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Web 2.0: Helping Reinvent Education

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Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, opened his talk Thursday morning at FETC 2008 with an unexpected statement. "What you're going to hear this morning," he said, "is a talk I've never given before."

Dede, by his own account, has spent the last two months considering the implications of some fundamental shifts that are happening in the nature of learning and knowledge and promised that his talk was "certainly hot off the presses." In a world where learners are being shaped by the things they do outside of the classroom, he said, how do we prepare students for careers that do not exist yet and that will be driven by these very same methods of learning?

Dede began with a discussion of Web 2.0 and its classification as a "perceived second-generation" of Web-based communities and hosted services. "Perceived," he noted, because of the time it took for these concepts to emerge; roughly a decade after the initial launch of the Web. In fact, said Dede, "it is definitely a part of the ideas that underlay the Web at the beginning."

Web 2.0, Dede noted, is "centered around Web-based communities, where the central theme is to facilitate creativity, collaboration, and sharing." It is an environment where knowledge is gained through bottom-up, individual methods, rather than top-down, traditional forms. "Web 2.0," he said, "is a major paradigm shift in the way people think."


"Thinking is now distributed across minds, tools and media, groups of people, and space and time."
--Chris Dede, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Dede discussed his understanding of the "evolution of education," brought on by this new way of thinking, breaking it down to three main components:

  • A shift in the type of knowledge and skills that society values;
  • The development of new methods of teaching and learning; and
  • Changes in the characteristics of learners.

This evolution has created a gap between what he termed "Classic learning and knowing" and "Web 2.0 learning and knowing." According to Dede, many students feel that what they learn is irrelevant to their 21st-century lives. They also feel that they have powerful ways of learning within their lives that are not respected in the classroom. "Thinking is now distributed," he said, "across minds, tools and media, groups of people, and space and time." It is important, he shared, for people to be fluent in new technologies and literacies because more and more jobs are disappearing that require classical knowledge.

Considering the idea of synthesizing classical knowledge with Web 2.0, Dede shared his use of the traditional, top-down methods in his classroom while watching his students engage in the bottom-up methods, contemplating the reality of making them meet somewhere in the middle. Dede confessed, when it comes to the possibility of synthesis, "this is the part that I don't understand very well."

Despite the lack of a concrete solution, Dede stressed the need to integrate these new modes of learning into educational objectives. "What we really want kids to graduate with," he said, "is knowledge about knowledge; meta-knowledge." Education, he insisted, should foster meaning making; it should emphasize the ability to convey ones own understanding to others.

Paraphrasing Shakespeare's The Tempest, Dede closed by stating "we are witnessing a sea-change." "We can stand to the side," he said, "... or we can get into the middle of it ... and help reinvent education based on new forms of knowledge and learning."

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About the author: Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Florida. He can be reached at criedel2@cfl.rr.com.

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About the Author

Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Illinois. He can be reached here.

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