Friday, February 27, 2009

Struggling with centrally-offered tools

Hitting the target, but missing the bullseye?

I have to admit that lately I've been having a hard time feeling enthused about the suite of IT tools that are available from and supported by our central IT unit on campus...particularly when these tools are examined through the lens of teaching and learning. (Disclaimer here: I am gratefully and happily employed by the same central IT division so my goal here is not to rail on anyone or any group. Rather, I hope to articulate something I have felt but not coherently realized till rather recently.)

Earlier this week, a colleague and I were invited by an instructor to come to his graduate class and "give a demo of the collaborative tools that are available at UW". I thought this should not be that hard of a request to fulfill.

As my colleague and I prepped for the demo, we put together a list of likely tools to demo:
- Xythos, our campus file storage and web space system
- Desire2Learn Learning Environment, our primary learning management system
- WiscChat, our Jabber-based instant messaging system
- WiscCal, our Oracle-based shared calendar system
- Adobe Connect, our live meeting system

I felt a dilemma when I considered the nature of the course. The course happens to be a GIS/urban planning course on mapping mashups. The two instructors and their students are already participating fully in today's online world...or they will be very soon. The instructor had a Wordpress blog created for the course. He was discussing the merits of open source GIS software. In class, he was extolling Google Earth, Google Maps, and KML. I realized that these folks are not cutting-edge techno-pioneers...they are typical professionals (or professionals-to-be) wanting to stay current in their field.

The centrally-available tools above do have their strengths and have been enlisted to meet certain needs of the past.

For collaboration, Xythos provides a secure and robust file and web storage space. D2L gives students a group space for sharing files and a traditional discussion board for asynchronous communication. WiscChat and WiscCal, like the other tools, are available to all students and staff through a single campus ID.

However, as soon as I began thinking about what the students really need, I became rather disheartened. For their group projects in this course, students need to be able create mashups and share them with others. Students need to be able to share resources they discovered with others. Students need to be able to show their finished product to each other and to future or current employers not associated with UW.

The aforementioned campus tools seemed to fall short of what the students really needed.

One tool was different. Adobe Connect raised our enthusiasm levels...but why? It meets their need to connect with each other while the instructor is out of state a few times during the course. Additionally, it's a very cool tool: multiple live video feeds, ability to share presentations or even desktops, and it's available at no cost to the instructor or students.

We also briefly mentioned that they might consider using Google Docs to collaboratively create documents and presentations. We also mentioned that they might find pbwiki easy to use.

When these topics were raised, a number of people nodded their heads in agreement. Many of the students have already used these modern web apps and know how well they work.

Unlike when I gave virtually the same demo to a similar course 2+ years earlier, students' expectations have been affected by the proliferation of Web 2.0 tools. Our campus tools feel clunky and outdated by comparison.

In the end, I'm optimistic that the students will find tools to meet their group work needs. I just won't wager that those tools will be found in the current UW tool set.

"bulls eye" photo credit:

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