Oct 31 2006

Web 2.0 Tools Promise Improved Collaboration

Educators use new tools to deliver on Web technology's promise to make teaching and learning a true collaboration.

If you remember the University of Minnesota’s Gopher, the Telnet terminal emulation program and WAIS (wide area information server), you’ll probably also remember when a handful of cyberexplorers were beginning to map out the technology that would spark a communications revolution — the Internet. And you’ll remember the intoxicating promise of the World Wide Web, which was fulfilled in the first Web site, created in 1991 by visionary Tim Berners-Lee, and by the first Web browsers, which acted as text editors. But as the Web grew, its early promise of universal participation faded, and Web sites and browsers became largely read-only.

Now a new generation of pioneers has resurrected that promise with a new family of technologies: Web 2.0.

Sometimes called the read/write Web, Web 2.0 has restored greater participatory capabilities to the Web. Easy-to-use software lets users publish content electronically as a Web log (blog). Wikis, collaborative Web sites that allow users to edit content, encourage readers to share their own ideas. And podcasts, which are Web feeds of audio or video content, are simple to produce and download.


This “new” Web has vast implications, not only for how students learn, but also for what they learn. Many teachers are beginning to take advantage of blogging as an instructional tool.

A typical blogging assignment begins like a conventional writing assignment, but differs in key ways. Students go online to assess each other’s writing. They read their classmates’ blog articles and comment on them according to the rubric the teacher is using. Teachers can make the students’ writings available to a broader audience over the Internet, soliciting comments from other classes and even other audiences in the community.

Bud Hunt, a language arts and English teacher at Olde Columbine High School in Longmont, Colo., started his students blogging last year. Today, they publish The Interjection, the Olde Columbine High School literary magazine, via a blog.

“The sense of an immediate, nonschool audience helps my students realize that what they have to say is interesting and important to others,” Hunt says. “Writing for such a public audience requires closer attention to the details of writing.”

But with increased access to information and audiences outside the classroom come new challenges. Hunt struggles to balance the instructional benefits with a need to protect his students’ privacy in an increasingly transparent classroom. “Blogs, like many Web 2.0 technologies, are creating interesting challenges when it comes to determining which ideas and interactions are public, which are private and which exist in the middle,” Hunt cautions. “It is a continuing judgment call for teachers.”

Producing a podcast — selecting topics, writing scripts and producing audio files — can give students new motivation to learn. “Podcasting has offered my students an authentic worldwide audience,” says Bob Sprankle, a third- and fourth-grade multi-age teacher at Wells Elementary School in Wells-Ogunquit Community School District in Wells, Maine.

“They are motivated to reach excellence because they have a purpose for writing. They choose their own topics, turning their learning into entertainment. Podcasting has opened up a virtual window to our classroom, inviting the world to witness and participate in our studies.”

In Cobb County, Ga., Tim Tyson, principal of Mabry Middle School, creates podcasts of many of his presentations, including his new-school-year open house welcome speech. Parents can access his presentations throughout the year.


The value of Web 2.0 tools in helping students learn and the need to put those tools in the hands of educators prompted the July 2005 Downers Grove Summit. David Jakes, instructional technology coordinator for Community High School District 99 in Chicago suburb Downers Grove, Ill., helped organize the event to introduce a core group of teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and students to Web 2.0 tools.

Summit participants were electrified by the possibilities. They envisioned using wikis, user-editable Web sites, to let teachers collaborate in creating digital textbooks. They foresaw students creating personal digital textbooks that they could take with them and cultivate over the years. One guidance counselor seized on podcasting as a way to make his college-prep presentations available to parents who are unable to attend in person.

Social bookmarking — a way to create a personalized list of Internet resources, tag and classify them for specific uses, and share the lists — also earned fans. Several teachers immediately began using the tool. They set up social bookmark accounts for their departments, and then began to organize and populate their digital libraries.

“The summit enabled our school district to establish a core group of educators who could speak Web 2.0 and continue to explore its value to educators,” Jakes says. “The district will use this group to establish and implement these technologies as effective learning tools.”

Educators in the School District of Philadelphia are finding Web 2.0 so powerful that, in September, they will open a new high school built on Web 2.0 concepts. Chris Lehmann, principal and co-founder of the Science Leadership Academy, says, “I’ve always thought that Web technology must do three things in a school. It must create a more powerful sense of participation from students, teachers, parents and community members. Its Web services must create a more efficient school with transparent avenues of communication.

“Most importantly, a school’s use of new and old Web technologies must transform learning by moving schools away from the model of teachers as experts and students as receptacles, and toward one of teachers as facilitators and students as analysts of information and producers of content.”


Creating a schoolwide collaboration site using Web 2.0 applications can help teachers try out the new technology. A first step is to make lesson plans accessible by administration, teachers, students and parents.

Ask your school’s technology facilitator to set up Web logs for each teacher and provide an afternoon of training on the blogging software.

On a weekly basis, each teacher submits at least one lesson plan blog entry describing what the students will be learning that week and how. Via password, parents access lessons for their child’s class.

The principal uses a rich site summary aggregator to subscribe to all the teachers’ blogs. The aggregator checks for new content and pulls it into a “personal newspaper” for the principal. The school media specialist and tech facilitator subscribe to the blogs, which helps them map the school’s curriculum and better serve each teacher’s needs.

Also, members of discipline departments subscribe to each other’s lesson blogs. A history teacher might subscribe to an English teacher’s blogs to look for cross-disciplinary activities.

As teachers become more adept at using Web 2.0 applications, they should be trained to use social bookmarks: a list of favorite bookmarks they can make accessible — or available by subscription — to students or other faculty.

Some teachers will want to further leverage the new Web and will begin to use blog search engines, explore teacher blogs from other schools, subscribe to those of special value and share the ideas through their own blogs.

David Warlick, an educator for 30 years, has written three books about technology and its impact on our definition of literacy. He has delivered addresses and workshops in the United States, Europe, Asia and South America.