Friday, July 25, 2008

Web 2.0 and the future of . . .

I was going to say education, but I think it's bigger than that. I spent some time this morning reading around a collection of linked blog posts and articles related to connectedness, web 2.0, education, democracy, etc. Jen argues that the future of education is not Web 2.0, and I think I agree. It's not Web 2.0 because there will be Web 3.0 or 4.0 or something completely different or a complete collapse of the Internet as we know it. It's also not because it's being gentrified as Jim Groom says, moving not into the read/write web, but into the gated communities of CMS's. The promise of Web 2.0 is only for the John Waynes or the Ingalls among us, willing to try and fail and suffer through the server outages, the disappearance of tools and entire web sites, and taking a shower only on Saturdays.

But I do think there's some lessons that we can all learn from Web 2.0. People want to connect and participate and they learn from those connections and that participation. Are we teaching our students to learn from each other, to build a learning network for themselves that's made up of people and resources (a la George Siemens' connectivism)? Nothing that I've accomplished in the last 3-5 years has been accomplished on my own. My dissertation, perhaps one of the most individual of endeavors, was read by blog friends and face-to-face friends and advisers. People commented on the ideas I threw out on the blog. I emailed people and asked for help, for resources, to play a sounding board. I used this blog to keep me motivated and honest. Even in work, I rely on colleagues, both local and remote to help me figure out WordPress, find new tools, articles to read, and ideas to think about.

The rhetoric of academic integrity and honor codes and scholarship tends to make it seem like getting help and collaborating are bad things. They are to be avoided at all costs. I know plenty of people who try to get students to do "group work"--writing a paper, doing a project, etc.--and are disappointed. Sometimes they throw up a wiki and figure that the technology will just make that happen. We don't model collaboration for them at all. Professors talk about papers they write, books they write, or conferences they attend. They don't talk about the people that read their drafts or the students who worked in their labs and ran the experiments. They don't talk about the colleagues they see at conferences with whom they have valuable conversations that help them frame their thinking about their research or teaching. And they speak disparagingly, if at all, about the committee work they do, rather than seeing that as collaborative work, which is hard (because yes, you have to keep Mr. Grumpy in check and watch Mr. Know-it-all grandstand) but valuable.

I don't think you necessarily need fancy Web 2.0 tool of the week to help students learn how to learn from each other and from their network. It can make it easier for them. More importantly, I think, is to create assignments that push them to work with others, to have class discussions that draw out lots of different points of view, to have them write in ways that push them to include those points of view, to rely on something besides their own inner thoughts, to find ways to take what's happening in the world and connect it to their academic work. Why are statistics important? How will reading this book make me a better citizen? In what ways does the media distort science? Technology certainly helps find the answers to these questions. Newspapers are readily available online as are the journal articles from which their articles are drawn. Wikipedia offers its discussion tab so that students can see that any article has behind a lot of ideas and positions that may or may not have been included, showing that knowledge itself is in constant flux. Discussion forums and blogs offer opportunities to continue classroom discussions or include book authors or alums in discussions about reading material. But we can't just expect our students to use the technology in that way. Facebook and MySpace don't encourage the kind of deep discussions that can be possible. We need think carefully about the tools we use or don't use and help students navigate the online landscape appropriately.

As for the distractedness of Facebook and Twitter, and their ilk. Yes, they're distracting. Yes, we and our students are pulled in many different directions. And yes, some of the stuff that's out there encourages a kind of shallowness that many disdain. But that shallowness forms some of the fabric of our lives. I can connect with people when we share interests--tv shows, celebrities, movies, games, an Internet meme. Much of the time, we can take it to the next level. And I don't think distractedness always comes from the technology. As workers, I think we are often asked to take on more and more. We become inundated with tasks and have a hard time focusing on one task at a time. It doesn't help when every task seems as urgent as the last. Maybe those tasks come through email and im instead of on the paper memos of the past, which means they come faster, but I don't think it's about the technology, per se. Instead of critiquing the technology, maybe we should look at the economic structures that impose more work on fewer workers and give more money to the people at the top. Maybe we're distracted because we don't even *have* free time anymore.