Wednesday, January 09, 2008
  (What) does the Web change (in) education?
Nichthus has another great post in his series reflecting on the (possible) impacts of Web 2.0 on teaching, especially tertiary teaching. This time, since he is working towards a chapter on the topic these are Solid thoughts on Web 2.0 and education.

He starts by underlining that there is no crisis, and indeed that students themselves are not crying out for a change of approach. Most are (more or less) happy consumers of what we provide. Today I will let this claim pass, it is largely true. There is certainly no crisis. I am less convinced that students, who are aware of other possibilities, are totally happy with the current tertiary pedagogies. But, as a basis for argument today, let's let this claim stand as a starting point. I am even happier to agree that there is nothing in the desire for more flexible education that requires Web 2.0 solutions.

It is part of his conclusion (2/3 of the post ;) that I want to address. In particular a key couple of sentences:
As we have seen, the potential of Web 2.0 is facilitative rather than determinative – and the core of what advocates of Web 2.0 in education seek to embody is not new to education theorists. At best, the pervasiveness of Web 2.0 draws fresh attention to old theories and provides additional possibilities for their use.
Indeed. The best of what Web 2.0 approaches seem to offer does sound very much like what Freiere, Illich and other pedagogical writers popular in the seventies were advocating. In which case questions follows inevitably: Why have these approaches not been widely adopted? What (if anything) has the web changed in the educational matrix that might make them more useful now?

I'll start with the latter question. The web changes two key elements:
  1. The Internet (aided and abetted by other new communications technologies, like mobile phones) makes communication at a distance fast, easy and cheap. In the seventies and eighties to communicate at a distance required an expenditure of time and/or money which made significant rich communication at a distance not viable. Now the opposite is true. Wherever there is an (even approximately) broadband Internet connection such communication with video and audio as well as other possibilities is easy and cheap - the cost once you have a computer and a webcam and an Internet connection is negligible- in NZ roughly $10/10GB. One of the key advantages of classroom teaching is communication not only with the teacher but also with other students - indeed the way the Oxford system worked in the seventies I learned far more from my classmates than from my teachers! (Please note these teachers were at that time among the best in the world in the disciplines of theology, and I learned a lot from them!)
  2. This fast, convenient and cheap transfer of data, together with a tendency from the print age which has continued into the electronic age for the cost of information to tend towards zero ("information tends to be free" - see my 2004 post Gatekeepers, Open Courseware and the future of the University or better my 2005 article Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as Recapitulation) mean that "information content" is no longer a valuable commodity which the teacher or their institution controls, it is almost worthless and becoming of even less worth as time passes! What the teacher has to offer that is of great value is the wisdom to make sense of and use the information well. But that sort of wisdom and skill is precisely the sort of ability that the more open pedagogies claim to develop best.
So, is "Web 2.0" the answer to all our (possibly non-existent) worries about tertiary education - evidently not. Does it suggest technologies and approaches that may help us educate for the future better in the present - almost certainly. Will such Web 2.0 enabled pedagogies replace the need for teachers with the "wisdom of crowds" - probably not. Will the future of education be more participatory and exploratory, and more student centred - let's hope so!

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