Commentary #3: A Response to Bryan Alexander’s “Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning?”

What exactly is ‘web 2.0’? Bryan Alexander’s discussion on the emergence of social media begins with a discussion around the attempt to define this term that has been pervasively used when discussing recent online developments. The author acknowledges rightly that there hasn’t been clear consensus even on what web 2.0 exactly means, as it is applied to a field that has been changing and evolving at such an incredibly rapid rate. While this rapid change has made this field difficult to assess and critically examine, Alexander’s article serves to instead provide practical examples of how some of these emerging tools are being employed in classroom environments. This field is so large, and varies to such a great degree between specific school environments that it can be difficult to effectively address, and Alexander’s article does not always sufficiently meet these challenges. Further, an article about social media that is almost five years old can quickly show its age when it focuses on specific tools and applications. Despite these concerns, Alexander’s article is useful when discussing pedagogical concerns, although it does help to frame these discussions in the theoretical rather than focusing on the specific tools mentioned.

Alexander’s discussion covers the bases by beginning with an overview of the history and evolving nature of web 2.0 and social media. His paper primarily focuses on examples of modern social media, but this historical overview does serve as useful background and helps the reader to understand why these developments have been important to education. One might take issue though with his assertion that “…social software does not indicate a sharp break with the old but, rather, the gradual emergence of a new type of practice” (Alexander, 2006, p.33). By making this statement, Alexander is implying that we have been engaged with some form of social media for an extended period of time, but this is simply not true. What he misses in his argument is the incredibly rapid spread of this new type of internet connectivity, and how this wide-spread adoption has changed both education as well as the typical learner profile. While there certainly still exists a digital divide, particularly between developed and lesser developed nations, the level of engagement with social media today is on a completely different scale than the level of engagement with older technologies that Alexander mentions, such as listservs. Social media has emerged from being a niche form of communication, to something that is now all pervasive, particularly amongst youth; hence its incredible importance in the modern classroom.

Throughout the article, Alexander creates a laundry list of social media applications, which, while providing useful examples for his discussion points, is perhaps not entirely useful due to the already mentioned evolutionary process of these sorts of sites. What saves Alexander’s article though is his reference back to implications for pedagogy. The specific tools employed may change and evolve, but the overall pedagogical strategies and specific examples of how these tools may be employed are what makes Alexander’s article a useful read.

One large stumbling point in any such discussions around using emerging social media tools in the classroom is the issue of universal access. Particularly in public schools, technological resources can often be scarce, and it cannot be assumed that teachers will have regular access to computers. Further, these tools need to come with adequate training and support, areas that often are forgotten by school boards rushing to spend grant money on hardware. Alexander’s article makes no mention of these realities, and it does make one wonder if those in research bodies such as his appreciate the plight of classroom teachers grappling with learning new technologies, scrounging to book common computer labs, and dealing with machines that have no dedicated on-site technological support. Until these sorts of issues are resolved, any discussion around which tools can be used in which way are largely irrelevant.

All discussions around social media are difficult to frame, as it is a landscape that is constantly changing. Still, one needs to acknowledge how these changes have impacted upon learners, rather than focusing largely on specific tools. Many of today’s learners do not find novelty in web 2.0 applications, as they have grow up with these technologies. Further, any practical discussion around web 2.0 and social networking also needs to address the elephant in the room, that being the issue of providing effective access to hardware and training and support in using these devices. Until it is made a priority, schools are limited in the funding that they can allocate to technology, and this will often mean that even the best intentions will not translate into practical classroom applications.

References
Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning? EDUCAUSE, March/April 2006, 33-44. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0621.pdf

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