May 31 2007

Riding the Net Wave

A decade after the first visions of interactivity danced in the heads of information technology players in the public and private sectors, the post–dot-com crash era spawned the evolution of truly interactive applications, known collectively as Web 2.0.

Now, Web 2.0 is rippling throughout the higher education universe, changing the way that schools disseminate information, instructors approach learning and students interact. It’s also bound to change IT’s role on campus, which is already under way at many institutions.

Yet, there is still a debate about what Web 2.0 is exactly, and where it’s going. It’s easier to pinpoint what it is not. It isn’t a specific technology or tool. Some say Web 2.0 is merely a marketing term to overhype existing Web tools and technologies, such as Web logs, social networks, podcasts, wikis, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds.

Web 2.0 proponents say these tools collectively shape the Web in a different, more valuable way than ever. They see Web 2.0 as a collection of advanced capabilities that redefine the way people exchange information.

One thing is clear: new programming techniques such as Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and eXtensible Markup Language), Adobe Flash and PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor) are turning the Web into a richer and more interactive place.

Part of Web 2.0’s lure in higher education is the proliferation of free tools that contribute to creativity and enhance learning.

At the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, part of the State University of New York, Director of Distance Learning Beth Harris has used Web 2.0 tools to enrich classes. During the past two years, she has developed a collaborative writing project, using Writely, which is now known as Google Docs. She has also worked with colleagues Steven Zucker and Eric Feinblatt to design a learning activity that would allow students to create a Web page using Wetpaint. It would incorporate video, photos, text and other materials into a themed, interactive site.

Harris has used the online photo management and sharing application, Flickr, to teach art history. Flickr allows students to annotate famous paintings by attaching layers of notes and markings directly on the image. “If I ask them to find the symbolism in a 15th century Flemish painting, they can create boxes around the portions of the painting they want to talk about and put comments on the picture,” she says. “Anyone can then mouse over the same picture and see the annotations or pull the mouse back and see the entire painting.”

The process can make grading and evaluating students a bit more complex, but that’s a minor drawback. “It’s a more interesting, fun and useful way to learn,” says Harris. “It breaks down the classroom walls and creates an entirely new collaborative experience.”

Mitch Davis, chief information officer of Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, has turned to new Web 2.0 development tools and applications to turbocharge Web pages, enhance information delivery, and create a more compelling and enriching online experience.

Resident scholars, faculty members and students display their work in interactive form on the Bowdoin Web site for easy access by all. For example, a prized collection of scrolls depicting the 13th century Mongol invasions of Japan too fragile to put on display may be viewed online. At the click of a mouse, visitors are able to take a closer look by zooming in on the drawings and view notes on specific sections of the scrolls.

“Our Japanese scrolls project uses Flash but has some interesting tie-ins to other technology that’s allowing it to be a lot more,” says Robert Denton, senior media and design consultant at Bowdoin.

“One such tool is Zoomify, which takes an enormous image, in this case some 40kilobit pixel-wide image, and breaks it up so one can zoom in and out of a large image. That’s how we are providing a unique viewing experience in this tool. Also, we have Flash reading in XML for a lot of the text information you see on the screen as you work with the scrolls.”

The college is now looking to integrate social networking tools with educational and business applications — and to utilize other capabilities that change the way people communicate and share information.

“Students increasingly want to use technology to shape their own experience rather than have the school tell them what to see and do,” Denton says. “Web 2.0 brings them the information they want. They no longer have to go out and look for it.”

But information technology staffs also play a role in making this information available. IT is increasingly getting involved in Web 2.0 technologies. Cisco Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Chambers made Web 2.0 a focal point of a recent keynote address at the Interop trade show in Las Vegas, Nev. Chambers says Web 2.0 applications such as Web services, podcasts, blogs, and online social networks have largely been a way of communication “in spite of the IT department,” but that is changing. “Now the IT department has to lead,” he says.

On college campuses, IT can lead by making sure their networks can handle real-time voice, video, and data. They also have to stay on top of testing and securing new applications. The openness of Web 2.0 collaborative applications can lead to security holes. Hackers are increasingly targeting Ajax applications, where the access control is on the client side rather than the server side. This requires greater vigilance on the part of IT.