Everyone is getting excited about the new Web 2.0 tools for education (see, for instance, Stephen Downes on e-Learning 2.0.   Indeed, so am I. To see where I stand in general – which is on balance, supportive of the use of Web 2.0 tools – see my recent article on Web 2.0 [link to p. 5a or pdf]

However, I would like to see some reality being brought to the discussion. I want to challenge two core assumptions sometimes made by proponents of new tools such as FaceBook, Google, Second Life, YouTube, and Open Content:

(a)    learners will no longer need structured courses
(b)    learners will have no problem learning independently

One reason we have educational institutions that are supported by the public is because, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, ‘we don’t know what we don’t know.’ I have spent most of my working life as a professional in distance education. This was not on my list of career choices when I was 16 years old. I went to university to become a teacher of French. There, in my first year, I was also exposed to two subjects I had never studied at school: economics and psychology. I switched to psychology in my second year, then decided I wanted to do educational research when I left. My senior professor recommended that I should get some experience of teaching if I wanted to do research (excellent advice), and then, after three years researching the management of large schools, my contract ended and I got a job at the newly created Open University, to research into distance education. So by luck, some personal input, and a lot of advice and help from my professors within a structured learning programme, I ended up doing something I could not have imagined on my own.

I have taught many students at a distance, using books, television, radio, audio-and video-cassettes, video-discs and online teaching. Although the technology continually changes, some things don’t. One is that many students come to distance learning without the necessary skills or confidence to study independently from scratch. They need structured support, structured and selected content, and recognized accreditation. The advent of new tools that at last give students more control over their learning will not change their need for a structured educational experience. However, learners can be taught the skills needed to become independent learners. The new tools will make this learning of how to learn much more effective but still only in most cases within an initially structured environment.

At the same time, most teachers working online are not changing their teaching method sufficiently to make full use of the new tools. One reason is that institutions are locked into supporting learning management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle. These are expensive and ‘heavy’ technologies, requiring substantial IT support. More importantly, they are centralized, teacher-managed technologies. Teachers control the content, decide the student activities, and even control in most cases the discussion forums. For many students initially studying online, this is necessary, and such tools also have administrative advantages, such as linking student records to teaching activities.

However, tools such as YouTube allow students to collect and create their own multimedia learning materials; e-portfolios allow students to collect their own examples of their work that can be accessed directly by potential employers; many of the resources now available over the web, such as open content, allow students to roam outside the strict confines of set readings. Social software allows students to test, question and construct their own, personalized knowledge.

But not all information is equal, nor are all opinions. Unless we are to descend into subjective, quarreling beasts, (the tyranny of idiots, as expressed by Andrew Keen), expertise remains critical for progress. Students look for structure and guidance, and it is the responsibility of teachers to provide it. We therefore need a middle ground between the total authority and control of the teacher, and the complete freedom of the children in the ‘Lord of the Flies’. The new Web 2.0 tools allow for this, but only if as teachers we have a clear pedagogy or educational philosophy to guide our choices and use of the technology. I provide one suggestion about how to do this in a recent keynote that can be accessed at: (link to video of Leicester presentation – see disc)

In the meantime, as well as Stephen Downes’ web, I suggest you also look at:

Moore, M. (1973) Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education 44: 661-679  Just because it’s old (and printed) doesn’t mean it’s not relevant!

Other References:
Keen, A. (2007) The Cult of the Amateur New York: Doubleday
On Second Life: CCarter:: Knowledge Sharing

See also: Senges, M., Praus, T. and Bihr, P. (2007) Virtual Worlds: A Second Life’s Beginner’s Guide Barcelona: Universidad Oberta de Catalunya

On e-portfolios: Lorenzo, G. and Ittelson, J. (2005) An Overview of e-Portfolios EDUCAUSE ELI Paper no. 1

There will be more to come on Web 2.0 tools in future blogs, of course.

Now I look forward to your comments on Web 2.0 and independent learning.


  1. Guidelines not tramlines

    i agree with the general tenet of your thinking in relation to students and the need for a degree of structure around how they are supported in their learning. I firmly believe that covert an overt mentoring plays a huge role in the decisions made by the learner

    However, I think most educators will accept that one size doesn’t fit all and that there are those who have the ability to be true independent learners.

    Web 2.0 technologies are certainly changing the nature of communication and collaboration within and without education. They provide different opportunities for learners and educators and can and do complement existing traditional systems of education.

    Many of the so called ‘digital natives’ embrace Web 2.0 technologies because they have always been part of their lives . They have the ability and desire to exploit the potential of Web 2.0 in supporting their learning needs.

    So, middle earth rises to the occasion with a raft of challenges for traditional and new world educators. They need to embrace change, accept there are risks and be a part of the student learning environment in which inclusivity is underpinned by the collaborative nature of Web 2.0 , and ensures that all that take part reap the benefits of a flexible and somewhat blended approach to the needs of both educators and learners alike.

    You quoted Donald Rumsfield viz ‘we don’t know what we don’t know.’ I was immediately reminded of a paragraph from Learning Science by Richard White(1988) in which he says

    ” All control should not be in the hands of the teacher, because students would not see learning as an act for which they are responsible and would become indifferent to the information given to them;but too much control cannot be given to the students because they do not know enough about what they do not know to choose the best direction to follow”

    Web 2.0 technologies add a new and rich dimension to the smorgasboard of approaches to teaching and learning. Making a selection to feed the learners may have the same ingredients but the mix will depend on the taste of the educator and the hunger of the learners to learn the way that best suits their needs.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Richard.

    I agree with you that learners have different needs. Some will be able and willingly to learn independently, but others won’t. I also agree that in general – but not always – the more control learners have over their own learning, the more productive it is likely to be.

    My concern however is that some proponents of Web 2.0 have a rather ideological view that Web 2.0 tools are not ‘meant’ for formal learning, that their real purpose and goal is to support informal learning.

    Now I agree that the formal system leaves a lot to be desired (subject for another blog, perhaps), and that Web 2.0 tools open up many more opportunities for informal learning, which is good, but I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    These tools also have tremendous value for the formal education system, if used well, and can help move those students who are dependent learners to become more independent learners, and thus even better prepared for informal learning. This may be a contrary view to that of the advocates of ‘de-schooling’ through the use of Web 2.0, but tools are tools, and don’t necessarily belong to any one ‘school’ of thought. The key within the formal educational system is in using the tools in such a way that they empower learners, although some might believe that empowerment of learners in the formal education system is an oxymoron!

    Any other views on the need for structure to support learners, or the role of Web 2.0 in the formal educational system?


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