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Web 2.0: What does the future hold for schools?

In Web 2.0 technologies, schools finally have the optimum tools for learning, said speakers at the 29th annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference in Austin Feb. 5–but educators must learn to change their approach to instruction to take full advantage of these tools.

In a spirited panel discussion of Web 2.0 technologies and their role in schools, Jim Bower, CEO of the student-focused virtual world Whyville, explained the difference between first-generation online tools and the new tools of today–and why Web 2.0 holds so much promise for education.

"Web 1.0 was largely a ‘push’ operation, taking already existing content and posting it online," said Bower. "Web 2.0 is driven by ‘pull,’ not push. … Kids can create their own content and interact."

But, he added: "The question is, are we inventing a new way for students to learn using this technology?"

Bower, who’s also a neurobiologist at the University of Texas, said the way we learn hasn’t really changed over the years; what has changed has been the medium for this instruction.

We tend to learn best through hands-on experiences, he explained–by trying things ourselves and taking ownership of our own learning, rather than passively receiving information from another source. But until the internet came along, we haven’t had a scalable way to deliver this kind of experience to every student.

Before the internet, Bower said, the two most important developments from an educational perspective were the invention of the printing press and the creation of a university system. But both of these developments were "push" operations, he said–meaning they pushed information out to students, rather than letting students experience learning for themselves.

"We’ve been saddled with bad technology to teach for the last 500 years, with predictable consequences," Bower said. But now, with Web 2.0 tools, "we finally have a technology that will let us better match our learning process" with what goes on in schools.

Now that we have the right medium, Bower said, we have to figure out how to take advantage of it. When any new technology comes out, he explained, we typically superimpose our old ways of doing things on this new medium–and education has been no different.

"We haven’t figured out how to leverage Web 2.0 yet" in schools, Bower said. Instead of pushers and producers of content knowledge, he added, teachers must become pullers and directors.

Bower shared an example that illustrates the potential for Web 2.0 technologies to empower students.

Whyville is an online virtual community for students, with 4.2 million members worldwide. Students create their own avatars, and–as in Second Life–they can buy and sell virtual goods using the site’s currency, clams, and even operate virtual businesses.

Shortly after the site launched a few years ago, Bower got an eMail message from a child saying, in effect, "Your [avatars’] face parts are lame." So Whyville’s programmers created a virtual factory in which students could design their own face parts. That, in turn, has led to the creation of several start-up virtual businesses in which kids design and "sell" face parts to other Whyville members.

Over the last few years, Bower said, Whyville’s residents have created and sold more than 2.5 million face parts. Some 12-year-old girls run entire virtual companies around this industry, he said, with 30 to 40 employees handling sales, marketing, and graphic design.

"That is the power of this medium when it actually opens up and lets kids contribute," he said.

Much of the rest of the discussion focused on how to overcome resistance to this paradigm shift in education, which is notorious for its aversion to change.

One session participant, a district technology director, said she’s had trouble integrating Web 2.0 technologies in her schools, because it’s often hard to convince administrators and teachers of their value. How do you get this buy-in from stakeholders, she asked?

"When an administrator says, ‘Show me the proof,’ just point at the current state of schools," Bower said. "If we’re not engaging these kids, they’re not learning."

(Editor’s note: For more live coverage of this year’s TCEA conference in Austin Feb. 4-6, visit the TCEA Conference Information Center page at eSN Online:


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