Web 2.0 comes of age: disintermediation and the long tail in higher education
There has been both a quantitative and a qualitative change in the students entering higher education, and they have been described as the "loophole generation" (Summerville and Fischetti 2007). In order to effectively cope with the long tail of students currently entering higher education, academic staff need to stop attempting to maintain a stranglehold on learning technologies inside institutional walled gardens, while maintaining a firm grasp on the quality of qualifications awarded.
Disintermediation is "cutting out the middleman". By relaxing our grip on the technology of learning we can utilize the power of "Web 2.0", a blanket term which refers to a second generation of web-based communities and online services, such as social-networking sites, wikis, and social bookmarking and indexing sites, which enable creativity, collaboration and sharing between users. This approach changes e-learning resources from isolated information silos to interlinked platforms. Most importantly, Web 2.0 also includes a social element where the users generate and distribute content, often with freedom to share and re-use, and allows the user to do more than just download information. Users "own" and exercise control over the data on a Web 2.0 site. Web 2.0 sites have an architecture of participation that encourages users to add value to the site as they use it, and usually feature a rich, user-friendly interface and may also have social-networking features. These technologies are therefore a natural fit for building personal learning environments which encourage ownership of learning through a choice of the best tools available, rather than just those which have been purchased by a particular institution. By offering a wide choice of software tools, learners establish ownership of their personal learning environment (PLE) by following their preferred styles and patterns of learning. This enhanced stake holding motivates and sustains learning. Unlike an institutional virtual learning environment (VLE) or learning management system (LMS), students will not be locked out of their PLE when "their" course ends. This is the only financially and educationally sustainable approach to lifelong learning.
However, VLEs/LMS have some advantages, notably authentication, monitoring student progress and the convenience of "everything in one place". Rather than simply abandoning the present monolithic structures we need to abandon a blinkered approach to e-learning technologies and move to a loosely coupled teaching environment which aims to blend the advantages of institutional systems while leveraging the power of contemporary social software/Web 2.0 tools. In higher education we are selling a service, not a product. By allowing academic staff to assume the role of learning advisors rather than production supervisors, students will enter a learning community where they will acquire the skills and the knowledge required for lifelong learning via a collaborative framework. The loophole generation will be able to collaborate with academics to become the teachers of the next generation.
In the paper, I will describe initiatives which are underway in the Faculty of Medicine and Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester to develop new practical strategies for deployment of "loosely coupled teaching" involving Web 2.0 tools to facilitate and promote personal development planning and lifelong learning.
Web 2.0 changes the game and raises expectations
Web 2.0 is defined as:
"A perceived second-generation of Web-based services such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users".
In practice, it is almost easier to recognize a Web 2.0 site when you see one than it is to define the concept. Many examples of the Web 2.0 approach to online information have made their way into everyday life, e.g. the inclusion of aspects of participatory or social media into sites such as the BBC News website and many newspaper websites; Gordon Brown solicits comments from members of the public on YouTube. My current approach to e-learning has arisen directly from my own extensive experience with academic blogging. My microbiology blog has received over 250,000 page views in the last year. Evidence of the success of this blog as a participatory medium is that to date, the 500 posts have attracted over 780 non-spam comments from users, showing that the site has been successful in achieving its aim of engaging in a conversation with the public about topical aspects of microbiology. MicrobiologyBytes is also syndicated by organizations such as Reuters and Fox News, further helping me to reach the widespread audience I am aiming for (Cann, AJ: MicrobiologyBytes. Microbiology Today, 33(3): 192, 2006). In addition to the blog element, the microbiologybytes.wordpress.com site also serves as the home for my weekly MicrobiologyBytes podcast. In the last year, this has received over 100,000 downloads and there are approximately 1,500 regular weekly subscribers to the podcasts.
My other academic blog is at: scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com. This blog has over 150 regular subscribers to the RSS feed and receives an additional several hundred site visits per day. This site serves a consciously different function and readership to MicrobiologyBytes, by acting as a reflective site where I can experiment with and comment on emerging educational technologies and discuss them with other practitioners in the field. I have described in more detail my rationale for academic blogging. This site provides me with an opportunity to think, plan and reflect about developments in technology and my own learning and teaching practice. Producing daily output for this site forces me to read widely, including both peer-reviewed journals and online sources, in order to gather the input I need. This site allows me to play with technology and ideas, and it often surprises me how much I learn via the collaborative experience of writing in this way. By regularly covering topics such as:
• Why Facebook Is Sticky
• What is Second Life For?
• Filtering My Network
and by engaging in online conversations with other academics, I am contributing to the active development of pedagogical knowledge around these rapidly evolving technologies. When I started MicrobiologyBytes, I imagined creating a sort of online magazine where the content was essentially disposable - tomorrow’s chip wrappers. Analysis of the blog posts shows this not to be true. To the contrary, the discrete individual blog posts are seen as reusable learning objects whose utilization is not only maintained but increases with time as they are indexed in an increasing number of locations. My initial expectations that I was creating trivial content has been confounded by the distributed architecture of Web 2.0.
The participatory nature of Web 2.0 is reinforced by the fact that you don’t need to be technically adept to contribute these sites and become part of an online community. The immersive experience of such communities is a powerful motivator, but difficult to convey to those who have not experienced it for themselves. In the Web 2.0 community, it is frequently stated that to fully understand Web 2.0, users need to “walk the walk”, i.e. immerse themselves in an online lifestyle. Many students currently entering higher education have done just that, not through their previous formal education but through social networks such as Bebo and MySpace. This has been eloquently pointed out by the recent work of Michael Wesch at Kansas State University, whose work in digital ethnography has resulted in videos such as "A Vision of Students Today" and "Web 2.0...The Machine is Us/ing Us".
In 2004, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine coined the term the Long Tail to describe patterns of e-commerce seen on websites such as Amazon. In the last decade, there has been both a quantitative and a qualitative change in the students entering higher education, and they have been described as the "loophole generation" (Summerville and Fischetti 2007). In order to manage the long tail of students currently entering higher education (Brown and Adler 2008), we need to stop attempting to maintain a stranglehold on learning technologies inside institutional walled gardens, while maintaining a firm grasp on the quality of qualifications awarded. By relaxing our grip on the technology of learning we can utilize the power of Web 2.0 such as social-networking sites, wikis, and social indexing sites, which enable creativity, collaboration and sharing between users. This approach will change e-learning resources from isolated information silos to interlinked platforms.
Virtual learning environments such as Blackboard, WebCT, etc, are closed systems which tend to lock learners into a "one-size fits all" pattern of learning. Although they have their strengths (such as authentication, monitoring of student progression and convenience), the pattern of learning they attempt to enforce is not sustainable in that the students are locked out of the resources of the VLE/LMS as soon as the course they are taking ends. The model of "loosely coupled teaching" I am developing employs contemporary social software/Web 2.0 tools outside of the confines of an institutional LMS to enable learners to develop their own personal learning environment. Ownership of both the content and the tools which comprise the PLE enables learners to sustain learning after formal courses have ended, and potentially creates a pattern of genuine life-long learning. By offering a choice of tools rather than institutional regimentation, learners personalize the PLE by incorporating their preferred styles and patterns of learning. This enhanced stake motivates and sustains learning.
VLEs have certain advantages, notably authentication, e.g. monitoring student progress and the convenience of "everything in one place". Rather than simply abandoning the present monolithic structures we need to escape a blinkered approach to e-learning technologies and move to a loosely-coupled e-learning environment which aims to blend the advantages of institutional systems while leveraging the power of contemporary social software/Web 2.0 tools. In higher education we are selling a service, not a product, so there is no educational advantage in locking students into educationally sub-optimal I.T. systems. By allowing academic staff to assume the role of learning advisers rather than production supervisors, students will enter a learning community where they will acquire the skills and the knowledge required for lifelong learning via a collaborative framework.
The social element is arguably the most important feature of Web 2.0, where users both generate and distribute content, often with freedom to share and re-use, and this allows students to do more than just download information. Web 2.0 sites have an "architecture of participation" that encourages users to add value to the site as they use it, feature rich, user-friendly interfaces and may also have social-networking and information-sharing features. Web 2.0 technologies are therefore a natural fit for building personal learning environments which encourage ownership of learning through a choice of the best tools available, not just what has been site-licensed by a particular institution. By offering a choice of tools, learners personalize the PLE by following their preferred styles and patterns of learning. This is a financially and educationally sustainable approach to lifelong learning. We will also ensure that academic staff also benefit from this project, learning about and through these new communications channels and media (e.g. RSS feeds from academic journals) alongside and in collaboration with students.
Where do students find information? Like it or not, they inhabit the Web 2.0 world, with Google and Wikipedia as their preferred reference sources. Google's share of UK internet searches is over 87% and continues to climb. We can either abandon students to these sources or try to engage with them to develop their skills, as attempts at prohibition are surely futile. The traditional model of I.T. support (specialist I.T officers embedded in departments or faculties) dates from an era when institutions such as universities were the guardians of technology and provided the only access to computing tools for the majority of staff and for all the students. We have a similar pedagogical stance with a tendency to assume that academic staff are the guardians of academic knowledge. Although the digital natives concept is overplayed, students no longer arrive at university technologically naïve, or dependent on the university as a sole I.T. provider. However, universities have made huge investments in information technology, and these must continue to be supported by traditional means - a campus-wide network of computer officers. But these traditional support channels are not the best means of facilitating outsourced Web 2.0 technologies, and it is unlikely that any enhancement can be gained by increasing investment in traditional activities. For enhancement of user support, innovation is required.
Small world networks
Small world networks consist of localized subnetworks linked together (Academic departments? Universities? Or something much less formal?). Clay Shirky eloquent summarizes the power of networked organizations in his recent book "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations" (Shirky, 2008). This small world pattern of organization is much more efficient organization than a single large network where everybody is directly connected to everybody else. Such monolithic structures are poor at filtering information (leading to institutional spam and alienation of users) and yet this is exactly the kind of structure that a top-down institution-wide support network tends to impose. Students don’t read their institutional email because it rarely brings them good news.
In the Faculty of Medicine and Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester we have initiated a number of projects designed to allow students to create personal learning environments and take much more control of their own learning through the use of participatory media. One project involves information librarians and tutors of modules in medical ethics and law to cultivate information literacy via construction of personal learning environments (pleproject.wordpress.com). A related project aims to foster the adoption of personal learning environments for both academic purposes and for personal development planning (PDP) and promotion of lifelong learning (pleuol.wetpaint.com). The final project aims to facilitate the development of online social networks among early career stage laboratory scientists by taking a grass roots social network approach (scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/2008/06/small-worlds-social-networks-for.html).
To achieve enhancement of student (and staff) I.T. support, rather than increasing spending on traditional support channels we should foster peer-support networks constructed on a small world network model. Similarly, outsourcing of knowledge and traditional academic roles to online communities of practice can only benefit students by preparing them for the world they will enter when they graduate. I am convinced that emerging Web 2.0 technologies offer enormously encouraging prospects for higher education. It is my belief that at the present time, we have only scratched the surface of the potential of these novel approaches to teaching and learning. It is my intention to try to ensure that the maximum educational benefits are achieved from this potential.
Brown, J.S. and Adler, R.P. (2008) Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review 43: 16-32.
Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Allen Lane, ISBN: 0713999896.
Summerville, J. and J. Fischetti (2007) The Loophole Generation. Innovate 4 (2).