Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why the web is the real pedagogic engine

My suspicion is that the web has done more for pedagogy in the last five years than the entire output of academic educational departments and other institutions in the last fifty years. This thought was, curiously, sparked off by my visit to the Darwin Exhibition in the Natural History Museum in London.

Web – global test ecosystem
The web is a global test house, where theories and ideas are put to the ultimate test (customer acceptance), on a grand scale. Who needs focus groups, pilots and trials, when you have a daily audience of hundreds of millions? Thousands of ideas are launched every day on this platform and many more fail than succeed. In this sense it is a Darwinian environment, in which the environment itself (medium plus users) determines fitness for purpose. Those that survive are ‘fit’ in the sense that they are rated, reused and recommended.

By contrast, recommended pedagogic progress in institutions has been glacial. Best practice is notoriously difficult to get dispersed and adopted so by and large there’s still a preponderance of old practice. ‘Chalk and talk’ in education and training, and the ‘lecture’ in tertiary education, are still dominant. Shocking but true.

Web – evolution on steroids
The web is like evolution on steroids. Great applications just take off and immediately compete with competitors in a race towards population spread. It is a huge habitat, or rather an ecosystem, with a series of habitats, as language and cultural barriers act like oceans, mountain ranges and rivers in keeping language-specific and culturally-specific habitats or applications apart. A good example is social networking where there are considerable linguistic and cultural differences. However, in this global ecosystem/environment, some applications can transcend these barriers to become almost ubiquitous, namely Google, Wikipedia, web mail services and so on.

We can talk usefully and analogously, I think, about the different levels of activity. In evolution we have the biosphere, ecosystems, habitats, communities, populations and individuals. Similarly, on the web we have the world-wide web as the ecosystem, linguistic and cultural habitats, communities of common interest, specific populations of users and individual users. It is not an exact parallel, but a hierarchical description is useful in both cases.

Webdiversity – a Cambrian explosion
While biodiversity shrinks with the crash of wild animal populations (50% of mammal populations in decline, 36% threatened with extinction and 40% of all species threatened), webdiversity explodes. About 530 million years ago we went through the Cambrian explosion, where most of the major groups of complex animals appeared on earth. We are witnessing a similar phenomenon online, with the rapid appearance of many different species of interaction on the web. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web is, arguably, the electronic equivalent of the Cambrian explosion.

Pedagogy and survival
Of course the deep driver in evolution is the blind mutation of DNA producing variation leading to sexual selection and survival. On the web it is sentient beings themselves who create the mutations, which are then selected by users. It’s not quite as clean and blind as evolution, as branding, partnerships, acquisitions, financing etc also play a role. Ideas are also sometimes selected by technical barriers such as bandwidth restrictions, plug-ins, browsers, client devices etc. This is rapidly disappearing as we move towards the world of open standards and the cloud. But on the whole, the web is an ecosystem that ruthlessly punishes applications that are slow, difficult to use, unfriendly, not useful or expensive.

My argument is that it is also ruthless with pedagogic ideas that are slow, difficult to use, unfriendly, not useful or expensive. Let me illustrate this by example.

Google – a pedagogic paradigm
Google has become the ubiquitous search tool because it was simple, fast, easy to use, powerful, useful and free. There is now a whole ecosystem of Google search applications that have similar qualities such as Google Earth, Google Maps and now Google Street. This is a global ecosystem in multiple languages. Other Google habitats include Googlemail, GoogleChrome, GoogleGroups etc. And sometimes this behemoth simply gobbles up another species; the most famous example is YouTube, now owned by Google. Interestingly, it also seeds the ecosystem with open development platforms such as Android, an interesting and newly learnt variation on web dominance.

So, Google has managed to produce several new pedagogic innovations (accelerators of learning) providing almost instant access to knowledge, answers to questions, location search (GoogleEarth, GoogleMaps, GoogleStyreets) along with efficient variations on communication by email (GoogleMail), browsing (GoogleChrome), media sharing (GoogleVideo and YouTube) and Collaboration (GoogleGroups). This has been a pedagogic paradigm shift.

Wikis and Wikipedia – a knowledge revolution
Who would have thought? A not for profit, multilingual encyclopaedia, created collaboratively by volunteers. There’s no way such a project could ever have emerged and succeeded in academia or the print world. With its adjunct features, such as discussions around controversial knowledge, it has become a leading edge knowledge base, almost a news source. Its revolutionary method of production, editing model and vast usage put it among the elite knowledge bases in the world. Now publishing in 262 languages it is a truly global learning resource.

Wikipedia, and wiki production in general, has produced a truly original model for the production, management and access to learning resources. It is astonishing in its success, size and scope. Interestingly, its dominance has come through a symbiotic relationship with Google, where it regularly appears near the top on any topic search.

YouTube and media sharing – a multimedia revolution
YouTube has produced more content than all of the TV stations of the US in their entire history, and it’s all user-generated. It’s easy to upload, easy to view and it’s free. ITUNES has had a similar effect in music and Flickr in photographs. Every medium now has a slew of useful media sharing services that have changed the way in which media is produced, shared and used.

In learning terms YouTube has shown us that the correct pedagogic model is not from TV with the tyranny of its 30 minute and one hour scheduling. On the whole YouTube videos are short and to the point, more importantly they’re as long as they need to be to make the point(s) and not overly produced in terms of production values. Google images allow teachers and learners to draw on millions of images to improve content. Podcasting has had a similar effect in audio. All of this frees us from the stifling dominance of text in learning. Text is fine, but not in places where it’s inappropriate and that includes huge areas of learning. Pedagogically learning has been freed from the constraints of the teacher+textbooks.

File sharing – a distribution revolution
It started with Napster and now there are lots of them, with turbo-charged Bitorrent providing extra power. This is the underbelly of the web, but no less powerful as millions use file sharing daily to their mutual advantage. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. The web showed that users understand the power of co-operation, leading to their mass use, completely reshaping several industries such as music and movies along the way.

This technology has the power to overcome one of the great shames in education and training – duplication of effort. I love the excellent Learning Pool, where users create content then willingly share it with others. In the public sector, this should be the norm. Sadly the opposite is true. Every schools, college, university, local authority and government department goes it alone in designing, developing and delivering learning. The cost and waste is unimaginably high. The pedagogic revolution here is to get sharing.

Facebook, Myspace – a social learning revolution
Social networking came from nowhere. The middle ground of collaboration, where groups of friends keep in touch, has ballooned on the web; people you knew at school (Friends Reunited), people you know at school (Bebo), people you just know (Facebook), people you know in business (LinkedIn). Then there’s Orkut, Cywold, Hi5 and so on covering every imaginable geographic group or community.

Education and training promises social contact with fellow learners and teachers/lecturers/trainers. In practice this is often more of a promise than a reality. Social activity in classrooms can be as much of a hindrance as help in schools, where behaviour management is a problem. Sitting in rows in a lecture theatre or conference room is hardly a powerful social experience. In reality teachers, trainers and lecturers don’t have the time or inclination to be social mentors to their students. True social networking thrives when users see the value and drive the phenomenon. This promises to be very powerful in terms of the social communication and cohesion in groups of learners.

LMSs, VLEs, PLEs – a learning management revolution
Specific online learning systems include whole families of management software that cover, in varying degrees, everything from the design, creation, storage, delivery, management and tracking of content. Learning Management Systems are common in large businesses with large numbers of learners. Learning Content Management Systems tend to focus on repositories of content. VLEs tend to be systems that integrate online functions in schools, colleges and universities. Personal Learning environments tend to be used by users who just like to organise their own news, learning and tools feeds.

Now that everyone has a common platform, the web, education and training can use this to get the business end of learning organised. It makes perfect sense to have an online system that does what a small army of administrators (or teachers/trainers) used to do at great expense. The efficient use of these systems saves organisations huge amounts of money. Pedagogically, this has taken the pain out of learner and content administration. All parties, pupils, students, trainees, learners, parents, teachers, lecturers, trainers, managers and administrators can have access to one system.

Authoring and capture tools – a content creation revolution
For centuries teachers have been designing their own lessons and left alone to deliver the content. This is magnificently inefficient. Media capture and sharing should be used for a portion of this effort, but the creation of good content, from simple learning objects, rapid e-learning, scenario-based e-learning up to games and simulations, good tool are needed to create good content. Tools have now emerged that make this task easier, from simple video and screen capture through to high-end 3D games and simulation tools.

This may not have created an army of teachers, lecturers and trainers who create content, as that was the promise. It has, however, allowed those with reasonable design skills and a knowledge of learning to create content in formats that can be shared online. Word doesn’t make you a novelist and an authoring tool doesn’t make you a learning designer. What we do have is the means to a glorious end – the creation of good, effective and powerful, reusable content.

Survival of the fittest
Ultimately this is a battle between the web and institutional inertia. The web, pedagogically has pushed, and continues to push, us towards more learner-centric models, that fit what we know about the psychology of learning. In evolutionary terms it’s between the dynamic world of the web and the dinosaurs. It’s between sharing and doing everything by yourself. It’s between avoiding expensive duplication of effort and doing things at great cost. It’s between, capturing the minds of young people, or boring them. It’s between the past and the future. In the end it’s about the evolution, survival and success of the fittest. I know where my money’s going.


Paul said...

I think the Darwinian idea is appropriate as you have used it. I actually think the Darwinian model can fit a lot of things.

But we certainly are seeing the very rapid advancement of the communication "seed" that began with the DARPA project decades ago. The pace seems to have picked up so much over the last five years even, and sometimes it is as if I can feel the thing evolving on a daily basis.

As with the Cambrian explosion there are so many options (many of which have already died off) that to quantify them all is daunting, especially in elearning. As with biological evolution though, I already see the groundwork laid for many tools to fall by the wayside as the bigger players finally get bugged to include more features and automation.

Web 2.0 looks great, but just wait for Web 3.0. It will be interesting to see where we are all at when that time arrives.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article Donald on a day the BBC reported Ofstead as saying e-learning has been used very poorly in schools.

It said..

A study of "virtual learning environments" (VLEs) found that in many schools and colleges such systems were still on a "cottage industry" scale.

However where they were more developed, particularly in colleges, such services were able to "enthuse" students.

The benefits to learners are so far "not yet obvious", say inspectors.
The Ofsted report says that "despite expectations", the arrival of these online support services for learners was "still in the early stages of development".

Maybe there is a lot more work to do yet!