Web 2.0 in Education: Trends for 2008


While the technologies collectively known as Web 2.0 have penetrated the consumer sector rapidly over the last four years or so, the process has been much slower and more measured in education. There were some breakthroughs in 2007, with upward trends in the adoption--or at least availability--of Web 2.0 technologies in the areas of teacher professional development and supplemental instructional technologies, such as podcasting, streaming media, and blogging.

For 2008, the watchwords are convenience, collaboration, and convergence, as more and more fundamental applications find a home on the Web--away from the desktop--spawning the next generation of mobile devices and potential new approaches to the use of more traditional computing tools.

However, the path ahead for Web 2.0 in education (and even business) isn't all sunshine and roses. Concerns over security flaws in Web 2.0 technologies may overshadow convenience and collaborative capabilities, further slowing institutional adoption.

Convenience, Collaboration, Convergence
Convergence, of course, is nothing new in technology, but Web 2.0 has put a new spin on it. As consumer-oriented Web 2.0 applications continue to grow in popularity--from social networking to digital media sharing to the never-ending array of new mashups--devices also emerge to bring them all together and combine them with more traditional technologies, such as telephones and digital media players. These are seen most dramatically in devices like Apple's iPhone and latest-generation iPods, which combine these technologies with full-featured support for Web applications.

Outside of the Apple camp, a whole new generation of tiny and "ultramobile PCs" is emerging, as seen en masse at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. These are devices designed to take advantage of the latest wireless connectivity technologies to allow access to standard Web technologies in a form factor small enough to fit in users' pockets. And thus, assuming adoption of these kinds of devices speeds up at all this year, we'll see tasks commonly relegated to traditional computers moved over to these mobile devices as users turn to Web-based alternatives to desktop applications like word processing and spreadsheets.

However, it's unlikely such devices, along with their cousins the smart phones, will have a tremendous impact in education, at least in the coming year.

Where these technologies all come together in the here and now--albeit with less mobility--is in traditional computing. And there's a funny sort of irony in that Web 2.0 applications may actually help to bring about the dream/nightmare of thin clients, as notebooks and desktops are transformed into little more than dumb terminals accessing remotely hosted applications. In antithesis to the whole concept of thin client technology, however, Web 2.0, rather than consolidating technology in the hands of IT professionals, skirts the IT department completely. That this will ever be taken to the extreme--to the point where computers exist truly as mere thin clients--is doubtful. But there is no doubt that there's a continued trend toward more and more hosted, mashed-up, collaborative tools in education, from assessment platforms to collaborative learning tools (such as blogs and wikis) to online delivery of audio and video to full-blown productivity tools, such as Google Apps for Education and others.

Of course, Apple did take a step in that direction this week with the launch of the MacBook Air, a notebook for the wireless generation that doesn't even bother to incorporate any removable media devices whatsoever (and yet still manages to be considerably more expensive than standard MacBook notebooks). The implication is that whatever a user needs, he or she can get it off the Web--whether it's digital media or productivity tools. We have yet to see whether people will shell out $1,800 on that premise, since the MacBook Air doesn't ship for another two weeks, but the results will be telling at Apple's next quarterly conference call. The company is usually a pioneer in the adoption of new removable media technologies and the rejection of the old, so success with this sort of approach could portend similar moves by PC manufacturers.

Security Issues Loom Large
Be that as it may, Web 2.0 faces considerable challenges in the coming year, not the least of which is in the very un-Web 2.0 sphere of "cyber security." The very technologies that make Web 2.0 a reality, especially AJAX, seem to be considerably vulnerable to security breaches that can lead to data loss and theft and other malicious activities.

In fact, Georgia Tech's Information Security Center released a report entitled "GTISC Emerging Cyber Threats Report for 2008," in which Web 2.0 was cited first as one of the threats to watch in 2008, topping botnets, directed messaging attacks, and RFID attacks. (It also, coincidentally, cited mobile convergence threats in its top 5.)

Commenting on the report, GTISC Director Mustaque Ahamad said, "As newer and more powerful applications enabled by technologies like Web 2.0 continue to grow, and converged communications applications increasingly rely on IP-based platforms, new challenges will arise in safeguarding these applications and the services they rely on. The GTISC Emerging Cyber Threats Report for 2008 highlights those areas of greatest risk and concern, particularly as continued convergence of enterprise and consumer technologies is expected over the coming year."

Web 2.0 was cited for potential client-side attacks on social networking technologies, aimed at "stealing private data, hijacking Web transactions, executing phishing scams, and perpetrating corporate espionage." Mobile convergence threats included "vishing," "smishing," and voice spam, plus denial of service attacks targeting voice infrastructure, according to the report.

And GTISC isn't the lone voice raising the alarm over the security risks of Web 2.0.

Earlier this month, the KPMG, a UK-based consultancy, released a report entitled "Risk concerns stall uptake of Web 2.0 technology in the workplace." The report did not focus on education, but on the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in the business sector, citing slow adoption owing to security concerns. Of 472 executives from around the world surveyed for the report, more than half said that security is a principal barrier to adoption.

Said Crispin O'Brien, Chairman of Technology for KPMG, "Web 2.0 is not just about novel consumer technology, there are real business benefits to be derived from enabling more effective knowledge sharing and collaboration among employees. The challenge for the technology industry is to communicate these benefits to customers effectively and address the concerns that remain around security and relevance to different industries."

Furthermore, just this week, the SANS Institute came out with its own report--"Top Ten Cyber Security Menaces for 2008"--naming Web application exploits, including Web 2.0, at No. 8. Said the report:

Large percentages of Web sites have cross site scripting, SQL injection, and other vulnerabilities resulting from programming errors. Until 2007, few criminals attacked these vulnerable sites because other attack vectors were more likely to lead to an advantage in unauthorized economic or information access. Increasingly, however, advances in XSS and other attacks have demonstrated that criminals looking for financial gain can exploit vulnerabilities resulting from Web programming errors as new ways of penetrating important organizations. Web 2.0 applications are vulnerable because user-supplied data cannot be trusted; your script running in the users' browser still constitutes "user supplied data." In 2008, Web 2.0 vulnerabilities will be added to more traditional programming flaws and Web application attacks will grow substantially.

And related technologies didn't get off the hook either. Again, exploits against converged devices, such as smart phones and iPhones, were named the No. 4 threat. And Web-based digital media technologies were actually listed as the No. 1 threat category for the ways in which they create vulnerabilities within Web browsers.

All of this, for consumers, is fairly meaningless. For businesses, it's a significant hurdle. But for schools, it's only one of many concerns posed by collaborative and Web 2.0 technologies. It's the major one for IT; but for administrators and teachers, perceptions of risks for students and time wasting are also major concerns. More than half of the K-12 schools in the United States block students from social networking sites entirely, according to a report released this summer by the National School Boards Association, "Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social--and Educational--Networking." One such social networking site, MySpace, agreed this week to take steps to protect children online from content perceived as dangerous, such as pornography, harassment, bullying, and identity theft. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this will have on the adoption of social networking in schools.

Oddly, it's in the more benevolent, education-focused Web technologies where schools seem to be more intent on banning student participation. While 52 percent of schools block social networking sites, 62 percent block students from blogging, and a full 84 percent ban online chat technologies, both which are fairly integral to the online learning process and standard components of electronic learning systems.

And so, despite the promise of Web 2.0 and the collaborative learning and communications tools out there, 2008 may yet prove to be a slow year for the further adoption of these technologies owing to underlying security flaws in the technologies and the perceptions of the value of these technologies in education.

Still, Web 2.0 does hold that promise for new and ever more inventive was to engage students (and teachers) in the learning process. The articles linked below show some of the examples of teachers incorporating Web 2.0 and collaborative technologies in their programs, along with some advice on their effective use in education.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .