The Social Web - Tech Learning

The Social Web

T&L presents a look a tech guru Will Richardson's new book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Whether it's blogs or wikis or RSS, all roads now point to a Web where little is done in isolation. The biggest, most sweeping change in our relationship with the Internet may not be as
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T&L presents a look a tech guru Will Richardson's new book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.

Whether it's blogs or wikis or RSS, all roads now point to a Web where little is done in isolation. The biggest, most sweeping change in our relationship with the Internet may not be as much the ability to publish as it is the ability to share, connect, and create with many, many others of like minds and interests. These social connections, these "small pieces loosely joined," as author David Weinberger puts it, are where the real power and potential of the Read/Write Web [to use Tim Berners-Lee's and others' term to describe an interactive Web where users don't just read, they add content as well] lies for educators and students. The collaborative construction of knowledge by those willing to contribute is redefining the ways we think about teaching and learning at every level.

This vision is much different from the traditional classroom where most student work is done in isolation, never finding connections to a larger whole that might be produced by the class in its entirety. That's not to say that in this new world students don't do their own work. But it does mean that responsibility for that work is in some way shared. Learning is a continuous conversation among many participants.

With blogs and wikis, these social interactions focus on the creation of content and meaning. They can be collaborative spaces where people negotiate and construct meaning and texts. But there are other tools that are being borne out on the Read/Write Web that focus primarily on creating connections rather than creating content.

Here's an example. At www.43things.com, you can go and create a list of 43 things you want to accomplish or do. Once you have created your list, you are automatically connected to everyone else within the 43 Things universe who wants to learn those same skills or accomplish those same goals. So, let's say you want to learn how to play guitar. 43 Things connects you to the 192 (at this writing) other people who want to learn guitar as well. (There are about 3,200 people who want to stop procrastinating...what are they waiting for?) And it even creates a unique discussion place just for you and your group, complete with an RSS feed.

Or take this example from the social bookmarking site http://del.icio.us. Let's say you run across www.edugadget.com, a great site for teachers looking to implement the newest technologies into their classrooms. You want to find out what other sites might offer similar information. When you bookmark Edugadget at del.icio.us, you'll immediately be linked to everyone else who has also bookmarked Edugadget. Even better, you get to add your own descriptors or tags that describe the content you are saving, and those tags get linked together as well. For instance, most people added the tags education and technology when they saved the link. But other tags people have used when saving Edugadget include: blog, edu-blog, web, tech, edu, tool, learning, e-learning, blogging, reviews, media, info, teachers, educational, and technologies. del.icio.us gives you the ability to click on any of those tags to be connected to other resources that might be similar to Edugadget. The community points the way.

But there's more. In the process of creating this community, you are participating in the creation of a new way of organizing information as well. Back in the old days, we used to rely on librarians, trained professionals who used a consistent process, to sort and categorize information for us. That's why we're usually able to find what we're looking for in a library or on a subject-specific search site like Yahoo! But today, when we have the power to organize vast libraries of information on our own, the process is being run by millions of amateurs with no real training in classification.

Not to worry, however, because users of social bookmarking systems have created a new concept to deal with the change, no longer taxonomy but folksonomy. The idea is that in working with your community of researchers, new tagging systems will emerge and become accepted that will allow us all to participate in the process. While this might be seen as chaotic and not as effective as traditional methods, by being able to apply many tags to one particular link we get the added potential of seeing how others might interpret or use resources that we share. Thus we get connected to information in ways that traditional libraries cannot duplicate. And the more people contribute in the creation of folksonomies, the more valuable they become to all who participate.

This move toward a more socially negotiated categorization of content has powerful ramifications for teachers and students. Obviously, if we are expected to participate in the construction of folksonomies to save the information we find, it will require us to redefine the processes we currently use in relative isolation. Our personal organizational systems for content may need revision to fit with a more community model. And it's worth our while to do this because this more social model has the potential to lead us to more and better information. But social bookmarking also challenges us to rethink the way we and our students treat the information we find. Traditionally, we emphasize keeping track of where our research comes from. In this new construct, it will become even more important to know how to retrieve it within the folksonomies created with our community of researchers (www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7001.pdf).

Regardless of how you do it, the idea that we can now use social networks to tap into the work of others to support our own learning is an important concept to understand. It's another example of how the collective contributions created by the Read/Write Web are changing the way we work and learn.

Will Richardson is supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey. His blog can be found at www.weblogg-ed.com.

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