Open content,  web 2.0

Is education intrinsically a bit dull?

This question has been bothering me lately. Like everyone and their (lol)cat I am much taken by the enthusiasm, community, user involvement and creativity found in social networking/web 2.0 sites, and look on them rather covetously for education purposes. I feel like I’m at a big dinner event and on the table next to mine everyone is laughing and having a great time, while on my table we are haveing very earnest discussions about the Iraq war. It’s interesting, but after a while, you want to find an excuse to join the other table, or at least get some of them to swap on to your table.

We’re in the process of a few web 2.0 initiatives at the OU, including a social networking type one. In addition we already have the excellent openlearn, which is giving away loads of great content free, and allowing people to take it and adapt it. Except they aren’t. Well, not much anyway. They are looking at it, but there isn’t as much reuse and adaptation happening as we’d hoped for. Now this could be because it’s still fairly new, or that attitudes in higher education lag behind those in the online community so reuse is still frowned upon, or it could be something to do with our setup.

But if we are to really map any of this 2.0 stuff across to higher education, then it has to have the subtle motivational factors found in the successful sites, such as YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, wikipedia, etc, etc. What a lot of these sites have in common is that they offer quick gratification and feedback (as AJ suggest, it’s all Skinnerian conditioning). I know that there is a lot of indepth debate and involvement in these sites e.g. the discussions around wikipedia articles, but they also offer instant returns – you can set up your Flickr site and upload some photos immediately. Then you get progressive returns, upload some more, maybe you get some comments, you find some you like, you comment, you join a community, and so on.

Education doesn’t seem to work like this. I think education is one of the most rewarding activities you can undertake, but that’s not the same as exciting, and excitement is what seems to drive a lot of the social sites, in that they are either exciting themselves, or they are about exciting things, eg. bands on MySpace. The key question for all us educators looking at web 2.0 for education then, is ‘does it have to be this way?’ Is there something in the DNA of education that means it has to be worthy, hard work, a little dull but ultimately rewarding, or could it be restructured so it has more of these quick hits and progressive involvement?

If I was a cynical man I’d say us educational technologists will spend the next 3 years not really answering this question and then move on to the next big thing. But I’m not.


  • stuart

    HI Martin,
    surely one of the reasons that so few people are remixing is that it’s so difficult to do. how many people feel knowledgeable to enough to rewrite a unit on ancient greece? may a decent number. How many of these people are good with XML? Not quite so many.
    I think size is also an issue. Why sould someone have to download the whole unit? Why can’t they just take the paragraph, flash file etc that they want and leave the rest? If they could I’m sure we’d see more `viral’ activity / reuse a la clipmarks perhaps.

  • Martin

    Yes, in openlearn’s case I think you’re right Stuart – the threshold for remixing is too high currently (at the start I said we should just put it up in a wiki, but would they listen?). But I think this is just one instance – there is something about the difference between education and social media in general, and I’m not sure we’ll ever bridge that divide…

  • Stephen

    We’re listening. Really we are!
    I share your concern that learning can potentially be worthy but dull and/or that enhancing finely-crafted learning materials is much harder than making quick changes in a wiki. We’ve much further to do on OpenLearn to experiment with ‘in situ’ editing, with different ways to share and shape content; and with reputation management.
    I think what we’re offering goes some way to enabling good sharing, but doesn’t give the buzz and the quick hit of the social spaces you describe. I think it’s partly because we currently don’t meet a clear and compelling need for educators(reputation, community, curriculum improvement) in the way that the social softwares do for so many of us.
    We all talk about tipping points and critical mass. What’s interesting is that the fervour around Hush puppies that Gladwell describes has absolutely nothing to do with any inherent quality in the shoes: it’s a tribal, cultural phenomenon. The ‘best’ products aren’t the biggest successes, but for a time those shoes ‘said something’ about their wearers. What does “being an educator” say about us?

  • Martin

    Hi Stephen
    I know you’re listening! (I was actually referring to the early days when I was part of the team putting the bid together). I’ve been thinking about this buzz/excitement thing and maybe we’re doing it the wrong way round. At the moment Facebook (or insert your favourite social site) have a buzz and they’re fun, but I wonder how they will maintain that level of interest. My friends list is probably petering out and maybe I’m not as interested in status updates as I was… Anyway, maybe learning provides the ongoing stickability for something like FB. They come for the fun and stay for the learning.

  • Martin

    Yes, it’s strange isn’t it? In research the culture is one of sharing (to a degree), and building on the work of others, yet this doesn’t transfer across to teaching. I wonder if the reuse found in web 2.0 will begin to change this, as it is so intrinsic to the mindset.
    PS welcome back!

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