The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 3: Web 2.0 in Education

One of the most interesting and telling statements in the article, ‘Web 2.0 A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning?’ comes when author Bryan Alexander is discussing the wiki.  After describing how the wiki works he says, “They originally hit the Web in the late 1990s (another sign that Web 2.0 is emergent and historical)”. (Alexander, 2006)  To refer to something from the late 1990s as ‘historical’ shows how rapidly web 2.0 is developing and changing.  But this rapid development, the thing that makes web 2.0 so interesting and exciting may also be the biggest problem this emergent technology faces.  Anderson’s article is specifically intended to discuss the use of Web 2.0 in education, yet Web 2.0 has developed so fast that it has gone beyond the comfort level of many educators.  Even teachers who are at ease with the technology are leery of much Web 2.0 content, believing that the openness of Web 2.0, one of its key features, makes it rife with faulty information.  Much about Web 2.0 can be discussed and described, with the caveat, ‘on the one hand…but on the other hand…’  Even Anderson, whose intent is to showcase the positive aspects of Web 2.0 appears somewhat cautious of making a categorically positive  statement and has included a question mark in his title, inviting the reader to decide on the verisimilitude of the title statement.  This commentary will look at the Anderson article from the point of view of an educator with limited experience and knowledge of Web 2.0 and point out where some of the problems lie that will prevent this technology from gaining complete acceptance in an education setting.

As any new technology does, Web 2.0 has developed a user language; phrases, terms and even acronyms that are understood by developers and frequent users but can be problematic for the uninitiated.  The article was originally published by Educause, which bills itself as, ‘a non-profit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of Information Technology’.  With this mission statement one can assume that the article was intended for educators, not Information Technology specialists. Yet within the article, Alexander writes in a way that many educators may find confusing. Anderson points out that even the term ‘social bookmarking’ could be confusing to some users yet then goes on in the article to use such phrases as, “Ajax- style pages”, (Alexander, 2006) or, “Web 2.0 can break on silos but thrive in shared services”. (Alexander, 2006)  One of the most effective ways of separating something from acceptance by the general public is to use a specialized language.

Since the article is about the educational use of Web 2.0 Anderson discusses how the open structure of social bookmarking sites can be used with respect to research.  He envisions the collaborative sharing of research between students and instructors and gives examples of how this could be achieved using Web 2.0 based sites where the open structure allows people to not only read but to change and contribute to a site.  As intriguing as this is there are two problems with this notion, both of them related to the open structure of Web 2.0.  The problems are the quality of the information that is being shared and the quantity of information available.  Of the two, quality is by far the most serious for the student.  In the article Alexander talks about one of the best known user controlled sites, Wikipedia, an open structured site which “allows users to edit each encyclopaedia entry”. (Alexander, 2006)  Unfortunately the very openness of a site like Wikipedia and others like it can make the site unreliable.  Wikipedia and other open sites allow anyone to add or say anything they want.  Its hoped that the nature of these sites, which allows readers not only to contribute but to edit material, will naturally weed out information that is suspect or even wrong, but this is not always the case and many teachers now specifically advise  students not to use material that has been found on Wikipedia.

Blogs are another aspect of Web 2.0 that Anderson discusses in terms of their pedagogical possibilities.  He describes how, “Students can search the blogosphere for political commentary, current cultural items, public development s in science, business news, and so on.” (Alexander, 2006)  While this is true and blogs can allow students and researchers to find and share the most current material in their field, the popularity of blogs has made this a challenge.  A recent Google Blog search with the terms, ‘Digital Literacy’ returned over 350,000 hits, and one with the very general term, ‘Web 2.0’ returned over 49 million, which leaves one wondering, is this really useful? How many of these will a researcher actually look at and how much time must be invested to do so.  Realizing this problem Anderson then goes on to discuss services that can be used to filter search results, which rather than simplifying the process only made the process seem, at least for this reader,  even more complicated.

If Web 2.0 is to become ‘a new wave of innovation for teaching and learning’ its first hurdle will be educators.  The problems outlined above will have to be considered and there may have to be a change in direction in how Web 2.0 is presented.  Web 2.0 is relatively new, despite Anderson’s ‘historical’ comment and needs an introduction.  Educators don’t want to be overwhelmed by the possibilities or fantasies about what could be, or have to deal with a steep learning curve, they want to understand the basic concepts and to know how they can start using it now.  The article would have served educators better if Anderson had shown how a Wiki or a blog could be used on a small scale, e.g., show how a Wiki could be used by a group of students to collect material for a project.  Once educators had some experience and improved their comfort level they could move beyond the classroom and use the technology to its fullest potential.

Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0 A New Wave of Innovation for Teaching and Learning? Educause , 33-44.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 3:12 pm }

I agree that it is important to train teachers before they implement changes.

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