Waving the Google Flag for
Inter-institutional Class Collaborations

Ray Schroeder, Brian Mulligan, Seán Conlan


The University of Illinois at Springfield and the Institute of Technology, Sligo Ireland are building a model of inter-institutional online class collaborations using the preview version of Google Wave. In test waves during the fall semester of 2009, the two universities joined students in a multi-week collaboration on the topic of Internet impact on energy sustainability perceptions in Europe and the U.S. The collaboration was less about the topic and more about identifying the features of the new collaboration tool that work best in facilitating student group work and instructor engagement. The results of this test will be implemented in further collaborations to be tested in a variety of disciplines by both institutions.

Global Context

A „perfect storm” of elements have come together as we enter 2010 to support the development of inter-institutional online collaborations to promote diversity, efficiency, and depth of learning. Certainly, the international economic recession has put pressure on institutions and individuals to seek innovative ways to expand access to quality in teaching and learning while keeping costs down. Traditional colleges and universities are facing decreasing budgets and increasing competition through the rapid expansion of the for-profit institutions1. The move of jobs and the economy as a whole away from heavy industry to models of higher technology and service that was predicted decades ago has fully materialized2. With that move has come an increased need for just-in-time learning and teaching that is responsive to the more competitive job marketplace and the rapidly-changing technologies.

Out of the turmoil of the global economic changes of the past decade has emerged Google, a new kind of company that proposes a new set of tenants, including „Great is not good enough” - „The need for information crosses all borders” and „You can make money without doing evil”3. It is number 117 among the Fortune 500, with some 20,000 employees and $20 billion in sales4. Billions of searches are conducted using the Google search engine daily. And, increasingly, Google has dedicated a growing portion of its resources to Web 2.0 and „cloud computing” applications that are inexpensive or advertising-supported.

In May 2009, Google announced to developers a new online tool that took a wholly new approach to communication and collaboration online. It was codenamed „Walkabout” and eventually named Google Wave. The project was led by the developers of the Google Maps project, Jens and Lars Rasmussen. Lars announced the pre-beta version of the new product in Google's official blog, with this list of questions and challenges:

  • Why do we have to live with divides between different types of communication - email versus chat, or conversations versus documents?
  • Could a single communications model span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum? How simple could we make it?
  • What if we tried designing a communications system that took advantage of computers' current abilities, rather than imitating non-electronic forms?
He described A „wave” is equal parts conversation and document, where people can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more”5.

The concept suggested by the Rassmussen brothers that the development of an online learning tool that might span all or most of the systems in use on the web today, in one smooth continuum is a huge step forward from the hodge-podge of Web 2.0 tools or the much more limited and rigid LMS products of today. It provides a single, no-cost, platform in which the instructor can assemble selected synchronous and asynchronous Web 2.0 tools and resources. These are password-protected and global in nature. For the first time, we are empowered to cross geographic and institutional boundaries to join professors and learners in a seamless learning environment that is built for collaboration and communication. With robust built-in automatic, real-time translation tools, the technologies are ready for cross-cultural engagements.

Pedagogical Context

Study after study of online learning effectiveness has pointed to such values as engagement, active learning, reflective learning, and social constructivist approaches as providing superior results for most students, i.e. Sthapornnanon, Sakulbumrungsil, Theeraroungchaisri, & Watcharadamrongkun, 2009 and Zach, & Agosto, 2009. These studies have in common the principles that opportunities for interaction among students and the instructor allow for the effective building of personal knowledge and understanding of the individual students.

The foundations of research in the area of engagement in online learning are well-established as articulated in the Sloan Consortium monograph by Karen Swan on „Relationships between Interactions and Learning”6. The research in the areas of social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence documented there have been part of the impetus to bring about the development of the Community of Inquiry approach to online learning. The Google Wave platform creates a synchronous and asynchronous platform to enable some of the best qualities of these practices of presence and engagement with the instructor, among the students, and with the content area.

For most online students, active engagements seem particularly effective. In addition, some studies indicate that for some learners a less formal engagement may work best for „silent construction” and for a largely reflective process7 - it seems that the opportunity to build knowledge through carefully constructed learning environments that can support both social engagement and individual reflection may be optimum. Providing opportunities for both sharing and reflection are productive at different levels for different individuals. We will see that Google Wave enables both kinds of learning through a wide variety of tools.

Technological Context

Most colleges and universities use a Learning Management System such as Blackboard, Moodle, or Desire2Learn in order to organize and deliver materials to online learning (elearning) students. The systems provide a wide range of features for collaboration and discussion. But, there are areas in which they lag behind the release of Web 2.0 technologies that are rapidly adopted by faculty members seeking to provide a richly social and collaborative environment for their classes. Yet, even those using individual Web 2.0 tools lack the synergy that might be realized by integrating all of those tools into a single platform such as is provided by Google Wave.

We have identified quite a number of advantages that Wave may provide as an addition to a LMS, here are some of them:

  • Playback wiki - this feature of Wave enables a faculty members to playback a group wave in a kind of time-lapse fashion that enables the instructor to see just what contributions are made by which student at what point in a group project. This could provide a key advantage for grading group projects.
  • Embed iFrame live window - these interactive windows are very nicely embedded directly into the document rather than a hyperlink that requires one to leave the document to view and interact with the Web.
  • Embed mind maps -These provide an especially versatile interactive outlining and project planning platform for class projects.
  • Audio message/threads - the voice gadget provides a nice, threaded audio discussion. You able to create a serial asynchronous audio thread, Of course this has important possibilities for language classes.
  • Flexible synchronous/asynchronous discussion threading - wave provides flexibility with the ability to insert wavelets even within larger discussions. This enables easy creation of side-bar discussions within waves. Unique in Wave is the ability for those who are synchronously connected to see the typing of another participant and instantly respond in the same or another blip. Of course, these can either remain in the wave for later viewing, or can be deleted.
  • Inter-institutional projects - learning management systems, because of their licensing model, prohibit or discourage providing logons to those not enrolled in your institution. But, sometimes, we may want to join classes for a week or two at different institutions for collaborations. Wave is available to all, anywhere, anytime. But, passwords are required and one must be invited by the originator or another participant of the wave to join that wave.
  • Traditional chat mode available - in addition to the ability to chat with another participant within any blib, there is a „retro-chat” tool that looks like a traditional chat window, the kind we currently use for many applications.
  • Adding external experts to group discussions - with Wave, one can easily drag and drop new participants into a class discussion. These don't have to be class members, but they could be expert guest speakers or others who might contribute to the discussion at hand. This just-in-time adding of an expert can really enhance the quality of discussion.
  • Adding student participants mid-stream - this can be done in the LMS, but in Wave, the late participant can pick up on the full discussion (even the parts that were previously deleted) using „playback” to catch-up.
  • Making a wave public - if you develop a wave on a topic that you want to share with the world, you can just add and make it open to the wider world for sharing and input.
  • Easy drag and drop images and documents - wave provides the opportunity to simply drag and drop images and documents right where they belong in the multi-media document rather than uploading, attaching, or having to put elsewhere on the web and hyper linking. This is particularly effective in formatting a multi-media document.
  • Polling built into discussion - the polling gadget that provides participants a chance to launch a poll right in the middle of a discussion, or wherever it seems appropriate, without leaving the discussion wave is another new feature that is not commonly supported in the LMS. Several bots provide advanced polling and Likert scale evaluation features that can be embedded as well.
  • Automatic language translation - inter-institutional and cross-cultural communications are supported by an auto-translator bot for Wave. Providing word-for-word instantaneous translations among some 40 languages, this tool opens the doors for class collaborations across cultures. The potential is significant for language studies and for international collaboration.
  • Video conferencing - live and recorded video chat tools are supported in Wave. These provide much of the same utility of such broader Web applications as Skype, but they have the advantage that they are embedded directly into the wave document for later replay.
  • Put a live wave on the Web - waves can be put on the Web - embedded with all of their functionality into a Web page. This opportunity to open up a selected public discussion to broad input is feature that many faculty members may want to offer. At this point, a Google Wave logon is required to see the Web wave. Of course, in a LMS, everything is hidden behind secure passwords and not easy to export. An example of such a wave is (best viewed in Chrome).
  • Interactive maps - this feature is far more useful than trying to attach or configure static maps into documents. By putting an interactive map into the wave, the class can manipulate, update, and add features (such as virtual pushpins) to wave map.
  • Piano gadget - this is just one octave at this point, but there is promise for these kinds of gadgets to allow students to manipulate instruments (both musical and technological) within the learning document space, again without leaving the wave.
  • Ajax animator and Napkin - these interactive Wave tools take advantage of some advanced cloud-computing technologies to offer some white board options that are not available in an LMS. Using the stylus mouse (such as the Wacom Bamboo), these can be particularly effective.
  • Numerous bots are being developed for Wave. One example, Eliza (available on Wave via and other artificial intelligence bots have been available on the Web, but not directly in the LMS; these can be very useful in some ethics and computer science classes.
  • The synergies of all of these features make the potential of Google Wave such an important collaboration tool in education.

Preliminary Test Sandbox with Students

We incorporated nearly all of the gadgets and bots mentioned above into a sandbox wave for students so that they were able to become familiar with the tools and techniques prior to starting the collaboration. It is clear that there is a learning curve, albeit a rather short one, for those using Google Wave. The tools that are integrated into Wave are generally familiar to students and faculty members as common Web 2.0 learning tools. The way they integrate into Wave and the details of their instruction sets may vary somewhat from those with which the participants may be familiar. A sandbox seems to be a good, constructivist, approach to learning the basics of Wave. A particularly comprehensive wikibook on the topic is freely available online and as a .pdf download at a modest cost:

Test Collaboration Wave with Students

With the release of Google Wave in a „preview” mode on September 30, 2009, there was precious little time to incorporate the tool into a formal inter-institutional class exchange. The work was not included in the fall syllabi of classes, so making this a requisite part of the course was not possible at UIS. The following message was posted in the CSC 442a class section of Internet in American Life course taught by Ray Schroeder. The other three sections of the class posted an announcement. Research rules regarding this kind of activity required that we made clear that the Wave participation at UIS was voluntary and would have no effect on the grades of those who chose to participate or those who chose not to participate. The announcement was put out on November 19, with less than a month left in the semester.

Thu, Nov 19, 2009 - Google Wave Collaboration Opportunity
Posted by: Ray Schroeder

We have been contacted by professor Seán Conlan at the Institute of Technology in Sligo, Ireland ( Six of his students are interested in an online discussion with six students enrolled at UIS on the topic of "Evidence of the influence of the Internet on perceptions of energy sustainability in the US." This discussion would take place in the new Google Wave application. I will provide invitations to Google Wave for all who will participate in the project. This is an informal discussion. No credit is associated with the discussion. No preference will be given to those who participate; no negative consequences for those who do not. It is, rather, an opportunity to test out this new online technology (Google Wave) and to conduct a discussion on a topic related to the Internet. We hope it will be fun and interesting for all involved to test the technology that is likely to have a major impact on the 'net in the coming year. You will be able to use your Wave account for your own purposes outside this project. Several professors may observe the "wave" to see what tools and approaches are used. Please let me know if you are interested. We will take the first half dozen or so students who express interest in the project.

The announcement netted four students from UIS. Half a dozen students participated from the Institute of Technology at Sligo. The Irish students were in the energy management studies area and the American students were from different disciplines but enrolled in a class studying the impact of the Internet in American life. So, we decided to focus on the impact of the Internet on perceptions of energy sustainability as the topic of the discussion in Wave.

We began our work by creating a „sandbox” in which the students were exposed to a range of Wave bots and gadgets. They were encouraged to access the online wiki book The Complete Wave Guide. Over a couple of weeks, the students became familiar with basic tools and navigation in Google Wave.

The discussion wave, titled „Perception of Energy Sustainability as Impacted by the Internet” was started on December 8. The exchanges took place during the last week of classes and finals week at the two campuses; the timing almost certainly limited the participation by students. A total of 18 blips were created over the ten days that the wave was active. The discussions included text, an embedded word document, several embedded videos from YouTube, and an embedded iFrame of the YouTube COP 15 Climate Change site. Though the discussions were limited, the interactions that did take place were valued as evidenced by student comments.

Participant Observations

the rapidly changing nature of this pre-release version of the software, the students encountered some frustration with embedded tools that did not always work. As one student put it in an anonymous survey at the end of the term: All in all I found the software to have a lot of potential, however in its current form and with the performance issues it seemed to suffer I often grew frustrated with it. That being said I am looking forward to improvements in this software and possibly using it for other applications in the future”. Another participant echoed those comments, writing: „The addition and embedding of gadgets and other web pages, whole adding to the content of the thread was distracting at some points. For example, the poll that was run was very intuitive, non-obstructive and I feel provided a great way to collect such information. In contrast, during the test some web pages were embedded into the conversation. In tempting to scroll down the conversation to find changes I would often get stuck having to click way or click scroll to get past the embedded page as my mouse wheel would begin to scroll that page as opposed to the conversation. The bandwidth requirements of some of the tools resulted in frustration, waiting for certain embedded features to render. However, these are not unexpected issues with a „preview” version of software. Improvements seem to be taking place every week, and by the time Wave is released out of beta testing, one would expect that almost all of these issues will have been resolved.

There was excitement among the participants with the opportunity to collaborate with students at another university, and in this case on another continent. Comments from students included:

  • The more different a person's point-of-view is, the more useful, I think, the discussion becomes.
  • Many class discussions I've had simply consist of replies saying – in effect – „I agree”.
  • Shows the power of wave.
  • Allows for a much different point / points of view from other international students.
  • It is good to get feedback from people who belong to a different culture.
  • It is educational to understand why and what other civilisations think about a certain topic.
  • It is always good to get other peoples' opinions on certain topics.
Based on the comments in this small preliminary study, it seems that the students sensed the excitement of breaking institutional and geographic barriers in a college class. All of those in this self-selected group were positive about this kind of collaboration.

Outcome Discussion

This was a very small-scale study using the still-evolving „preview” version of Google Wave. It was conducted at the earliest opportunity we were able to set up the study, given the coordination between institutions; orientation of students and instructors; and semester schedules of classes at the two campuses. Despite those caveats, most of the students seemed to catch the enthusiasm of the instructors in using this technology. Through their comments and participation at this rather inconvenient point at the end of the semester, the students conveyed their interest in linking to counterparts in other parts of the world.

We were pleased to see that students seemed, for the most part, unafraid of the technologies. While there were glitches and higher bandwidth demands than some other, more mature tools, the inconveniences were generally tolerated. Certainly, we expect that given Google's track record in developing successful tools, this tool will also become more reliable and efficient as it matures.

Lessons Learned

Lessons learned from this early experiment are several.

  • As with any new tool, faculty and student training will be required to assure that it can be used in the best way possibly with the fewest frustrations. The tool is not nearly as complex as the virtual environments such as Second Life, but it does require some orientation and practice.
  • There is an excitement for both students and faculty members in connecting with their counterparts in other institutions, continents and cultures. In many ways, this kind of inter-institutional engagement is a significant improvement to the insular environment we experience in a closed classroom. This may lead to a better transition to a „real-world” experience that can provide relevant contacts and contexts for students entering the workforce in most fields.
  • It was clearly evident that the potential exists for adding new perspectives, new information, and enriching discussions when we use this tool to engage students and faculty members from different institutions.

Further Studies

This may have been the first, certainly one of the first, studies of this sort - joining classes from different institutions and continents via Google Wave. Many more such studies should be conducted in order to establish a set of effective practices - some of which may be specific to disciplines, cultures, institutions, and other factors.

The authors of this study encourage colleagues to test the Google Wave waters in their classes. Good practice would suggest that objectives/goals be established for the exercise using Wave. Provisions should be made for modest training (online would seem appropriate) for students and faculty members to become familiar with the relevant tools, features and operational mode of Wave.

Among the areas of study that may be of value to examine are:

  • Collaborations of classes on the same or similar topic - to share differing perspectives that are taught on the subject by different instructors in different cultures.
  • Collaborations between classes with supplemental topics, such as the joining of Biology and Ethics classes to examine a bio-ethics case study. This provides for both the faculty members and the students to inform and engage each other in applying their expertise in the context of the other.
  • Group or class projects that use Wave to create a final report in a rich multimedia format. Using the „playback” feature to grade the project will enable the instructor to carefully examine and compare the contributions of individuals to the final product.
  • Hosting an external expert or group of experts in a wave with the class. In this context the extensive multimedia and Web 2.0 applications can be employed to share examples from outside the class.
We are examining the possibility of establishing an online matrix at which member institutions of consortia such as the New Century Learning Consortium ( and the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges ( may be able to post faculty-generated requests for their classes to collaborate with other institutions via Wave. Such an online matrix would include the specifics like dates, topics, geographic preferences, and other relevant details.

Potential Impact

The potential impact of Google Wave in higher education is significant. It may enable the breaking down of institutional and geographic barriers that have separated institutions for millennia. We may, for the first time, be able to effectively join classes for brief periods of one or two weeks to collaborate and learn from one another - across institutions, across geographic boundaries, and across cultures. Though not the focus of this article, the impact of Wave extends to all aspects of higher education - beyond the classroom to the administrative and governance offices. Certainly, faculty and administrative committees and leaders will be able to effectively use Wave for both synchronous and asynchronous multimedia discussions and decision making. In many respects Google Wave enables us to collect the impact of a wide assortment of Web 2.0 technologies. Rather than being separate tools, we can realize the synergies of bringing those tools together on one platform.

Imagine foreign language classes meeting with advanced literature classes in the country of that language. For example, a Chinese class in Poland might meet with a Chinese literature class in China. Perhaps a European History class in America might meet with an analogous class in Europe. Or, a journalism class might meet with a political science class. Out of these kinds of collaborations may come deeper and broader understandings generated by the students themselves among and with each other. The potential is enormous. The opportunities are endless.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Our recommendations for other institutions are:

  • The appropriate units at colleges and universities should test and examine this new technology. Both IT and faculty development units should become familiar with Google Wave so that they can pro-actively serve to promote the use of the technology where deemed appropriate to that institution.
  • Faculty and administrators should actively seek opportunities to use this technology to link classes and student interest groups. The opportunities for broadening exposure to a diversity of ideas are valuable in many disciplines.
  • Collaborations among both similar and dissimilar institutions should be encouraged to build both depth and breadth of exposures and learning.
  • Wave-based collaborations with businesses, governments, and social entities should be explored where these may enhance learning for students.
The essential value of Google Wave is the opportunity to foster media-rich collaborations both synchronously and asynchronously among those who may be in close proximity or at a physical distance. This technology merges onto one platform many of the Web 2.0 technologies we have found of value in teaching and learning. The freely available Google Wave technology comes at a time when most institutions in higher education are facing reduced budgets and the need to cut expenses. It is the right technology at the right time to enable us to continue to make progress in enhancing our teaching and learning with online technologies.




Autor is Director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He began working with interactive computer learning technologies through the PLATO system in the mid-1970's. Having taught more than 38 years at the University of Illinois (in Urbana-Champaign and Springfield), he is Professor Emeritus. His research interests focus on the application of technology to enhance learning and to extend educational opportunities to those who are otherwise disenfranchised from traditional higher education opportunities. Schroeder received the 2002 Sloan Award for Most Outstanding Achievement in ALN by an Individual and was a Sloan-C Distinguished Scholar in Online Learning 2002-2003. He was "visiting scholar in online learning" at the University of Southern Maine 2006-2009. His Online Learning Update and Educational Technology blogs and twitter postings are widely read and syndicated around the world.


Autor is the Open Learning Project Coordinator at the Institute of Technology Sligo, Ireland where he has been a faculty member since 1984. He is behind the rapid growth in online learning in the Institute since 2002 and significantly involved in the growth of e-learning in Ireland since 1999, organising the EdTech series of conferences since 2000 and as a founder of the Irish Learning Technology Association in 2002. His main areas of expertise are in web-casting, synchronous online training, instructor-led online training and rapid development of online training.


Autor graduated as an electrical engineer at University College Dublin in 1969. He worked in a variety of engineering, product and project management roles in Africa, Ireland, France & Belgium before returning to Ireland in 1994. As Chief Executive of Excellence Ireland (the national independent quality association) from 1994 to 2003 he led the development of programmes to enable Irish organisations improve their performance. He served as President of EOQ (European Organization for Quality) (1998-2000). Seán now works on various teaching and developmental programmes for the Institute of Technology in Sligo such as transformational change and energy management. He is one of the Institute's staff to deliver programmes exclusively on-line. He was appointed a Board member of the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) in 2007. He has served on a variety of national boards and has recently been nominated trustee of Feasta - The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.



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