Crossroads in Education: Issues for Web 2.0, Social Software, and Digital Tools


We are at a crossroads in educating our youth. Since public schools became the norm for education, we've identified curriculum based on the social, political, and economic need. We've classified what counts into tight packages of content in subject areas as math, science, social studies, and so on. Echoing Owen, Grant, Sayers, and Facer (2006), our approach to teaching and learning, including the order and how information is presented to students, the stages of assessment and what constitutes appropriate discussion on those subjects have also been tightly defined (p. 31). Advancements in technology, principally Web 2.0, social software, and digital tools, have challenged what it means to be educated and how we proceed to educate our youth in a culture where innovation and creativity, lifelong learning, personalization (my own learning space), and knowledge from and with the collective vie for a rightful place.

The issues we face surround the dilemma of achieving personalization while maintaining standards (KnowledgeWorks Foundation, 2006). Students do need structure from experienced teachers and core subject matter knowledge; however, as Owen and his colleagues (2006) pointed out, their use of social software has opened up new sources of that knowledge leading to times when it would be appropriate to use "more weakly classified and framed approaches to learning" (p. 31). Let's look at some of the issues and implications for curriculum, instruction, and integration support, which will need open discussions with educators, parents, students, the community, policy makers, and technology developers, if we are to resolve the dilemma.

Creativity and Collaboration
Social software changes what it means to be creative. Very little may be truly original, as people appropriate content, adapt it for their needs, mix it up, and distribute it "in a way in which consumption of media and information also becomes a productive act" (Owen et al., 2006, p. 39). There are at least two implications for curriculum.

First, issues raised about creativity indicate that we need greater attention to teaching about the legal ramifications of intellectual property rights, copyright, and plagiarism and that revisiting the definition of cheating ight be in order. As many student creations are done in collaboration with others, I agree with Owen and his colleagues that we need to remove the stigma from collaboration. "[I]t is no longer cheating to find out from or gain the advice of other people or to use information sources not already in your head" (p. 40), but we do need to explicitly teach learners how to acknowledge their sources.

Second, students create all forms of multimedia from their printed words to audio, video, and image artifacts, many of which they share on social sites. Those who can work with a variety of media demonstrate a broader range of thinking skills than those who can only create in text-mode. We can't assume that all learners have those skills, so as human beings move toward more communications via non-text media, curriculum developers will need to better incorporate how to produce and interpret multimedia. This issue also raises questions for debate: "What are educational basics in an age when interaction with information and knowledge is as likely to come through auditory and image-based media as through written text?" (Daanen & Facer, 2007, p. 8). In terms of text, Anderson (2007) questioned if blogging is a form of journalism and therefore subject to the same laws, such as libel.

Attention, Learning Spaces, Identity
Social software and tools alter how students pay attention to their physical surroundings and people and how they communicate globally and locally. Consider that they multitask and operate in constant connectivity mode. While someone is talking (e.g., the teacher at the front of the class or even one of their peers), students might use their communication tools and wireless connectivity to search the Web, send text messages, or voice communications to others. By sharing their creations and words online, they open the gates to peer review and feedback from a global audience. How do their local actions and global communications affect others?

The definition of learning spaces has altered. What's global and local, or physical and virtual, has blurred if you also consider Web sites, Web portals, online communities (including e-learning platforms), and virtual worlds. Both the consumption and production of media and interactions in physical and virtual space in turn affect development of one's identity (Owen et al., 2006). The implication of these three factors for curriculum is our need to better address social and emotional intelligence, the nature of various cultures, and learning at least one other language. For example, it's easy to encounter many languages in a visit to a virtual world.

Knowledge Structures
An introduction of Web 2.0 alters what students need to know about the information retrieval process, adding another dimension to seeking information on the Web in general. Social software and Web 2.0 applications have enabled new structures for organizing knowledge. For example, the rise of folksonomies, whereby users define their own structure for tagging and locating information, needs to be taken seriously. "[F]olksonomies are starting to be used in scientific research environments." Researchers and academics are using free services as CiteULike to share, store, and organize the academic papers they are reading (Anderson, 2007, p. 35). Folksonomies are in contrast to more traditional forms of organizing knowledge in which experts define the structure and methodologies for searching for content within a knowledge domain. This development challenges libraries, which have traditionally provided information retrieval (IR) services and materials for teaching IR to learners. Curriculum developers will need to give greater consideration to information retrieval strategies that address both traditional taxonomies and folksonomies.

With more and more data being stored online, as offered by many Web 2.0 applications, what is it that students really need to learn (Daanen & Facer, 2007)? Educators will need to examine curriculum for the value of knowing and being able to recall facts and events from memory, which might now be a focus within certain knowledge domains. The focus is shifting to finding data when you need it, and synthesizing it to become information. How do we ensure that students develop the skills to do that within the curriculum? What instructional strategies best promote those?

Standards documents for content areas (e.g., NCTM, NCTE) indicate technology is essential for teaching and learning. However, when it comes to students using technology for collaboration, creativity, communication, and digital citizenship, called for in documents as the National Educational Technology Standards for Students (ISTE, 2007), educators have added their caveats. Which of the technologies are appropriate? When and where can they be used? We know some schools ban students from using certain social software and digital tools (e.g., cell phones) during school time. This is done in the name of security and protecting young people from access to Web sites with objectionable content, people who might do them harm, or because using some of those sites or applications (e.g., chat) might be viewed as time wasters.

As alternatives to open public spaces, some schools permit educators to use applications within closed, password-protected private areas that can be more easily monitored. The question for curriculum developers has to do with determining the point during the K-12 experience at which we take a stand, and potential security risk, to use open spaces and also teach students social skills they need to survive within those open spaces. How will we know we are helping them "demonstrate responsibility for lifelong learning" (ISTE, 2007), which is part of digital citizenship? Students use open spaces now when they leave the classroom and not always responsibly. This raises yet other questions: "How will we handle the boundaries between a student's Web 2.0 material and that of the institution? ... Can this be administered?" (Anderson, 2007, p. 44). To what extent should schools be responsible for what students post online in social sites?

On the technical side of security, Anderson (2007) stated, "The education community should worry that much of Web 2.0 data is 'hosted externally to academia' "(p. 55). Consider content stored within closed blog-spaces or applications enabling classroom gradebooks or other personal data to be stored online. Rod Boothby (2008) raised two concerns, which have implications for schools:

  1. How can I be certain that the information that is gathered and shared behind the firewall stays behind the firewall?
  2. How do I control who has access to particular levels of information and databases?

It's not just an issue of passwords and the rise of biometric data being used to control access. Who ultimately has control over that data in the archiving process or in personalized learning spaces?

Teacher Support
Lack of professional development for teachers is commonly cited in research as a contributing factor to technology's lack of impact on teaching and learning (Metiri Group, 2006; Nikolov, 2007). In the case of social software and Web 2.0 applications, teachers need more than knowing what tools are available to use and learning the technical side of how to use them. How might the tool be used to support learning?

Curriculum and instruction developers need to contribute innovative ideas to teachers. Bretag (2008) suggested a few: blogs as the foundation for writing across the curriculum, Twitter for study groups; Ustream to broadcast a class debate over immigration; a wiki for Biology lab reports; Ning as a collaborative research space; Voice Thread for the oral section of a Spanish final; and Second Life in the study of a piece of literature. Nikolov (2007) noted several Web 2.0 school-oriented portals that are providing access to Web services and content for educational purposes in different school subjects: Schoolforge, Edu 2.0, Change Agency, Shambles: Education Project Asia, and Web 2.0 for the Classroom Teacher (p. 3).

Narrowing the Options
Not all Web 2.0 applications and social software are free and open-source products. With finance a definite concern in K-12, should schools limit purchases to those geared toward mastery of subject-matter standards or also buy products enabling personalization? With only so many hours available during the school day for using any technology application, wise choices need to be made.

A potential barrier to using social software and Web 2.0 applications might have to do with investments that schools have made in commercial software products specifically developed for mastery of math, science, reading, or other subject standards. Districts would naturally want teachers to use those, particularly if a product had some research-based evidence of its effectiveness to raise achievement. Such products often come with vendor support for professional development and tech support for when problems occur.

Right now there are many, many options for social software and Web 2.0 tools. For example, visit SimpleSpark, which is currently tracking more than 8,400 Web applications, and enter "collaboration" as your search. Selection is not an easy process. Longevity is also an issue, as Brian Kelly of UKOLN (2008) pointed out. Relying on the many free and open source products might in the long run pose a problem, as the best of those might end up as commercial products. Others might disappear quickly when interests of the developers change or financing their efforts becomes a concern. According to Kelly, "It appears risky to rely on services which may disappear at any time, where no support contract is available, no guarantee of bugs being fixed or formal processes for prioritisation of developments" (sec: Longevity).

Management will need to decide on its support structure: centralized or decentralized. In a centralized system, management would select applications and make those available via a portal. How will it choose and then provide the technical and professional development to staff? This approach limits experimentation and innovation, as new applications quickly arise in the Web 2.0 environment. In a decentralized system, teachers would be free to select and experiment with applications of interest, adopting or dropping those as the situation might warrant. However, it might very well happen that teachers would have to develop their own support group among colleagues with similar interests, including for when technology problems arise.

Sustaining Innovation
Either way, teachers will need to take a greater role in action research, reporting on what works or does not work and why. According to the Metiri Group (2006), educators' "lack of effort in documenting the effect on student learning, teacher practices, and system efficiencies" in the last decade is one of their miscalculations that has resulted in "the real potential of technology for improving learning [remaining] largely untapped in schools today" (p. 2). Even at higher education levels, "there is very little reliable, original pedagogic research and evaluation evidence" regarding social software. "[T]o date, much of the actual experimentation within higher education has focused on particular specialist subject areas or research domains" (Fountain, cited in Anderson, 2007, p. 32). With a research base, curriculum developers will be in a better position to know which curricular areas will benefit most from social software and tools, and others in which those technologies might be nice to have or really not needed.

While some students might be highly motivated to use Web 2.0 tools and have their creations viewed by a global audience, others might not share that desire. Are there differences in the learning styles of those students who use those compared to those who do not and might not have a desire to broadcast their creations within social media sites? This impacts how educators differentiate instruction. When is it important to learn in collaboration with others, and when does learning in isolation lead to greater achievement?

As with any innovation, if such applications become an integral part of curriculum and students have to use them, will the appeal be sustained? Will their motivation to use those tools dwindle when new becomes the norm? The other pedagogical issue regards assessment. If social tools and Web 2.0 truly become integrated into curriculum, to what extent do those tools become part of the assessment process? Do we teach one way (i.e., with tools), then test another (i.e., without those tools)? Of course that issue is not limited to Web 2.0.

Sustaining any innovation relies on all students being able to access technology when and wherever it is needed. The concern is worldwide. Daanen and Facer (2007) raised the issue of the digital divide and what constitutes a fair education, if intelligence is enhanced and developed through tools that can be purchased (p. 8). Digital social collaborations are not possible without those tools. While the one to one computer movement is on the rise in the United States, changes in curriculum and instruction that broaden technology's use to accommodate both personalization and standards may force states or schools to decide whether they should "compensate for inequalities in access to digital technologies outside school or leave individuals to fend for themselves" (p. 30).

Bottom Line
Teachers need motivation to take risks to use social software, Web 2.0, and associated tools and support from administration to take those risks. The issues presented here surrounding creativity and collaboration, changes in attention, learning spaces, and identity development; new knowledge structures, security, teacher support, narrowing options, sustaining innovation, and addressing the digital divide are not all-encompassing but hopefully will serve as a foundation for discussion and decision making.

The crossroad is filled with Web 2.0 tools to consider. If we really want technology to make a difference, as the Metiri Group (2006) stated, we need to do more than introduce "technology with software and web resources aligned with the curriculum. It requires the triangulation of content, sound principles of learning, and high-quality teaching--all of which must be aligned with assessment and accountability" (p. 3).


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About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at

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

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.