Monday, October 20, 2008

Moving Toward Web 2.0 in K-12 Education

(Originally posted as part of the Britannica Blog Forum "Brave New Classroom 2.0" opening the week of October 20, 2008.  Please post any comments there.)

The title of this post is a watered-down version of my typical opening line on this topic, both because of the importance of allowing for true dialog on this topic (which can sometimes be lost in the strident opining that blogging seems to engender), and because of the difficulty of quantifying educational success when talking about the particular outcomes that I hope to show are largely inherent in and facilitated by the use of Web 2.0.  Normally I would say, "Web 2.0 is the future of education," and while I harbor a hope that will be true, I think it might be more accurate to say that "Web 2.0 will be a significant part of the future of learning," and that in the best case scenario it will become an important part of our formal educational institutions.

My personal definition of Web 2.0 is not complicated.  With an appropriate nod to Tim O'Reilly, who used the phrase originally in a business context, I'd like to suggest that for the sake of our discussions around education that Web 2.0 is simply the use of the Internet as a two-way medium- - -that it is a platform upon which content is not only consumed but also created.  For my generation, our use of the Web largely mirrored our experiences with print and broadcast media:  we were the audience, and a select few were the creators (this would be Web 1.0, if you will).  For my children and our students today, their use of the Web often entirely revolves around content that they and their friends have created, and within Web frameworks or scaffolding that facilitate that creativity rather than providing the content for them.  They build profile pages, upload photos and videos, and interact with each other and that content through active commenting systems.

Web 2.0, defined this way, is facilitating a dramatic change in our relationship to information. The advent of printing press lowered the cost of producing written material, and Web 2.0 not only brings that cost now to essentially zero (anyone in this country can go to a public library and use a computer for free and with free software publish to the web), it is also bringing the nature of information publication as a conversation to the user who used to just be a part of "the audience."  While most of us watched those conversations taking place between trusted authorities or authors before in a world of broadcast media, we are often now immersed in them ourselves.

Seeing the Web as a conversation is very helpful in understanding how our paradigms about information will have to change.  We often speak of "information overload," and the perception that there is too much information can reinforce our belief that information needs to be more carefully controlled and vetted before being "allowed" to become public.  When, however, we see the ever increasing amount of content as "conversations" that are taking place, it becomes an educational imperative to teach ourselves and students to be productive participants in those conversations.  I like to tease educators by claiming that the answer to information overload is to create (and to teach the creation of) more information--a paradox in our existing paradigms, but self-evident in a new understanding.

What is abundantly clear is that no matter what our schools are currently doing, most of our students are already actively involved in this content creation and conversation outside of school.  In a series of reports recently released by BECTA (the government agency leading the UK drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning) on Web 2.0 technologies for learning, students ages 11 - 16 were surveyed.  74% reported that they had at least one social networking site account and 78% reported having uploaded pictures, video, or music to the web--with 50% having done so in the previous week of being asked.  If we make the somewhat logical assumption that most parents are still living in a Web 1.0 world (largely passive consumers of content created by others) , then whether we see the Web as a dangerous collection of minefields or as an unparalleled learning environment, most youth are participating on the Web without the benefit of much guidance or mentoring from the adults who are most interested in their progress and well-being.

So, if for no other reasons than we might muster to justify driver's education in schools (learning to do something very important that carries some inherent and significant personal and social dangers), we can argue for the need to be teaching Web 2.0 as a part of K-12 education.  But I believe there are more positive, less alarmist, reasons.  In fact, I think the inherent characteristics of Web 2.0 are so aligned with significant educational pedagogies that we are going to have to dramatically rethink our educational institutions and expectations because of them.  Even though the benefits of Web 2.0, like those of a liberal-arts education, resist easy assessment methods and therefore present a challenge to how we measure educational success, I'm optimistic that they will ultimately prove so valuable as to require that we rethink teaching and learning.

A caveat is perhaps in order.  For 25 years we've watched computer fad follow computer fad in education, each promising to transform learning.  It's absolutely appropriate to be skeptical of claims of technological El Dorados.  Hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, have been spent on outfitting schools with computers, and most of us would appropriately claim that the impact on student achievement has been little to none.  But I would submit that, as happened in our business culture 20 years ago, a set of technologies that actually transform our traditional methods will become the driving catalyst for ubiquitous access to computers at school.  What we currently have are computers purchased and maintained largely by school business offices, relatively divorced from teaching methodologies, and either not in a quantity or in a condition to allow overworked teachers to change their teaching methods.  Driven not by technology vendors or unproven theories, Web 2.0 instead seems likely to change education precisely because it is a disruptive external change.

What are, then, the aspects of Web 2.0 that translate into achieving educational goals?  Let me suggest the following list of educational benefits of Web 2.0, which I hesitate to claim as exhaustive, but which I hope will help the discussion.

Engagement.  This is often a promised result of technology, so I feel the need to address and defend it early on.  Because the engagement of Web 2.0 is in the act of content creation, and seems to exist independent of the particular program being used or even of being in a formal learning environment, this claim seems not only reasonable but compelling.  Students who continue to post to their blog or to stay involved in discussion forums during their vacations exemplify the power of Web 2.0 to engage students because of the authentic nature of the work rather than being required assignments.

Authenticity.  Both having an authentic audience, and having the contributed work be authentic, argue for Web 2.0 as an active part of K-12 education.  When I wrote essays in school (back in the day...), only my parents and my teachers saw what I wrote.  I was, in effect, writing for "practice" with relatively little feedback.  Students today are creating on the Web for very real audiences, and their writing or production has to pass a very real test:  are they communicating well?  Whether it is the peer audience in school which keeps their Web 2.0 programs within the "walled garden" of the school network, or it is publishing for the world, both the work and the audience are authentic.

Participation.  That is, actually being a contributor to world's body of knowledge.  Previously, to pursue an educational interest as part of a larger part of one's life work, that interest had to be within the relatively narrow confines of existing institutional structures in order to be worthy of publication or presentation--and was rarely available to students.  Now, in an amazing flowering of the Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" model (, students (and teachers!) can find specific intellectual paths to tread where they are able to participate, say, as an historian and not as someone preparing to be an historian.  A student can write a report on an historical figure, or a scientific theory, and both publish that to the web and also participate in meaningful ways with other students and adults interested in the same topic.  (Think of all the historical figures and topics that might otherwise not receive much attention.)  There is no good reason to keep our youth "preparing" for life until their mid-twenties when their contributions to society could be so important to both us and them much earlier.

Openness and Access to Information.  The backbone of the Internet "Revolution" is openness.  Open computer standards, open software, and open content.  Web 2.0 is making obsolete many of the restrictions on access to information that were intended to protect the rights of creators, but instead mostly inhibited learning by others.  When the world's knowledge doubles in short periods of time, the incentives or rewards for keeping information proprietary significantly diminish, and the resulting willingness to share presents great opportunities to learn and to participate.  The ability to "look something up" or to learn something new has never been greater.

Collaboration.  I remember even when I was growing up that collaboration was said to be important.  But, truly, it wasn't.  Or, at least, it wasn't what was really rewarded, either in school or in the business world.  Web 2.0 has actually given real practical value to a character trait we wanted to instill.  In the world of Web 2.0, collaboration is not only king, but it can be seen and assessed--look at the history page of a wiki, for example, or the linked list of contributed comments on the personal profile page of a social network.  Web 2.0 has created an unparalleled ability to build or participate in personal learning networks and communities of interest or practice.

Creativity.  We are, to paraphrase Clay Shirky, in the midst of the greatest increase of creative capability in the history of the world.  A regular student can write, film, and edit a video which then can be uploaded to YouTube and potentially seen by more of an audience than some commercial films actually garner.

Passionate Interest and Personal Expression.  More than just the ability to build a profile page on MySpace, Web 2.0 actually gives both students and educators to build for themselves a online portfolio of the endeavors they are passionate about.  Where the resume and the degrees have been our short-cut indicators of abilities and accomplishments, the personal body of work now contained and hopefully organized on the Web gives everyone who wants it the the opportunity for an expression of personal interest and achievement.

Discussion.  A lost art in culture and politics, in my view, is the thoughtful discussion.   One of the great features of Web 2.0 is the discussion forum, which provides an environment for learning how to actually talk about things.  While I may feel that a lot of the discussion that takes place in the "blogosphere" is overly antagonistic in order to be seen, it is discussion, and often becomes much more thoughtful in the context of a discussion forum.

Asynchronous Contribution.  The abilty to contribute to discussions after class, or from home, provides a much broader opportunity for participation that the traditional class discussion.  Students with different contribution styles, or who process information over time, are now more participative.

Proactivity.  Web 2.0 inherently rewards the proactive learner and contributor.  My wife and I (both first children ourselves)  raised our oldest child to succeed in the world in which we grew up, which rewarded being a good, quiet follower, who would to work for someone who would tell her what to do and how to do it.  But the world has changed, and employers want and the world needs students who have learned to participate actively and independently.  The "spirited" child (our second daughter) is much more likely to be able to work on things she likes and is good at because of her willingness to be proactive.

Critical Thinking.  The vast amount of data on the Web requires more critical thinking than was needed when I was growing up.  In my era of "trusted authorities," Time Magazine told me most of what I needed to know about the news.  There was actually a lot more diversity of opinion on most topics than I was exposed to, which quickly becomes evident when you drill past the first page of a Wikipedia article and look at the discussion and history tabs.  Unlike the previous traits of Web 2.0, I think this one really requires good adult mentors, so let's finish this list for now and get to that.

One of the amazing impacts of Web 2.0 is watching long-time educators have their own personal learning transformed by these new tools of Web participation---especially as they discover professional development venues on the Web that help to release the inclinations to help others that often prompted them to become teachers.  Their own experiences with Web 2.0 in this regard dramatically shape new expectations for what opportunities they are going to provide their students.  But other educators are understandably afraid:  of the learning curve, of the changes taking place, and of their own ability to play a valuable role in an educational world shaped by the individualized learning and "unlimited" content and opportunities.  Used to being the provider or dispenser of knowledge and the authority, they are unsure of the role they would play in a world of Web 2.0 education.  They are also, and often rightly, concerned that academic rigor is being lost in a world of easy creation and limited constraints.

I think it helps to remember that most of the character traits of Web 2.0 mentioned above are significantly enhanced, if not dependent on, devoted adults helping to mentor and guide students.  Having ready access to information does not make one a scholar, but it is scholars that we must help to create.  A new favorite poem of mine follows:

by John Ciardi

The old crow is getting slow;
the young crow is not.
Of what the young crow does not know,
the old crow knows a lot.

At knowing things, the old crow is still
the young crow's master.
What does the old crow not know?
How to go faster.

The young crow flies above, below, and rings
around the slow old crow.
What does the fast young crow not know?

(Thanks to Sarah Hanawald and Google Answers for this poem!)

This vision I've presented of Web 2.0 in K-12 education is not with its hurdles.  Again, not exhaustively, but for discussion.

First:  we've developed a negative cultural impression of social networking that comes out of the very power that will make it such an effective tool for education.  Fundamentally answering a human need to connect, create, and express ourselves, the immense popularity of some early social networks have showcased garishness and vulgarity that aren't inherent in the technology, but became an early part of it because of the very absence of influential adults.  I can use the same raw building materials and tools, say, to build a casino or a school. If the casinos got build first because of the financial potential,  that doesn't mean that I don't use building materials now to build the schools. Personal profile (portfolio!) pages, discussion forums, video and photo repositories, messaging, and other social networking functions can all bring real pedagogical value if we can get past our knee-jerknegative reactions to social networking.

Second:  we won't be able to implement Web 2.0 expansively without ubiquitous computing, and so its use and adoption in schools will not be even or equal.  This is a real issue, without easy answers, especially with the added challenge of having more and more personal phones and devices require networks which can accomodate them all.

Third:  Teachers will need time and training to learn to use these tools in the classroom, and we're notoriously bad at spending time or money on this.  Even if most of us were all to agree that Web 2.0 is the dramatic revolution that I'm making it out to be, there are still incredibly challenging demands on teachers' time that will make it hard for them to learn about these things.  And because we're not likely to agree across the board on how important Web 2.0 is in education, adoption by teachers will also not be even or equal.  Nor would we want it to be--sweeping educational practices need to be challenged and to survive those challenges in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Fourth:  the legal liabilities that schools face because of concerns about a) student exposure to inappropriate material and b) exposure of students to potential predators will not be easy to overcome.

Fifth:  information revolutions don't come with a manual, and we surely can't foresee many or most of the implications of what's taking place and how to integrate it into education.  It will take time to build new "playbooks."

But even with that daunting list, I remain an optimist.  The historic changes in information are going to drive historic changes in teaching and learning, and therefore in the institutions dedicated to education.  We're long overdue for a really good discussion about the purpose of schools, and I believe that Web 2.0 will give us that opportunity.  I believe that the long-term outcome will be a system of learning that is much more productive for our youth, and for their teachers, than currently exists.

(Again, please consider posting any comments at the Britannica Blog Forum.)
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