Hello. 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.