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Having spent some time teaching at a university, and being on the brink of becoming a student again myself, I recently stopped to reflect about how my school work and that of my students might be improved with some Web 2.0 tools. The discussion is timely, too, since a lot of working professionals are heading back to the classroom in an attempt to stay relevant during tough times.
During my first go-around, I wasn’t savvy enough to take advantage of what was available, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve identified the following three categories of web apps that could make studying easier and more effective.
When I was teaching, students often expressed uncertainty about the validity of using information from Wikipedia in academic essays. Regardless of what you think about Wikipedia’s academic merits, a wiki itself is a very useful online collaborative tool.
With sites like PBWiki and Wikispaces offering free, easy-to-setup wikis for public use, it’s hard to argue against setting one up for a variety of study-related purposes. For example, the class I taught was Introductory Composition, or English writing for non-majors. A central component of the coursework was peer editing. Giving and receiving feedback happened in class, taking up a fair chunk of lecture time, which is fine considering it was the purpose of the course.
For those in other classes, time is not an available luxury. An informal wiki shared between classmates can provide a quick way to give and get feedback on writing projects that might not otherwise ever get read by fresh eyes.
If you’re already working full time, and taking courses on the side, finding available time to sit down and review your own or other people’s work is virtually impossible. With a wiki you can pick at it at leisure, drop in and contribute whenever inspiration strikes, even if you’re working or at the office.
Like a wiki, forums offer the chance for students to connect with one another and share valuable experience, advice and support. That can be especially important in distance ed. situations, which a lot of web workers often find themselves in. Online courses can lack an essential and motivating sense of community, which a forum can help to provide.
While not necessarily as collaborative as wikis, forums provide clearly threaded and demarcated discussions have their own advantages, especially if you’re dealing more with problem solving and less with writing and composition. Sometimes, courses provide their own forums, but these may not be conducive to true collaboration.
When setting up forums in the past, I’ve generally been lucky enough to have my own server space, where I would usually install a phpBB board. YaBB is another popular option if you go self-hosted, but although the boards are free, hosting is generally not. Forumotion.com offers users the ability to create a free customizable forum, and allows you to choose from a few different board software options.
3. Project Management
Advanced students, experienced professionals, and those doing extensive group work will recognize the need to keep tabs on projects in detail. If the parts don’t come together, everyone loses, regardless of who’s to blame.
Online project management can help make sure everyone stays in the loop, or, if you’re working alone, can help make sure you don’t lose track of any of the various parts of complicated tasks. For this, there’s a variety of options, but considering the average student’s budget, the free alternatives are probably best, unless you’re already investing in a more expensive solution for your professional work. Goplan offers the ability to host two projects simultaneously with four users attached to each. It’s a barebones option, but it should fit the needs of most student uses, and it can scale up with a number of paid options to suit the needs of even the most seasoned web worker.
Of course, the effectiveness of these tools will always depend entirely on how they’re used. You might have a leg up if you’ve been working online for a while already, but repurposing the same tools for academic purposes isn’t necessarily as simple as doing what works professionally. Take the time to re-examine what you know and strike a proper balance, and your studies will benefit.