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Washed Up

August 6, 2010

Google Wave was supposed to make class discussions richer and more coherent. It was supposed to make research collaborations easier. It was supposed to break down walls between offices, disciplines, countries. It was even supposed to give learning-management systems such as Blackboard a run for their money.

Instead, it is kaput. Just over a year after being rolled out, the much-hyped Wave has crashed on the shores of indifference and is now set to recede into obscurity. Google said Thursday that it will stop selling Wave as a product and close the host website by the end of the year, citing a dearth of users.

Google Wave was a Web-based platform where groups could have conversations (live and asynchronous), share media files and documents, and collaborate on projects. It was marketed as an antidote to e-mail threads, where information is more liable to get lost, discussions are fragmented, and people can get cut out of the loop by accident. As far as the breadth of what it could do, Wave stacked up favorably against the prevailing collaboration technologies — e-mail, Google Docs, wikis, and asynchronous discussion forums.

The expectations for Wave were as high in academe as anywhere else when it debuted in May 2009. Some higher ed bloggers suggested that professors might use Wave as a foundation for “whole interactive courses.” Citing chatter from enthusiastic early adopters, the education blog ReadWriteWeb suggested that collaborative note-taking on Wave “will lead to smarter, better performing students.” Some even mused that Wave could challenge learning-management systems — if not their information-management features, then perhaps their online classrooms. “Because Wave includes so many modes of communication and inter-operates with other applications, it could significantly enhance the way students collaborate and communicate,” read a primer from Educause, the higher-ed technology group.

A number of professors experimented with Wave. Raymond Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, used Wave to bring together students from two of his classes — one on the cultural impact of the Internet and another on energy studies — to discuss how the prevalence of the Internet ties into perceptions of energy sustainability. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, made collaborative note-taking a requirement for one of her courses. Both Schroeder and Fitzpatrick reported encouraging results. “To a person, [the students] liked it,” wrote Fitzpatrick in a blog post. “Most of the students seemed to catch the enthusiasm of the instructors in using this technology,” wrote Schroeder. He says his university also used Wave in public health and public administration courses.

Why the Washout?

Schroeder and Fitzpatrick were, alas, in the minority. A study released in May by the Babson Research Group and Pearson revealed Wave to be one of the least popular Web 2.0 tools among professors; fewer than half of respondents had heard of Wave, and not even 5 percent used it. The number of adopters in academe was “not as many as we had hoped,” a Google spokesman told Inside Higher Ed on Thursday. He would not say what specific criticisms Google had heard from its academic customers about Wave. (Joshua Kim, an Inside Higher Ed blogger on educational technology, suggests that part of the problem may have been too much hype and not enough of a connection between Wave's services and what academics most wanted.)

“The platform was too complicated and too clunky for most users and uses, and it didn't integrate well with the ways people actually use the web today, nor did it fill a gap that wasn't being served by other technologies,” offers Fitzpatrick, noting that she was nevertheless saddened to hear Google had decided to shut it down.

“My feeling is that Wave was mostly misunderstood, and not least by its own development team,” she says. “If the Wave team had pitched the package differently, it might have succeeded. They described it as a redesign of e-mail, integrating this form of communication with newer social technologies — but that… made it seem as though Wave was meant to be a general-purpose communication technology that everyone would want to adopt.” Realistically, its uses were narrower, she says — group work relating to specific projects, mainly.

Schroeder agrees that the sophistication of the tools in Wave might have scared away some non-techie professors. “For those who took time to learn the capabilities, it was truly a game-changer,” he says. “But for those who could only tolerate a ten-minute learning curve, it was frustrating and confusing.”

Steve Bragaw, a professor of American politics at Sweet Briar College, last fall mused on that Wave might take a bite out of the learning-management market. Bragaw says he still thinks cloud-based learning-management tools are the wave of the future, but that this Wave just did not function well enough to turn those early adopters into evangelists. “It was twitchy, and it crashed a lot,” he says. “If you’re going to use it in the classroom, it’s got to be reliable.”

Still, Bragaw says he thinks there is a market for Wave-like technology on college campuses, and that if a company is able to develop a product that works smoothly and is not so scary to academics, it could gain a following. And he would not be surprised if that company is Google.

For the latest technology news from Inside Higher Ed, follow IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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