Two heads are better than one. Many hands make light work. What these old adages are saying is that working with others will give a better outcome than working alone. Web 2.0 technologies have enabled collaborative environments not previously possible that provide an increased reach and encourage increased dialogue among participants. In the field of education there are many examples of web 2.0 influenced activities that have changed the way students and teachers conduct their learning activities. This essay will consider some of these, with a particular focus on Facebook. Because of its collaborative nature and open communications style, Facebook has enabled an interactive relationship between the members of learning communities in the education process with considerable benefits to both teachers and students.
Research uncovers various definitions for Web 2.0, with Gooding (2008) asserting that among most of these there are dominating themes of collaboration and interaction. In addition she quotes Coombs (2007) to say there is also a general concept of Web 2.0 being closely connected to the technology that underpins it such as Weblogs, wikis, podcasts and social software. Further to this, web 2.0 content will have the characteristics of being user generated, user controlled and user centred. “Web 2.0 tools support virtual collaboration, social interaction, publication, and the social construction of knowledge” (Norton & Hathaway, 2008 p.170).
Unlike earlier static web content, Web 2.0 technology allows users to create profiles, connect and interact with other users (develop communities), and create, share and comment on content all in real-time. Barczyk and Duncan (2013, p.9) talk about increased connectedness through social media across various aspects of human life (friends, family, work, school) and position a view that as this evolves the way we interact with each other will continue to move away from one-way forms of communications to increasingly interactive forms. This is significant as it empowers individuals to have a voice and be part of a conversation rather than just being the receiver of a message. In the realms of education, this has already seen a shift from the authoritative teacher providing instruction, to a facilitative teacher, guiding students to think and challenge assumptions (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013, p.1).
The functionality provided by Web 2.0 has had application in the field of education, with both teachers and students adapting the education process to take advantage of the benefits provided. Warlick (2006) provides some examples of Web 2.0 use in everyday life as part of the learning experience:
- A science teacher blogging about learnings from scientific podcasts, to an audience that includes fellow teachers, students and parents.
- RSS feeds of the aforementioned blog used to keep readers informed of updates to the blog
- Students using wikis to develop their own study guides
- Teachers recording a class discussion and uploading it as a podcast, with subscribers including students, parents and other teachers
Facebook is a global online social network that, although it began as a tool to connect a group of students at a single university, has established itself as one of the largest social networks worldwide (Kirkpatrick, 2010). During June 2014 there were 829 million active users on Facebook (http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/). Facebook has functionality that has proven attractive to members of educational communities, given the increased ability to collaborate and communicate. Furthermore, with a sizeable proportion of students being ‘digital natives’ (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013, p.1) and already having a profile on Facebook, they will encounter group postings and communications as part of their regular social checking in. (Meishar-Tal, Kurtz & Pieterse, 2012, p.39). The learning experience thus continues outside of the classroom, and becomes part of the everyday life of the student.
A case study conducted by Meishar-Tal, Kurtz and Pieterse (2012) found that students perceived learning through a Facebook group as both intense and collaborative and felt they were encouraged to express themselves more than usual due to the stimulating nature of the architecture of the Facebook platform. The case study considered interactions between students and teachers, as well as the ability for class presentations to be published to the group and also the different levels of participation – actively commenting and posting and passive, where participants may just read and ‘like’. The ability to show participation, without having to offer more detailed responses was seen as important to some participants in the study. The conclusion drawn from the results of the study was that Facebook had some important advantages over a regular learning management system, particularly as a tool to promote active collaboration (Meishar-Tal, Kurtz and Pieterse, p.45).
Learning management systems (LMS) are used to provide students with access to digital learning materials, the ability to interact with other students as well as manage certain aspects of student performance such as results and achievements. The case study undertaken by Meishar-Tal, Kurtz and Pieterse (2012) to examine the suitability of Facebook Groups as alternatives to a regular LMS found several distinct advantages. Groups can be created and controlled by anyone, as opposed to an LMS which is controlled by the education provider. The Facebook wall allows for a flow of content that has new and newly commented on posts at the top, which encourages interaction (Meisher-Tal, Kurt and Pieterse p39), as opposed to an LMS which has a less dynamic architecture, with each item in the forum standing on its own, and arranged chronologically rather than by relevance. Wang et al (2011) further argued in favour of Facebook stating it had the right technological, social and educational aspects required of an LMS, along with the ability to share materials and enter into discussions with other students as well as teaching staff. Whilst they also raise concerns regarding potential privacy violations with Facebook use, Meishar-Tal, Kurtz and Pieterse point out that, with the development of Facebook groups, group members do not need to ‘friend’ other members in order to interact with each other, and this risk is much reduced.
Facebook has also enabled the creation of informal learning groups or communities of practice where students can discuss and interact with each other without the constraints of a classroom or formal LMS. Barczyk and Duncan (2013, p.8) found that students felt that Facebook enhanced their ability to participate and have conversations; further findings of the research suggest that the communities of practice that were borne from Facebook discussions ‘culminated in knowledge sharing, collaboration and interaction, and learner-centred activities’ (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013, p.8). The ability to make comments was identified as being one of the key functions of Facebook that students felt particularly assisted to develop communities of practice and shape the ability to collaborate and share ideas.
Research has also shown that the ability to discuss and challenge ideas as a group contributes to the development of critical thinking skills (Jovanovic & Chiong, 2012, p.39). Similarly, Gooding (2008, p.45) notes the importance of new Web 2.0 technology to the development of critical thinking in students; the flow on is ‘substantive conversation’ not just in the classroom but in other classrooms and other likeminded communities that would have been less accessible without the ability to communicate and collaborate across the internet and other technologies. Facebook, and more broadly, Web 2.0 has extended the reach of communities beyond geography so that knowledge sharing, collaborating and communicating can take place virtually anywhere, and anywhere, virtually.
Effective communication is an important aspect of the education process, necessary to impart knowledge and influence learning. Collaboration is essential to growth and development of ideas. Community is a necessary for collaboration to take place. These are important aspects of the education process that have been influenced, for the better, by Web 2.0 technology and Facebook. Students are no longer confined to a classroom to discuss ideas; in fact they can undertake entire courses without ever stepping into a classroom. Teachers are no longer the knowledge holders, but are now ‘facilitators of collaboration’ (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013, p.1). Learning can take place formally and informally, with discussions possible between participants in the learning process at any time. Facebook and Facebook groups have seen the learning experience become part of student life outside of the dedicated learning time, with collaboration and discussion being integrated into the regular social experience a student might have on Facebook. Web 2.0 has facilitated increased interactivity in the field of education, with increased avenues to communicate and collaborate. Maybe a friend on Facebook is worth two in the classroom!
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