Ding ding! Web 2.0 versus the LMS: are we opening the cage or shrink wrapping knowledge?

“Today’s students, are mobile, can commonly find access to learning resources on their own and place limited value on physical presence and face-to-face communication.” (Daniel et al., 2009, p. 34).

Introduction

The internet is a valuable resource for learning today (Downes 2005, Brown and Adler 2008), heavily used by the current and coming student population who were raised in a world of accessible, digital technology but who are experiencing digital dissonance in educational institutions (Chattie and Jarke, 2007).

Studies suggest that some students have difficulty setting boundaries between formal or informal learning and that web 2.0 applications are a necessary part of the 21st-century student toolkit (Clark et al., 2009).

This digital essay will examine the affordances of web 2.0 as a tool to create social learning, by looking at its value as an open technology, the amount of control afforded to the creator of content and at the potential outcomes of using the tool. Then turn this focus onto the learning management system to ask if the homogeneity of education technology is helpful or hindering.

This will be carried out in two stages;

  • First, this essay will be presented using freely available web 2.0 technology to express the creativity, collaboration, and informality available before being published on the web to encourage conversation and discussion amongst the internet community.
  • Second, it will then be reproduced on the Blackboard Learn LMS as a representation of the more formal institutional delivery using common institution design settings seen in higher education and importantly in a closed classroom environment where there are social learning tools available, but they are contained within that class cohort.

The outcome of these two representations will allow the viewer to experience the information in both formats for a more rounded experience incorporating both the openness, personalisation and potential for connection on the web and the restriction and closed classroom style of learning management systems in higher education.

Openness of technologies

For the purpose of this essay, I define open or openness of technology as its ability to allow a student to work unhindered by choice of environment, an ability to share or exchange and lastly its cost to the user. I will not be assessing either web 2.0 or learning management platforms as open education resources which have a defined status set by the Open Education Movement which is not part of this analysis.

Why web 2.0?

Web 2.0 is defined broadly as the more communicative, personal and participatory form of the world-wide web, emphasising active participation, collaboration and connectivity to share knowledge and ideas and to actively contribute content. It is also sometimes referred to as the “Read-Write Web” (Price 2006; Richardson 2006) as it offers more than the read-only, passivity of the original web. Web 2.0 applications, have received growing interest from the educational sector over the last ten years (Alexander 2006) as they are seen to hold potential for addressing the needs of today’s millennial student population, enhancing the learning experiences through networking, collaboration and community (Bryant 2006). This then reinforces constructivist pedagogies popular in teaching (Gillani 2000; Jonassen 1995; Jonassen & Land 2000; Relan & Gillani 1996).

Web 2.0 contains software or applications which support social learning through community and group interaction, although we could argue that the previous form of the web supported social interaction through email, chatrooms and discussion boards, the tools available through web 2.0 not only offer social interaction, feedback and networking, but are more flexible and collaborative allowing media to be shared, combined and built on to create new ideas, concepts, and mashups. Social networking applications like facebook and twitter now also offer users the possibility to interact in real time using webcams and microphones. Web 2.0 is not radically different from the previous version of the web; rather it is the affordances offered by the applications available which have changed.

It is these affordances which offer the opportunity to use web 2.0 as an open tool for education. Blogs, wikis, social networking, and video sharing applications all have potential as a pedagogical tool to offer the opportunity to increase communication, interaction and co-creation, supporting learning which occurs in a social, collaborative form when students use these tools to create collective activity.

Being web based and created with communication in mind, there are little boundaries for the opportunity to communicate and share globally with other users.

Usage examples:

  • Connectivity and Social Networking: Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn support and collate networks and facilitate connections between them. Gee (2004) refers to this as affinity spaces, where students can acquire both social and communication skills as they are becoming engaged in participation through web 2.0. Through these applications, there is an opportunity to engage in informal learning, creative and expressive behaviours and identity seeking while developing digital literacies.
  • Collaborative discovery and sharing: Blogs or social bookmarking tools like dig and del.icio.us allow students to create collections of information such as links to readings and ideas which can be organised and tagged before being shared. Communities of learning can be formed as users with similar interests can share and actively contribute to the growth and evolution of “folksonomy” creating both content and knowledge on the web.
  • Content creation: Web 2.0 highlights content creation over content consumption allowing anyone to create, remix and share content for their own needs and those of others and groups. Open educational content, creative commons, and wikis support user generated content enabling teams and individuals to work together to create new knowledge.

The LMS

These collaborative tools and their benefits are widely recognised within our higher education institutions, and the implementation of single point of access technology platforms incorporating these tools are now widespread and known as learning management systems. These systems are mostly propriety in nature created specifically for the purpose of managing learners, teaching materials and student work in an educational setting.

Accessibility to education, control of overheads and quality control are the three most commonly given reasons for the shift in delivery modes to that of technology driven delivery (Daniel 2003). It’s ability to meet these needs means the adoption of “learning management systems (LMS)” has been swift (Oblinger and Kidwell, 2000), with ninety-five percent of UK universities now using them (Lonn and Teasley, 2009) with these platforms combine a range of course management and pedagogical tools to provide a method of designing, building and delivering teaching.

The greatest potential of the LMS to the university is that they are scalable systems able to support a class cohort of hundreds as easily as ten thereby offering the opportunity to enroll and teach a larger volume of students offering an economy of scale. They can also be used to provide administrative support to an entire university's teaching programmes or to house the entire catalogue of teaching materials but are creating a battle over control of teaching and pedagogy (Chattie and Jarke 2007). The key to the use of these technologies by the University, however, is the enrollment of students. These systems are locked down only allowing access to the materials and tools within to those who are enrolled as users, meaning the university dictates the community within.

Web 2.0 technologies in general, are seen to reinforce constructivist pedagogies (Gillani 2000; Jonassen 1995; Relan & Gillani 1996). Theorists claim that the internet can improve learning by giving learners access to an infinite library of resources. Arguing that internet technologies can be used to make course contents more cognitively accessible to the individual by encouraging interaction with a richer, more diverse knowledge network.

Some LMS do offer tools for course administration and pedagogical functions including; synchronous and asynchronous communication like email, instant messaging, announcement pages, and discussion forums content development and delivery by hosting learning resources in repositories, offering links to resources and text-based information areas choice tests and group work and feedback tools, as well as course or student management from enrollment to managing student activities, But the network connections of these are restricted within the “safe” confines of the institution’s systems, reducing the potential for the creation of communities of learning or collaboration outwith that student’s class cohort. LMS, therefore, suggest a closed classroom approach to learning at a time when some scholars are calling for the increased use of open, community technologies to be brought into effective learning and teaching for the twenty-first century (Brown and Adler 2008).

Control

LMS offer “universities a hitherto undreamt-of capacity to control and regulate teaching” (Coates et al., 2005, p.p. 25). The built in functionality within each system allows for easy customisation of the look and feel of the student experience, within limits, without the need for web development skills. Many institutions provide a ready to use standardised template or guides for such customisation to ensure quality control and to help reduce the administrative workload placed on staff. This allows course owners to make use of customised headers and graphics to identify their course from others but limits the ability to alter structure or tool performance, Essentially forcing conformity. LMS can also be seen to conform to a classroom metaphor, encouraging didactic teaching (Sheely, 2006) rather than creativity and by “locking down” the system elements, transfer the control of teaching material design from the academic and onto the institution itself reducing the influence of the academic over the teaching of her class.

In contrast to the restriction of community and locking of design, web 2.0 applications like blogs allow infinite customisation options to users through both editable “skins” and access to the underlying code for those who are more skilled. The content users generate on these can also then be shared publicly through the platform used to create the content or by sharing with other platforms and application.

The term itself, Learning Management System, “suggests disempowerment – an attempt to manage and control activities… by the University” (Sclater,2008, p. 2) rather than the freedom of informal and community learning offered by the web 2.0 pedagogy.

Outcomes

The hyperbole of technology being an educational remedy often stalls critical discussion of educational technology as a tool for teaching and learning (McLoughlin and Lee, 2008a). Therefore research tends to focus on implementation rather than pedagogy with regard to an LMS (Lonn and Teasley 2009) meaning more investigation is needed into pedagogy and learning to allow implementation decisions to focus on these rather than administrative wins.

LMS are not pedagogically neutral technologies, instead through their design, they can and do influence teaching. As the LMS and other learning technologies become part of everyday academic practices, they will invisibly influence and may even define teachers' creativity, expectations, and behaviours. This may be particularly the case for newer academics with less experience (Frand 2000). The inclusion of LMS into universities makes it likely that new academics will gain most of their experience in teaching design and delivery through these systems. These are important considerations given the possibility that, increasingly, LMS will play the major role in how academics learn to teach. At present, there have been few if any studies on the pedagogical effects of LMS and this must be remedied.

Although web 2.0 applications can offer increased community of learning opportunities and control over the student’s own work, it must be remembered that these too come with potential outcomes for the student and teaching. Access to a great library of content to use and share must be respected, and web 2.0 and its sharing abilities for learning and teaching should go hand in hand with teaching about responsibilities and rights regarding the work of others. Because the ability to share everything is available, means students must be taught about when it is and isn’t appropriate to shared.

Conclusion

Web 2.0 applications allow users choice and control as well as learning opportunities through rich, global, communities of knowledge rather than passive and solitary learning. However by restricting the ability of the student to access these tools or for the teacher to design to incorporate these tools, or by simple restricting the community students can access, we are offering no more than the didactic or cartesian classrooms of the industrial era. Learning management systems offer much in the way of cost reduction and quality assurance for institutions, but aside from being a single point of entry, offer little to improve student learning and shackle the creativity of the teacher.

Educational technology can only raise the levels of learning and teaching if we allow it to be fully part of the process of both rather than merely an administrative tool clothed as pedagogy.

References

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