You are here

Collaborate or Die: The Future of Education

The Challenge of Developing an Institutional System that Serves the 21st Century
University Business, Nov 2008

We are entering the age of collaboration. Web 2.0 has gone mainstream. An entire generation of students is arriving in our schools and universities, for whom Facebook is their most important source of information and communications.

Education is facing a tidal wave that threatens to overwhelm traditional pedagogical models and classroom concepts. How effective will lectures be when students learn by grazing on tens or hundreds of information feeds each day? How will they react to printed textbooks, when they believe that every document should be editable, commendable, and infinitely shareable? What is the meaning of the word "classroom" when video and mobile devices transmit the majority of knowledge?

Educators and educational institutions face their greatest challenge since the Industrial Revolution sparked the development of the public education system: Adapting a system whose foundations were laid in the 19th century to serve a 21st-century world.

The single biggest paradigm shift sparked by the Web 2.0 revolution has been the move from mass media to social media. In the traditional world of mass media, a specialized group of professional content producers created authoritative content, which was then distributed by an oligarchic publishing and broadcasting industry. Whether the end product consisted of summer blockbusters from Hollywood or the latest edition of "Macroeconomics," the consumer's only choice was whether or not to buy. Consumers consumed; only a few selected creators created.

The arrival of the internet began to change this paradigm, putting the ability to reach a global audience within the reach of anyone with a website. Yet the rise of social media really began with the invention of the blog.

Blogs are hardly advanced technology--in essence, they're simply websites that let writers post articles and let readers comment--but had a major impact because they were the first technology to make publishing into a social, interactive endeavor. They turned readers who were used to being consumers into participants.

As blogs trained an entire generation to talk back to content creators, other tools sprang up that took advantage of this newly kindled desire for self-expression. If blogging allowed anyone to operate their own newspaper or magazine, YouTube allowed anyone to create their own television and motion pictures. Social networks such as Facebook supercharged the entire movement by helping knit together previously implicit and loosely coupled groups with a near-instantaneous channel for communication. Within 24 hours, a single viral video can spread to millions of viewers through an interlinked network of online social ties.

Yet while this social media revolution has generated a tremendous amount of hype and attention, it has yet to create much value, either for the "real world" in general, or education in particular. Social networking activities for students remain, by and large, personal and non-academic. "Poking" friends or indicating your love of the comedian Stephen Colbert on Facebook may help pass the time, but it has little pedagogical value. Almost 22 million Facebook users use Slide FunSpace to share photos and videos. The most popular education app, Courses 2.0 (which allows students to tell their friends which courses they are taking) claims only 122,000 users, and has no direct teaching value.

The true value of social media will only be realized when its power is harnessed to drive increases in productivity. The intersection of social media and productivity is collaboration.

Collaboration is the true killer app of Web 2.0 in education. As more and more educators turn to team-based projects and collaborative learning inside and outside the classroom, they will learn to harness the power of social media for productive purposes. Rather than teens commenting on the latest YouTube music video, they will be collaborating online to conduct original research, all under the watchful eye of their instructors, who will be able to use these new technologies to monitor their progress and provide instruction at critical moments. Rather than "Poking" each other via Facebook, students will work together to synthesize many points of view into a single understanding.

The real opportunity to improve education lies with collaboration. There is little that social media can do to improve individual productivity. Web 2.0 may make it easier to find certain resources, but those savings are at the margins, and are little improvement over simply searching for information via Google. On the other hand, the technology for working together to accomplish a common goal has changed little since the advent of e-mail.

Given the rapid rise of social media, which has only truly taken off in the fast five years, it's hardly surprising that the educational system has yet to fully adjust to this paradigm shift within the student body. Yet there are a number of pioneers who are helping usher in the new age of collaboration.

Beth Rubin, director of distance education at DePaul University School for New Learning (Ill.) (SNL), wanted a way to make her online classes more interactive and collaborative. Her instructors needed a flexible way to improve collaboration, both inside and outside the classroom.

SNL chose a hosted collaboration suite from PBwiki because neither their teachers nor students were trained technologists. SNL used PBwiki with existing distance learning tools from Blackboard and Wimba to improve the distance learning experience and increase the interaction between students and faculty.

In the classes, the new collaboration platform lets instructors do a variety of things that the previous technologies could not, including:

-- Referencing back coursework, discussions, and resolutions

-- Collaboration outside the classroom

-- Creating a portfolio that students can access after their class is complete

-- Pulling together weeks of class work into one place, allowing students to see the evolution of the class

-- Enabling new faculty/student interaction for required internships and externships.

The key attraction is that PBwiki enables enduring communities, including connections between different cohorts of each class, even across different school years. These connections broaden the opportunities for students to collaborate and build ideas together, and to develop networks with one another and even with alumni. In this way, the online technology enables connections that previously could not have existed, and channels those interactions in productive ways.

Delta Cavner of Southwest Baptist University (Mo.) found herself in a quandary. As an expert on educational technology, she found herself getting increasingly frustrated with the available textbooks. With the rapid pace of change, any textbooks she ordered were essentially obsolete before they arrived. The mass media paradigm failed to provide the kind of flexible, continuously updated content she needed for her classes. Then Delta had a brainstorm: she would use Web 2.0 technology to let her students create their own textbooks.

Not only would they always be up to date, collaboration on creating their own textbook would teach her students more about the subject, and engage them in active learning. Now, her students are writing an educational technology textbook with a hosted collaboration solution from PBwiki and each semester's students will edit and add to the content.

In the end, the greatest impact that collaboration will have on education might be its ability to break down boundaries. Part of the power of the internet lies in its universality. Anyone anywhere can find any piece of information or communicate with anyone and everyone else.

While the classroom has typically functioned as an isolated unit, wikis and Web 2.0 offer the possibility of erasing those (figurative) walls and allowing collaboration across boundaries.

How much more powerful will teaching become when students can share their work with other students anywhere in the world, or even with people outside the academic sphere? Will universities be able to extend learning from their classrooms to their alumni, to their surrounding community, or even to the vast audience available on the other end of the internet? And how quickly will new teaching techniques and tools evolve and spread when they can be transferred from student to student, course to course, and campus to campus with a single click?

It is true that Web 2.0 has had little to offer educators and educational institutions so far, but the age of collaboration is coming. Over 250,000 educators already use PBwiki, and the number is growing. In this new age, education rather than entertainment will take center stage, and institutions that pioneer collaborative learning will be well-positioned for this and subsequent centuries.

Chris Yeh is vice president of enterprise marketing for PBwiki.