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Why is Web 2.0 Important to Higher Education?

I heard someone say (parenthetically) "I hate that term," meaning Web 2.0. Understandably, it's easy to confuse "Web2.0" with all the other fads and hype that information technology advocates and entrepreneurs have spewed over the past 25 years. But even the jaded must recognize that Web 2.0 is like "Pearl Harbor" or "D-Day," or "9/11," or "The Sixties." Web 2.0, defined now in dozens of ways--data existing in one place and functionality in another, or "the social Web," or AJAX, and so on, will be remembered as a cultural moment, a turning point, and the moment when our world changed. Nowhere else outside of higher education will the impact of this Web 2.0 moment be felt more poignantly.

No, it really is not just the technology. Tim Berners-Lee says the technology was always there. What changed was that Web sites became easy enough to use and sufficiently served some new purpose so the mainstream population became avid users. No longer the exclusive domain of the geek or the brave, the Web is now a gathering place, an Oahu, for the world.

For decades, a minority among educators has advocated alternate forms of teaching and learning. The umbrella term for these alternate forms is "open education," (cf Opening Up Education, Kumar and Iiyoshi, MIT Press, 2008). The litany of alternate forms is long: co-op learning, experiential learning, service learning, internships, semester abroad, field study, authentic learning, problem-based learning, adult education, extension courses, and on and on. Each of these alternate forms was designed with the assumption that traditional classroom learning was the norm.

With the dawning of Web 2.0, these alternate forms of teaching and learning are now becoming the "native" forms for this age. Open education, open knowledge, and open resources are different faces of the Web 2.0 revolution in higher education.

Culturally speaking, with the advent of Web 2.0, the "traditional classroom" with one speaker and many listeners is now an oddity, a throwback, a form that should represent 15 percent of undergraduate interaction with faculty, not 85 percent as it does now. With so many ways to create knowledge now very rapidly and collaboratively, we are freed from the necessity of a singular approach to teaching. It no longer makes sense. If you are a faculty member and you are still walking into the classroom with a lecture in mind and "the points to cover," as I did for many years, you are living in the past, a past that is now obsolete. Granted, your job is easier and the students love it if you just talk, but do you feel right about what you are doing?

The learning tools of this century and probably this millennium are not print-based. That world and all its assumptions about permanence, authority, and scarcity are gone. It is no longer the authority lecture but the conversation that is the emerging norm. The new textbook is student work; I'll say it again: The textbook of this age is the work that students generate under your guidance and within your design.

Strong statements, but it is time to get past the rationalizations of "not enough support," or "what about plagiarism?" or "I've always taught this way, I was taught this way, and I'm not about to change now." The salient fact about Web 2.0 is that the technology that now dominates our world and which is knowledge-generating technology (the car, the plane, the steam engine, or the dynamo were not knowledge-generating technologies, keep in mind), leads to a "native" way of creating knowledge diametrically opposed to how we created knowledge with books and print. This is no small point.

Books are usually solo voices talking to us over a long period of time (the time it takes to read the book and the time that the book lasts, making received knowledge at any point seem immutable). Books made us believe in a learning mode--solo and autonomous--that is completely at odds with human nature. Web 2.0, the social Web, is us finding ourselves once again. And, it is finding how we naturally learn--not in timed segments in a regimented and pre-packaged way, but constantly, in conversation, in groups, serendipitously.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, in the Op Ed piece "The End of Philosophy," April 6, 2009, refers to a new view of evolution that adds another layer to the general belief that competition is the driver behind human evolution. "...in recent years," Brooks says, "there's an increasing appreciation that evolution isn't just about competition. It's also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats... We are all descendents of successful cooperators."

He goes on to say "people are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence."

Web 2.0 technologies and open education learning design, employed by imaginative teachers, create a landscape of learning--collaborative, problem-based, experiential--that is closer to our nature than the ranked, single voice classrooms so abundant in recent times. The single voice classroom developed because of the lack of other ways to help students learn. We no longer lack the resources and tools to develop learning designs that fit how people learn.

In The Chronicle's Wired Campus on April 6, 2009, a lively discussion developed about technology in the classroom being a "distraction." The discussion is worth reading. But, keep in mind that if the technology was not in the room, and the students quiet, does that mean they are not internally distracted? Would anyone make the claim that all students are tuned in 100 percent during a lecture? Or is a much lower percentage more realistic? And perhaps the lecture itself is distracting from some internal productive thinking for some students.

One person, in this online discussion, said "I understand faculty feeling the need to focus the attention of students on a particular subject, however you can do both. Tell students to turn their laptops away, or close them during certain parts of your presentation/lecture to be sure they are paying attention. Then, when you want them to actively take the information you've given them and find other examples, or recent articles from today's news, you can have them use that wifi Internet connection."

To make the transition from a predominant lecture format to a more "studio" approach to learning requires trust that students really are curious and really do want to engage in learning. Let's not assume the teacher is in competition with the students for control, let's instead assume that teachers and students really want to cooperate, the human trait that is most central to our survival.

Welcome back to humanity. Some technologies take us away from ourselves (think cars and rush hour and road rage) and others bring us back. Web 2.0 is helping us rediscover our naturally cooperative, creative, and gregarious nature.

Don't think, therefore, of  Web 2.0 as something foreign or hyped-up or all about geeks; Web 2.0 is the rebirth of teaching and learning that fits what we are as a species.

 

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