James Madison? Could there be a potential public relations problem by having the mini-video identified with the university? Would viewers be bombarded with advertisements?

To address these issues, the video does not provide contact information or have James Madison-identifying specifics. Also, to avoid extraneous distractions for viewers-such as advertisements and references to other YouTube features-the YouTube "player" was embedded in the university's classroom support website.

Finally, as a central figure on campus involved with intellectual property, Clark wanted to make sure that the university's use did not in any way violate YouTube's service policy. "As that policy exists right now, I think our use of YouTube is perfectly acceptable and a potentially terrific tool to add to our own services," he says.

Buoyed by the success of the first orientation video, Clark is planning on providing more video segments on YouTube.

In the modern campus environment, students fully expect their digital lifestyle needs to be accommodated. One way colleges and universities are meeting these needs is by partnering with Apple's iTunes U to offer educational podcasts.

iTunes U, a free, hosted service, provides access to educational content, including lectures and interviews, around the clock. Through the service, students can download content to their Macs or PCs regardless of their location. Then they can view the content on their laptop or desktop or transfer it to their iPod for consumption on the go. Students also have the option of burning CDs of the content.

When administrators at Stanford University (Calif.) began analyzing how to make digital content available to faculty and students, they were well aware that supporting the users' platforms of choice would be critical. The cross-platform compatibility of iTunes U was a major plus. "It's crucial that all undergraduates be able to access the materials, regardless of whether they're using a Mac or PC," says Jeremy Sabol, academic technology specialist at Stanford.

The service's ability to consolidate resources has also proved beneficial. Prior to implementing Stanford on iTunes U, faculty members often placed digital resources to supplement course materials in Stanford's course management system or linked the information on their personal websites. Sometimes they even had to refer their students to library reserves for additional media content. The end result is that students were forced to visit multiple repositories to retrieve the necessary information.

Now with the iTunes initiative, students can log on to Stanford's access-restricted, academic iTunes U site and with just a few clicks find recorded lectures, music, and other content that supports their classes. The academic site launched in April 2005 with six courses. Now over 70 courses have used the site, reaching over 3,000 Stanford undergraduate students, says Sabol.

The platform's ease of use has made the transition a smooth one for educators. Sabol recalls a recent meeting with a faculty member who was not particularly skilled in technology. "Within 15 minutes, the faculty member had uploaded video files to the course site successfully and fully understood how to manage content," he says.

Stanford's iTunes program has also proved popular with its alumni, who are taking advantage of the university's huge trove of accessible digital content. A public site, targeted primarily at alumni, includes faculty lectures, music, sports, and learning materials.

The University of California, Berkeley, which also has an agreement to deliver podcasts through iTunes U, recently became the first university to have its own page on the Google Video website, where it delivers educational content free of charge. Over 250 hours of content are available to the public. Interested parties can visit the UC Berkeley webpage and view or download six courses in their entirety, including "General Human Anatomy," "Structural Aspects of Biomaterials," and "Search Engines: Technology, Society and Business." Also offered are panel discussions ranging from obesity to climate change, a poetry reading series, and campus events.

Google Video, a comprehensive index of video content, allows UC Berkeley to share its intellectual treasures with the public. The collaboration continues the university's push to be at the forefront of knowledge sharing through open-access online video.

UC Berkeley has made academic content available for public consumption since 2001, when its Educational Technology Services (ETS) division began webcasting lectures and special events. The partnership with Google is an extension of this open video program. "The ability of viewers to play back video on a variety of devices, the ease of sharing and embedding videos via e-mail and blogs, and access to community aspects such as user ratings and comments help us to broaden our reach and build community around our video," said Obadiah Greenberg, ETS product manager, in a UC Berkeley press release that accompanied the launch of the new service.

Prior to the rise of Web 2.0 technologies, only UC Berkeley's students were able to reap the educational benefits that the university provided. Now people from California, not to mention from around the world, can take advantage of the public university's resources.

A wiki (the word is derived from the Hawaiian word for quick) is a website that allows multiple users to contribute and edit content. The use of wikis is gaining traction in the educational community because groups can work collaboratively on projects powered by nothing more than a standard web browser. Depending on the circumstances, students might use a wiki to track and complete group projects, compile data, or share research results. Faculty can take advantage of wikis by working hand in hand with peers in developing course structure and curriculum.

The best-known wiki project is Wikipedia, which claims over three million contributors. On Wikipedia's School and University Projects page, professors are encouraged to incorporate the open-source encyclopedia into their classroom teachings. It's a win-win situation. Students improve their writing skills while advancing their knowledge in areas such as editing and publishing. Meanwhile, useful content is added to Wikipedia. To make the process as simple as possible, Wikipedia even provides educators with a boilerplate wiki-syllabi.

Some of the exercises that can be applied to a classroom setting include having students: improve an existing entry; contribute to subject matter that has been neglected; fix grammatical, spelling, and factual errors in entries; and translate articles from another language into English.

YouTube videos teach educators how to operate such items as projection screens and laptop connectors.

Scott Alberts, an associate professor of mathematics at Truman State University (Mo.), assigned his students a Wikipedia project for his "Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies" course this past fall. "I wanted something that would force students to think about collaboration, think about the quality of sources from disparate disciplines and be something that they would think was fun to do, not just an academic chore," he says.

In addition to writing expository articles and doing grammar and style corrections, Alberts' class learned how to work constructively with other editors. In the process, they were able to take information they were familiar with and turn it into something useful for others.

In contrast to traditional assignments, web-based work can be viewed by and commented on not only by instructors but by anyone on the planet with an internet connection. Alberts believes that this type of exposure stimulates students. "Knowing that others will read their edits and articles gives a kind of pressure that no grades can meet," he says. "Anything that forces students to think their work matters is a good teaching tool."

In addition to Wikipedia, other wiki applications can be used in higher education. For example, Socialtext is a hosting service that allows users to set up accounts, post their work, and make collaborative modifications. One advantage of such a platform is that access can be restricted by the use of passwords that narrow the field of prospective collaborators.

As more organizations in the business community adopt social network systems-to inform and support employees, customers, and the general public-students already well-versed in Web 2.0 technologies will be ahead of the curve.

"Businesses are rapidly adopting social networking tools in their environments to support collaboration, communication, and productivity," points out Gina Poole, vice president of Innovation and University Relations at IBM. "Today, it's not uncommon to find executives posting blogs to get their thoughts and opinions across to large audiences, or find employees joining online forums to meet, connect, and exchange ideas."

The collaborative initiative between IBM and the University of Arizona is designed to have students prepared to apply Web 2.0 services to a business setting. "Web 2.0: Developing and Maintaining Online Communities" gives students hands-on experience with Web 2.0 technologies as they learn how to create and manage online communities. The curriculum is offered to the Management Information Systems Department and Marketing students in the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management.

The course helps students build information management skills relative to Web 2.0 content like wikis, podcasts, user groups, forums, and blogs. "The web is in the process of transitioning from a publishing model to a participation model," says Andrea Winkle, the University of Arizona instructor teaching the course. "People not only want businesses to have a web presence, they want to be able to interact with that presence."

In this day and age, says Poole, knowledge of how to use Web 2.0 platforms is a necessity. "Increasingly, in the flat world we live in, work happens everywhere. Your team can be across the hall or across the globe, but you still need to get the work done, and increasingly that means working across time zones and through online communities. This is why social networking and collaboration skills are no longer nice to have but business imperatives."

To this end, the class examines the role of online communities in business and how they can be used to support customers, attract potential clients, and generate revenue. Collaboration tools are discussed, and students complete project work incorporating different technologies. Also, students learn how to plan, launch, recruit, and grow their communities.

"Technology is a great enabler of innovation. Students have to be encouraged to use technology in new and different ways," says Poole.

Chelan David is a freelance writer based in Seattle. He has recently written articles for EContent Magazine and Smart Business Los Angeles.