Web 2.0 – Why Should I Care?

web20people1Hello. My name is Robin Heyden and I am a science writer and editor. I’ve worked in educational publishing for over 20 years, publishing science books, software, and online materials. I am a co-author (along with Brad Williamson and the late Neil Campbell) of the high school biology program, Biology: Exploring Life. These days I am most interested in the question of how new media technologies (blogs, wikis, and social networking tools) can be most effectively applied to the teaching and learning equation. For this newly launched blog, I will be writing about that question and would love to hear from all of you. What do you make of these new, participatory media tools? How are you using them with students? What challenges do you face and how can we address those challenges together?


With all the pressures of teaching — too much information/too little time, slashed budgets, unmotivated students, highly variable student backgrounds, and over-stuffed classrooms — why should I bother with all of this new media technology? Afterall, throwing a few new, web 2.0 tools around in my classroom will not solve the complex teaching and learning issues I face everyday. Right?

Well, yeah, maybe not. But there’s still an excellent reason for bothering with the world of web 2.0 tools and literacy. And here’s what it is: your students are already there. Outside of school our students are authors, producers, animators, film makers, photographers, and designers. They are writing fan fiction, creating anime music videos, building social networks, writing on sports blogs, devising complex battle strategies, and posting homemade movies on YouTube. In other words, they are engaging in the kind of work that educators value, the kind of work you wish they were doing in your course. So why not transfer all of that excellent effort over to the study of biology?

For most of us, our first forays into the world wide web were read-only excursions. We had a question and we went to the web to find the answer. Today, the web has become a read and write environment. A place where people read, yes, but they also write, produce, mash-up, sing, and build. This next generation of widely available, easy-to-use and free web tools and services, collectively referred to as “Web 2.0″ , is driving online behaviors in an unprecedented way.

Let’s sketch a hypothetical example. Students in a biology course could be assigned the task of creating a course wiki on climate change. Over the semester, they could research and write articles to post to the wiki, comment on each others’ work, and initiate discussions on the more controversial topics. They could use RSS feeds to tap into climate change articles from the New York Times and compare those to parallel stories from The Tribune in India and China Daily. They could scour the blogosphere in search of climate change experts, evaluating their biases and respective areas of expertise. They could collect a series of annotated and tagged bookmarks online, using Delicious or Diigo, so that others could follow their thinking trail and in so doing, develop their own ways of organizing and structuring the information gleaned online. Using Skype, they could interview the experts they deemed appropriate and perhaps broadcast those interviews using UStream or Mogulus. Some students could create content modules, using Voicethread, embed them in the course wiki and collect comments and feedback on their ideas from outside experts. Through the personal learning network that these students construct, they could seek out feedback and critical evaluation, to challenge their thinking and further engage them in a conversation about the material. As the semester draws to an end they have a living, breathing portfolio of their work and their understanding. Online, for all to experience, comment on, and add to.  For you, their teacher, that portfolio would not only be an intriguing assessment tool but a handy method for getting a peek into their minds.

Through activities like the ones I describe, new media tools offer students powerful incentives to engage deeply with the material at hand. And as they engage, they build connections to what they already know, make associations with things they care about, and lay down pathways to continue the process as a life-long learner. As you read the verbs in that paragraph (create, evaluate, comment, research, compare, discuss, write), it becomes clear that these tools are vehicles for the active learning and constructivist approaches that we know work with students. We already know that students learn, really learn, not when they are told, but when they do. But to teach this way, we must be willing to try the tools and services ourselves. It’s not that we all have to become expert geeks but it is necessary to get inside the web 2.0 world enough to understand the affordances of these tools and services. Once we do that, we will know best how and when to use them for the particular course and students we teach. We will be able to guide our students pedagogically effectively, ethically, and safely. And we can teach by example.


Written by rheyden in: Introductions | Tags: ,


  • richardbenz says:

    I agree with you Robin. At least half our job has always been to connect with our audience. (The other half is to help them to learn something of course.) I say at least half because if you don’t connect, the changes we call learning cannot take place. But I have some questions. I know that our students are “digital natives.” I know that they are walking around “powered-up.” But how can we get them to use this “Power” for the good of learning what we want them to learn. I have been working to integrate Web 2.0 and other technology tools–podcasts, word clouds, etc. into the classes I teach (to kids and teachers alike. The kids especially know what I am talking about. They know blogs, they know wikis, they know social networking. But here’s the rub–when I include these communications tools into my teaching, the kids are much more passive than what I expected. They view, but they don’t tend to post. If I include posting in my assignments, they post, but the posts tend to be brief and often disappointing. How can we get the same enthusiasm in our classroom use of Web 2.0 as the students have in their own personal use of these tools? Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the advocates, but I want to see more exciting responses from the kids (and the teachers I teach.) Rich Benz

  • rheyden says:

    Hi Rich. Thanks for the thoughtful comment…Yeah, I hear you. And you know, I think part of it is that our students aren’t as well versed in these new technologies as we thought they were. I was completely sold on Prensky’s “digital native/digital immigrant” dichotomy at first, but I’m starting to come around to the idea that we’re ALL digital immigrants. As I work with high school students I quite regularly encounter teenagers who don’t know how to edit a wiki, comment thoughtfully on a blog, set up an RSS feed, or leverage all the great tagging tools on Diigo. They know what these things ARE, but they haven’t necessarily driven them in a productive way. This stuff is changing so fast – there are new technologies out there for us to figure out every day – I think we have to lead, teach, and urge a bit more than we originally thought we might. What do you think of the idea of “getting started” sessions with students where you show them how to do a few web2-things and you might also ask a student or two to lead sessions – show off new tools/capabilities, explain meta tagging, demonstrate a network effect with blogging – that sort of thing. And one other thought, I think they need to see that network effect in order to get excited. They need to see something they created (a blog post, a Youtube video, a Prezi presentation, getting hits/comments, being linked to – or with any luck, going viral. How about stacking the deck (just a bit) by asking others (the educators on this blog? research scientists you know?) to comment on the course blog or on their posted media projects. Maybe once they see they have a readership, they’ll get a bit more enthused for the process?

  • richardbenz says:

    You are right. I think the students tend to use what they use a lot, but they do not tend to experiment with tools and applications as much as I do or you do. I am fascinated with the possibilities and the power of the web 2.0 tools. They simply want to stay connected to one another. I think we do need to have these “getting started” sessions. We still need to teach, Or as you said, have them teach other. I also like the idea of “setting them up.” In fact I think we need to do that with our colleagues too. In this blog as well as in wikis we set up, or what have you. That is a great impact that we can all have on the process of integrating the web 2.0 tools into the teaching of biology. Lets try to make it a point to ask each other for help. Great comments. RB

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.