Saturday, June 25, 2011

Web 2.0 in Education - 10 Ways to make the "cloud" work for you

As students and professors get more acquainted with Web 2.0 and collaborative tools, a new set of possibilities is arising that can change provided education for the better.  The "cloud" is currently offering myriads of opportunities for enhancing collaboration, providing instant information flow and promoting student creativity.

So, if you think it is about time to go beyond the "powerpoint/projector - email - university web site" era, here is my top-10 list of advice for university teachers and students:

1. Create a Linked-in Group for each of your lessons and have students enroll
This group can act as the main "meeting point" for students and professors.  Being much more instant than any of the standard university systems, this group can be used for announcements, discussions, comments on the lessons, assignment of work, etc.  Through the profile photos you will now be able to recognise each of your students in the class. Semester by semester and year by year, this group will gather together old and new students, nicely blending alumni and rookies.  I personally prefer LinkedIn to Facebook, as the latter usually is used by students for informal, personal communications.

2. Use Twitter  for instant messaging and organising external information
Twitter can be extremely fast in sharing information on external events, such as relevant conferences, student competitions or lectures. While away from the class, this will give you the opportunity to your students to follow on your activities and find relevant projects or publications to enroll at. Twitter can also help you in effectively propagating last-minute changes in lesson plans. Agreeing on a few #hashtags for your lesson will give you the opportunity to quickly organise information. Then, have your students create one or more weekly papers on the subject of the lesson, just by managing twitter lists.

3. Use and promote the use of Cloud storage
As information to be passed towards the students (slidesets, additional material, photos and video) and by the students (essays, additional work, lesson projects results) may amount to several gigabytes, find a place to easily upload and download big files that cannot be send via email.  In Greece, Pithos Storage System provides   50 GB storage for every professor or student (thanks, GRNET). If you do not have something like that, you may still use free services such as Rapishare, Sendspace,  Filehosting or other.

4. Use the power of Blogs and RSS for channeling relevant information to students
As you cannot create so much up-to-date content for your students, try to leverage on the created relevant knowledge by others: for every of your lessons find a handful of relevant, serious blogs and link them through RSS to the Linked-in group of the lesson.  This way, your students will get up-to-date information that will give them new ideas, questions and answers.  Do not overdo: a couple of good, to the point blogs and forums can do the job of providing fresh info.

5. Create a lesson blog and encourage students to write 
This is a real "web 2.0" treatment to your students.  Learn and show them how to create a blog in 5 minutes, through Blogspot or WordPress.  Then, make a blog for your lesson and encourage students to write their own articles, reporting their lesson achievements (small prototypes, essays, papers).  This will immediately change their attitude towards being active creators of knowledge and not mere listeners.

6. Go beyond words: Photographs and Video can do the difference
The well-known blackboard (or whiteboard) can be unbeatable for sketching new examples, answering student questions and discussing them. However, important information can be erased for ever when cleaning the board.  Before you do that, take a picture and post it through Twitter (I use my smartphone for that).  Be careful not to discourage students taking notes: some people only learn through writing.  A nice next step is to use a small videocamera with a tiny tripod to video (all ?) your lectures.  Then you can upload the videos in the cloud storage and voila: your students can view them at any time, before exams.
7. Virtual classes through remote meeting: be there any time
As life becomes more complicated, tele-working and e-education is rapidly becoming a trend.  Without being yet an 100% alternative of actual presence in the class (we need some more Virtual Reality features for that), using tools like Skype can provide a good alternative.  Then, for the "real thing", you have to use a more sophisticated service such as GoToMeeting or LiveMeeting, that will allow you to have 50 students connected via internet in a virtual class, listening to you, speaking, sharing your screen or their screens, chatting in parallel and getting the lesson recorded, while being at home or at any campus spot.  In a recent poll, 75% of my students preferred this lesson to the ordinary "show, speak and forget" ones.  And a hint to teachers: by browsing these lessons at the end of the semester, you can have proofs of student participation for your grades.

8. Use Google docs for promoting collaboration
This rapidly expanding set of cloud-based, collaborative editing documents can solve most of your typical problems on how to have students enroll to project teams, propose their own essay subjects, work together on a deliverable, etc.  Possibilities are unlimited, including (MS word-like) documents, spreadsheets and presentations that can be edited by hundreds of students in parallel (keeping editing rights to avoid mal-practice if needed), and also interactive forms for putting up polls or data-entry in seconds! Is you still need to send out emails, you may also use a Google Group (although the Linkedin Group will render that unnecessary)

9. Invite externals and make your lesson "open" to society
Now that you have set up the basic infrastructure of your Web 2.0 lesson, you can make use of it for the good of students: invite other professors from neighboring domains, researchers and practitioners, company engineers and even high-level executives to see and interact.  You will be amazed on how this act can turn a "boring" university lesson into a vivid interaction between the academic world and the market, if you need that.  You may even end-up with instant problem solving by experts, collaboration or job offers, continuing education for graduates or other citizens.

10. Plan, provide incentives, gradually upgrade 
If many of the above sound difficult to set-up and manage, you might be right: you need to carefully plan what you can achieve within a semester, as there is nothing worse than starting and then "let-die".  But, if you provide the right incentives to your students, you will be amazed on how much they can achieve on their own.  And then, you will have most of the work done for the next semester for your lesson, to continue optimising.

And one advice more:
Last but not least, although web 2.0 and cloud services can solve a lot of problems and provide amazing opportunities, please do not get "lost in translation": internet (at least at this point) is more of a medium than a destination.  There is no tool that can turn an indifferent, poorly educated, not loving teacher, into a successful one / or at least not for long ...


  1. Some fantastic tips you suggested here. I would like to follow them.

  2. Hi! These are all very interesting ideas and it is really encouraging to see that there are Greek University Academics who are really passionate about their work and are willing to explore new, modern ways of education and learning. I really hope that students and University authorities do respond positively to these ideas...

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