Web 2.0 technologies and online writing tools

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By Jeff Ayers

This article is the 3rd in a series, based on action research I collected while studying for my M.Ed, explores the impact digital technology can have on how our students learn, and how we, as educators, can leverage that impact for the good of our students.

Before I was introduced to wikis in April 2008, I never would have envisioned how much my teaching could use these new technologies. More importantly, my students could not be more ready to take their education to a new level that I sincerely hope will better connect them to the world and prepare them to participate in a digital world.

You can also read the rest of the series here at We Teach We Learn.

1. Web 2.0: Pedagogical Evidence and Brain Research

2. Online Literacy and New Literacy

The vast majority of the resources I picked up had to do directly with various Web 2.0 technologies, although most of the sources touched on them to some degree.  The key to keep in mind here is that there is a lot of reinforcing evidence for using Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom, but there are so many with so many different uses in and outside of the classroom, that many of these sources focused on how the technologies work and how they could be used in schools.  Many of the authors attest to how the technologies, while new, aren’t terribly difficult for students to access and use (and they are all free for both the teacher and students).  With that said, here is an additional breakdown:

Blogs – According to Flierl and Fowler, “a form of online communication most often described as an online journal.”  Unlike a wiki, this is a more individuated technology.  Will Richardson, who wrote the tech-famous Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, enthusiastically cheers for blogs, stating:  “Writing stops; blogging continues.  Writing is inside; blogging is outside.  Writing is monologue; blogging is conversation.  Writing is thesis; blogging is synthesis” (Richardson, 2006, p. 31).  Process is everything in writing, and Richardson argues that blogging does reinforce this well.

Flickr – Essentially a photography sharing type of social network where images are uploaded, and techniques in getting shots are shared by artists.  V. Heffernan states in a New York Times article, “Let’s face facts:  the Web, after nearly 20 years, has failed to uncover new masters of noble art forms like poetry, sculpture and the airport thriller.  But it has engendered – for good or ill – new forms of creative expression…People don’t upload to the Web words and images they had fashioned apart from the Web; they fashion their stuff specifically for online platforms and audiences” (Heffernan, 2008).

Moodle – Poses as the best of both worlds, according to W. Fryer in “Wiki, Blog, or Moodle?”, because it “offers the ability to host threaded discussions” like a wiki or blog but yet “ can be comparatively more organized than a series of blog posts (especially on different blog sites) and reflect the contributions of different people more directly than a wiki can” (Fryer, 2006).

Podcasts – Dionne (2006) calls them the online tool for the “non-geeks.”  Essentially an auditory broadcast to which virtually anyone can listen, podcasts are easy to create and access.  Like so many of the other Web 2.0 tools, they are great to keep students and parents alike connected to what is occurring in the classroom (or in the building, should the school and/or district choose to employ them for announcements and the like).

RSS (Real Simple Syndication) – Allows a person to create a link to a page that adds updates to this tool from any webpage without having to continually go back to check physically.  This is potentially a great tool for any student doing online research on virtually any topic.

Twitter – “[T]he micro-blogging platform used on mobile phones,” according to A. Fernando in “Baby Steps in Web 2.0 Education” (Fernando, 2008, p. 9).   In other words, it’s a blogging format that can be accessed using a cellular phone.  Twitter is now often used educationally in PLNs as a way to collect links to other resources as well as a way to connect with people of similar interests from around the world.

Wikis – Combining “features of websites and word processors to create a new kind of application that allows multiple authors to write and edit content,” according to Flierl and Fowler (2007) in “Educational Uses of Blogs and Wikis.”  This is certainly a wonderful tool for collaborative learning and project-based sharing.  T. Stahmer (2006) in his article, “Think Outside the Blog,” argues that “blogs are not as effective when a large number of people want to collaborate, contribute, and easily find information on a given topic,” something that a wiki can accomplish effectively and efficiently.

YouTube – A video-sharing network that historically has gotten a bad rap in schools (often not allowed through filters).  Still cited by numerous sources as a very appropriate Web 2.0 tool in the classroom, provided that it is used responsibly (especially by teachers sharing a clip with students in the classroom).

There are a number of other areas in which these particular resources delve.  One key item is on writing proficiency.  J. Orech argues that when using a wiki, “collaborative writing produces higher quality writing than face-to-face collaboration,” or, as many would call it, peer revising (Orech, 2007).  And a number of other authors see the power of using Web 2.0 collaboration for the purpose of improving/revising compositions.  In “Four Web 2.0 Collaborative Writing Tools,” J. VanderMolen highlights four tools, including Google Docs, Zoho Writer, WriteBoard, and ThinkFree, which can all be used to collaboratively write.  It’s also a place where an instructor can frequently check in on how the process is going for students as they draft an essay or other composition.  VanderMolen exclaims, “Collaborating students need not be in the same room, or even the same school/city/state/country.  And their work, usually password-protected, can be accessed from any internet-enabled computer,” making the tool very flexible, accessible, and efficient” (VanderMolen, 2008).  L. Nelson and S.G. Feinstein continue in a similar, albeit more critical vein, in their paper “Research on Writing Conventions: U R What U Write.”  In the article, they point out that while students are often instant messaging and texting rather than talking on their cellular phones, it doesn’t mean that they are doing so to better their writing skills.  However, they argue that it is the role of English teachers to help students to “understand the importance of how they say what they say” when communicating in the digital world (Nelson, Feinstein, p. 20).  In a definitively critical article, Lankshear and Knobel argue that while these new technologies do not often afford what they call “powerful writing,” they state using blogs and other new technologies, “our use of ‘written language’ …can reach larger audiences than could have ever been imagined a decade ago” (Lankshear, Knobel, 2003, p. 6).  Indeed, purpose in writing adds to motivation, which can then add to better writing.  “Potential” is a key word oft repeated, whereby the teacher’s role becomes that much more clear when employing these tools in the classroom.

There is a potpourri of other strengths these authors find in Web 2.0 tools, including the potential that these technologies will replace the dusty (and expensive) textbook eventually, and the likelihood that teachers will be able to use these technologies to help students more cognitively reflect on their learning, since most Web 2.0 technologies include some kind of thread or historical archive.  These resources prove that the possibilities are endless – until the next generation of technologies appears (and that could be soon).  And collaboration, collaboration, collaboration – in her article, “The Next Wave Now:  Web 2.0,” L.B. Mills states,  “The top-down approach of the Web we grew up with now has been replaced with users who build information form the bottom up.  With Web 2.0, the focus is not on software, but on practices such as sharing thoughts and information through self-publishing and harnessing the collective intelligence of all users to generate information and solve problems” (Mills, 2007, p. 4).

I have no doubt that my own instruction will include some of these Web 2.0 technologies – my greatest problem is choosing which will be potentially most powerful in my teaching.  I know this so far:  I will employ a wiki page and have students create their own for some project-based cooperative learning opportunity, I will have students use one of the aforementioned collaborative writing tools, and I will have students “test” Moodle (as I am mixed in my review of that Web 2.0 tool versus a wiki page).  As for my discipline, the writing tools again fit in nicely with my English classes, but the collaborative community of the wiki page will continue to grow in both my English classes and my journalism class, as the pages were already introduced to my classes this past spring (and with moderate success).  As for the learning environment, I have little doubt, based on my research, that the collaborative online environment will feed in nicely to my classroom – hopefully leading to more free discussion (especially since the more hesitant students may feel more empowered to participate).  And finally, considering assessment, I would say at this point that while many of my sources don’t get into it, J. Orech makes clear the importance of assigning roles and guidelines in cooperative uses of online tools, and this helps to keep me aware of the fact that while these new technologies are exciting, some students may be aware of the opportunities to “cheat the system” (Orech, 2007).

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