All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education

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The text accompanying my keynote speech to the Polish Virtual Universities Conference held in Warsaw on June 18, 2008.

The text accompanying my keynote speech to the Polish Virtual Universities Conference held in Warsaw on June 18, 2008.

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  • 1. All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes) Keynote speech for the Virtual University: Models, Tools and Practice Conference, Technical University of Warsaw, Poland. June 18-20, 2008. Steve Wheeler University of Plymouth United Kingdom swheeler@plymouth.ac.uk In this presentation I shall focus on new web based technologies and their current uses in education and training. I will begin by reflecting on some earlier ideas I put forward about e-learning and the role technology played in the shaping of universities and their futures. I shall then outline some recent social web research and speculate on how current and emerging technologies may influence future e-learning provision in higher education. I will conclude by offering my view on what I believe must be achieved if new technologies and the social web are to enhance and extend learning experiences in higher education. Changing Universities ‘May you live in interesting times’ (Old Chinese curse) We live in tumultuous times where change is constant and disruptive and where technologies are increasingly pervasive throughout society. Such change and disruption has been in the background of my thinking about learning technology for the past decade. In May 2000, I was invited to present two keynote speeches about the role technology would play in the future of higher education. The first keynote was presented to the European Universities Continuing Education Network (EUCEN) at the University of Bergen, Norway and was entitled ‘The Traditional University is Dead – Long live the Distributed University!’ (Wheeler, 2000a). In my speech I outlined the economic and organisational problems faced by universities in a time of radical technological changes, and economic stringency in which traditional catchment areas and boundaries were being eroded. I argued that in order to survive the economic and societal challenges, universities would need to revise their approaches to education provision. I urged universities to develop new strategies that were based upon digital technologies to widen access, increase quality and generally subscribe to the idea that students need no longer attend traditional lectures to achieve quality learning outcomes (Wheeler, 2004). I also pointed out the need for universities to create their own niche markets of unique or signature courses, and that universities would need to co-operate together in order to survive the
  • 2. economic turmoil and to make sense of the strictures and limitations that would be imposed due to governmental pressures. My main recommendation however, was one grounded in the technology mediated learning approach. I argued that due to advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) that traditional student catchment areas would begin to disappear or become less obvious (the death of distance) and recommended that universities turn their attention to blended and distance methods to broaden and extend their reach (the distributed model). I advised my audience that a number of new technologies were becoming increasingly available, easier to use and more economically viable to purchase into. I pointed out that one of the key technologies for the future would be the World Wide Web (I was of course unaware at the time just how vital it would become) and that managed (virtual) learning environments would become a useful means of organising and supporting online learning for large groups of distributed learners. I took a risk and argued that universities that could not or would not rise to these challenges would either cease to exist, or become subsumed into larger universities who could respond to the challenge. In this speech I was deliberately provocative, and was rewarded by a passionate response from the delegates. Many were convinced that I was correct, whilst many more were equally convinced that I was wrong. It prompted much debate and led to a number of publications which presented my thinking to a wider audience (Wheeler, 2000b; 2001). Changing Roles Later that same month, I presented a second keynote speech at a Teachers’ Conference held at the University of Western Bohemia, Plzen, in the Czech Republic. In that presentation I focused on the role of the teacher and how it was changing as a result of technological drivers, such as the introduction of new ICTs as well as political, societal and organisational demands (Wheeler, 2001a; 2001b). I drew upon my experience working in British and American schools to describe some of the new technologies and media methods that were emerging, and outlined their applications in teaching and learning. I argued that new information and communication technologies offered teachers an unprecedented chance to enhance and extend their practice. I went on to suggest that teachers needed to modify their classroom management, curriculum design, resources development, assessment and evaluation methods and communication techniques, if they were to remain effective and responsive practitioners. Again, this was a somewhat contentious speech, particularly as many teachers are traditionally minded, conservative in their approach, pressed for time and notoriously resistant to change. My first keynote dealt with the changes institutions needed to make to survive in the new knowledge economy; my second keynote argued for changes at the level of the individual practitioner. In hindsight, neither argument was too wide of the mark. Across Europe and other western industrialised nations, most universities now have their own corporate e-learning strategies, and most manage their own virtual learning environments (McConnell, 2006).
  • 3. Furthermore, many teachers have now adapted their everyday practice to incorporate digital technologies into the classroom and to extend learning beyond the traditional boundaries of the institute (Bach et al, 2007). Distance education is high on the agenda of most higher education institutes and a great deal of effort and time has been invested into staff development to ensure that teachers are up to date and aware of how to teach remotely using new technologies. Teachers have now started to harness the power of ICT and the web and personal networked computers within their working practice, for organisational, communicative and pedagogical purposes (John & Wheeler, 2008). It is not only the role of the teacher that has changed. The embedding of digital technology into the fabric of everyday study has also changed the way students learn (Colllis & Moonen, 2002) and is more in keeping with what younger people expect (Veen & Vrakking, 2006). Now students can assume more responsibility for their own learning and design their own study trajectories. They are able to learn on the move using mobile technologies, and are able to access a vast storehouse of knowledge through ubiquitous access to the World Wide Web. Communication is an easier prospect also with instant messaging and shared learning spaces becoming more common place. In many ways, and for most students, it would be hard to conceive of a way of learning and working that was devoid of the World Wide Web, e-mail or word processing. Changing Times It is now time to take stock. My two keynotes were conceived, written and presented almost a decade ago, at a time when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. I was certainly speaking for a time before the advent of what is now referred to as Web 2.0 or the ‘social web’. In this keynote, having revisited my previous speeches I will try to gaze once more into the near future in an attempt to determine what education might look like in the light of the technological developments that comprise Web 2.0. I will attempt to contextualise these changes at the level of both organisation and individual, to provide a picture of how universities and teachers might manage their business in the coming decade. Once again, I will do so based upon my knowledge and experience gained from a career in which research has been central to my work. As my starting point I shall examine the phenomenon that is Web 2.0 and provide some examples of current pedagogical practice using social software. I will then speculate on the current changes in practice that might be dictated, both for the institution and the teacher. Finally, I will suggest that there are five key objectives to achieve if universities are to achieve success in the use of learning technologies in the future. The Changing Web (2.0) So what exactly is Web 2.0? This is a contested label for new and emergent properties that are found on the Web. It is a complex network of dynamic resources that we all acknowledge is constantly changing to adapt to the growing demand for entertainment, communication and access to knowledge. Debate centres upon whether the emerging social applications constitute a sea
  • 4. change or revolution in the Web (cf. van Dijk, 2002) or simply another phase in its relentless progress. Personally, I find myself in agreement with Winston (2003), preferring to view social applications as a facet of gradual evolution rather than symptoms of sudden revolution. Essentially, the Web has become more social. As with most other technology innovations, Web 2.0 applications have grown out of the need for people to connect together, share experiences and knowledge, enhance their experiences and open up new possibilities in learning. Social software is software that enables people to both read from, and write onto web spaces. It is literally the ‘architecture of participation’ (Barsky & Purdon, 2006) and demands active engagement as a natural facet of its character (Kamel Boulos & Wheeler, 2007). Web 2.0 tools include popular applications such as blogs, wikis and podcasting; social networking sites such as FaceBook and MySpace; photo- and video- sharing services such as Flickr and YouTube; familiar utilities such as RSS feeds, social tagging (e.g. del.icio.us), microblogs (e.g. Twitter), mashups (e.g. geotagging); and concepts such as the folksonomy, ‘Darwikianism’ and the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ (Kamel Boulos et al, 2006). I would further like to argue that multi-player games and simulations such as Second Life also fall within the purview of Web 2.0, in that they capitalise on social dimensions and shared spaces characteristic of the social Web. Lastly, we must not ignore the growing power, ubiquity and utility of the mobile telephone and the central role it will play in enabling ‘anytime anyplace’ learning for students of the future. Not much is known as yet about the effects many of these applications exert upon teaching and learning, or the benefits and limitations they bring to education and training. How for example, does this architecture of participation help to scaffold remote learners and how can it promote quality learning outcomes? What is the extent of the capability of social software to encourage a culture of sharing and collaboration? How much will Web 2.0 applications help to shape the education provision of the future? What roles will online games and mobile, personal technologies play in developing the skills young people need to study independently? These are questions we are beginning to address in some of the current research. Social Software that supports learning Staff at the University of Plymouth have been using Web 2.0 (social web) tools in teacher education for the last two years and have attempted to qualify their use in a number of areas of learner support including shared online spaces (Wheeler et al, 2008) and blogs (Wheeler & Lambert-Heggs, 2008). The essential premise underpinning the use of any social software application is that over a period of time it genuinely becomes self-supporting, and that the students will enjoy the freedom to produce their own content and study pathways. The problem with this is that students may not always be as accurate or fastidious in their content generation as they could be, and may need guidance on the pathway they choose to take. However, there is evidence that students begin to support each other when they share the same online space and have mutual goals to achieve. One of the most popular and easy to use tools in the wiki – a shared website which anyone can edit.
  • 5. We quickly discovered that wikis are so open as to cause problems if some form of scaffolding or structure is not created for students. We therefore designed a number of activities for the wiki. One of the first learning activities was to generate a set of rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour online. Students proposed and discussed their rules, which included the banning of offensive language and racist comments. Known as ‘wikiquette’ (wiki etiquette), this popular activity was subscribed to by all of the groups, and the result was a consensus of rules that the entire group had ownership over. There is no evidence that any of the rules were ever broken, but if any wikiquette rules had been transgressed, it would have been certain that the rest of the group would take action and sanction the perpetrator. Social Software that connects people together At the University of Plymouth, several of the teacher trainee groups are geographically dispersed across the South of England. They are mostly mature and part-time students who hold substantive posts in training agencies, colleges and universities, and in community adult education centres, the military, health service, police force and prison service. Some do not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their peer group and sometimes suffer from a lack of tutor contact. For the majority, their busy lifestyles do not allow them to enjoy more than brief contact with their fellow students on more than a once weekly basis because travel into a teaching centre can be time consuming, expensive and tiring. Here social software can be used to connect people and enable them to collaborate together in project work, small group learning and online discussion. The MentorBlog project employs the use of two-person blogs to connect students with their professional mentors, who many may never meet face to face. Using two-person blogs, students are encouraged to regularly write their reflections on professional practice directly to their blog. Their mentor is able to read the student’s posting and then comment directly to the blog with their own observations, guidance and support. MentorBlog is still in its infancy, but as it develops and expands, we expect to offer its services to a wider group of students, with the possible incorporation of microblogging facilities such as Twitter. We also anticipate an extension of the project to include mobile blogging (moblogging) where students use mobile telephones and other handheld wireless devices to write and send their blog entries. Social Software that promotes collaboration Collaborative forms of learning are becoming increasingly popular methods of adult education, because they involve all students in the process of learning. Social software is based heavily on participation, and this is apparent in a number of features including tagging, voting, versioning, hyperlinking and searching, as well as discussion and commenting. The power of this kind of software is that it includes all in the process of creating group based collections of knowledge, and artefacts that are of specific interest to the learning community.
  • 6. One of the most popular activities on the wiki based learning programmes was ‘goldmining’. In this activity, each of the students took individual responsibility to seek out, evaluate and then post useful websites and online learning resources that were deemed indispensable to the group. These were posted up onto the group wiki, and a short summary attached by the ‘gold miner’ to explain what it contained and why it would be useful. Students were encouraged to explore each others’ gold dust resources and attach their own comments on how useful they found them. Attached discussion groups supported more in depth and informal discussion about the activity. It is doubtful whether such a useful and comprehensive collection of online resources complete with evaluative commentary, could have been assembled any other way, or in such an organised manner. Social Software that challenges current provision There is a sense from many younger students that the institutional managed learning environments are not popular tools, because they fail in comparison to the more colourful, flexible and accessible social networking tools that are available for free on the internet. Further, students enjoy personalising their online spaces, a task that is not particularly easy or positively discouraged within institutional systems. This is particularly evident on a cursory inspection of any young person’s social website, whether it be Bebo, MySpace or any other popular free space. Students ‘pimp’ their pages, adding colour and textures, favourite images, links to their favourite websites, including mashups to video sharing sites such as YouTube and photo sites such as Flickr. This is often impossible or forbidden on university and college sites, where a corporate branding and image uniformity is enforced and surveillance is imposed. If they wished to change this kind of restrictive provision and depose the ‘tyranny of the institutional VLE’, universities would need to undergo a radical shift in policy. VLEs are used to provide a ‘walled garden’ around expensive and copyrighted resources, as well as the imposition of control over access, tracking and assessment of student learning. The problem now for many education institutions is to try to strike a balance between maintaining the element of control, whilst enabling students to personalise their own learning environments and tailor them to their own preferences and learning styles. Wikis and blogs to a certain extent can achieve this objective, but there can be constraints and disadvantages to this approach, not least a resistance from students themselves who may not wish for these tools to be imposed upon them. Social Software that creates new and enhanced learning experiences In the last year we have created several new learning activities that can be used by students in shared online spaces. We have designed the activities so that they offer students experiences or access to resources that would be impossible or difficult to offer through conventional means. Activities are not mandatory, but can supplement and enhance traditional, classroom based provision. One project known as the WikiLit project is offered as a means for students to gather together evidence of core skills in and around literacy and numeracy learning.
  • 7. Students generally disliked doing the activities on the wiki, although several actually liked the concept of the wiki and could see how it could be used with their own students. The biggest problem they identified was a lack of time, and most agreed that the wiki activities actually made more work for them. Students were resentful that they had to access materials online, and several issues were raised including lack of familiarity, lack of access and lack of understanding about what was required of them. A major conclusion from the WikiLit study is that although the wiki is a useful tool to bring distributed students together for collaborative learning, the subject matter and the manner in which it was delivered occluded the positive aspects for this group of students. Future provision should be less rigidly subject specific and more open for students to bring their own content to the space. Moreover, students and staff should be given better induction and training in the use of the tool, so that the potential is better exploited. What will be the Future of Higher Education? Five Key Objectives. It is increasingly apparent that learning technology and digital communication will play a key role in the shaping of future higher education. For digital technologies to become as successful in education as ‘paper and pencil’, I believe that five objectives will need to be achieved: 1. Technology will need to become more ‘transparent’ (Wheeler, 2005). That is, technology will need to become so embedded into the day to day experiences of teachers and students that it becomes common place, and even mundane. The novelty value and opacity of technologies often prevent users from ‘seeing through them’, beyond the shiny toy with the buttons and lights, to a tool that is useful because it does something previous tools could not do. 2. Universities must offer better support to academics. Often teachers are pushed into situations where they need to cope with new ideas and new technologies without clear guidance. In such situations, teachers will struggle and fail with technology, or they will resist to the point of rejection. Very few will actually succeed without help. Appropriate training, support services and dialogue will invariably overcome many of these issues (John & Wheeler, 2008). 3. Teachers need to see the relevance and application of new technologies. For teachers to adopt new technologies, they must first see the applications and understand the benefits (as well as the limitations) of the tool. If a tool adds nothing new to the teaching and learning equation it will be perceived as irrelevant and will be rejected (cf. Norman, 1990). 4. Teachers will need to gain greater confidence in the use of new technologies. This will mean that they will need to be continually adaptive and responsive to change as it happens. This relates back to training, which brings familiarity, but teachers also need to see beyond the technology, using it as an extension and enhancement of their own cognitive capabilities,
  • 8. in the sense of a ‘mindtool’. They will also need to see that technology can be contextualised into real and authentic teaching situations. And they will need to be willing to change their own practice occasionally. 5. More research is needed into what can be done and what cannot be done with new technologies. How do we know whether or not something works, who it works with, and under what conditions it becomes less successful? We can find out through trial and error, or more preferably, through thorough and systematic research in which new technologies are tested out in authentic situations. Recommendations Ultimately, to ensure that technologies are successfully adopted, institutions need to demonstrate that each is relevant and can be used effectively to support, enhance and extend learning beyond what is currently possible. The value added potential of new technologies becomes the unique selling point, including its capability to change or challenge current provision. Change however, comes with a price, usually in human cost. Many teachers are reluctant to embrace new technology because they may perceive it as undermining their authority, it may challenge roles they are comfortable within, or require them to invest time and effort into learning how to do something new. Many are unhappy about change and some will actively resist. Often such resentment or distrust of new technologies can be transmitted to students, particularly those who are more mature. Universities therefore need to find ‘champions’ – early adopters of the new technologies who are also respected opinion leaders within the academic community. Changes often come from the grassroots upwards, but without support and nourishment from the top, many seemingly useful changes fade and die. Managers and leaders need to listen to the views of their staff (and also their students), and commit their institutions wholeheartedly to new innovations that are pragmatic, to ensure that they are spending money on technology that fits into the every day teaching and learning activities of the organisation. Such decisions need to be informed by empirical research that is generalisable. Institutions will need to secure adequate funding so that new technology is sustainable. Too often organisations buy into new technology but fail to budget for ongoing support such as training, upgrades, repairs and maintenance. Training should be offered that is realistic and authentic so that teachers can situate their new skills within everyday practice. Finally, institutions will need to offer opportunities to teachers to use new technologies that are relevant across entire curricula. Sometimes curricula may need to change to fit the new technologies. Conclusion The advent of new and emerging technologies such as interactive surface devices, mobile and wireless technologies and the social web, afford teachers with unprecedented opportunities to try out new pedagogies which would
  • 9. previously have been difficult or impossible. Teachers may see new technologies as opportunities or as threats. Whatever their views, the teachers who will be successful will be those who incorporate new technologies into their courses, and who adopt a role that us supportive of flexible and mobile learning. Younger students who are entering higher education in the next year will be the first students who have grown up in a world in which connection to the internet has always been there. They will expect to enjoy fast access to online resources, social networking and mobile learning, and if this is not forthcoming or discouraged, they will go somewhere where it is available. It is up to the institution, through clear leadership, strong support of innovation and the adoption of a culture of blame-free experimentation, to ensure that new technologies becoming embedded into the fabric of the education programme. Only then will we begin to see the social web being used to its fullest capacity – as a liberating tool to enable students to learn anywhere, at any time, and in a style and at a pace that suits their individual needs and preferences. References Bach, S., Haynes, P. and Lewis-Smith, J. (2007). Online Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Barsky, E. and Purdon, M. (2006). Introducing Web 2.0: Social networking and social bookmarking for health librarians. Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association 27, 65-67. Collis, B. and Moonen, J. (2002). Flexible Learning in a Digital World: Experiences and Expectations. London: Kogan Page. John, P. D. and Wheeler, S. (2008). The Digital Classroom: Harnessing the Power of Technology for Learning and Teaching. London: Routledge. Kamel Boulos, M. N., Maramba, I. and Wheeler, S. (2006). Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education 6, 41. Retrieved 14 April, 2008 from: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6920/6/41 Kamel Boulos, M. N. and Wheeler, S (2007). The emerging Web 2.0 social software: An enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and healthcare education. Health Informatics and Libraries Journal 24(1), 2-23. van Dijk, J. (2002). The Network Society. London: Sage. McConnell, D. (2006). E-Learning Groups and Communities. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Norman, D. (1990). The Design of Everyday Things. London: The MIT Press. Veen, W. and Vrakking, B. (2006). Homo Zappiens: Growing Up in a Digital Age. London: Network Continuum. Wheeler, S. (2000a). The Traditional University is Dead! Long Live the Distributed University! Keynote presentation for the European Universities Continuing Education Network (EUCEN) Annual Conference, University of Bergen, Norway. May 4-7. Wheeler, S. (2000b). The Role of the Teacher in the use of ICT. Keynote presentation for the Czech Teachers’ Conference, University of Western Bohemia, Plzen, Czech Republic. May 20. Wheeler, S. (2001). Information and Communication Technology and the Changing Role of the Teacher. Journal of Educational Media 26(1), 7-18.
  • 10. Wheeler, S. (2004). Five Smooth Stones: Fighting for the Survival of Higher Education. Distance Learning 1(3), 11-17. Wheeler, S. (2005). Transforming Primary ICT. Exeter: Learning Matters. Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. and Wheeler, D. (2008). The Good, the Bad and the Wiki: Evaluating Student Generated Content as a Collaborative Learning Tool. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi: 10.1111/j.1467- 8535.2007.00799.x Wheeler, S. and Lambert-Heggs, W. (2008). MentorBlog: Connecting students and their Mentors using Social Software. In S. Wheeler (ed.) Digital Learning: Repurposing Education. Proceedings of the 3rd Plymouth e- Learning Conference, University of Plymouth. 4 April. Winston, B. (2003). Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. London: Routledge.