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E-learning 2.0

Options:     Print Version - E-learning 2.0, part 3 Print view

The pedagogies

It is too early for the emergence of new pedagogies for e-learning 2.0. The JISC report (Franklin and van Harmelen, 2007) stated:

"...our consultative work revealed strong feelings that educationalists do not as yet know how the increased use of Web 2.0 technology will interrelate with learning and teaching, and in turn demand new pedagogies and assessment methods" (p. 21).

Martin Oliver, Reader in Education (ICT) at the University of London's Institute of Education, believes that there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the possibilities of social software, but that:

"what's lacking is the ability to stand back and reflect on these technologies and how they need to be adapted to provide sound pedagogical value".

The new pedagogical models are not there yet, but there are a number of learning theories of relevance to social software.

The Net Generation

One of the reasons why it is important, in learning and teaching, to enlist the help of new technologies is because they alter the way we behave. Those who have grown up with digital technology are often referred to as "digital natives" or the "Net Generation", and they approach work, study and play, differently.

Net Generation students are highly IT literate, absorb information rapidly, and operate at "twitch speed", expecting instant information and feedback, and media available on demand (Downes, 2005). They have also been described as "transliterate" – able to read, write and interact across a range of platforms (Fearn, 2008).

Net Generation students are also very sociable, using social software to build up large networks of friends, with whom they are persistently in touch. They are creative, making much of hand-held technology to create their own media (video, information on Facebook, etc.) (Downes, 2005; Franklin and van Harmelen, 2007).

There is also a trend towards "disintermediation": people go directly to the Internet for information, bypassing librarians, teachers, etc. In that people use the new technologies not just for information but also to create content, the distinction between student and teacher becomes blurred.

The cognitive abilities of the Net Generation may be different: they have shorter attention spans, are less able to reflect, prefer structure to ambiguity, have highly developed visual skills and are able to make inductive discoveries.

Given the above characteristics, Net Generation learners tend to be independent, autonomous learners (a characteristic prized at universities) who learn actively. Because of their social nature, they also learn well in groups. They may, however, be lacking some of the higher level critical and reflective skills.

Independent learners

Universities want learners to be independent and autonomous. The characteristics of an independent learner is one who can set goals and strategies to achieve them, work towards them, and reflect on their learning.

A lot of social software is designed to provide space for the user to record their thoughts. In educational applications this can be used for reflective learning.

Group work and social constructivism

Collaboration is part and parcel of social software, which naturally facilitates group work. Group work is much prized at universities for its ability to develop social and team skills, and can be used in many different ways. For example, groups can work together to create a joint report or artifact, the task of joint editing being facilitated by a wiki or collaborative editing tool.

Social software also offers the possibility for students to develop joint coursework, however there is yet no consensus as to the value of such efforts. Much depends on the level of the student: for example for part-time students on work-based courses, where part of the learning is exchange of experience, this may work well. Students could, for example, develop some case studies applying what they have learnt on the course.

Perhaps a more interesting development is the ability to create personal selections of existing courseware. The Open University, which has an excellent reputation for the quality of its distance learning materials, has created "OpenLearn", which allows users to browse and remix content, and provides tools for liaising with other learners. See the screenshot in Figure 1, below:

Image: Figure 1. Screenshot of the Open University's OpenLearn.

Figure 1. The Open University's OpenLearn

The process of constructing this content will be driven by the learners' interests, and will therefore be highly personal.

The pedagogy that underlies group work is social constructivism. Constructivism states that learners learn by constructing their own meaning and understanding, as opposed to passively absorbing the contents of lectures of books. Social constructivism maintains that the construction of knowledge happens through social interaction.

Another "social" learning theory is Wenger's Communities of Practice, according to which communities form together over shared interests, cumulating and sharing resources, and that learning happens through these interactions and through discussion. This works particularly well where the communities concerned have built up professional experience.

Constructionism

Constructionism is a theory advocated by Seymour Papert (1991, quoted in Downes, 2005). It has much in common with constructivism, but emphasizes the learning that happens when learners actually construct something. Papert's examples are a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe; however, using social software encourages students to create content, which, according to Papert, is itself a learning experience.

Connectivism

Connectivism is a theory put forward by George Siemens (2004), who argued that existing learning theories, including constructivism, only looked at individual learning. This could no longer apply in a digital age, when knowledge itself is so vast and is constantly changing.

Robert Kelley, adjunct professor of organizational behaviour and theory at Carnegie-Mellon University, and his co-workers conducted a longitudinal study with knowledge workers which showed that between 1986 and 2004 the amount of information that knowledge workers needed to have in their heads to do their job fell from 75 per cent to between 8 and 10 per cent and is due to fall even further (Jennings, 2006).

Siemens maintains the sheer amount of rapidly changing knowledge creates a situation of chaos, but that in chaos everything is connected. What matters here is not learning but metalearning – the skill to recognize connections between ideas, to organize knowledge, to draw distinctions between the important and the unimportant, to recognize and act on a crucial piece of information which fundamentally changes the landscape, to know where to find the most up to date and reliable knowledge, and to evaluate the currency and quality of sources.

According to Seimens, knowledge functions best within a well connected network of sources; the skill lies in the strength of the connections. The networks need not be human: a database can store knowledge so long as human users can access it easily.

Connectivism has particular relevance for learning in communities of practice and other groups. Strong networks can help locate the right piece of information, students faced with innumerable sources can make prudent judgements about what is really valuable, and different opinions can be balanced against one another.

Problems with e-learning 2.0

Work done by social software does not lend itself naturally to traditional assessment methods. Work is often done by groups, and there are problems with group summative assessment: high achievers are graded down, and the weaker group members may hang onto the coat tails of the stronger members. Plagiarism is a problem as students cut and paste from the Internet. If a course needs to be validated by external funding bodies, these may not understand the possibilities of social software.

Neither may teaching faculty – and that is another problem, as academics struggle to get to grips with the technological world which their students inhabit. However user friendly, a piece of software takes time to learn.

Perhaps consideration needs to be given not only to the possibilities afforded by the new technology, but to the deficiencies it creates in users. Teaching needs to remedy the latter as much as exploit the former. Manville (2008) believes that current students often lack social skills and need to develop a deeper learning style; face-to-face teaching is still critical for this, and he suggests Socratic questioning and coaching (both of which, incidentally, can be done online).

Teachers can also add value to the new technologies by acting as a sort of quality control: they can monitor discussion, and ensure that the best resources are being used. In doing this, they help develop the students' critical skills, which may be affected by the vast quantities of information they are dealing with (Fearn, 2008).

Additionally, they may help the students advance beyond their existing level to that of which they are potentially capable, by structuring their learning. This is known as the zone of proximal development, and can be achieved, for example, by suggesting the structure of a wiki, or providing a resource for students to blog around.