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Tools for Interacting Asynchronously

Asynchronous interactions have helped to overcome space and time communication barriers in order to achieve dynamic dialogues.  There is a growing number of tools to support asynchronous interaction. In the following paragraphs we will discuss the educational uses for some of these.

Email (electronic mail)

Electronic mail systems allow receiving, sending and storing digital messages in electronic mailboxes. Digital messages can include different types of content via texts, images, photos, sounds, videos, or website links. A digital mailbox also associates an identifier to be shared with others and a password that only the proprietor knows.     

In addition to email for private communication with others, email also makes possible deferred electronic interaction between members of an educational community.  Nevertheless, it can be very wasteful and ineffective when it is used to support the educational processes of groups. Interacting in this individual way with many people requires hours of reading and answering messages. Imagine receiving 40 messages from students and trying to correspond with each one of them.  In this case, other approaches would be more effective (for example forums or list serves) that address common shared interests leaving personal issues to be discussed in private chat rooms or by email.

In order to take advantage of email it is necessary to develop:

  • The habit of downloading and reading the mail periodically
  • The capacity to process legible written messages.
  • The ability to identify legitimate messages (many are junk mail) and create user lists (to simplify interactions).
  • The criteria for opening or discarding attached files (many viruses arrive this way).
  • The strategy for organizing information that has been sent or received (otherwise email would be unmanageable).
  • The ability to respond to one or several users (streamlining the effort).

Many Internet Service Providers (ISP) offer free email with abundant storage capacity (about 6 gigabytes), virus protection, text or hypertext messaging. For example,  Google’s GMAIL, Yahoo’s YAHOOMAIL, and  Microsoft’s HOTMAIL.


Text messaging and chat rooms

The idea of digital communication via text has been expanded to the world of cell phones and chat rooms.  While text messaging via cell phones can be considered asynchronous communication—sender and receiver do not need to interact at the same time—conversations using text-based chat rooms are typically a synchronous process—participants need to be in the same chat room at the same time.

There are those who are fully against the use of text messaging via cell phones in educational environments because they believe that dialogues are imminently social and that texting does not favor the use of good language. However, these systems reach audiences in a very effective way. This can be considered an alternative way to reach students who do not read email, informing them about events, requirements and important opportunities. At the same time, this type of use can be disturbing when students do not follow rules of engagement for the use of these devices in educational settings.

Text-based chat rooms are now used less frequently because multimedia-based group instant messaging systems are easier to use.  When bandwidth is limited, this type of synchronous text messaging can be very useful.  It can also be utilized as a complement to voice or video-based messaging systems since text chat rooms allow documenting important ideas that emerge from oral conversation via voice-on-Internet.


Social messaging via Twitter

TWITTER is a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real time through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?. Twitter limits you to 140 characters and spaces per post (or per "tweet"). You can follow others Twitter uses on your home page.

Doug Belshaw's blog says “I think Twitter could be ideal for reminding students about homework, trips and such things, especially as they can enter their mobile phone number to be alerted when one of their ‘friends’ updates their account. The advantage is that you don’t need to know the phone numbers of students to get messages onto their device: they are the ones who authorize their mobile phone from the website and they subscribe to your Twitter feed” (cited in http://web20teach.blogspot.com/2007/08/twitter-tweets-for-higher-education.html  Available the 20th of June, 2009).


Social/virtual networking in education

There is no doubt that social networking is a powerful way to get and keep in touch with friends, colleagues, and people who share a common cause or interest. Many of us have re-initiated relationships with friends by using social/viral networking tools such as Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn. All of them have the ability to put together people who have an affinity (family, hobbies, work, school, etc.) and who decide to get in touch as virtual friends. This role lets you share, from your profile, information resources such as messages, pictures, videos, and other virtual components. Your contacts (virtual friends) share their contacts, which fortifies the network.

However it is not so clear how social networking can be used in support of academic initiatives. An Inside Higher Ed blog available Jun 30th, 2009 mentions that  “As colleges have worked over the years to solidify their Web 2.0 presence and reach out to students where they're most likely to congregate online, there's often a glaring omission from their overall Internet strategies: social networks. That's not so much an oversight as a hesitation, with many institutions still debating whether to adopt social networking capabilities of their own or grit their teeth and take the plunge into Facebook, with all the messiness and potential privacy concerns that would imply”.

FACEBOOK is a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers. (Facebook Corporate page, available at http://campus-firewatch.com/reprints/web2glossary.html on June 30, 2009).

LINKEDIN is a social networking website geared towards companies and industry professionals looking to make new business contacts or keep in touch with previous co-workers, affiliates, and clients.  (Definition available June 30, 2009, at http://www.hudsonhorizons.com/Our-Company/Internet-Glossary/LinkedIn.htm)

MYSPACE is an online community that allows friends to keep in touch and meet new people as well. Anyone who is at least 14 years old can sign up for a MySpace account at no cost. Once you sign up, you can customize your profile by adding information about yourself, listing your interests, hobbies, and educational background, and uploading photos of yourself and your friends. You can also create your own blog for others to read. (Definition available June 30, 2009, at http://www.techterms.com/definition/myspace).


Digital Diaries, also called, Blogs

Physically,  the closest thing to a blog (Binary Logs, also called Web Logs) is a web page; that is, an Internet space where information is published and shared using hypertext that allows the use of colors, different sizes and types of fonts as well as links,  graphics, sounds and animations that may or may not be controlled by the user.  The big difference with a web page is that the blogs are time-sensitive organized contributions.  Another important difference concerning blogs is that they allow for feedback which gives readers the opportunity to comment in public (post).  Many blogs have tagging systems that allow labels “to follow” the contributions being posted.  This is accomplished by surfing the descriptors on the tags.

Some contentions exist, regarding truth, privacy and security vs respect for the first amendment.   Every time a blog is used the creators and those who are making the commentary can say what they want without the scrutiny of editors or those responsible for the website.  Students are exposed to many points of view, or commentary, which are not always desirable for a formative scholarly process.  So while there are temporary solutions such as requiring students not to use complete names, or not to include photos in public blogs in order to protect their identity, there is still the issue of intellectual property rights that support one’s sharing ideas or feelings in public.

There are also those who think that the solution is having an educational intranet that will have blog systems that can only be consulted by authorized users, or having limited domains defined by a certain type of user subject to restricted access based on their profile (blogs for students, teachers, director, etc.).

The most known open access blog system is BLOGGER.  This is a free service that is a part of the resources offered by Google to its users. It allows the user to create a blog account in the language that s/he prefers and to share authorship with friends.

WORDPRESS is one of the best known tools for integrating blog services, that is, placing contributions of distinct blogs together.  It is an open source content management system distributed under GPL (General Public License); it uses a friendly WYSIWYG interface (What you see is what you get).


The Wiki and collaborative knowledge building

Wikipedia (2007) says a wiki is a collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone with access to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. Wikis are used in business to provide intranet and knowledge management systems.

At first glance, a wiki is very much like a blog which allows the individual user to create, not just browse or read. Nevertheless, blogs and wikis are very distinct interactive tools.

  • A big difference is that every page of a blog is individually authored, while each wiki page is collectively authored.  In a blog it is easy to identify who wrote what and when because each contribution has author identification, date and time of the last modification. In a wiki, the history keeps record of who contributed what and when, but the final version is a collective product and the end user does not keep abreast of the ideas presented by each contributor.
  • Wikis’ history preserves the contributions to each page making it possible to find previous versions, using them as the actual page if necessary.  Blogs do not preserve previous versions of a page; the author can edit them whenever he desires; however, when they are saved, the page is changed forever.
  • Blogs publish pages in chronological order, while a wiki publishes pages as they are being constructed, always presenting the current version.

According to Pearce (2005) the wiki is gaining traction in education, as an ideal tool for the increasing amount of collaborative work done by both students and teachers. Students might use a wiki to collaborate on a group report, compile data or share the results of their research, while faculty might use the wiki to collaboratively author the structure and curriculum of a course, and the wiki can then serve as part of each person's course web site.

A report on Wikis from Educause Learning Initiative (2005) highlights pros and cons about wikis in education:

Wikis allow faculty and students to engage in collaborative activities that might not be possible in a classroom. Their flexibility will encourage broader adoption [of wikis]—by both students and faculty. A wiki’s versioning capability can show the evolution of thought processes as students interact with the site and its content and allows for teachers to assess an ongoing project in ways not previously possible.

Because users can modify the content of a wiki (add to, edit, delete materials), allowing such manipulation of the site’s information carries some risks. Thus, wikis are often monitored to ensure that inappropriate language, spam, and incorrect or inappropriate content are not allowed. This can be both time-consuming and personnel-intensive. As a result, many wikis require authorization so only group members can modify content.

In order to diminish the risk of using open access wiki tools for collaborative knowledge construction, wiki spaces ought to have membership and accepted rules.  In this way, what is published is supported by a known author, and vandalism (e.g., leaving undesired footprints) is minimized.

Some of the most famous wiki engines are found at MEDIAHAWK, WIKIDOT, WIKISPACES, WETPAINT, all of them open access wiki systems that control who contributes through membership. It is possible to create web pages for each one of the tasks to be done, or for each group of collaborators.


Collaborative productivity tools

The wiki philosophy has been implemented with productivity tools (see P based ICTE), both for open access and commercial tools.

GOOGLE DOCS is an open access application that supports the wiki philosophy in regard to word processing, spreadsheet or presentations building. It allows the collaborative work of creating, editing, and publishing text documents and/or doing digital spreadsheets on the web. The final work can be exported to different formats.

People who want to collaboratively create and professionally edit documents may consider using OFFICE LIVE workspace from Microsoft, provided that all collaborators make use of Microsoft’s Office. It is announced [ibid] that in a few steps you can organize, manage and share documents, notes, spreadsheets, presentations, contacts, to-do lists, and more. You can add one or more documents including Microsoft Office Excel worksheets, Office Word documents, and Office PowerPoint presentations.


Network Forums

Network forums are systems which allow discussions in virtual spaces. Topics are debated using digital tools that allow one to take an active part in the collective analysis and construction of knowledge. A network forum has one or more discussion seeds, planted by the forum facilitator. Participants can respond to single postings by replying to them, or can thread ideas by using illation strategies that lead to creation of collective knowledge.

The scope of the forums is bound to the communities that they serve; this is to say, the forums are conducted among people who belong to a certain group or virtual community, people who share certain interests or objectives and who feel comfortable exchanging ideas with other participants (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000).

Management Systems for Group of Interests like those offered by YAHOO GROUPS or GOOGLE GROUPS have made it possible for many educators and students to participate in web communities united by common interests.  In order to belong to a group it is necessary to enroll by invitation or by application (some communities are restricted, others have free enrollment;  some have one moderator or several moderators who control the information and others do not have any). In order to participate, it is necessary to register using a key and to follow web etiquette. To track the activity of the group or virtual community, email can be used to update any developments and report frequency of use and other issues.  Systems for administering interest groups not only offer the possibility of doing forums, but allow information to be shared directly (organized files in folders) or by links to web sites where the information is available.

Voice-based tools such as VOXOPO allow users to record their audio messages for others to orally reply. Verbal discussion forums can be created with this tools, both public or private. According with VoxOpop "Anyone can explore and listen to public discussions, but only signed up users can start or join talkgroups, or join in on discussions. You'll also get access to other features, like being able to add discussions to a watchlist, and being notified by when others contribute. Membership to Voxopop is free and easy".


Video lecture capturing

There are different occasions in which faculty need to present content using digital video. Depending on the need, various tools are available.

Short video episodes capturing the presenter and materials that s/he is using, can be prepared with Tools for processing video and digital sound and shared on the internet using Tools for sharing digital products on Internet., both discussed in this document, under the Productivity topic.  However, when it is convenient to upload a lecture longer than 10 minutes, the above solution might not work because of the restricted size of videos that can be uploaded to free servers. At this point, access to streaming video servers (also called digital repositories) where large size videos can be uploaded and accessed if needed.

Regardless of the lecture size, there may be a need to give students direct access to content embedded in video lectures. This may be the case of remedial course units where students need to review concepts as they use them; that is, without having to review all the tapes; only those episodes where each concept is mentioned. Students may also not have good learning skills and may need to refine concepts by reviewing explanations or segments of a video that deal with hard-to-learn topics. Video lecture capturing systems help solve this problem.

Commercial systems such as TEGRITY CAMPUS 2.0 and open access systems such as PANOPTO allow faculty to record their presentations and to share them online via streaming video. In addition, they allow viewers to search for keywords through metadata embedded in power point presentations, and to surf through the thumbnails of the slides.  These features have positioned these products as resources that can help students selectively review explanations about topics hard to understand without listening to the whole tape. Faculty can create collections of video recordings that are available to complement classroom sessions and that they can link from online course shells at the learning management system in use. Also, faculty can follow students’ activity online and do research on learning and teaching supported with multiple media.


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