I just got back from speaking at Educause, the big education conference that is being held in Seattle this year. I came from the .edu background so I'm familiar with the issues and adoption of RIAs in the vertical. This year they seem to have taken on even greater significance than I had believed. My session was packed at over capacity and I got a lot of good question in the end. The session covered the basics on AIR, Flex and the Adobe RIA platform but walking around the exhibit hall it was clear how much potential there is for the RIA trend in the world of education.
It actually encompasses a lot of what RIAs have come to represent but that don't necessarily spring to mind when you think of RIAs. Things like real-time collaboration, interfaces that enhance workflow and eLearning initiatives. So how are people using rich Internet applications in education? In many different ways.
When I was at Wharton I worked with a group (The Learning Lab) that created classroom simulations using Flex/Flash. Since then, the games have gotten more sophisticated in both richness and features. One of my favorites is a stock trading simulation game which is played in real time by between 30-40 students. The students are all given various information about earning potential for fake companies and then they use that information to buy and sell the stock. The students are the market and are driving the price so they get the sense of being on a real trading floor. Games like this are engaging as well as informative and can help convey concepts as well as keeping students interested in the material.
As online education becomes more prevalent and technology continues to touch more parts of our lives collaboration is a huge issue. I heard some cool use cases today and saw some interesting technology. Microsoft has a Windows Live @ edu program which gives higher ed institutions hooks into the Windows Live platform. It isn't a traditional RIA in most senses, but it bridges the web-desktop gap by providing a number of different solutions made to fit the students lives with technology already familiar to them (email, IM, etc). What's really interesting is that they're planning on adding the recently-announced Office Live Workspace to the mix. Workspace is basically a web-based hook into the desktop version of Office that allows for more seamless collaboration between students and professors. Right now it's focused on that collaboration aspect but as Microsoft's own RIA technology (Silverlight) gets more advanced I think you'll see it play a big part in this space.
One of the interesting ideas I heard today was how a typical professor could use Buzzword, the word processor that Adobe bought. One of Buzzwords big advantages is that it actually works in pages as opposed to one long document. In an edu setting this can be a big deal because students are assigned 'XX page' papers. Currently those papers are usually emailed (sometimes uploaded) and the professor has to shift through them and grade them. With Buzzword (or the collaboration tools mentioned above) the professor could log in to the RIA, sort by class and make comments and give the grade out all from one application. Another example of workflow is by enabling the students through better, richer interfaces. I profiled a course auction application that Wharton built early on here at ZDNet as a great example of bringing technology to students in a way that makes their lives easier (mostly).
There's a ton of stuff going on but I'd love to hear more. If you have other thoughts or know of other good examples, let me know. I know Google is offering their application suite to universities in the same manner of Microsoft so that students are interacting with all of their browser-based RIAs on a regular basis. It's a fun space to watch and I'm glad I got a snapshot of it today.
Just so there is no confusion, the little graduation hats on the Office Live Workspace people are mine. MS Paint for the win!