Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Web 2.0 as a Platform for Formal Learning?

Image by Gavin Llewellyn CC BY 2.0
Do you remember the first time you were on the World Wide Web? I do. It was 1995, and I was a sophomore. A friend at the University of Michigan emailed me, “Hey, check out my webpage!” And I responded, “What’s a webpage?” (It was 1995, okay? The WWW was basically brand new...) He gave me some instructions, and after finding a suitable computer, and typing in a ridiculously long URL, I was greeted by a picture of my friend Jon in a tie-dyed shirt (as always), playing his guitar. I was totally enamored with this new technology! I can say with some honesty that I spent a lot of time "surfing"--as we called it then--from one page to another.

Of course, this was Web 1.0. In 1995 the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. There was no such thing as Google. (Can you imagine?) "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web" was only recently renamed "Yahoo!" and was still being managed by hand. (Can you imagine?) Mark Zuckerberg may have been dreaming about Facebook, but he was only 11 years old. The World Wide Web was a very different place.

In Web 1.0, you had to be pretty geeky to actually put your own webpage online. Luckily, I am pretty geeky. HTML for Dummies was a helpful resource, and within a few months, I had hand-coded my own page. I really, really wish I had kept an archived copy, just to show you how hilariously bad it was. 

Fast forward to 2012. Commencing with my full-time employment in higher education, I decided to start a blog, which you are reading now. Really the blog was meant for my own reflective practice, and as an example for an online Masters’ course I was teaching at the time as an adjunct instructor. But I started sharing posts I wrote on Facebook and Twitter, and people actually started reading it. I had my first post that really took off back in January: 3000 people read a piece entitled "It's Not 1989," and it's still my most-read post at the time of this writing.

You might recognize blogs as a “Web 2.0” tool. What is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0? Let’s turn to Wikipedia (an excellent example of a Web 2.0 tool in it’s own right) for a definition: “Web 1.0 was an early stage of the conceptual evolution of the World Wide Web, centered around a top-down approach to the use of the web and its user interface...Technically, Web 1.0 webpage's information is closed to external editing. Thus, information is not dynamic, being updated only by the webmaster.” This was how things were structured on the early web. Unless you were geeky, it was unlikely that you as an individual would generate content on the web.

How is Web 2.0 different? Wikipedia puts it this way: “Web 2.0 describes web sites that use technology beyond the static pages of earlier web sites...A Web 2.0 site may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where people are limited to the passive viewing of content.” So Web 2.0 is the "read-write web"...interactive, and ripe for participation by the users. It's not just about reading what others have written, but adding your own contributions. So sites like Wikipedia (user-generated encyclopedia), social networks like Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and LinkedIn, and even media sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube would all be part of this. Blogs, like this one, greatly democratized the ability of people to push their own ideas online as well.

In one of the courses I'm taking right now, we've been reading a lot about Web 2.0, and how teachers might be able to use these kinds of tools in formal educational settings. As I read, I found a great chapter in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (Edited by Robert Reiser and John Dempsey) that discusses some of the pedagogical implications. This chapter, by Terry Anderson, Professor of Distance Education at Athabasca University) begins by outlining two different definitions for Web 2.0, one more technical, and one more philosophical. For the technical definition, Anderson cites Tim O’Reilly, who describes Web 2.0 as “a platform for a host of commercial, entertainment, and learning applications.” Anderson further states that O’Reilly “notes the capacity of Web 2.0 for harnessing collective intelligence (with Wikipedia as a prime example), the use of common data by multiple applications, rapid release of and never fully developed applications and lightweight programming models--all of which produce rich user experiences. (p. 299-300)

According to Anderson, the more philosophical definition is more of a heuristic for thinking about the web. Here Anderson cites Hoegg, Meckel, Stanoevska-Slabeva, & Martignoni, who argue, “Web 2.0 is not a technology but a philosophy: ‘The objective of all Web 2.0 services is to mutually maximize the collective intelligence of the participants.’” (p. 300)

I think both of these are helpful definitions in their own right, but I was glad that Anderson went on discuss three key affordances in Web 2.0 technology:
  • Web 2.0 tools utilize individual and group contributions to create value.
  • Web 2.0 tools are effective for group collaboration and collective use.
  • Web 2.0 tools potentially open learning beyond the closed doors of the classroom or walled gardens of registered student, login-only, course sites.
In other words, Web 2.0 is all about collaboration and personalized learning, in which learners discover what they need to learn, and help contribute to the learning of others.
As I reflect on these affordances, I see that is definitely how I use many Web 2.0 tools.
  • Wikipedia is a great resource for basic information about almost any topic you can think of. 
  • I’ve learned many things just-in-time by watching a video tutorial on YouTube.
  • I sold my pickup a couple years by mentioning that I was ready to part with it on Facebook.
  • I use Google Drive regularly with my students to foster their collaboration as well.
  • I connect with hundreds of fellow educators regularly via Twitter. I even used Twitter for one of the Masters’ courses I taught last summer as a way of keeping in touch with my students and providing an informal venue for them to share what stood out in the readings they were conducting with their classmates and others.
That’s not to say that all Web 2.0 tools are created equal. A few years ago, I was (briefly) actively involved in creating articles on Wikipedia and editing articles written by others. That is a much different activity than sharing a blog post on Facebook or tweeting with a hundred fellow educators in a Twitterchat. And because I know I use Web 2.0 tools in such a variety of different ways, I’m curious about how other educators use Web 2.0 tools to enhance their professional practice.

Which brings to another article I read in the past week. Brass and Mecoli’s piece, “The (Failed) Case of the Winston Society Wikispace: The Challenges and Opportunities of Web 2.0 and Teacher Education” is a case study of how a wiki created for mutual support and professional development imploded in less than a month after it’s creation. The story is interesting in it’s own right, but I found the authors’ analysis of the situation to be very astute. I think that the reasons they indicate for the failure of this particular wiki are instructive:
  1. Already busy teachers didn’t want or need one more “thing” to have to work with.
  2. The technical challenges of working with a new technology were too off-putting for some teachers.
  3. The ethos of this wide-open sharing with a group they did not know well felt uncomfortable for some teachers.

And in this regard, I also found Brass and Mecoli’s suggestions for Web 2.0-infused professional development very helpful:
  1. Use intact groups that have already formed face-to-face
  2. Refine the focus of the professional development to be better targeted to the needs of the teachers
  3. Use other Web 2.0 tools with which the teachers are already familiar and comfortable

So this raises the issue: do you use Web 2.0 tools these ways? I'm wondering how other educators think about Web 2.0 tools as part of their own professional development, and even part of formal learning situations.

I'm still thinking about questions like these:
  • This article by Brass and Mecoli is a case study of the failure of Web 2.0 tools to support professional development for educators. Are there ways Web 2.0 tools might, in fact, encourage pre-service or in-service educators' ongoing learning?
  • Many students are already prolific users of Web 2.0 tools for their informal learning outside of school. (Okay, maybe "learning" is a stretch for some of these uses...) Does it make sense to require them to use these same tools for formal learning? If so, should they use the same accounts for personal and professional purposes?
  • Some of the greatest benefits of Web 2.0 tools are the openness and collaboration they afford. But this ability to collaborate openly comes with some costs, especially in terms of loss of privacy and persistence of "memory" online. Do these affordances outweigh the costs?

I have a feeling I'll still be thinking about these things for awhile...



Anderson, T. (2011). Networks, Web 2.0, and the Connected Learner. In R. Reiser & J. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and issues in instructional design and technology (3rd ed., pp. 299-305). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Brass, J., & Mecoli, S. (2011). The (failed) case of the Winston Society wikispace: The challenges and opportunities of web 2.0 and teacher education. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 11(2), 149-166.

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