Scholarly article on topic 'Social aspects of web 2.0 technologies: Teaching or teachers’ challenges?'

Social aspects of web 2.0 technologies: Teaching or teachers’ challenges? Academic research paper on "Educational sciences"

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Abstract of research paper on Educational sciences, author of scientific article — Elena Danciu, Gabriela Grosseck

Abstract University courses which examine the social aspects of Web 2.0 technologies should be available to all students enrolled either in socio-humanistic specializations or in computer science, management, engineering etc. Although there is a growing literature about the content and pedagogy of such courses in academia, there is little reference to content stressing the social impact of information technology and communications, and social media in particular, using teaching resources based on Web 2.0 technologies, tools, services and applications for collaboration, communication, information-sharing, on-line productivity, data organization, digital storytelling and other online social artifacts. This paper discusses some of the challenges which occur in the preparation and teaching courses about the social aspects of Web 2.0 and the ways to respond to them via pedagogical approaches that help students transform the social media universe in reflexive practice.

Academic research paper on topic "Social aspects of web 2.0 technologies: Teaching or teachers’ challenges?"

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Procedía Social and Behavioral Sciences 15 (2011) 3768-3773

WCES 2011

Social aspects of web 2.0 technologies: teaching or teachers'


Elena Danciua, Gabriela Grosseckb *

a'bUniversity of the West Timisoara, Faculty of Sociology and Psychology4 Bd Vasile Parvan, 300223 Timisoara, Romania


University courses which examine the social aspects of Web 2.0 technologies should be available to all students enrolled either in socio-humanistic specializations or in computer science, management, engineering etc. Although there is a growing literature about the content and pedagogy of such courses in academia, there is little reference to content stressing the social impact of information technology and communications, and social media in particular, using teaching resources based on Web 2.0 technologies, tools, services and applications for collaboration, communication, information-sharing, on-line productivity, data organization, digital storytelling and other online social artifacts. This paper discusses some of the challenges which occur in the preparation and teaching courses about the social aspects of Web 2.0 and the ways to respond to them via pedagogical approaches that help students transform the social media universe in reflexive practice. © 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Keywords: social media, social aspects, teaching-learning, Web 2.0, higher education

1. Introduction

With the emergence / increased use of Web 2.0 tools, a large number of higher education institutions are embracing the "new ecology of information" offered by social media (Campbell, 2010). More and more colleges and universities from all over the world are transitioning from traditional learning towards learning 2.0 (Malita,

2008), widening their curriculum landscape beyond technology by integrating different forms of social media (Conole & Alevizou, 2010; Schaeffert, 2010), such as (micro) blogging, collaborative content, social networking, multimedia sharing, casting (pod-, screen- etc.), social bookmarking / tagging and other on-line social artifacts.

In this era of fundamental changes of the educational landscape by virtual worlds and augmented reality, dominated by mobile devices and applications, in order for learning 2.0 to occur, it is necessary to rethink the social academic work environments based on Web 2.0, in accordance with the (pedagogical) learning needs of students (Wheeler, 2010; Schaeffert & Ebner, 2010). Furthermore, although a whole literature and projects (Liu &et al.,

2009) are being created around faculty 2.0 (Hartman, Dziuban & Brophy-Ellison, 2008), university 2.0 (Freire & Brunet, 2010) and accordingly, students 2.0 (Malita, 2008), teachers 2.0 (Thomas & Li, 2008), curriculum 2.0 (Conole & Alevizou, 2010) or virtual learning spaces (Wheeler, 2010), a relatively small number of studies and researches integrate the study of social aspects of the Web 2.0 tools using Web 2.0 (Lee, & McLoughlin, 2011).

* Gabriela Grosseck. Tel.: +40-256-592-266; fax: +40-245-592-320. E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2011 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.04.371

In this context, our paper focuses on challenges posed by the preparation and teaching of courses about the social aspects of Web 2.0 and discusses the pedagogical approaches which help both teachers and students transform the social media universe in reflexive practice.

2. The Social Web challenge for faculty

Within the socio-humanities departments of Romanian universities, information and communication technologies are only taught during the first year of study, with an emphasis on familiarizing the students with the technologies in question (and sometimes even providing digital alphabetization) and developing the techniques and academic skills needed for locating specialized information, as well as for data management, document management, conducting research online, etc. The curriculum of specializations offered by the Faculty of Sociology and Psychology within the West University of Timisoara is no exception, as the study of the social aspects of new media is introduced in the first stage of education as an elective subject, under the generic name Social Informatics.

The contents taught in the course are varied, structured upwards from simple to complex issues and presented in such a way that the main characteristics are easily identifiable and accessible. The intellectual underlining of the course encompasses a large spectrum of topics related to using the new media in the social realm, such as ethical perspectives and professional responsibility, relating to others in social networking sites, virtual communities, the increasing importance of cyber culture, digital entertainment, etc., while the technological realm includes the most popular Web 2.0 technologies of the moment (blogging / micro blogging, syndicated information through RSS, social bookmarking, social networking, wikis, multimedia sharing, social publishing etc.).

2.1. The changing role of students

A course which focuses on the social issues connected to computerization should be designed in response to the students' motivation, knowledge and interests: some students express considerable interest, others find the topics irrelevant; some students do not believe in the legitimacy of such a course, while others cannot see its direct application to their personal or professional lives. On the other hand, many students expect to "do as they are told" when they enroll in this course - only to soon discover that they are expected to think independently, to prove their comprehension abilities, to participate actively and to show permanent inquisitiveness.

In order for students to understand the social issues behind computerization and thus be able to participate actively to a course on Web 2.0 Social Informatics, they need:

• To transcend the concept of social media users and attain the status of digital content generators - produce, distribute and share.

• To develop oral or written communication, analytical and synthetic thinking, flexibility, team work skills.

• To build a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) or a Personal Learning Network (PLN).

• To debate current issues in an organized and coherent manner. It is not enough for students to have their own opinions. It is not enough for them to participate in class. Some of the most active students are, unfortunately, also the most reluctant to take a stand against other arguments and opinions.

• To be encouraged to develop their own opinions, even though that means contradicting the course coordinator, which is difficult for many of them, especially the ones with a "teacher is always right" cultural background.

• To be receptive to the world around them, to read the social media columns in traditional press as well, to enter discussions on specialty fora, to listen to radio shows or even watch TV shows on relevant topics, all from a critical point of view. The fact that they have mobile phones with internet connections is an advantage.

• To develop and foster their sense of discovery in order to find new and exciting ways of understanding the social aspects of Web 2.0. We wish to stimulate their continuous curiosity - which will help students understand the rise of social media.

• To know that they will face social issues related to computerization in their day-to-day lives, not only at school but also in their future workplace.

• To be capable of understanding the vocabulary found in specialized literature: not only the semantic meaning of words, but also the value-laden ways in which words are used in contexts.

• To develop a positive feeling of responsibility for their work. Most students worry about marks and many only become motivated when they want to get a good grade. We are trying to make them go beyond these aspects, to encourage them "to take risks, to feel free and to try new ideas and experiments, to innovate".

On the other hand, students who want to learn about the social aspects of Web 2.0 technologies often face challenges such as the following: a) although it is recent, the social media knowledge base is scattered in an extremely vast literature; b) most students have difficulty in locating and understanding the key studies written in the jargon of various disciplines; c) like all other types of literature, specialized literature comprises studies of variable quality and is riddled with controversies (some of which may even remain unresolved); d) the basic socio-analytical knowledge that the students can acquire today is only a fraction of what they will actually need in their professional practice in two or three years' time; e) students have only one semester to learn and understand the social aspects of Web 2.0 technologies which they can employ as a launch pad for their professional lives.

Thus, as teachers, we are not interested in academic skills in themselves, but in the interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary method of conveying them (Freire & Brunet, 2010; Wheeler, 2010). It is difficult to believe that we will be able to please everyone, and this is why it is necessary for the educator not only to assess the students' horizon of expectation very carefully, but also to make certain decisions from the very beginning of the course: what types of models and methods the teacher will use for teaching-learning, how much time will be allocated to learning, the degree of interdisciplinary of the course, the level of attractiveness and activation offered, and, most importantly, which technologies, services, applications or Web 2.0 tools will be employed (of which the teacher must also have a good command).

2.2. The changing role of teachers

We recommend that those who design teaching-learning scenarios from the perspective of Web 2.0 technologies, both as a topic of study and as a work tool, take into account the following issues:

• What is the most important thing students should learn about the social aspects of Web 2.0 tools / technologies / applications and why?

• How do we achieve this? The ability to employ the didactic methodology and means in order to convey knowledge, skills and new abilities is translated into the teacher's capacity to be a good organizer of the setting of activities, to bring experience to the forefront.

• Students' expectations. The teacher must respond to the students' need for information, must guide, counsel and assess them; must show outstanding flexibility in thinking and bonding with others; must have the skills and the availability to communicate; must have a good command of scientific content; must express a strong interest in obtaining efficient results; must have an adequate didactic behavior and avoid switching from one topic to another, talking too much, giving the impression they are pressed for time, having passive facial expressions and posture, always looking at the watch; must teach the students to learn by solving problems, participating in discussions, etc.

• The students must be educated to be, first and foremost, generators / creators of valuable content and knowledge, to be information curators rather than technical professionals (Freire & Brunet, 2010).

• Such a course requires that time be spent on less pleasant activities than surfing the web or exchanging messages on the Yahoo or Facebook chats, such as: analytical reading, writing, critical thinking, etc.

• A key element in the professional and scientific reading of a course dealing with the social aspects of computerization is that of being able to access information (see the recent case of Wikileaks, the severe issues related to academic plagiarism, etc.). Writings speak on behalf of their authors and it is only human for students to have prejudices or not to have knowledge of important concepts, especially as the micro and macrosphere (the latter being the blogosphere) are turning into successful substitutes of printed literature in the case of digital natives (Nagler & Ebner, 2009). A critical reader is able to carefully test the reading using logic and can try to identify strengths and weaknesses. However, in active and critical reading, students need to have discipline in order to identify the characteristics of the subject matter from several points of view.

• Previous knowledge must be validated and applied: students who have jobs show a different kind of understanding as compared to their colleagues; their orientation is more practical than that of "traditional" students or second-degree students.

• Students' interests. As part of a socio-humanities program, students become hesitant when it comes to technical details, and they can instantaneously become alienated from the subject studied.

• The academic level of the course: final-year students must possess a significantly better ability to understand the language employed and perform thorough analyses than first-year students. The latter could need resources that do not go beyond the level of knowledge acquired in high school, to which one could add the limited experience gained by using personal computers.

• The interdisciplinary approach, the correlation with other disciplines such as: management, sociology, psychology, journalism, advertising, etc.

• The topics selected should be interesting, familiar, exciting, useful in the professional and personal life (we are trying to work our way up from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from practice to theory, from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract). We start from topics that the students probably have some experience with, such as relationships developed in virtual communities (as they are familiar with Facebook and Twitter), the risks entailed by computerization etc.

• The philosophy. In order to summarize and integrate what the students have learned in the discussions about the social aspects of Web 2.0, we have found that theory is better placed at the end. Thus students are much more receptive and interested if the course is oriented towards a practical application from the start.

• Using feedback is essential for maintaining and increasing the efficiency of the learning process.

• Selecting an adequate set of materials:

a) The course notes, designed to serve as the primary material, have the purposes of clarifying the disagreements on certain issues, of making complex ideas accessible in a coherent and concise presentation supported by definitions of key terms, by examples organized gradually according to complexity, and by specific exercises. But they have their limitations, such as the format in which they are prepared. This is why, during the last few years, we have chosen to develop courses using alternative C/LMS (Content/Learning Management System) systems, such as Google Sites, blogging platforms (WordPress, Blogger, EduBlog), micro blogging (Twitter, Edmodo, Twiducate or Cirip), social networking sites (Ning), wikis (Wikispaces) and even networking sites like Facebook.

b) Books on specific topics can form the backbone of the bibliographic material or can be used in order to supply additional elements for various key themes of the course. Although there are opinions in favor of the idea that the digital student does not read and resorts only to Google and Wikipedia, some studies prove the contrary (Prensky, 2001; Head & Eisenberg, 2009). Starting from this premise and from personal experience as well, we have chosen to employ not only traditional course reading lists, but digital content (such as the one developed by Google Books or and social publishing networks (Scribd, Calameo, Issue etc.) as well. None of the books written on social issues in the digital age can be followed in a step-by-step fashion, like a traditional textbook. Instead, one must select certain passages that rise to the students' level, that provide challenges or, rather, represent a mix of the two. Another major disadvantage is the fact that there is only a small number of books in Romanian, and we must turn towards foreign literature, mainly AngloSaxon, although many of our students lack the linguistic skills. On the other hand, the number of Romanian students who own reading devices (such as Amazon's Kindle or Android Tablets) is extremely small.

c) Articles in academic journals provide explanations of research methods, present case studies or theories from scientific perspectives (Head & Eisenberg, 2009). The drawback is that most students have not been educated to understand them, but they serve the important purpose of showing students that the themes discussed in our lectures are the focus of serious and thoroughly-prepared research. On the other hand, we use articles in prestigious journal databases, which can be accessed on the premises of the university, or employ academic reference management software like Mendeley, Connotea, Zotero etc., because books take a long time to be published and a topic as dynamic as social media cannot wait long for new editions. At the same time, we encourage students to search for and within such publications and include them in the course platform in the materials section.

d) Media information is an accessible source, at the crossroads between the students' life experience and academic path. Students can easily find course-related materials not only in newspapers, popular magazines,

specialized press, even on the television and the radio, but especially in blogs, micro blogs and social networks (one example are the TED conferences, which are available online). The purpose behind using these sources is that of contrasting their image of computerization, which is often excessive and oriented towards sales or entertainment (games, music and particularly movies) with the careful analyses in academic journals.

2.3. The changing role of teaching

Ideally, we should try to explore a number of different methodologies, but every alternative will have its own

advantages and disadvantages, both from an economic and pedagogical point of view. The authors have opted for:

• Learning from events. The classical "conferencing" is still the most commonly-used method in most higher education institutions and it is potentially beneficial, as it is associated with the social interaction between students and between lecturers and students. During the last few years, we have experimented with the (voluntary) recording of students in open-source type lectures or events / learning from the microblogging stream for e.g. (Grosseck & Holotescu, 2010).

• Collaborative learning by-doing. Already used in higher education "within different forms of cooperative learning arrangements" (Schaffert & Ebner, 2010), cooperative learning with social software is now benefitting from major applications as a method that is more effective and efficient than traditional forms of training. This methodology is used when students are intended to work together in small groups for significant stages of their learning process. There is an abundant specialized literature centered on collaborative learning of the 2.0 type, and for this reason we will not insist upon theoretical matters.

• Peer-learning. Activities based on individual work - research notebooks, projects - essays (with peer-review), reviewing specialized literature can also actively engage the students in the lectures on the social issues of computerization.

• Show me. Several types of projects can be set:

a) Individual projects. Students' value things that they themselves manage to do well, the things they solve and bring to fruition through their influence and ingenuity (they learn by doing and experimenting).

b) Team projects: in this case, there can be situations in which only one student does the work but the project is presented as being a collaborative effort, although tasks are allocated separately to each member of the group (Google docs, WallWisher, Voicethread etc.).

c) Continuous projects, which are developed systematically over an entire semester, or final projects, which are presented at the end of the course and thus account for a large amount of the student's participation in the course. Students can employ all types of audio and visual materials - but they most often opt for creating PLE/PLN, e-portfolios or digital storytelling and mindmapping applications - for which they subsequently obtain feedback via poll or quiz-type applications, using mobile devices in particular. We personally prefer not to grade the student's technical skills.

• Step by step. Seminars during which each student presents a usually challenging or controversial topic. The students are given several weeks in which to prepare the argumentations they will present in front of their colleagues, and the teacher is permanently guiding them by assuming the role of a facilitator, thus establishing a "from-person-to-person" relationship with each course attendant. For the « debate academy » we prefer using communication / collaboration methods that are specific to Web 2.0 (instead of the classical YM chat), and we start from simple instruments such as wiffiti or Google Moderator. The seminar is not always the most adequate method. It is very possible that the student is too emotional and consequently experience difficulties during the defense. At that moment, it becomes necessary to intervene by summarizing the issue at hand, asking questions and challenging others to discuss it (a microblog flow turned out to be the most helpful).

• Life Story hunter / life experience. Students can learn about the social aspects of computerization from their personal experience, as well the experiences of others. We start by telling students about our own personal experiences and encourage them to do the same (using podcasting). Students become aware of the way in which computerization affects their own lives, as well as the lives of the people around them.

Irrespective of the method employed, the method that is most suited to the learning process will be the one that meets the students' expectations.

3. Conclusions

Social media are a source of intellectual optimism, a fact of life, and they will increasingly become a fact of learning. The current debates on whether or not to introduce Web 2.0 technologies into higher education are useful but ultimately worthless without experience, creativity and innovation - the desire to think of the educational process in completely new terms. However, this does not mean that the things we have learned so far need to be buried and forgotten. We need to remember that we are at the beginning of a new era and, inevitably, the end of another one - this is the era of change.

Acknowledgment: This work was supported by CNCSIS-UEFISCSU, project number 882/19/01/2009, PNII - IDEI, code 471/2008 Program Exploratory Research Project, Adaptarea curriculum - instrument fundamental in educarla incluziva.


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