All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education
1. All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher
Education (a tale of two keynotes)
Keynote speech for the Virtual University: Models, Tools and Practice
Conference, Technical University of Warsaw, Poland. June 18-20, 2008.
University of Plymouth
In this presentation I shall focus on new web based technologies and their
current uses in education and training. I will begin by reflecting on some earlier
ideas I put forward about e-learning and the role technology played in the
shaping of universities and their futures. I shall then outline some recent social
web research and speculate on how current and emerging technologies may
influence future e-learning provision in higher education. I will conclude by
offering my view on what I believe must be achieved if new technologies and the
social web are to enhance and extend learning experiences in higher education.
‘May you live in interesting times’ (Old Chinese curse)
We live in tumultuous times where change is constant and disruptive and where
technologies are increasingly pervasive throughout society. Such change and
disruption has been in the background of my thinking about learning technology
for the past decade. In May 2000, I was invited to present two keynote speeches
about the role technology would play in the future of higher education.
The first keynote was presented to the European Universities Continuing
Education Network (EUCEN) at the University of Bergen, Norway and was
entitled ‘The Traditional University is Dead – Long live the Distributed
University!’ (Wheeler, 2000a). In my speech I outlined the economic and
organisational problems faced by universities in a time of radical technological
changes, and economic stringency in which traditional catchment areas and
boundaries were being eroded. I argued that in order to survive the economic
and societal challenges, universities would need to revise their approaches to
education provision. I urged universities to develop new strategies that were
based upon digital technologies to widen access, increase quality and generally
subscribe to the idea that students need no longer attend traditional lectures to
achieve quality learning outcomes (Wheeler, 2004). I also pointed out the need
for universities to create their own niche markets of unique or signature courses,
and that universities would need to co-operate together in order to survive the
2. economic turmoil and to make sense of the strictures and limitations that would
be imposed due to governmental pressures.
My main recommendation however, was one grounded in the technology
mediated learning approach. I argued that due to advances in information and
communication technologies (ICTs) that traditional student catchment areas
would begin to disappear or become less obvious (the death of distance) and
recommended that universities turn their attention to blended and distance
methods to broaden and extend their reach (the distributed model). I advised my
audience that a number of new technologies were becoming increasingly
available, easier to use and more economically viable to purchase into. I pointed
out that one of the key technologies for the future would be the World Wide Web
(I was of course unaware at the time just how vital it would become) and that
managed (virtual) learning environments would become a useful means of
organising and supporting online learning for large groups of distributed
learners. I took a risk and argued that universities that could not or would not
rise to these challenges would either cease to exist, or become subsumed into
larger universities who could respond to the challenge.
In this speech I was deliberately provocative, and was rewarded by a passionate
response from the delegates. Many were convinced that I was correct, whilst
many more were equally convinced that I was wrong. It prompted much debate
and led to a number of publications which presented my thinking to a wider
audience (Wheeler, 2000b; 2001).
Later that same month, I presented a second keynote speech at a Teachers’
Conference held at the University of Western Bohemia, Plzen, in the Czech
Republic. In that presentation I focused on the role of the teacher and how it
was changing as a result of technological drivers, such as the introduction of
new ICTs as well as political, societal and organisational demands (Wheeler,
2001a; 2001b). I drew upon my experience working in British and American
schools to describe some of the new technologies and media methods that were
emerging, and outlined their applications in teaching and learning. I argued that
new information and communication technologies offered teachers an
unprecedented chance to enhance and extend their practice. I went on to
suggest that teachers needed to modify their classroom management,
curriculum design, resources development, assessment and evaluation methods
and communication techniques, if they were to remain effective and responsive
practitioners. Again, this was a somewhat contentious speech, particularly as
many teachers are traditionally minded, conservative in their approach, pressed
for time and notoriously resistant to change.
My first keynote dealt with the changes institutions needed to make to survive in
the new knowledge economy; my second keynote argued for changes at the
level of the individual practitioner. In hindsight, neither argument was too wide of
the mark. Across Europe and other western industrialised nations, most
universities now have their own corporate e-learning strategies, and most
manage their own virtual learning environments (McConnell, 2006).
3. Furthermore, many teachers have now adapted their everyday practice to
incorporate digital technologies into the classroom and to extend learning
beyond the traditional boundaries of the institute (Bach et al, 2007). Distance
education is high on the agenda of most higher education institutes and a great
deal of effort and time has been invested into staff development to ensure that
teachers are up to date and aware of how to teach remotely using new
technologies. Teachers have now started to harness the power of ICT and the
web and personal networked computers within their working practice, for
organisational, communicative and pedagogical purposes (John & Wheeler,
It is not only the role of the teacher that has changed. The embedding of digital
technology into the fabric of everyday study has also changed the way students
learn (Colllis & Moonen, 2002) and is more in keeping with what younger people
expect (Veen & Vrakking, 2006). Now students can assume more responsibility
for their own learning and design their own study trajectories. They are able to
learn on the move using mobile technologies, and are able to access a vast
storehouse of knowledge through ubiquitous access to the World Wide Web.
Communication is an easier prospect also with instant messaging and shared
learning spaces becoming more common place. In many ways, and for most
students, it would be hard to conceive of a way of learning and working that was
devoid of the World Wide Web, e-mail or word processing.
It is now time to take stock. My two keynotes were conceived, written and
presented almost a decade ago, at a time when the World Wide Web was still in
its infancy. I was certainly speaking for a time before the advent of what is now
referred to as Web 2.0 or the ‘social web’. In this keynote, having revisited my
previous speeches I will try to gaze once more into the near future in an attempt
to determine what education might look like in the light of the technological
developments that comprise Web 2.0. I will attempt to contextualise these
changes at the level of both organisation and individual, to provide a picture of
how universities and teachers might manage their business in the coming
decade. Once again, I will do so based upon my knowledge and experience
gained from a career in which research has been central to my work. As my
starting point I shall examine the phenomenon that is Web 2.0 and provide
some examples of current pedagogical practice using social software. I will then
speculate on the current changes in practice that might be dictated, both for the
institution and the teacher. Finally, I will suggest that there are five key
objectives to achieve if universities are to achieve success in the use of learning
technologies in the future.
The Changing Web (2.0)
So what exactly is Web 2.0? This is a contested label for new and emergent
properties that are found on the Web. It is a complex network of dynamic
resources that we all acknowledge is constantly changing to adapt to the
growing demand for entertainment, communication and access to knowledge.
Debate centres upon whether the emerging social applications constitute a sea
4. change or revolution in the Web (cf. van Dijk, 2002) or simply another phase in
its relentless progress. Personally, I find myself in agreement with Winston
(2003), preferring to view social applications as a facet of gradual evolution
rather than symptoms of sudden revolution. Essentially, the Web has become
more social. As with most other technology innovations, Web 2.0 applications
have grown out of the need for people to connect together, share experiences
and knowledge, enhance their experiences and open up new possibilities in
learning. Social software is software that enables people to both read from, and
write onto web spaces. It is literally the ‘architecture of participation’ (Barsky &
Purdon, 2006) and demands active engagement as a natural facet of its
character (Kamel Boulos & Wheeler, 2007).
Web 2.0 tools include popular applications such as blogs, wikis and podcasting;
social networking sites such as FaceBook and MySpace; photo- and video-
sharing services such as Flickr and YouTube; familiar utilities such as RSS
feeds, social tagging (e.g. del.icio.us), microblogs (e.g. Twitter), mashups (e.g.
geotagging); and concepts such as the folksonomy, ‘Darwikianism’ and the
‘wisdom of the crowds’ (Kamel Boulos et al, 2006). I would further like to argue
that multi-player games and simulations such as Second Life also fall within the
purview of Web 2.0, in that they capitalise on social dimensions and shared
spaces characteristic of the social Web. Lastly, we must not ignore the growing
power, ubiquity and utility of the mobile telephone and the central role it will play
in enabling ‘anytime anyplace’ learning for students of the future.
Not much is known as yet about the effects many of these applications exert
upon teaching and learning, or the benefits and limitations they bring to
education and training. How for example, does this architecture of participation
help to scaffold remote learners and how can it promote quality learning
outcomes? What is the extent of the capability of social software to encourage a
culture of sharing and collaboration? How much will Web 2.0 applications help
to shape the education provision of the future? What roles will online games and
mobile, personal technologies play in developing the skills young people need to
study independently? These are questions we are beginning to address in some
of the current research.
Social Software that supports learning
Staff at the University of Plymouth have been using Web 2.0 (social web) tools
in teacher education for the last two years and have attempted to qualify their
use in a number of areas of learner support including shared online spaces
(Wheeler et al, 2008) and blogs (Wheeler & Lambert-Heggs, 2008). The
essential premise underpinning the use of any social software application is that
over a period of time it genuinely becomes self-supporting, and that the students
will enjoy the freedom to produce their own content and study pathways. The
problem with this is that students may not always be as accurate or fastidious in
their content generation as they could be, and may need guidance on the
pathway they choose to take. However, there is evidence that students begin to
support each other when they share the same online space and have mutual
goals to achieve. One of the most popular and easy to use tools in the wiki – a
shared website which anyone can edit.
5. We quickly discovered that wikis are so open as to cause problems if some form
of scaffolding or structure is not created for students. We therefore designed a
number of activities for the wiki. One of the first learning activities was to
generate a set of rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour online.
Students proposed and discussed their rules, which included the banning of
offensive language and racist comments. Known as ‘wikiquette’ (wiki etiquette),
this popular activity was subscribed to by all of the groups, and the result was a
consensus of rules that the entire group had ownership over. There is no
evidence that any of the rules were ever broken, but if any wikiquette rules had
been transgressed, it would have been certain that the rest of the group would
take action and sanction the perpetrator.
Social Software that connects people together
At the University of Plymouth, several of the teacher trainee groups are
geographically dispersed across the South of England. They are mostly mature
and part-time students who hold substantive posts in training agencies, colleges
and universities, and in community adult education centres, the military, health
service, police force and prison service. Some do not have the opportunity to
meet face-to-face with their peer group and sometimes suffer from a lack of tutor
contact. For the majority, their busy lifestyles do not allow them to enjoy more
than brief contact with their fellow students on more than a once weekly basis
because travel into a teaching centre can be time consuming, expensive and
tiring. Here social software can be used to connect people and enable them to
collaborate together in project work, small group learning and online discussion.
The MentorBlog project employs the use of two-person blogs to connect
students with their professional mentors, who many may never meet face to
face. Using two-person blogs, students are encouraged to regularly write their
reflections on professional practice directly to their blog. Their mentor is able to
read the student’s posting and then comment directly to the blog with their own
observations, guidance and support.
MentorBlog is still in its infancy, but as it develops and expands, we expect to
offer its services to a wider group of students, with the possible incorporation of
microblogging facilities such as Twitter. We also anticipate an extension of the
project to include mobile blogging (moblogging) where students use mobile
telephones and other handheld wireless devices to write and send their blog
Social Software that promotes collaboration
Collaborative forms of learning are becoming increasingly popular methods of
adult education, because they involve all students in the process of learning.
Social software is based heavily on participation, and this is apparent in a
number of features including tagging, voting, versioning, hyperlinking and
searching, as well as discussion and commenting. The power of this kind of
software is that it includes all in the process of creating group based collections
of knowledge, and artefacts that are of specific interest to the learning
6. One of the most popular activities on the wiki based learning programmes was
‘goldmining’. In this activity, each of the students took individual responsibility to
seek out, evaluate and then post useful websites and online learning resources
that were deemed indispensable to the group. These were posted up onto the
group wiki, and a short summary attached by the ‘gold miner’ to explain what it
contained and why it would be useful. Students were encouraged to explore
each others’ gold dust resources and attach their own comments on how useful
they found them. Attached discussion groups supported more in depth and
informal discussion about the activity. It is doubtful whether such a useful and
comprehensive collection of online resources complete with evaluative
commentary, could have been assembled any other way, or in such an
Social Software that challenges current provision
There is a sense from many younger students that the institutional managed
learning environments are not popular tools, because they fail in comparison to
the more colourful, flexible and accessible social networking tools that are
available for free on the internet. Further, students enjoy personalising their
online spaces, a task that is not particularly easy or positively discouraged within
institutional systems. This is particularly evident on a cursory inspection of any
young person’s social website, whether it be Bebo, MySpace or any other
popular free space. Students ‘pimp’ their pages, adding colour and textures,
favourite images, links to their favourite websites, including mashups to video
sharing sites such as YouTube and photo sites such as Flickr. This is often
impossible or forbidden on university and college sites, where a corporate
branding and image uniformity is enforced and surveillance is imposed.
If they wished to change this kind of restrictive provision and depose the
‘tyranny of the institutional VLE’, universities would need to undergo a radical
shift in policy. VLEs are used to provide a ‘walled garden’ around expensive and
copyrighted resources, as well as the imposition of control over access, tracking
and assessment of student learning. The problem now for many education
institutions is to try to strike a balance between maintaining the element of
control, whilst enabling students to personalise their own learning environments
and tailor them to their own preferences and learning styles. Wikis and blogs to
a certain extent can achieve this objective, but there can be constraints and
disadvantages to this approach, not least a resistance from students themselves
who may not wish for these tools to be imposed upon them.
Social Software that creates new and enhanced learning experiences
In the last year we have created several new learning activities that can be used
by students in shared online spaces. We have designed the activities so that
they offer students experiences or access to resources that would be impossible
or difficult to offer through conventional means. Activities are not mandatory, but
can supplement and enhance traditional, classroom based provision. One
project known as the WikiLit project is offered as a means for students to gather
together evidence of core skills in and around literacy and numeracy learning.
7. Students generally disliked doing the activities on the wiki, although several
actually liked the concept of the wiki and could see how it could be used with
their own students. The biggest problem they identified was a lack of time, and
most agreed that the wiki activities actually made more work for them. Students
were resentful that they had to access materials online, and several issues were
raised including lack of familiarity, lack of access and lack of understanding
about what was required of them. A major conclusion from the WikiLit study is
that although the wiki is a useful tool to bring distributed students together for
collaborative learning, the subject matter and the manner in which it was
delivered occluded the positive aspects for this group of students. Future
provision should be less rigidly subject specific and more open for students to
bring their own content to the space. Moreover, students and staff should be
given better induction and training in the use of the tool, so that the potential is
What will be the Future of Higher Education? Five Key Objectives.
It is increasingly apparent that learning technology and digital communication
will play a key role in the shaping of future higher education. For digital
technologies to become as successful in education as ‘paper and pencil’, I
believe that five objectives will need to be achieved:
1. Technology will need to become more ‘transparent’ (Wheeler, 2005). That is,
technology will need to become so embedded into the day to day
experiences of teachers and students that it becomes common place, and
even mundane. The novelty value and opacity of technologies often prevent
users from ‘seeing through them’, beyond the shiny toy with the buttons and
lights, to a tool that is useful because it does something previous tools could
2. Universities must offer better support to academics. Often teachers are
pushed into situations where they need to cope with new ideas and new
technologies without clear guidance. In such situations, teachers will struggle
and fail with technology, or they will resist to the point of rejection. Very few
will actually succeed without help. Appropriate training, support services and
dialogue will invariably overcome many of these issues (John & Wheeler,
3. Teachers need to see the relevance and application of new technologies.
For teachers to adopt new technologies, they must first see the applications
and understand the benefits (as well as the limitations) of the tool. If a tool
adds nothing new to the teaching and learning equation it will be perceived
as irrelevant and will be rejected (cf. Norman, 1990).
4. Teachers will need to gain greater confidence in the use of new
technologies. This will mean that they will need to be continually adaptive
and responsive to change as it happens. This relates back to training, which
brings familiarity, but teachers also need to see beyond the technology,
using it as an extension and enhancement of their own cognitive capabilities,
8. in the sense of a ‘mindtool’. They will also need to see that technology can
be contextualised into real and authentic teaching situations. And they will
need to be willing to change their own practice occasionally.
5. More research is needed into what can be done and what cannot be done
with new technologies. How do we know whether or not something works,
who it works with, and under what conditions it becomes less successful?
We can find out through trial and error, or more preferably, through thorough
and systematic research in which new technologies are tested out in
Ultimately, to ensure that technologies are successfully adopted, institutions
need to demonstrate that each is relevant and can be used effectively to
support, enhance and extend learning beyond what is currently possible. The
value added potential of new technologies becomes the unique selling point,
including its capability to change or challenge current provision. Change
however, comes with a price, usually in human cost. Many teachers are
reluctant to embrace new technology because they may perceive it as
undermining their authority, it may challenge roles they are comfortable within,
or require them to invest time and effort into learning how to do something new.
Many are unhappy about change and some will actively resist. Often such
resentment or distrust of new technologies can be transmitted to students,
particularly those who are more mature. Universities therefore need to find
‘champions’ – early adopters of the new technologies who are also respected
opinion leaders within the academic community.
Changes often come from the grassroots upwards, but without support and
nourishment from the top, many seemingly useful changes fade and die.
Managers and leaders need to listen to the views of their staff (and also their
students), and commit their institutions wholeheartedly to new innovations that
are pragmatic, to ensure that they are spending money on technology that fits
into the every day teaching and learning activities of the organisation. Such
decisions need to be informed by empirical research that is generalisable.
Institutions will need to secure adequate funding so that new technology is
sustainable. Too often organisations buy into new technology but fail to budget
for ongoing support such as training, upgrades, repairs and maintenance.
Training should be offered that is realistic and authentic so that teachers can
situate their new skills within everyday practice. Finally, institutions will need to
offer opportunities to teachers to use new technologies that are relevant across
entire curricula. Sometimes curricula may need to change to fit the new
The advent of new and emerging technologies such as interactive surface
devices, mobile and wireless technologies and the social web, afford teachers
with unprecedented opportunities to try out new pedagogies which would
9. previously have been difficult or impossible. Teachers may see new
technologies as opportunities or as threats. Whatever their views, the teachers
who will be successful will be those who incorporate new technologies into their
courses, and who adopt a role that us supportive of flexible and mobile learning.
Younger students who are entering higher education in the next year will be the
first students who have grown up in a world in which connection to the internet
has always been there. They will expect to enjoy fast access to online
resources, social networking and mobile learning, and if this is not forthcoming
or discouraged, they will go somewhere where it is available.
It is up to the institution, through clear leadership, strong support of innovation
and the adoption of a culture of blame-free experimentation, to ensure that new
technologies becoming embedded into the fabric of the education programme.
Only then will we begin to see the social web being used to its fullest capacity –
as a liberating tool to enable students to learn anywhere, at any time, and in a
style and at a pace that suits their individual needs and preferences.
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