5 interactions between the Web and Education that are changing the way we learn

Using MACs in the Computer Laboratory/University of Exeter ©2008/CC BY 2.0

The way we learn and the tools we use to extend our capacity for learning have always been closely interrelated. Over 2000 years ago wax tablets enabled learners to show their working, 500 years ago the introduction of movable type made books more accessible, 150 years ago the postal system provided the infrastructure for distance education, the introduction of radio and television services established the means for widespread educational initiatives, and personal computers and portable video making equipment were widely adopted by educators in the 1970s and 80s. Since the emergence of the Web 25 years ago, both learners and educators have exploited the potential of the underlying technologies and the services developed with them to support and change the way we think about learning in many fundamental ways.

1. Technology

The educational value of the Internet was recognised at its inception and computing science academics working in universities and colleges keenly adopted the technology to share data among themselves and with their students. However, as the number of resources hosted on networked computers increased they tended to become ‘siloed’ and difficult to find. The invention of the Web fundamentally changed this environment and the way people interacted with the Internet. The underlying protocols that govern the way the Web works are based on linking electronic documents over disparate networks using web browser applications. By making the protocols open to everyone at no cost the Web’s founders allowed people to build upon the technology, for example one of the earliest adaptations introduced the search function that enables users to discover resources significantly easier than with earlier technologies.

In the mid-1960s Gordon Moore identified an interesting fact about the processing power of computers – that it appeared to double every two years. Once this filtered through to computing hardware manufacturers and as the demand for personal computers increased, this became something of a self-fulfilling prophesy – one that has led to the development of ever sophisticated, ever smaller, less expensive computing devices. From laptop computers to smartphones to tablets to Google Glass and Radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, this phenomenon has placed powerful, mobile computing into the hands of more than 1.5 billion people worldwide allowing learners and educators to access significantly more information than has been available to any previous generation.

2. The Evolving Web

The early Web gave learners and educators a taste of what could be achieved in this new environment. Learners could access information that had previously been ‘hidden’ in libraries and archives and educators were able to either convert existing instructional progammes, quizzes and exams into Web-enabled resources or develop new assets that guided learners through a set of learning objectives. But this essentially static, ‘read-only’ Web allowed little opportunity for learner interaction, collaboration and sharing, all vital components of the learning process. This began to change with the introduction of Wiki’s in the mid-90s.

These web applications enable users to comment on or change the text on a web page that had been written by others, and provide a platform for group collaboration and sharing. In addition to inspiring the creation of the global knowledge bank that is Wikipedia, wiki’s encapsulated many of the features of a ‘read, write and execute’ web – what is commonly referred to as Web 2.0.

The ability to readily create a presence on the Web via blogs, social networking, and video sharing sites has created a dynamic resource that continues to make radical changes to our learning and teaching experience. Web 2.0 applications have been embraced by learners and educators at all levels. YouTube and other video sharing sites provide a platform for user-generated how-to videos, software advice, and exemplars of arts and science disciplines (e.g. The LXD: TED Talk, Periodic Videos and Khan Academy), that inform and inspire millions of informal learners as well as students in formal education. The social networking site, Facebook is used by teachers to facilitate collaborative group work (e.g. in Music Technology at Bridgend College), and a large number of user-generated resource sharing sites (e.g. Flickr, SlideShare and Storify) and cloud computing services (e.g. Google Drive, WeVideo, and Pixlr) enable learners and educators to extend their tools and resources beyond the traditional classroom.

3. Theory

The network of collaborative and productive spaces enabled by Web 2.0 has inspired an invigoration of constructivist educational theory and its application to a range of online learning spaces. Learners and educators are able to communicate, provide feedback and collaborate in order to co-create the learning process using a variety of free-to-access synchronous and asynchronous technologies.

In constructivist theory learning takes place primarily through interaction between learners and between learners and teachers. Teachers assess the suitability of technologies in various settings and judge what are called their affordances for learning, that is, the essential features of a technology and what the interface allows learners to do. For example the affordances of Facebook may be the opportunities to support collaboration, a shared group identity and understanding of knowledge. Once the teacher is familiar with the environments they can orchestrate learning in a manner that supports learners through the process (i.e. ‘scaffolding’).

The Web has also revived interest ‘autonomous education’, highlighted by interest in the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments undertaken by Professor Sugata Mitra in the late 90s. These experiments involved observing children’s use of Web-connected computers placed in open spaces in rural settings in India and demonstrated that children were able to learn how to use the devices, to find information and teach others how to use the computers without any instruction or guidance.

While supporting opportunities for self-learning, the Web also provides a platform for delivering timely instruction and feedback that can shape learning outcomes using operant conditioning methods. This approach to teaching is based on behaviourist theory which claims that learning can be reinforced through the use of rewards and punishments. In Web-based learning environments this is normally applied through the use of ‘gamification’ techniques such as the awarding of virtual badges for achievement or through the provision of a visual indication of learner progress (e.g. a ‘progress bar’).

4. Pedagogy

New technologies inspire new approaches to teaching, and the Web has made a huge impact in this area. Formal education has adopted new approaches including the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), e-Porfolios, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which support new blended learning methods. Course materials, formative assessments, lecture recordings (including video, audio and synchronised slides), and assignment information and submission form the backbone of VLEs used in most educational institutions. In addition, many institutions encourage their students to develop their own ePortfolios – a self-edited collection of coursework, blog posts and other educational activity that reflects the students’ progress, experience and knowledge gained during their time at a university of college. These are often integrated with (although kept separate from) the more formal VLE, and the institutions’ Careers Service and used as an addition to a students’ Higher Education Achievement Record.

VLEs are primarily used to support ‘bricks and mortar’ educational, they are not viewed as a replacement for class-based learning, but are ‘blended’ with traditional methods. MOOCs on the other hand appear to be heralding a paradigm shift in the delivery of formal learning. This relatively new web-based form of distance learning emerged in 2008 and has its antecedents in Open Educational Resources initiatives. MOOCs typically provide opportunities for an unlimited number of learners to experience a short college or university level module (normally around 6 weeks in length), delivered using synchronous and asynchronous tutorials, web-based video, readings and quizzes. At the end of the course learners are required to produce some form of relevant feedback that demonstrates their achievement, which is then assessed by their course peers or course tutors.

5. Openness

The early decision to open Web technologies for all was inspired by research sharing practices in academia, and as the Web has developed it has been used as a platform for sharing ideas, research and teaching. Open Access to research papers that have traditionally published by academic journals and available at a high premium, has the potential to transform learning and research. Making academic research available to everyone via the Web provides opportunities for wider access to learning for the poor and those living in rural areas, and improves the uptake of research outputs.

Similarly Open Educational Resource initiatives are providing opportunities for teachers to share teaching materials, allowing others to reuse and repurpose content. Issues regarding ownership of content have been overcome in many instances through the use of Creative Commons licenses – a scheme that allows content owners to clearly show how they would like others to use their material.

The increasing ubiquity of Web technologies combined with the culture of openness promoted by its founders of the Web, and increasing availability of low cost Web-enabled devices are transforming opportunities for learning and teaching, and are changing the way education is perceived. Despite inequality of access, the ‘digital divide’ and ‘web literacies’, the opportunities for accessing education are greater today largely due to the Web.

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