A conceptual map for understanding web 2.0 tools (from Bates, 2011). Web 2.0 tools are in blue. Other tools of course could be added, such as MOOCs (xMOOCs way to the left in my view!). The position on the continuum will also be influenced by how the tool is used.

This is the ninth (and last) in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machiWhy is web 2.0nes

5. The web as a universal standard

6. The convergence of online learning (from the periphery to the core)

7. Strategy matters in online learning

This post is a bonus. When I started the series I had only seven aha moments in my head. However, recognizing that the last revelation dated from 1997 I was forced to reflect on what had happened over the last sixteen years. Even allowing for the fact it often takes time to separate the signal from the noise, had I gone brain-dead in that period, an old man stuck in the past? Surely something significant must have happened, given the rapid change in technology.

Well, yes, there is one major development for me in this period that I believe will radically change online learning, even though it is taking a long time, and has nowhere near reached its full potential.

What was the discovery? (2007)

A broad range of tools with common characteristics that are conveniently lumped together as web 2.0 will fundamentally change the design of online learning and even more significantly, the relationship between post-secondary instructor and student.

Web 2.0 is defined as including social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), video sharing sites, blogs, wikis, online games, virtual worlds, e-portfolios and mobile applications (from O’Reilly, 2005)

How did this discovery come about?

Three things came together in 2007. I started to write this blog, using WordPress. Its purpose was rather academic – to bring together all in one place a wide range of online resources about online and distance learning that could be used by instructors and post-graduate students researching or studying online or distance learning. I didn’t fully realise at the time the power and the influence such a modest enterprise could have, because I didn’t at the time fully understand the way social media work. However, it did get me established as a ‘contributor’ using at least a few web 2.0 tools. (It should be remembered that the term wasn’t even coined until 2005)

The second thing that happened was that I went to a ‘show-and-tell’ of new applications of learning technologies at Vancouver Community College and saw for the first time a demonstration of a post-graduate online course developed at UBC by David Porter, David Vogt, and Jeff Miller, called ETEC 522, which used WordPress as the course management system. In particular WordPress had been deliberately chosen to enable students to contribute content themselves to the course. Several other exposures to web 2.0 tools followed shortly after, particularly from instructors at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, who were (and are) using mobile learning in interesting and innovative ways.

The third thing that happened was that I was then approached by two Australians, Mark Lee of Charles Sturt University and Christine McLoughlin of the Australian Catholic University, to write a chapter for a new book they were editing on web 2.0 based e-learning (which was very unwise of them, as at the time I knew little about the topic.) This forced me both to research more fully the topic, and pull together my thoughts on what was happening.

Since then, as I have become increasing familiar with web 2.0 tools and their application, I have grown increasingly convinced that they have the power to really revolutionize university teaching in particular. However, to date I have seen very few examples of such a revolutionary approach within the formal post-secondary education sector (where in my view the greatest value of these tools lies).

Why is web 2.0 significant? 

Basically because these tools give learners the power to find, adapt, create, share and publish information easily, and at very low or no cost. This represents the potential for a very significant shift in power from the teacher to the learner.

The general characteristics of web 2.0 are as follows:

  • End-user control/authoring
  • Collaboration and sharing
  • Collective intelligence
  • Low-cost/free, adaptive software
  • Rich media
  • Portability/mobility

With respect to educational uses, web 2.0 tools have the potential for the following:

  • facilitating the kind of skills required by knowledge workers in the 21st century, in particular, knowledge management, independent learning, and multimedia communication skills, as well as more traditional skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, which are often not taught well in more traditional forms of education based for example on lectures or learning management systems
  • web 2.0 tools are more conducive to constructivist approaches to learning (see diagram at the head of this post), which I believe leads to deeper forms of understanding and more flexible approaches to developing, managing and applying  knowledge
  • these tools are familiar to most students and are used by them on a daily basis for other purposes (personal and social). Although students often are not initially aware of how these tools can also help in their studies, they are usually open and ready to use such tools when they can see the obvious benefits for assisting their learning
  • they can be used to engage students in meaningful and interesting activities, making learning more interactive and more social
  • they will eventually force us to rethink completely the way we assess student learning. These tools in the form of e-portfolios and multimedia assignments allow students to demonstrate their learning directly, without the need for paper and pencil examinations or computer-marked assignments that measure only a very limited form of learning.

However, this potential has yet to be fully realised in post-secondary education. This requires re-design and re-thinking of both the purpose and the means of post-secondary education.

The need for course re-design

The use of these tools need to be driven by the learning objectives. Indeed these tools enable us to achieve different learning objectives from more traditional modes of teaching, with a particular emphasis on intellectual skills development. There are various ways in which this can be done, so I just give some examples below.

An advanced course design might be built around the following:

  • core skill: knowledge management (how to find, analyze, evaluate and apply information)
  • open content within a learning design: students are given the learning objectives, but are encouraged and assisted to select and analyze content already existing on the web
  • online project work with activities that support the development of the target skills and competencies identified earlier
  • student-generated multimedia content: students choose content and demonstrate what they have found through text, graphics, video and audio presentations
  • peer review and discussion
  • assessment by e-portfolios.

Examples might be

  • students using the core principles of historiography to research online and develop a history of a foreign city over the last 50 years, with strong narratives and themes that the students themselves identify
  • use of virtual worlds to train border service agents (see Loyalist College) or other jobs that require a range of intellectual and procedural skills
  • use of ‘public’ wikis to discuss contemporary political events in a foreign country, drawing in contributions from key players or the public within that country
  • research on social behaviour by tracking behaviour of dog owners in public parks, supplemented by video examples and interviews

It is not difficult to think of many different ways these tools could be used to empower learners. What is needed though is a commitment to develop 21st century skills embedded within a subject domain, and to work out how these tools could best be used by students for their learning. This though would require a shift away from the instructor delivering information, and more to a role where the instructor is a facilitator, guide and evaluator.


Web 2.0 tools could be revolutionary for changing the way we teach in post-secondary education, but to date, as happens almost always with new technology initially, they have been mainly added on to conventional teaching, whether in classroom teaching or online, or are used outside the formal, credit-based system (as with MOOCs or communities of practice). However, I strongly believe that over time, as instructors, students and employers begin to understand the value of such tools, they will become increasingly the core around which we will build educational delivery, even, or especially, for credit-based learning.


I will do a separate post explaining why I have not included other topics as seminal for understanding the role of educational technology and online learning, such as open educational resources or MOOCs. Frankly, I don’t see these as gamechangers, at least not in the way they are being deployed at the moment.

Over to you

Having said that, what have been the main seminal discoveries for you in educational technology and online learning? What would you have included in the list, and why?


Bates, T. (2011) Understanding web 2.0 and its implications for education in Lee, M. and McCoughlin, C. (eds. ) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching Hershey PA: Information Science Reference

O’Reilly, T. (2005) Web 2.0 Compact definition? O’Reilly Radar, October 10 (retrieved July 23, 2006 from http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2005/10/web_20_compact_definition.html


  1. Nice post. Lots to think about.

    There can be mixed models. Take a skills class, like Web design. Break the course into two pieces. The first piece helps students learn basic tech concepts. A flipped course chunk, students working through on online thing like CoreDogs.Com, with lots of exercises and formative feedback. Expert help available.

    The second piece lets students put the concepts to work. Students create their own sites, collaborate, comment on each others’ work.

    Related ideas (kinda) at http://dolfinity.com/discussion/blog-designing-tools-authors-learning-content.



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