E-learning has gone through approximately three phases. In each of these, it has used the available technology, or rather, the possibilities afforded by that technology – a term known as "affordances".
In the first phase, e-learning built on the ability of software packages, and particularly multimedia, to create an interactive environment. These consisted of what are now called "learning objects", for example multiple choice questions with feedback to correct or incorrect answers, or multimedia such as video, animations, etc. The main problem with this approach was the considerable expense required to create software which added genuine value to the learning, as opposed to reproducing flat text in another format.
During the next phase, e-learning emphasized the "c" in ICT (information and communications technology) – it moved online, and was more discussion and community based. Specialist pedagogies emerged round the notion of the online tutor, for moderation was very important. Much use was made of virtual learning environments (VLEs). Although there were a number of open source applications, notably Moodle, many VLEs were in fact made by commercial companies (chiefly Blackboard and WebCT), and were expensive and often clunky.
VLEs tend to be structured around particular courses so are inclined to adopt an institutional approach to learning. Nevertheless, they do represent a move away from the purely content-based approach of the first phase of e-learning, towards one which is more discussion driven, allowing students to learn in a more constructivist, collaborative way.
In a sense, e-learning 2.0 represents e-learning come full circle, but with a strong twist. It uses applications which allow the learner to create content, paralleling the changing nature of the Internet from a one-way to a two-way/many-way flow of information. A report by the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) defines Web 2.0 as follows:
"Web 2.0 encompasses a variety of different meanings that include an increased emphasis on user generated content, data and content sharing and collaborative effort, together with the use of various kinds of social software, new ways of interacting with web-based applications, and the use of the Web as a platform for generating, re-purposing and consuming content" (Franklin and van Harmelen, 2007).
The Web has moved from being an (almost) purely reading medium, to one for reading, writing and content sharing. Stephen Downes (2005), who first coined the term "e-learning 2.0", summed up the new Web and its possibilities thus:
"In a nutshell, what was happening was that the Web was shifting from being a medium, in which information was transmitted and consumed, into being a platform, in which content was created, shared, remixed, repurposed, and passed along. And what people were doing with the Web was not merely reading books, listening to the radio or watching TV, but having a conversation, with a vocabulary consisting not just of words but of images, video, multimedia and whatever they could get their hands on. And this became, and looked like, and behaved like, a network" (Downes, 2005).
The technologies and their applications
Below is a brief summary of some of the main technologies of Web 2.0, together with their affordances. What they all have in common is the ability to create not only shared content, but also social networks. For that reason they are often termed "social software".
A form of software that allows the user (or users) to display a number of articles, ordered by time, and called "posts", on which others can comment. It can often be used as a sort of online journal, and blogs have been the basis of several successful publishing ventures, notably Wife in the North. Syndication technologies can be used to advertise new posts.
The educational value of blogs is that they provide a vehicle for people to be reflective. Students can reflect on their own learning, and research groups can record notes on the research process.
O'Hear (2006a) describes how some English literature students used Manila software to create a reader's guide to the book, The Secret Life of Bees, inviting the author to comment. Many universities now provide blogging space for their students; the University of Warwick has done so since 2004.
Edublogs provides free software that hosts blogging for all those in education. Edublogs Campus helps universities, etc. to do this on an institution-wide basis.
The best-known wiki is Wikipedia, the multi-authored and edited encyclopedia. Wikis use special editing software to help a community or group build up a corpus of knowledge. Anyone can upload or edit a page.
They can be used for class or group projects, but Franklin and van Harmelen (2007) suggest that the teacher "scaffold" the process by suggesting a page structure.
Groups at the University of Edinburgh, which was the first UK-based university to develop its own Web 2.0 strategy, have used wikis for collaborative research. The latter's advantage was a shared, non-hierarchical working space, ability to edit and see the latest versions of documents, and the ability to separate different work packages into folders.
Wikispaces is used in educational establishments, and price varies from free to $800 per month depending on how much space you require, the level of service and whether the user is a group or an institution. The University of Edinburgh example quoted above used Confluence because it was easy to use and reliable.
Podcasts and vodcasts
Podcast is a portmanteau term from "broadcast" and iPod. It is a system whereby you subscribe to audio content, which is then automatically downloaded to your computer or mobile device. Vodcasts are based on the same principle, but contain video.
Franklin and van Harmelen (2007) suggest using podcasts to enable students to listen to lectures again, or for language work. Chinese Pod is a good example of the latter: learners can listen to the podcasts on their computers or on their iPods, print out PDFs with the dialogue and associated vocabulary, and test themselves with online tests and games. There is also an option to practise with a genuine Chinese speaker.
Stanford University also provides access to a considerable amount of its digital audio content (lectures, courses, etc.) via http://itunes.stanford.edu/
There is a good general introduction on http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/askbruce/articles/video/podcast_1.shtml.
Other media sharing
There are a number of platforms for sharing media:
- YouTube for video,
- Flickr for photos,
- Slideshare for presentations,
- DeviantART for art works, and
- Scribd for documents (Franklin and van Harmelen, 2007).
All these can be useful for uploading and critiquing student work. O'Hear (2006a) points to Flickr's annotation facility giving an example of how a history of art class was able to annotate paintings with comments.
Social bookmarking enables tagging and bookmarking of web pages, so that teachers and learners can build up a set of resources. The University of Edinburgh uses social bookmarking for managing reading lists, allowing students to post useful resources. The lists are then linked with the library and the VLE.
Del.icio.us is a popular site, as is BibSonomy which was developed at the computer science department at the University of Kassel, Germany, and is intended to support researchers in particular at sharing bibliographies and bookmarks. The student collaboration website, stu.dicio.us is currently being beta tested.
Social networking and presence systems
Probably the best known of these are Facebook and MySpace, but Elgg, despite advertising Rucku – a social networking site devoted to rugby – as one of its applications, is a piece of open source software specially developed for educational collaboration. We will discuss this further in section 4.
Second Life is a social networking system, but in a virtual world. According to Martin Oliver of the Institute of Education, which uses Second Life on its master's degree courses, it can be of great value to distance students, the simulation of reality giving an increased sense of belonging, but is unnecessary if students can meet in real time. Other useful applications include teaching about computer programming, and how to teach – where the student can see the results of his or her pedagogical decisions.
Syndication and notification technologies
These help keep the user up to date with new or changed content. An "aggregator" or "feed reader" automatically adds feeds of new content which you have subscribed to. Examples of the former are My Yahoo and the readers detailed here.
Syndication technologies can be used in conjunction with blogs and wikis to send out e-mails when new posts are added.
Collaborative editing tools
These allow more than one person to edit a document at a time. There are obvious applications for students collaborating on an essay, report, work of art, etc.
Mashups and bricolag
Mashups are about mixing and repurposing content from the Web, bricolage about configuring systems to suit your own use. For example, you can add Skype buttons, or del.icio.us bookmarks.
Yahoo Pipes allows users to mix content – http://pipes.yahoo.com/pipes/.
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.
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:
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 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 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.
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Fearn, H. (2008), "Grappling with the digital divide", Times Higher Education, August 14.
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Jennings, C. (2006), "Taking the training out of organisational learning: Why we need to know less and learn more", education.au [accessed October 1 2008].
Manville, G. (2008), "Generation Y is wired up and ready for action so what's the problem?", Times Higher Education, August 14.
O'Hear, S. (2006a), "e-learning 2.0 – how web technologies are shaping education", ReadWriteWeb [accessed August 26 2008].
O'Hear, S. (2006b), "Elgg – social network software for education", ReadWriteWeb [accessed August 27 2008].
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