The use of Web 2.0, or Social Web, technologies leads to the development of communities of practice, focused on areas of interest, and culminating in networks of users. Becta’s Learners’ Use study showed examples of learners whose interests had led them to use Web 2.0 technologies in sophisticated ways. However, the majority of Web 2.0 use is for social purposes; its use for learning and teaching has yet to be fully exploited.
Within this Social Web approach we are beginning to see distinct boundaries of differing web spaces, which has consequences for using Web 2.0 technologies with our students. Three specific ‘spaces’ have been defined, personal space for messaging (me space) , group space including social networking sites with Facebook currently being the prime example (we space), and publishing space including blogs and social media publishing sites such as YouTube (see space).
Evidence from several consultations with students and questionnaire has provided feedback to indicate that students don’t want formal education mechanisms encroaching upon their social networking activities. However, the literature would suggest that group space within a defined boundary has great potential to support learning and teaching.
Unlike many UK universities, The University of Sheffield is taking a strategic and systematic approach to deployment of Web 2.0 services. The University has implemented uSpace as a Web 2.0 technology solution to fulfill certain learning, teaching, research, and administrative functions. Primarily, chosen for blog and collaborative document/wiki-like capabilities, uSpace also easily facilitates discussions and enables social networking activities in an environment that is distinctly different and separate to openly available products, e.g. Facebook. This allows uSpace to be positioned between traditional formal learning provision and more open networks, without the perceived encroachment from the student perspective.
Young people are defensive about … [their spaces], essentially the ‘me’ and ‘we’ spaces, as opposed to … the ‘see’ spaces. Hence, their discomfort with staff-initiated discussion groups in social networking space when they are at ease with those they set up themselves for study-related purposes. We have been told that there is considerable untapped potential for exploitation of this, effectively a third space within group space – somewhere between pure study/work and pure social – to support learning and teaching.
Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World
The majority of Web 2.0 use is simply consuming rather than participating. Part of what uSpace can do is to encourage breaking down of barriers and enabling participation. uSpace, therefore, has the advantage of being able to allow students to develop 21st century learning skills, including communication, collaboration, creativity, technology proficiency, etc. to match the set of skills being required for employability in a changing landscape, but doing so within a secure and bounded environment. Although, it doesn’t have to be ‘tightly’ bounded, as permission setting within uSpace can allow externals (from outside the University) to comment and contribution if required.
The Library is promoting the importance of information literacies throughout faculty and students. This includes the ability to appropriately search, retrieve, evaluate information critically, and attribute sources without plagiarism.
Paralleling this, Computing Service is working to promote digital and new media literacies. In a digital world it is difficult to understand how information literacy is possible without knowing how to successfully use and implement new technologies, functions and facilities as they increasingly roll out on a daily basis. To achieve this, Computing Service initially looked at how students could be engaged in using and sharing knowledge. And following a successful SeeChange institutional project, the bluecloud space was initiated within uSpace. Following feedback from staff on campus after having the concepts underlying bluecloud explained to them, there was a demand for a similar resource for staff to increase their understanding of Web 2.0, digital and new medialiteracies. To enable this, The Knowledge Lab has been created within uSpace to tap into the knowledge of Computing Service staff and the professional interest and enthusiasm of other individual staff across the University to pass on their knowledge and discuss technology use at the frontiers of education.
Staff capability with ICT is a further dimension of the digital divide, and effective use of technology, ie to enhance learning, is as much of an issue as practical operation.
Universities’ realm tends to be predominantly … what is sometimes referred to as the ‘push-web’ in which they define the content and views to be received. Perversely, it appears that lecturers and teachers are not generally disposed to interactive communication online.
Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World
In addition, Computing Service needs to work in collaboration with library colleagues at the interfaces of these literacies; power browsing and its implications, for example.
It should be noted that there is currently a chasm between the openness of expression being seen amongst younger generations and now university students, where they willingly share and participate, and the guarded and introverted cultures of institutions. uSpace is an environment that allows this culture of openness to exist, but it will required continued education and exposure to enable the enthusiastic individuals within the University to encourage such a change to occur.
The Social Web has substantially changed participation for all. It enables greater engagement for students and encourages sharing. This has the potential to alter learner/teacher dynamics, and allow a shift towards increasing partnership between the two groups; and enable increased research-led learning to happen. The technologies have taken people into areas where their shared interest is the important factor, as opposed to their age or position in the educational hierarchy: the community of interest is the over-riding element. Web 2.0 technologies fit well with a constructivist approach to learning, as learners take part within a community, and focus on their learning interests.