Now I don’t want to appear like one of those retired colonels sitting in his leather wingback chair snorting with derision into his Daily Telegraph but I am beginning to feel that the brave new world of my students and my own children is just plain incomprehensible. Just like your Grandad wearing jeans and white trainers, I feel that I ought to keep up and know what’s going on but I know I will probably look rather ridiculous in the process. I am never going to be “down with the kids” but I ought to try…hadn’t I?
So, I have been reading quite a lot recently about Web 2.0 and social networking. I am interested in the way that a new generation of users is taking the technology and bending it to their own needs rather than using a pre-packaged product that Bill Gates provides for us. It strikes a chord with me; it is a new high-tech version of do-it-yourself – a reminder of the freedom and anarchy of punk. Yet it also raises interesting pedagogic questions for us as teachers and educationalists: what can our students already do as they sit before us on day one of a new academic year? What are they used to regarding access to technology? What do they expect us to provide and use? Importantly these questions raise challenges for us: How are we to respond to these expectations? Indeed should we respond at all?
Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University is a cultural anthropologist and media ecologist who, according to his website (http://www.ksu.edu/sasw/anthro/wesch.htm), has been “exploring the impacts of new media on human interaction”. He has posted an interesting and thought-provoking video on YouTube called The Machine is Us/ing Us
( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g) which illustrates the power of Web 2.0 technologies and the way that it is different from the previous incarnations of the WWW. What is equally interesting is the response that there has been to this posting. It is, according to his webpage, “the most popular video in the blogosphere”. It is true that the postings on Youtube are many and various but there are also an increasing number of video responses – fellow enthusiasts or detractors using the technology as a vehicle for talking creatively about the technology; all very post-modern I am sure.
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) has produced a range of publications on the way in which technology impinges on education in general and schools in particular. Their 2006 report Emerging Technologies for Learning (http://publications.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=25940&page=1835) uses a series of case studies to illustrate the ways in which Web 2.0 technologies are starting to impinge on the learning environment. In one case study Geoff Stead describes a near future in which advances in the hardware allow students to have wider access to mobile technology and where, as a consequence, there will be a greater pressure on those in education to use this facility in the delivery of provision. In another Leon Cych discusses the growth of social networking, a development which Web 2.0 technologies easily facilitate. This second idea is taken up and discussed at greater length in a 2006 JISC funded report by Paul Anderson, What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/techwatch/tsw0701.pdf)
Now I can see that such advances will allow those students who are traditionally hard to reach or for whom physically attending college or university is not always possible or appropriate more easily access to educational provision and their fellow students and that has to be a good thing. But I also worry about two things: for the student there appears to be an opportunity to replace the face-to-face experience with a remote, isolating experience and I am not sure that is always the best way to learn; and for the tutor there appears to be an unspoken pressure to use the new technologies just because they are there rather than because they are appropriate.
For me this new technology should be regarded in the same way that the biro was or even laptops and data projectors – they should be used when they prove to be better than what went before. I fear that we may be caught in the same trap that resulted in the classic disease, Death by PowerPoint: a pressure to use something just because everyone else does. Not to use it seems to imply incompetence whereas poor or inappropriate use publicly shows the very thing we are trying to avoid! So I heartily recommend the three sources mentioned briefly here, they provide a stimulus for an interesting debate. For me though it is the debate that is of primary importance, for out of that will hopefully come a conscious decision to use the technology or not because it is appropriate for the subject matter and the students involved; in other words it will be a decision based on pedagogy – now that does sound old-fashioned, even reactionary!