The Future of Web 2.0

An interview with WSU's Gary Brown

As director of Washington State University's Center forTeaching, Learning, and Technology, Gary Brown has stewarded theacceptance and growth of online learning, forged faculty developmentprograms for early adopters and laggards alike, and struggled with theissues of assessment and accountability. But Brown sees morecomprehensive changes ahead, especially as Web 2.0 technologies becomewidespread.

We're already well down the path to what somecall a 'Web 2.0 world.' Is Web 2.0 having a transformative impact onhigher education? We actually need to begin thinking aboutmoving to the next generation of online learning in a Web 2.0 orLearning 2.0 world, in which a variety of tributaries are starting tocome together: demographics, technology, accountability, and thegeneral direction of education. But so far, instead of transforming thetraditional classroom with online learning, we've merely transposed itto what is now the traditional course management system [CMS] orcollaboration and learning environment [CLE].

Right now, we'veonly swapped the little red schoolhouses for the little online boxes wecall course management systems. Students enroll, read postedinformation, and maybe listen to podcasts. A few of the moresophisticated students have some kind of electronic discussion withother students in the class, but the instructor is still at the centerof the classroom. That model, pedagogically as well as for all kinds ofpractical purposes, is starting to lose its effectiveness.

Are changing student demographics contributing to a need to alter the model? Whenthat model arose, we had a smaller percentage of the population inhigher education, and people were committed to that kind of anapproach. Now, a postsecondary education is increasingly perceived as anecessity for success in the world, and we've recognized generally thatwe need to have a college-educated population. Our workforce demandsit.

Yet, full-time undergraduates are no longer the dominantpopulation. Fifty percent of our college population goes to communitycolleges and must work, and continue to work. That population will beincreasing. And about 50 percent of the college population is"swirling" now; students are taking courses from multiple colleges anduniversities-from at least two institutions, and sometimes more. Whatdoes that mean for the curricular coherence of programs built uponthose little online boxes?

Then let's talk about how technology may or may not help: Can ePortfolios, for instance, handle the 'swirling' phenomenon? Highered professionals are beginning to recognize that ePortfolios may bemore effective than standardized tests when it comes to documentingstudent learning. The Association of American Colleges and Universitieshas released a survey that brings that point home. Employers, too, aretelling us, "We don't care about test scores. What we want is evidencethat students have been involved in internships and service learningprograms, and that they've done project work and have developed team,collaboration, communication, and leadership skills."

WhileePortfolios are coming to the forefront as better than traditionaltests for student documentation of learning, we know they are limitedat this point because they still are institution-specific. Plus, asTrent Batson has noted [see "The ePortfolio Hijacked"],they tend to be implemented as institutional or program assessmentmanagement systems. In that vein, students typically are submittingtheir assignments over the course of the curriculum, just as they wouldsubmit their assignments in a physical drop box. A realstudent-centered model would put the authority, or ownership, of thatePortfolio in the hands of the students: They could share evidence oftheir learning for review with peers, and offer that evidence toinstructors for grading and credentialing. But even then, if they tryto do this with multiple institutions, they probably won't be able tomeet all the different requirements of those various institutions,because they'll still be working with a single institutionally ownedand supported ePortfolio, designed just for that institution.

So, can Web 2.0 help get us around the present limitations of ePortfolios? Web2.0 provides an opportunity for students to mash up a variety ofapplications, the results of which they own themselves and can makeavailable to anyone. To that end, we should start thinking not so muchin terms of an ePortfolio but, instead, in terms of a personal learningenvironment (PLE).

And what we're trying to do here at WSU isbring outside employers into the process. Then we can have thoseemployers validate that what we're doing aligns with what they find tobe valuable. At the same time, we have the opportunity to demonstrateto employers who work with us the complexity of the work we do.

And what are some of the technologies that you're using now or might be using in the future with PLEs? Google Groups, Picasa,various types of social software; there are many examples. In general,it's all stuff that's out there in the world -- worldware -- and thoughnobody has said that these tools are designed specifically for theacademy, there's no reason that, using these technologies, studentscan't share their work with their instructors.

Right now at WSU, one of the things we're developing in collaboration with Microsoftis a "harvesting" gradebook. So as an instructor in an environment likethis, my gradebook for you as a student has links to all the differentthings that are required of you in order for me to credit you forcompleting the work in my class. But you may have worked up one of theassignments in Flickr, another in Google Groups, another in Picasa, and another in a wiki. Maybe you've also made some significant contributions to Wikipedia.So, I need a gradebook where I have the link you've provided me, ratherthan a copy of the work, and the gradebook should be capable of pullingin all of these various sources.

"Web2.0 provides an opportunity for students to mash up a variety ofapplications, the results of which they own themselves and can makeavailable to anyone. To that end, we should start thinking in terms ofa personal learning environment."

Then too, there arerepositories with hundreds of applications, some more stable thanothers, which can work in this type of environment. The app that we'reinvesting in here at WSU -- at least in terms of our time and energy, plussome licensing costs -- is Microsoft SharePoint. It's an example of thetype of worldware that students are likely to encounter in the "realworld." Will they encounter Blackboard, or specific drill-and-practice software? Probably not, but they will encounter a spreadsheet -- that's worldware, too, whether it's shareware or available from a vendor, as Excel is.

Someinstructors are offering students a wide range of options in terms ofwhich software tools they can choose to do their work. They may askstudents to explain how they made their technology choices, or howtheir chosen technologies solved their problems and helped expand theirnotions of what technology could do. So, worldware is in itself alearning opportunity as we learn to use common applications and exploreand repurpose other existing applications.

You say thereare hundreds of worldware applications. How can you sustain stableprograms with all of that? Is worldware just going to work itself out,somewhat like common office applications and e-mail have? It'sgoing to be chaos. The only thing that is going to be consistent ischange in and explosion of all these different technologies. But youask if they will work themselves out, and the answer is yes. Still,each generation comes along with new expectations. Who could haveguessed that text messaging would become so important? We've got toanticipate that these technologies will continue to evolve and changeand explode. We're going to have to get used to the idea that we justhave to accommodate that. And that's why I believe the killerapplication is going to be a "harvesting" gradebook.

How could the added dimension of working with employers scale across many different types of programs or disciplines? Careerservices organizations do a lot of this, and our business faculty alsotend to have related projects through their professional and personalconnections such as alumni. I believe we'll see alumni getting moreinvolved, and career services units getting bigger. I also hope andexpect to see increasing growth in community service learning-one ofthe hottest things happening in education right now. So, buildingoutside relationships doesn't have to mean just working with employers,per se. For example, you could include real projects in the community,which is something the community and employers increasingly appreciate.

Thesetypes of programs will be incorporating all kinds of permutations, tosome extent based on the disciplines. An issue will be finding facultywith the imagination to integrate these options into their teaching andlearning, and an even more difficult issue will be credentialing thatkind of work. What's more, if students can demonstrate work they'vedone at different institutions -- even if they haven't received degrees -- atwhat point will we find that employers don't really care about thedegrees?

Employers then will be looking simply at whether theindividual can do the work. A large part of what has gone on in thepast is that a college degree has meant that a person can persist andpersevere. Yet, about 70 percent of students do not secure jobsdirectly aligned with their majors. So there's an interesting set ofissues that will affect the value of a degree. And as the secret getsout of the bag that job seekers don't need a degree as much as theyneed to demonstrate the work they are capable of doing, we'll seedifferent kinds of models popping up.

Butcertainly this is not simply about commerce; about companies harvestinga new crop of employees. Or are you saying that this is what the notionof PLEs will lead us to? No, it's not just about commerce. Butthere is some irony in this, too, because employers are telling us thatwhat they want is active, hands-on, authentic learning pedagogies thatactually are more aligned with what we know about learning and goodpractice than much of what happens in our educational institutionscurrently upholding ivory tower values. There's often better pedagogyimplicit in career training than there is in the pure academic world.So, you may ask, are we talking about subordinating ourselves to careertraining to a certain extent? The answer is, if we are, what's theproblem with that?

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