The Disruption Aspects of Web 2.0: Implications for Education

While every age has its pleasures and its vices, its perks and its drawbacks, the current one rocks the world like few before it. (I’d like to say any, but I’m cognizant of making statements that I might later regret.) The advent of the Internet and especially Web 2.0 has ripped a titanic-sized hole into the fabric of our hierarchical society, long guarded by gatekeepers: from the educator to the cartographer, the librarian to the shopkeeper, the Internet has radically changed the way we interact, access information, and enter into the creation of content.

This kind of cultural shift is reminiscent of the one that churned British society when Queen Elizabeth I not only ascended the throne but refused to take on a reigning husband. While the hierarchy of monarchy and of the Church remained intact, a woman on the throne, answerable to no man, pushed the very limits of acceptability. While Western culture of the 21st Century considers itself democratic, open, and free, perhaps even beyond the need for this type of disruption, even brief consideration begs the question. There’s always the issue of degree and perspective, isn’t there?

Web 2.0 not only allows users to participate in the broader community but to collaborate, create content, download and mash-up others’ content, and collectively build knowledge. In fact, Web 2.0 creates a space in which the “users are as important as the content they upload and share with others” (Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes, 2009). This means that anyone, expert or amateur, who connects from anywhere, from the towers of Ivy League to the garage of an oil-stained mechanic, can add to the collective knowledge even as they download and self-educate. This new world can seem chaotic, since there are few formal structures guiding the process, but it has allowed for an interesting phenomenon: producers and consumers are no longer easily distinguishable and “information is constantly created and cross-referenced, and flows in all directions” (Goodchild, 2007).

This seems to be a frightening notion to those who follow in the long tradition of gatekeepers and those who deeply believe in the limited access to sacred knowledge. After all, the peons and plebeians are hardly educated, scholarly, reflective, or cognitively developed enough to 1) understand the complexities of the issues they examine; 2) grasp the nuanced responsibilities and risks that accompany such knowledge; 3) or utilize said strategies or knowings in appropriate ways. These attitudes are reflected in descriptions of the new communities developing around fields formerly guarded by such gatekeepers. For example, within the Geography and Cartography branches of science, there is a distinction extended to the Neogeographers who fall into the category of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), and while these neogeographers add much to the current mapping knowledge, they are still referred to as amateurs, non-expert, and non-formal. In fact, as Fischer (2010) cites Goodchild (2008) as he notes that, “Neogeography is considered to fall ‘far short of replacing the activities of professional geographers’” and neogeographers fail to “extract scientific knowledge and theories from geographic information” (pg. 2-3). These distinctions speak to the cultural underpinnings of expertise, the privileging of certain types of knowledge, and the desire to protect what has long been a hierarchical and closely guarded field.

I’m cautiously optimistic, then, because this dissonance, this disruption, these rumblings – this is the initial predictor of coming upheaval. And while I deeply hope this educational revolution is peaceful and contemplative, considered and purposeful, it will not be successful if we do not find ways to embrace the amateur-expert, find order in the chaos, and honor the contributions of those less formally educated (but who have self-educated via the affordances of Web 2.0) – those who do not “look like” the educators – or the students – of old.

Fischer F. (2009): Learning in Geocommunities. An explorative view on geo-social network communities. In: Thomas Jekel, Alfons Koller und Karl Donert (2009): Learning with Geoinformation IV – Lernen mit Geoinformation IV. Heidelberg. Wichmann.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia for Elizabeth I. The “Rainbow Portrait”, c. 1600, an allegorical representation of the Queen, become ageless in her old age

Teens, Identity, and Personal Websites

I remember reading (far too long ago to cite) that one’s taste buds are too sensitive, too pure, too undamaged upon birth: to eat is a frightening experience, exploding with intense flavors far too complex for our infant tongues. It’s only with the accumulation of too-hot coffee and frigid popsicles and years of abuse that they dull to the point we can deeply and fully find pleasure in savoring the texture, the complexity, the bursts of flavors.

This is adolescence in a nutshell, I think. The intensity, the isolation, the incredible sense of longing to be both child and adult, independent and cradled. I could go on and go. But of interest in this post is the desire of teenagers to seek out an audience online, to create their own webpages, to post personal information for the entire world to see.

Granted, adolescence is a time of sorting out who we are, figuring out what we believe, measuring ourselves in the mirror, alongside our peers, in contrast to our heroines. And yet, while there’s this internal focus (some might say narcissistic flavor) to personal websites, which is evidenced in the desire to self-reflect, release pent-up feelings, and witness personal growth, there’s also an external focus of hoping for public viewers (i.e. counters), commenters who resonate with what’s being written, and social validation.  Interestingly, there also seems to be a sense of obligation that goes along with owning a personal site. This, too, points to the external focus of a very personalized and personal site. (Stern, 2008)

I also find it greatly interesting that the idea of privacy is shifting (Stern, 2008). According to this research, people of the Pre-Internet days view privacy as having information closed to strangers/the public but open to only close friends and family members. Conversely, those of the digital age consider something private only if their friends/family don’t know — even if complete strangers know.

Given the findings of this article, it seems reasonable to consider our purpose as educators: while we most definitely must harness this desire to write, create content, and reflect, I don’t think teachers are the intended audience for teen web pages. And since web pages are, for the most part, anonymous, they are ultimately, a “safe” (enough) space for teens to sort out the messiness of self-presentation, identity, teen rebellion, and figuring out who they are and what they believe. In my humble opinion, it’s much better to sort it out online, try things on for size if you will, than to be out doing it all in rl. I definitely think that students need to be taught about appropriate web presentation of self for professional purposes — but it’s the same way that we teach them about appropriate clothing for school wear vs beach wear. Or, maybe, I’m dreaming 🙂

Thus, it seems that the role of educators is to craft purposeful technology-integrated assignments that help teens to negotiate adolescence in a more thoughtful, reflective way. Identity formation, self-presentation, and mastery motivation figure heavily into reasons why adolescents choose to create personal websites (Schmitt, Dayanim, & Matthias, 2008). These sites are a place for teens to experiment with identity and consider ways in which they wish to represent themselves publicly (Stern, 2008). While this is a valuable and important process, asking students to do this in an education setting (where some topics or ideas or representations of self are unacceptable) immediately robs it of its authenticity. Therefore, helping students realize that one’s identity can be more of a patchwork or pastiche, where one can create independent sub-identities, than a static entity (Doring, 2002) could be a powerful way to help them manage their journey through self-identity exploration.

Thus, the assignment would have to be educationally authentic with specific, pedagogical reasons for updating over a period of time. One of the pages could be an “About the Author” page, where the student would be responsible for presenting a socially/educationally acceptable version of self. It would need to be publicly viewable and there would need to be a place for commenting, so that students would have meaningful feedback from any public person interested in their selected topic. As the semester progressed and as the student learned more about his/her chosen topic, the student would continue to add content to the website. An integral part of this process is reflecting on journey itself. These could be included in a separate blog page. By the end of the semester, the student would (hopefully) have a complete product, complete with outsider feedback. At this point, the teacher could facilitate an in-depth self-reflection where the student contemplated his/her growth, how he/she learns, and where the journey took him/her.

All of this, however, takes openness, trust, community, and lots and lots of commitment. Are we up for it?

Döring, N. (2002). Personal home pages on the web: A review of research. Journal of
Computer Mediated Communication, 7(3). Available at:
http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol7/issue3/doering.html

Schmitt, K. L., Dayanim, S., & Matthias, S. (2008). Personal homepage construction as an expression of social development. Developmental Psychology, 44(2), 496-506. Schmitt_PersonalHomePage_DevPsych_2008.pdf

Stern, Susannah. (2008). Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship.” Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Edited by David Buckingham. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 95–118. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262524834.095 Stern_WebPages-Identity_2007.pdf

Photo Credit: sciencephoto.com

Evolve or Die: Using Your Cognitive Surplus

I won’t put the words into Prensky’s mouth, but I’ll let Bennett, Maton, and Kervin (2008) make the case: They write that Prensky (2001) and Taspcott (1998) argue that our newer generations are technologically advanced by merit of birth year and that this full-body dip into new technologies evolves them into new learners with new learning styles. They counter that learning style theories “acknowledge significant variability between individuals” and that generalizing to an entire generation is problematic.

Bennett et al. (2008) also make a convincing argument that the digital native vs digital immigrant rhetoric has degenerated into hyperbole and ‘moral panic’, and that more reasoned and logical empirical studies are needed.

But this assertion (and others) does not tease out the deeply troubling questions, in my mind. While it is true that we are in an educational crisis and that we are facing multiple challenges as a global society and that the old didactic methods of teaching are “ill-suited to the intellectual, social, motivational, and emotional needs of the new generation” (Tapscott, 1998, quoted in Bennett et al., 2008), it does not follow that these are the result of the present generation’s birth dates or their long-lauded ability to multi-task or their magical acquisition of technological prowess.

It simply means that we have, in Shirky’s terms (2008), a cognitive surplus, and because of the affordances of social media, the Internet, and digital tools, we now have an outlet for our desire to create and share.

Yes, of course, students are “disappointed, dissatisfied, and disengaged” (p. 780). Yes, our educational institutions, on all levels, are “outdated and irrelevant” (p. 780). Yes, there is an “urgent need to change what is taught and how” (p. 780). But, the claim that “education must fundamentally change to accommodate digital natives’ interests, talents, and preferences” (p. 780) is inherently flawed. Technology has the potential to streamline, to create efficiency, to shear dead weight, to allow people to communicate, collaborate, and create more effectively. Our educational crisis is not burgeoning because we don’t entertain our students – it is happening because we insist on embracing the status quo, on teaching students how to write with the chisel and hammer, on blocking social media sites instead of teaching students media literacy and critical thinking skills.

We balance precariously on the cusp of leveraging our cognitive surplus (Shirky, 2008) for good – for consuming, producing, and sharing – or of slipping back into the days of old where we sit in the dregs of our collective bender and simply consume old re-runs of Gilligan’s Island or Desperate Housewives or something as similarly mind-numbing. If we refuse to examine what is possible with digital media, if we refuse to revolutionize our classrooms, if we insist that digital natives came into this world already “knowing how” or that teens are teens and no one needs to be taught any differently, we just might miss the opportunity to be a part of the generation who actively participated.

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The digital natives debate: A critical review ofthe evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786. Bennett_DigNativesDebate_2008.pdf

Lenhart, A. & Madden, M. (2005). Teen content creators and consumers. Washington DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved June 2, 2012 from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2005/Teen-Content-Creators-and-Consumers.aspx

Thoughts on the Digital Divide Debate

Without deep and considered study of the real problem(s) at the root of the “digital divide”, some have been quick to point to computer and Internet access as the panacea for closing the gaps for a great many things, from graduation rates to income levels. While having access to better “tools” is, for obvious reasons, important, introducing a tool without investment in professional development for teachers, full-time technical support staff, and robust digital networks for all stakeholders will lead to little gain in graduation rates (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010). In fact, without this concrete teaching, modeling, scaffolding, and preparation by teachers and the schooling system, these articles indicate that lower-SES children will use new media to copy and paste text and pictures, (p. 194) while their teachers tend to use computers for skill and drill programs (p. 204). Ultimately, it’s how you use the computer – not whether or not you have a computer. Warschauer & Matuchniak (2010) report that those “low-SES students who had home computers received much less benefit from them in raising their test scores than did high-SES students who had home computers (203). The line of separation seems to occur between those who use who access new media for consumption purposes versus those who leverage new media for creation purposes.

Schools who are interested in meeting the demands of the 21st century, keeping students engaged and invested in their own education, and leveraging the possibilities of the new media practices of interaction and social communication (Ito et al. 2010) must focus on higher order thinking skills, “critical thinking and in-depth learning” (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 200). Especially pertinent to the educator’s world are the three genres of media engagement: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. By focusing education resources on providing media-rich learning environments, high quality professional development for teachers, and assessment (Partnership for 21st century learning, 2009) that “more accurately measure the kind of skills needed for the 21st century” (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 217), we will have the necessary support systems for creating more personalized education experiences for our students, ones that are more closely aligned with topics that they can “geek out” about. By working to ensure that every school-based project embraces critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication (Partnership for 21st century learning, 2009), we will do more to close the achievement gap than through making sure every student has a hammer or a T.V. or a computer in his or her house. A tool is just a tool. Providing direct instruction and innovative learning experiences that prompt deep learning and critical thinking is the key to opening doors to bright futures.

I’ve found it troubling for some time, now, that so many advocate the usage of new tools. Dropping a new tool into a classroom without training or professional development is the equivalent of expecting the advent of television to stamp out geographic illiteracy. We might watch Animal Planet or National Geographic and find ourselves entertained, but we can no more place Ghana on the map than we can Wales. Particularly intriguing, then, was the practice of a Maine middle school that taught “sophisticated information literacy practices” to the students an entire year before they received their laptops. Once they receive their laptops, they utilize those skills by engaging in “challenging interdisciplinary research projects” (Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010, p. 208). This is an example of the purposeful, thoughtful introduction of one-to-one computing devices that served an educational purpose of creating 21st century learners – not the political purpose of putting a one-to-one computing device into the hands of every middle school child in order to be elected again in November.

As Idaho moves towards one-to-one computing devices for all high school students, I find myself at turns tentatively excited and sick at heart. For this to work, an incredibly purposeful and thoughtfully constructed infrastructure is vital, deep and protracted preparation is essential for all levels (network administrators, district and school leadership, teachers, and, especially, students), and a spirit of trust and openness must be cultivated. But even if the leadership doesn’t come from the State Department of Education, let’s hope the teachers in the trenches can make something positive happen.

Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Herr-Stephenson, B., & Lange, P. G. (2008). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the digital youth project. Retrieved December 22, 2008, from http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/files/report/digitalyouth-WhitePaper.pdf

If you are interested, you can find and read the full report here: http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/report

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved August 15, 2010, from http://www.p21.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=119

Warschauer, M., & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of equity in access, use, and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 34, 179-225.

Integrating Social Media and Mitigating Possible Risks:

The Edutopia & Internet Safety Technical Task Force both created documents to help guide policy makers in the area of Internet Safety. They both point to the importance of the culture of the school, district, and patrons, and community. By including all stake-holders, reviewing current social media practices of teachers, administrators, students, and patrons, examining the purposes of integrating social media into the classroom, and aligning those purposes with current district policies, the team will have a thorough foundation of knowledge and understanding for examining the current policies in other districts. Because (ISTTF) findings reveal that most online danger stems from the risky behavior of students themselves, education is vital. Technology can help mitigate the risk, but ultimately it comes down to educators & education, parental involvement, law enforcement, social services, and the policies of social media sites themselves.

The National Education Technology Plan (2010) or NET-P, on the other hand, points to the reality that much of the world is learning beyond the walls of the traditional education system. Teaching, then, is not about regurgitating a set of notes but rather leveraging what we know about “the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners” (vi). This is a significant shift in the definition of education and the purpose of a teacher. Teaching becomes more about facilitating learning experiences, providing scaffolded opportunity and access to appropriate information and tools, and drawing on vast life-wide learning exposure in order to tailor and personalize learning for every student. Thus formative and summative assessments become ever more important, as does a teacher’s ability to network with other educators, professionals, and experts. By leveraging the synergistic impact of learning communities, knowledge building tools, information and communication tools, expertise and authoritative sources, and social networks, the NET-P puts the student at the center but incorporates the knowledge and skill base of teachers, mentors, parents, and coaches (11). Because we live in a rapidly changing world where “facts” and “knowledge” are ever-evolving and changing, our students need “adaptive learning skills that blend content knowledge with the skills to learn new things” (13).

Ultimately, the NET-P emphasizes the necessity of a revolutionary shift in education, highlighting 21st Century Skills, the Common Core State Standards, UDL, social and participatory collaborative learning, and on-demand, informal learning environments. To accomplish this, tapping the collective intelligence so readily available via the Internet is fundamental and crucial to success.

Thus, and it might just be me, the Internet safety pieces provide a backdrop, safety net, set of adoptable plans for the naysayers, the pessimists, the resisters, the ones who believe the sky really is falling. While the NET-P is calling for a revolution, these pieces harken to the belief that the education system is naturally evolving and that through this adaptation (of district policies, firewalls, netblockers), we’ll survive. The question, of course, is whether or not the current traditional education system is worthy of survival. Regardless, understanding and embracing Internet & Social Media Safety may help ease the transition, allowing those of us in the K-12 classroom access to the amazing collaboration and learning that is already happening beyond our brick & mortar walls.

There are many brilliant solutions in existence that I will not repeat here. Instead, I consider three concrete steps education leaders can take.

Recommendation 1: Educate students and faculty on Internet Safety, Behavior Expectations, and Possibilities. Instead of asking students to wait for a crossing guard, teach them to look both ways before crossing a street.

Recommendation 2: Involve parents, patrons, media, and community members in social media projects; their collaboration serves as expertise, community resources, etc. We fear what we do not understand – and we hate what we fear.

Recommendation 3: Publicly highlight stellar projects and emphasize need (to teachers) for social media projects that integrate critical thinking, collaboration, equitable access to resources, multiple opportunities for student choice, and data-driven assessment. Praise what you want to see more of.

U.S. DOE (2010, March 5) Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology. National
Edutopia in collaboration with Facebook (2012, May). How to Create Social Media Guidelines for your School.
Internet Safety Technical Task Force. (2009). Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies. Berkman
Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/pubrelease/isttf/

The Affordances of Social Media

Social media embraces and facilitates the ability of the individual to participate in a vast array of online communities for reasons both professional and personal, to form (multiple) identities, and to immediately access, inform, influence, and/or create knowledge. Ultimately, then, Web 2.0 can be likened to a mash-up: it combines the historical and the emergent (Alexander 2006), utilizing the existing knowledge, content, or product to serve as fodder for the newly emerging innovation. This power of the individual is augmented by the real time coding, writing, tagging, reviewing, linking, Digging, and commenting that any entity with access to the Internet may partake in – yet it is mitigated by the infinite number of other users adding to the collective wisdom. Thus, social media leverages the power, knowledge, and wisdom of the users; gives the power to the people; and trusts the collective wisdom (O’Reilly 2005). In most cases, the intelligence of the whole will minimize the absurdity of the one (or, simply make a meme out of it, thereby increasing its power but emphasizing its foolishness, for which YouTube will reward not the originator but the mash-up creator with monetary incentives). However, since “knowledge is decentralized, accessible, and co-constructed by and among a broad base of users” (Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009, 247), validity is typically established through the peer review process, whether that takes place on Amazon or through the comments on a “mainstream media” online news site. While not a learning theory per se, social networking theory, grounded in the notion that social relationships are made of actors (nodes) and the ties that bind them are the relationships they forge, fits neatly into an online forum such as Web 2.0. The more connections an actor makes, the more others make with him/her, the more powerful he/she becomes within a given social network. Social interaction within social media (and the number of hits, Diggs, links, etc) increases the net worth of an actor and increases the likelihood of social influence within that sphere.

Social media not only folds individual user contributions into the larger whole (by making inclusive defaults for user-added value) but also makes continual improvement, encourages constant re-use of content (reduce, reuse, recycle?), and often chooses not to be propriety over that content (“some rights reserved”) but rather protects unique data sets (O’Reilly 2005). The collaborative nature of social media (combined with the historical culture of anonymity on the Internet) has led to online identity formation along a broad continuum, from the mostly-aligned-with-real life (rl) identities of professionals to those bordering on rather mythic proportions of gamers. Regardless, social media combines space, opportunity, and a low entry bar (Alexander 2006) where people come together to participate, collaborate, learn, and create together (Greenhow et al, 2009). Understanding how Communities of Practice, which involve a domain, community, and practice, work and are played out within the realm of social media also provides additional light. Multiple times in a given second, spread out across the Interverse, are groups of like-minded people coming together synchronously and asynchronously to problem-solve, ask for help, seek experience, and map out existing knowledge and identify gaps of knowledge about the topic they passionately care about. An intriguing addition to the learning theory set is the concept of neuroeducation or the ways in which the brain makes connections biologically as new information is processed. While I admittedly don’t know a great deal about this theory, I can’t help but think how our brains may be evolving to cope with the different style of learning / creating that Web 2.0 affords us.

Within my own teaching, I use a closed wiki (www.pbworks.com) for students to document character traits or change, thematic golden threads (e.g. free will vs fate), or examples of specific literary devices (e.g. foreshadowing) within a given text. Although I have them set up in groups of 3 or 4, each group becoming “experts” in a specific topic, all students have permission to make changes to or add to another group’s knowledge base. Each group is required to provide a definition of their chosen topic (which includes a synthesis of several sources), to record the evidence from the text (direct quote), and to prepare commentary that explains, elaborates, or enhances the textual evidence. I like pbworks specifically because it allows me to easily provide each student with a user name and password (without student email addresses), and it immediately emails me the changes that a given student makes, easing the mess of accountability. It makes visible (and keeps visible) the thinking and discussion that students have over time, facilitating organization, collaboration, and participation that can’t always happen within 54 minutes of class time.

 O’Reilly, T. (2005, September 30). What Is Web 2.0. O’Reilly. Available at: http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a
Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0 A new wave of innovation for teaching & learning? EDUCAUSE Review 41(2),
Greenhow, C., Robelia, E., & Hughes, J. (2009). Web 2.0 and classroom research: What path should we take
now? Educational Researcher, 38 (4), 246-259.