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A campaign called Next Generation Learning was launched this year by Becta to promote the effective use of technology in schools, colleges and other learning environments. Tony Richardson explains how Web 2.0 has the potential to revolutionise technology in learning.
Young people are reported to spend almost as much time online as they do watching TV, and they are particularly attracted to many Web 2.0 developments, finding the social aspects of easy communication, co-ordination and online expression of personal identities appealing. The speed at which the internet has developed is phenomenal, and the rapid way that young people have taken to Web 2.0 can be challenging to comprehend for those who haven't grown up with it. However, it is vital for teachers, lecturers and parents to really take the time to understand the way students are using the latest technology, and the various unique features of these new services.
Young people regard many Web 2.0 applications, such as social networking, as just another part of their social life, and they are more likely to have learnt these skills from their peers than from parents or teachers. However, these tools, used correctly, could bring huge benefits and support learning in more creative, social and participatory ways.
How can social networking support learning?
The term Web 2.0 was coined in 2004 to describe a shift towards new ways of using the web as a platform for tools and services that have an emphasis on user participation and interaction. Now the use of social networking sites, blogs, wikis, social bookmarking and media sharing have become widespread. The existence of such online applications and services as Facebook and YouTube are well known amongst teachers, who are often users of this technology themselves in their private lives, but may not recognise the educational potential for their students.
A recent report, produced by Childnet International and sponsored by Becta, looks at how social networking can support learning in schools and colleges, with students using sites to collaborate on homework projects or discuss lessons. It also considers how social networking services can help teachers to become more innovative in their curriculum approaches.
Becta has also recently published the first two of a series of reports on the impact of Web 2.0 on education in Key Stage 3 and 4, which it commissioned from Nottingham University, in conjunction with London Knowledge Lab and Manchester Metropolitan University. While appropriating Web 2.0 ideas into education seems to have much appeal, we need research into the benefits of doing so, the extent to which this is already happening and the barriers and issues to implementation, such as concerns around e-safety. The research will help inform both Becta's own policies and those of policymakers, schools and local authorities.
The research has found that 74 per cent of children in Key Stage 3 and 4 are already using social networking sites and 78 per cent have uploaded content, such as photos. A minority of children also use it in more sophisticated ways, for instance for uploading videos, blogs or podcasts. However, use of these tools is not very widespread in schools and colleges yet and, where it is, this use is in an experimental stage. Some schools are beginning to build these tools into their Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) platforms. For instance, at Balsall Common Primary School in Coventry, monthly podcasts are uploaded onto the school website.
The affordances of Web 2.0 seem to fit with many current policy initiatives and modern thinking about educational practice. These include:
- Offering new opportunities for learners to take more control of their learning and access their own customised information and resources;
- Encouraging pupils to have a greater creative input into how they present their work;
- Allowing more collaborative ways of working, with community creation, dialogue and knowledge sharing;
- Giving pupils the opportunity to showcase their achievements to an authentic audience, often using non-traditional media such as video.
Becta's research shows several other examples of learners benefiting from the use of Web 2.0 approaches. For example, online discussion and blogs can help motivate and engage learners. At Clunbury School in Shropshire, children love the fact that they can post their work onto the school blog, where it has the potential to be viewed and commented on by a very wide audience.
Teachers have reported that students who usually remain quiet in class have become active contributors. Dialogue and discussion often continues outside of the classroom, with learners engaging in discussion from home, extending their learning and exploring topics in more depth. Teachers have commented that the quality of these online debates is often much higher than that in class. This kind of social learning is also reflected in increased peer assessment with learners commenting and giving feedback on each other's work online. The ability to share work with an authentic audience online is also very powerful.
Tools that support personal enquiry and the creation and distribution of content have enabled teachers to support learners in the development of new literacies. Barriers that some learners encounter in schools and colleges are broken down, with previously sidelined pupils becoming engaged and excelling at learning. Teachers are able to give learners more open ended and collaborative tasks to research and present in the medium of their choice, encouraging autonomy and independent learning.
Of course, there are many hurdles that still need to be overcome. Although pupils are likely to use Web 2.0, they may not necessarily have the deeper skills and knowledge to make the most of the different tools and information on the web. There is a clear role for teachers to introduce the range of tools and services available, but also to help learners develop the critical thinking and digital literacy skills needed to take advantage of their potential for independent learning. With the appropriate advice, support and training, teachers will feel more confident to embed these tools within the curriculum. Some teachers are also sharing and discussing their innovative uses of Web 2.0 tools and teaching ideas with their colleagues.
Potential issues around the use of Web 2.0 in schools include concerns about e-safety and child protection. These need to be taken seriously, but often result in Web 2.0 sites being blocked. While this may be appropriate in some circumstances, it is important to educate children about safe internet use, and make them aware of the risks, so that their approach to using the internet is safe outside school as well. Some schools have implemented Web 2.0 tools inside a 'walled garden' which allows greater control and accountability. Teachers can also negotiate which sites are allowed for use in learning. Although the issue of bullying is a general one that can be dealt with by appropriate policies, the speed and reach of the internet can change its scale. Teachers need to be vigilant to make sure that they pick up early signs of cyber-bullying. It is also important that online postings are moderated.
Other concerns include the potential for some online tools to be a distraction to learners in class. This is largely an issue of classroom management and is not specific to Web 2.0. There are some technical and management issues to consider around the use of free services that may not offer the reliability, control, security and resilience needed for certain tasks such as storing personal data or coursework, which are better suited to learning platforms. The two-way nature of Web 2.0, which includes uploading and sharing content as well as downloading material, may also increase network traffic, especially when using externally hosted services.
Technology as a key ingredient in learning
Technology is increasingly becoming a key ingredient in education both at home and school, offering learners more choice and flexibility in how and where they learn. It is important for every educational institution to harness technology's potential, and for every teacher and student to use it confidently. This is the aim of the recently updated Harnessing Technology strategy, which places particular emphasis on achieving this through engagement with learners and parents, and the professional development of teachers and trainers. Becta is now tasked with leading and working with education and skills providers, the Government and national partners to ensure this ambitious strategy is delivered by 2014.
Web 2.0 can exploit the internet's educational potential for social learning and teaching, as well as informal learning, and bring in an increased emphasis on autonomy, interactivity, creativity and collaboration. However, using Web 2.0 for learning is more about particular methods and approaches to teaching than introducing a new set of technologies and tools. Although the term Web 2.0 suggests that it is something futuristic, it is actually the web as we know it today. We need to explore the potential of using these new technologies, or there is a risk that ICT in schools and further education becomes irrelevant and far removed from the way young people use technology elsewhere. However, this is not about technology for technology's sake and we need to use technology when it is effective and appropriate to do so. As with most new technology, successful implementation relies on effective leadership, reliable infrastructure and support, and the space and time to allow teachers to innovate and embed technology into their everyday practice.
Tony Richardson is executive director for Strategy & Policy at Becta.
(ITadviser, Issue 55, Autumn 2008)