Web 2.0: Big app on campus

Universities are using Web 2.0-style tools to tap into a generation's lust for celebrity as they revamp learning and recruiting.Images: Web 2.0 enticements for coeds
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
When I was in college, there was this one classmate everyone found especially annoying. Quite the little joiner, she would post opinions of dubious intellectual worth on the class message board just to show that she did the reading and to puff herself up with some tangentially related story.

Condescending Generation X classmates, including me, saw her as uncouth. Apparently, she was simply ahead of her time.

Gen X cynicism has given way to millennial self-absorption as a new generation's lust for celebrity spreads to college classrooms, say educators. Now, universities are hoping to tap into that urge with new technologies to recruit prospective students and entice current students to stretch their intellect.

"A lot of students...like showing off their work. They like being published. They like being on display," said Barbara Knauff, senior instructional technologist at Dartmouth College.

Other educators, echoing Knauff's comments, see the enticement of notoriety through Web 2.0-style social tools--blogs, wikis and the like--as a way to engage students in their education and maybe even get them to choose one school over another.

Seton Hall University uses social tools as a way to hook students even before they have officially started. A log-in is mailed to new students along with the acceptance materials, according to Jan Day, senior director of client engagement at Blackboard, an educational software company that worked with the university to implement the site.

"One of the pain points in higher education is that they said "no" to a whole bunch of people and are counting on kids to accept. They know they need X percent," said Day.

Web 2.0 for coeds

A social-networking environment gets students comfortable with a school well before freshman orientation, said Day. Prospective students can e-mail roommates, make friends and find out the best campus hangouts even before they accept admission.

Some universities use video downloads to introduce professors.

Apple's iTunes U--though met with skepticism among professors wary of freely distributing their valuable content--is a useful public relations tool, according to Rhonda Blackburn, assistant director at Texas A&M University. Professors have used it to post videos introducing themselves, their research and their classes.

Once students get to universities, the tools continue. Classes in which content is pushed out one way to students are becoming passe. Instead, instructors are beginning to distribute lecture content to encourage intellectual debate and research online--away from the classroom--and are using class time for more in-depth discussion.

Knauff said self-publishing tools are an enticing way to get college students to develop original thoughts as opposed to simply repeating what they think professors want to hear. Students are collectively creating glossaries and repositories for academic articles, audio files and videos.

"They write for their peers as well and it creates a different motivation. They want to do well, don't want to look phony and get excited about the projects with the media aspect," said Knauff.

The multimedia or personal stuff that professors may think of as flashy filler is getting students to make an emotional investment in their education. "Sure, the content they offer is not as good as if a faculty member produced it. The content expert is always going to be better at creating the content, but that's not the point," said Knauff.

And it goes beyond blogs replacing reading journals for undergrad American lit classes. Dartmouth's medical school students use wikis to author, share and critique case studies.

Michael Barrett, a doctor and clinical associate professor at the Temple University School of Medicine, found that listening to heartbeat audio files drastically improved stethoscope skills.

In a study Barrett presented in March to the American College of Cardiology, 149 doctors correctly identified heartbeats 80 percent of the time, compared with the usual 40 percent. Barrett initially distributed his files on CD, until his students suggested he make the files available to iPods.

Kenneth Hartman, academic director of Drexel University's eLearning program and teacher of graduate education classes, uses TVEyes.com, a search site for major TV and radio content, to automatically feed students relevant video content.

Some Texas A&M professors use Camtasia, a software program that enables users to create videos of screen captures with voice-overs and an aid for figuring out complicated math problems.

"The theory is that lecturing is not an effective way for everyone to learn, but if you make a student create, they learn an incredible amount. That's the whole idea with changing this paradigm," said Knauff.

Old school meets new school

Some see the advent of Web 2.0-style tools in the classroom heralding a shift in everything from education theory to how schools are built. The bottom line: traditional lecturing may be on its way out, said Claire Schooley, an analyst at Forrester Research who follows learning trends at universities and corporations.

"That interaction between student and professor is going to become more prominent where you have already read about or watched the lecture online. The days of the large university with a 300-person lecture hall are over," said Schooley. "Universities will be built very differently, with the concentration on workshop life."

New tools could also help keep students honest. Some tools require log-ins that can also provide a way of tracking participation in group projects, according to Hartman.

"Every term I would get someone coming up and saying 'Dr. Hartman, here's the paper from the five of us, but I did most of the work.' Short of rolling out the Spanish Inquisition, there's not much you can do about it at that point," said Hartman. "With wikis, I can see who pulled the load and who didn't do anything."

User-friendly multimedia communication servers are also being used for more efficient uploading and distribution of educational multimedia to specific people without the need for IT help, according to Blackburn.

With permission from copyright holders, professors are posting things like films and language lessons to university servers. They can be accessed in streaming format by a specific set of students as designated by the professor. The files are automatically deleted from the server at the end of the semester, said Blackburn.

While undergrads do still have to get up in front of the class for Texas A&M's required public speaking class, technology has made the process a little less traumatic. Instead of critiquing a student in front of the class, a video of his or her speech, accessible only to the speaker and his or her professor, is uploaded to a server. The student then watches the video and submits a self-critique, while the professor sends a private critique to the student.

Universities are not just limiting tools to professors and classrooms. Students are given server space to develop Web sites, RSS feeds, blogs, podcasts, videos, discussion boards and e-mail groups for clubs, groups and political campaigns.

And then there's Second Life. In the spring semester of 2007, Texas A&M's department of recreation, park and tourism sciences started using the virtual world to run scenarios of park ranger exercises.

Second Life is being evaluated by several instructors, 1,800 of whom met at an in-world conference in May to discuss educational best practices.

The popular virtual world is of particular interest to universities making substantial revenue from online degrees.

Walden University faculty member Kevin Jarrett, who teaches an online master's course in education, won a $10,000 grant to spend six months researching Second Life's educational potential.

"It's one thing to look at a discussion board, wikis and blogs. It's something else completely different to physically act in a 3D environment with others in your class. There is increased engagement and feelings of identity," said Jarrett.

Hartman, a member of Drexel's Second Life committee, says his school's presence is a marketing tool right now, but that in-world classes are probably only three years away.

"Just like with hybrids and the car industry a few years ago, I need to start building that car because if I wait three years, I'll miss that curve," Hartman said. "I'm building it now as a prototype, but I don't expect to take it out and race it."

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