Chapter 9: Contemporary technologies’ influence on learning as a social practice – Information Literacy


Contemporary technologies’ influence on learning as a social practice

Ben Scoble


Over the centuries, media communications technology innovation and development have had profound impacts on the societies that have embraced them. In the last 20 years the Internet has provided us with the latest example of how such developments can change the fundamental ways in which people communicate, learn and undertake the process of knowledge construction. Traditional learning experiences that involve accessing information from formal institutions are now being challenged by the new ‘social’ media and Internet-based information sources that are more informal in nature and autonomous. These new forms of communication media and information have transformed knowledge construction and learning, with many tempted into including any unsanctioned content that is produced for the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW). A significant area of interest for those involved in information literacy is the influence of these new informal sources of information and how they challenge traditional and more formal approaches to learning. As a cultural shift, this new form of social learning is reminiscent of the growth and popularity of coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries. Through understanding how the coffeehouse altered and challenged learning, knowledge construction and society, we will hopefully understand how contemporary technologies may influence contemporary learning, knowledge construction and the current societies that embrace them. One significant outcome from this exploration is the new relationship our society now has with data, information and where it comes from. Ultimately, the challenge for educators will be to redesign contemporary pedagogies to acknowledge and incorporate the new social web and contemporary forms of knowledge construction into appropriate learning experiences. Without such an examination of contemporary technology we may be unable to maintain and manage the future quality of data, information and knowledge that is the foundation of our knowledge-based economy and modern society.

Key words



social media



Contemporary technology

Contemporary technologies, in particular those connected to the Internet, have had a profound impact on the lives of people living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Although this comes across as a trite or even clichéd statement, words cannot aptly reflect the radical nature to which these Internet technologies have changed and are continuing to change the societies that have embraced them. These technologies have been inculcated in many of the paradigm shifts that have happened to some of the most important areas of how we engage in our lives today. In 1999, Douglas Adams observed that ‘the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to.’ Adams writes further that ‘the biggest problem is that we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it’. Adams’ observations clearly illustrate that the Internet was and is such a new technology that defining what it was for and how it is to be used is both conceptually challenging and will require an on-going re-appraisal.

We often use the terms ‘Internet’ and ‘World Wide Web’ (WWW) interchangeably and without much distinction, but they are not the same and understanding this key difference explains how the Internet is influencing learning as a social practice. The Internet is essentially a global network of interconnected computers, whereas the WWW or Web is an application of services that run on and take advantage of its attributes. Therefore, the WWW is more than just access to a repository of content and a collection of resources that are linked together by hypertext, hyperlinks and web addresses (URLs). In 2007, Kevin Kelly explained that through such Internet technology, in just 5,000 days, an environment had been created which allowed global access to almost unlimited information and data (Kelly, 2007). What is even more remarkable is that through the development of these communications networks, the whole world now has access to a knowledge ‘machine’ that is always on, non-proprietary and has an enormous storage capacity. In addition to this, the environment is evolving to become more open, as its content can now be added to or modified by anyone that participates or engages with it.

In respect to education, Anderson (2008: 54) states that ‘the greatest affordance of the Web for education use is the profound and multifaceted increase in communication and interaction capability’. This is revolutionary for knowledge construction and learning as data, information and related services was either not free or was difficult to access due to various barriers to entry before the Internet became ubiquitous. As Anderson (2008) clearly identifies, users now have Internet-based services that allow them to easily connect with other users and undertake activities that facilitate and support the free exchange of ideas and new content. What is crucial to appreciate here is that the WWW is becoming a ‘social web’, epitomised as the free exchange of ideas through being facilitated by and conducted within an online, social and participatory environment.

In everyday terms, our experience of the Internet at the end of the first decade of the 21st century is very different from what was experienced at the end of the 20th century. Fundamentally, the Internet is no longer just a computer- based phenomenon and has extended its reach to include many mobile and other new devices that can also access web services on the Internet. What we have experienced and are continuing to experience is the Internet going through a paradigm shift, from being a passive publishing technology that is read-only (Web 1.0) to one which has read-write capabilities (Web 2.0) for users. As this chapter will hopefully explore further, the Internet can now offer attributes and features (affordances) that go beyond merely distributing content to learners. The WWW is now an active and participatory environment that has the possibility to fully support and enhance the learning process in ways only imagined or never considered before its inception.

What makes the Internet such a radical and disruptive technology for education?

Looking at the history of the Internet through the prism of education, the first important and radical event was the use of the Internet in its original form as Web 1.0, the read-only web. Much like old publication technologies, Web 1.0 largely presented information to users who passively read or listened to what was being displayed. In addition, Web 1.0 also allowed document files to be electronically distributed, allowing users to save their own copy. This was invaluable to education as it allowed information to be distributed widely to any number of users, cheaply and easily. Related to this period, it is also important to recognise the development and adoption of e-mail as the communication tool of choice, which was equally invaluable as it also allowed information to be distributed widely, cheaply and easily. E-mail can be seen as the first major Internet technology that facilitated learning activities that were collaborative and social in their dimension. E-mail was radical as it was a tool that supported offline relationships, allowing the easy movement of text and later documents between e-mail users. However, cultivating purely online virtual learning communities was still challenging using Web 1.0. Unless you had an online presence, such as a web page that publicised your e-mail address, it was often a lot easier to contact a website’s author (web master) than it was to contact a fellow anonymous user or casual browsers of the same website.

The crucial disruptive and radical moment in the development of the WWW was its transformation from read-only Web 1.0 to the read-write web, Web 2.0. This is a paradigm shift, as websites can now allow users to both contribute to them as well as consuming the information they contain. Essentially, users can now either passively browse websites anonymously or create an online profile to both access and contribute to them. Critically, Web 2.0 websites are now more than just a publication tool and can offer services that invite user input or are unique services in their own right. Many Web 2.0 services do not focus on producing any original content at all but rely on hosting usergenerated content. These new user generated sites are typified as social networking sites or media hosting services that only exist to allow users to post videos, share photos, write collaborative wikis or blogs and engage in online discussions. With regard to the individual users’ experience, this new Web 2.0 environment allows users to create their own virtual environments, buy and consume services and engage in totally new interactive participatory experiences online. It is important to note that defining Web 2.0 is an inexact science as it is ‘not a single coherent entity, but a wide variety of different technologies and these technologies offer different affordances’ (Armstrong and Franklin, 2008: 12).

Whether Web 2.0 will radically change education can only be validated in hindsight. By analysing the impacts and effects of Web 2.0 technology on society (e.g. commerce, entertainment, communications and politics) one cannot see any reason to doubt that something radical and disruptive will be happening to education. Armstrong and Franklin (2008: 5) outline that Web 2.0 will be increasingly important to education because:

 It is an active set of technologies in which the learner contributes, rather than passively consuming content (as with television).

 Its affordances are a good match for social and constructivist pedagogies as Web 2.0 is inherently social and is concerned with the co-creation and use of knowledge.

 The barriers to use are low. There are plenty of technologies which teachers and learners can use at no cost (apart from time) and which require little training or equipment to use.

 It is a natural extension of the way that many people are already using the web rather than a completely new departure.

Social learning is nothing new

In order to deconstruct and understand how the WWW, in particular Web 2.0 (Social Web), is influencing learning as a social practice, one must acknowledge that learning from social encounters is nothing new. Even before the Internet, people have always been exploiting social activities, professional individuals, friendship groups, peers networks and family connections in order to develop knowledge, further an understanding of the world and seek answers to some basic questions.

In formal education, social learning, as exemplified through the pedagogic perspective of ‘Social Constructivism’, is seen as learning through actively constructing new ideas by building and testing hypotheses individually or through collaborative activities and/or dialogue (JISC, 2009: 11). Beyond formal experiences, there is a strong history of self- motivated informal learning environments that demonstrate and reflect these principles of social learning. New online social networking tools and many Web 2.0 services can be seen as a modern reinterpretation and an evolution of traditional (offline) informal face to face environments, activities and relationships. The development and prolific use of web-based services and tools (such as social networking, search engines, blogs and wikis) exemplify that people are supplementing or even replacing traditional forms of knowledge construction with new augmented tools. However, as described earlier, users of this new social web can now engage in a process of knowledge construction online that increasingly involves anonymous individuals that are not known to the user.

Any historians reading this chapter will understand that we have seen this all before, as the new social web draws parallels to the development of other social spaces that have been popular throughout history. Examples of such social spaces are public houses, coffeehouses, tea rooms, union meetings, town hall meetings and public libraries. In some cases, these were originally created for one purpose, such as a commercial enterprise, but then quickly developed into an environment that had affordances that could support and facilitate discussion, conversation, discourse and innovation. Some social spaces were more radical than others, but many shared the characteristic of being an environment that facilitated learning and knowledge construction.

Standage (2003: 48) asks the question, ‘Where do you go when you want to know the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what others think of a new book, or stay abreast of latest scientific and technological developments?’ In a modern context, the obvious answer is log on to the Internet and use a search engine, but in the 17th and 18th centuries it was through a visit to one of the many thousands of coffeehouses that were created. The popularity of coffeehouses stand out as the most radical of popular social spaces used for learning and knowledge construction. Coffeehouses had a number of key attributes that parallel the Internet and the modern phenomenon of social networking online. First, coffeehouses were sober commercial places and therefore allowed sober discourse and debate of the ideas and themes of the day. Second, the barrier to entry (cost of participation) was low and within the budget of most people. And lastly, the space itself was socially democratic, insofar as it flattened traditional hierarchical social structures and imposed its own new rules of social conduct and activity that broke from traditional norms.

Seventeenth-century coffeehouse enthusiast and fellow of the Royal Society John Houghton gives a telling account of the impact of coffeehouses in the following assessment:

Coffee-houses make all sorts of people sociable, the rich and the poor meet together, as also do the learned and unlearned. It improves arts, merchandize, and all other knowledge; for here an inquisitive man, that aims at good learning, may get more in an evening than he shall by books in a month: he may find out such coffeehouses, where men frequent, who are studious in such matters as his enquiry tends to, and he may in short space gain the pith and marrow of the others reading and studies. I have heard a worthy friend of mine … who was of good learning … say, that he did think, that coffeehouses had improved useful knowledge, as much as [the universities] have, and spake in no way of slight to them neither. (Cowan, 2005: 99)

Coffeehouses quickly became popular and were distinct environments with attributes and activities that lead them to being commonly referred to as ‘Penny Universities’. Critically, these social spaces were new informal learning environments that could challenge formal institutions. As Cowan (2005) makes clear, these ‘Penny Universities’ were emphatically not university institutions and the activities they encouraged were radically different from any university tutorial, both in their organisation and participation.

Much like the debate today of the value of the Internet and informal online learning environments over formal institutions, coffeehouses were not without their critics, both in support and attack. Royal Society scientist and diarist Robert Hooke was another enthusiast and saw them as serious places of work (Cowan, 2005: 105). However, many did not share Hooke’s zeal and a 1661 tract complained that:

since coffeehouse conversation proceeded with ‘neither moderators, nor rules’ it was like ‘a school … without a master’. ‘Education is … [in the coffeehouse] taught without discipline. Learning (if it be possible) is here insinuated without method.’ (Cowan, 2005: 100)

As with many Web 2.0 services on the Internet today (social networking sites, blogs and wikis), many could not see the intellectual value in engaging in the current fashion. Commentators at the time complained that the new style of conversation in public coffeehouses was found to be ‘fluently romantick nonsense, unintelligible gibberish, florishing lyes and nonsense’ (Cowan, 2005: 93). Beyond a view that coffeehouses were just trivial, many were concerned that patronage of these coffeehouses could be dangerous, erroneous and that unintelligent conversations could undermine formal institutions. In 1663 the vice chancellor of Cambridge University mandated that coffeehouse keepers ‘suffer no scholars of this University, under the degree of Masters of Arts, to drinke coffee, chocolate, sherbett, or tea … except their tutors be with them’ (Cowan, 2005: 93).

Despite concerns about the coffeehouses’ threat to society and formal learning environments, they remained very popular for two centuries. Coffeehouses were a radical and innovative construction and resulted in either supporting or giving rise to the creation of now familiar and important institutions in British society. One example is seen through the development of the insurance company Lloyds of London. Lloyds of London demonstrates that coffeehouses evolved into specialist environments, reflecting the clientele that frequented them. In the case of Lloyds coffeehouse, the Lloyds insurance institution developed from people being attracted to Lloyds coffeehouse as it held auctions of ships, sold insurance and published a financial paper. Coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th century can be viewed in very similar ways to how the Internet is used today. Melton (2001: 226) describes them as functionally similar to the Internet as you could use them to ‘find jobs, conduct business, exchange information, or celebrate important events of their lives’. These coffeehouses reflected the spirit of the age (the Zeitgeist) and these new social spaces were ‘born in an age of revolution, restoration, and bitter party rivalries’ (Melton, 2001: 241). Equally, as the Internet re-adjusts the relationship between institutions and its citizens, the ‘coffeehouse provided public space at a time when political action and debate had begun to spill beyond the institutions that had traditionally contained them’ (Melton, 2001: 241).

The potential for technologies to become a new and dominant force in social communication and learning is exemplified by the way in which the coffeehouse network developed and radically altered people’s behaviour. Coffeehouses did not just operate in isolation and became interconnected and self referential. Newspapers, gazettes, pamphlets and information ‘feeds’ were produced from within the coffeehouse network and were about the activities going on within them. For example, early popular newspapers included the Post Boy, the Daily Courant and the Event Post (Inwood, 2004). One of the most famous publication names was set up in a response to the coffeehouse phenomenon, The Tatler in 1709 by Richard Steele. It could be argued that these types of publications were the RSS feed or blog aggregators of the 17th and 18th centuries. These publications were the output of thoughts and ideas from the leading thinkers of the day and helped shape public opinion, in the contemporary world we would conceptually know this as the Blogosphere.

This aggregation of information for publication is described in detail in the following Tatler entry (12/04/1709):

All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestic news, you will have from St. James’s Coffee-house; and what else I shall on any other subject offer, shall be dated from my own apartment. (Aitken, 2004)

The development of news media was a radical change to the ordinary person, as cheap daily printed news had not been very common before. The result of all this new mass media was the development of the daily newspaper culture, giving rise to better informed individuals that could form an opinion about current affairs.

All Englishmen are great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news. I have often seen shoeblacks and other persons of that class club together to purchase a farthing paper. (Shoemaker, 2007: 18)

Analysing why coffeehouses were so radical to 17th and 18th century societies affords us a useful insight into how the Internet is affecting changes to our contemporary society. Essentially, one can see that the coffeehouse phenomenon was born out of a synergism that occurred between printing technology, mass literacy, mass media, popular culture and political change. The technology of the printing press evolved to make printed material cheaper, more accessible and lead to improved literacy rates in the 17th and 18th centuries (Wheale, 1999: 90–91). This happened at the same time as coffee and chocolate becoming a popular and affordable beverage, available at numerous coffeehouses. The subsequent evolution of the coffeehouse to ‘Penny Universities’ allowed the free exchange of ideas that had the potential to form new formal institutions, such as Lloyds. Through this timeline of development, the coffeehouse itself can be identified as an important ‘soft technology’ that influenced important economic and socio-political change. Zhouying (2005) describes these types of soft technologies as important elements in either innovation or industrial, societal and economic revolutions as they are ‘both the tool and the content of technological innovation’ (p. 139) that act ‘as the process technology for technology transfer, technology commercialization and industrialization’ (p. 139). What seems to be crucial is that ‘soft technology can be seen as a servant of the transfer, and even industrialization, of other technologies’ (p. 139). In simple terms, the act of people congregating together, enjoying a sober pleasure and engaging in the simple act of the free exchange of ideas and news brought forth some radical innovations. With this in mind it is apparent that the Internet can be seen in a similar light, as this new technology is facilitating communication, dialogue and information exchange that is altering the ways in which people are living their lives, socialising, conducting business and engaging in knowledge construction.

The Internet as the modern wireless ‘Penny University’

As Standage (2003) identified, coffee fuelled the information exchange of the 17th and 18th centuries and contemporary coffeehouses have continued this tradition through the phenomenon of the Cyber Cafe of the mid-1990s. However, unlike the coffeehouses of the 17th century, Cyber Cafes were quickly superseded by Internet connections at home and at work. Crucially, Cyber Cafes have moved from offering pay as you go, fixed line and site specific Internet connections to now offering a free wireless connection through hosting Wi-Fi hotspots. This is not a unique situation as many other popular high street restaurant chains have copied this service by also offering Wi-Fi hotspots to attract customers. Fundamentally, contemporary communications technology is increasingly ‘wireless’ as in addition to Wi-Fi hotspots, web-enabled devices, such as mobile phones, use the wireless mobile telephone network to connect to the Internet. Through the development and addition of wireless communications technologies to the fixed-line network, users now have access to the Internet anytime and anywhere. This situation is revolutionary in respect to the process of knowledge construction and social learning, as it has the potential of creating a generation or a group of people that is always online in any context. Ostensibly, through having your access to information un-restricted by any barrier, one can consider information and the Internet as a new utility. Much like the traditional utilities, the Internet is something that can be connected to and a valuable product drawn from it, an important utility for the knowledge society and the knowledge economy.

In the 2006 JISC report into the ‘Learner Experience of e-Learning’ (LEX), students’ use and attitudes towards contemporary technology in education were investigated. Their findings reflect this developing theme of information being considered as a utility. In addition, the report found that contemporary technology and the Internet played an increasingly important part in the knowledge construction process of students, both informally and formally. Fundamentally, many students considered that it was an essential part of their lives, exemplified in the following statements:

I’m addicted, it’s the first thing I turn on in the morning before I even wake up and actually it’s very, very bad. I think in the future people can’t cope without their laptops. My main use of it is I guess social networking. It would be My Space and Messenger and e-mail things like that and then secondary would be information gathering in terms of like I said, my home page is the technology website and current affairs, news. I have alerts coming into me so I get information and then I use search engines for academic purposes (Emma, undergraduate business student). (JISC, 2006: 13)

I’ll usually like read [the newspaper] on-line and I never realised that I’m actually learning in a way, know what I mean, because … you’re learning about, like, the economy and like, what’s happening day to day and, like, politics and stuff and it never came to me that I was actually learning something when you’re reading the paper, know what I mean, but you are, so it was … ‘Oh I’m learning and I’m not aware of it’ [laughs] (Lynsey, first year undergraduate student). (JISC, 2006: 9)

I tend to be a bit of a networker in general so I would go and ask people for help, like I’ve got a lot of friends who would be doing computer science degrees, things like that, they would help me out, or looking up things … you can use the Internet to self-teach, you can get … tutorials and things (Emma, undergraduate business student). (JISC, 2006: 11)

The LEX report supports Efimova’s (2004) examination of a contemporary student’s knowledge construction in the 21st century. Efimova highlights that contemporary students are becoming modern knowledge workers engaged in the activities of ‘finding, interpreting and connecting pieces of information, articulating ideas, engaging in conversations that lead to elaborating ideas and developing relations with others, keeping track of personal notes, conversations and contacts’ (p. 11) Efimova identifies that the activities that a knowledge worker undertakes can be mapped across the three dimensions of ‘Ideas’, ‘Individuals’, and ‘Communities & Networks’. These three dimensions relate to either formal relationships, such as through a university, or informal relationships, such as friendship or peer groups. It is apparent that with the development of the Internet, students as knowledge workers, can now support, extend or supplant their traditional offline information sources by accessing a wider network of information sources online (such as wikis, blogs, forums and search engines). An interesting characteristic of these online information sources is that they reflect ‘The Wisdom of the Crowds’, which represents the principle that the many are wiser than the few. Essentially, the user of the information has no relationship to the originators of the information and must therefore decide to trust the information being supplied. This trust judgement relies on new trust indices, such as brand name or previous experience of the service. Hulme (2009: 5) reports that 71 per cent of young people questioned stated that when looking for help and advice it is best to find as “many opinions as possible. As a decision framework, Hulme (2009: 24) outlines some decision criteria that young people, the so called ‘Digital Natives’ (Prensky, 2001), may use:

 professional reputation;

 offline reputation (including having professional staff with resources to gather definitive and credible information);

 previous personal experience with the site;

 proof of neutral affiliation (.gov for government site; edu for education; .org for non-profits);

 tone of the writing (neutral versus opinionated);

 elements of style (use of quotes, pictures, by-lines, newspaper layout).

Dron and Anderson (2009) offer some valuable dimensions to understanding this online process of information gathering in their investigation of new ‘Collectives’, ‘Networks’ and ‘Groups’ mediated with social software. They postulate that the Internet environment allows students to blend their online information sources with traditional information sources from offline relationships.


Dron and Anderson (2009) see ‘Groups’ as formally organised associations. In a learning context these are ‘educational communities or classes, typically having a well-defined membership, a clear focus, a hierarchical composition and a distinct border between activities of the group and those of the larger community’. (Dron and Anderson 2009, n.p.)


Unlike ‘Groups’, Dron and Anderson (2009) see ‘Networks’ as less formal communities that can be joined on an ad hoc basis. Essentially, these ‘Networks’ reflect the ‘relationships between people and the groups of which they are a part, going well beyond the formal groupings formerly found in online formal educational communities. Being part of a network is often a weaker, less readily classifiable relationship than membership of a group.’ (Dron and Anderson 2009, n.p.)


Dron and Anderson (2009) see ‘Collectives’ as informal connections to the Internet and epitomised by the terms the ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ or the ‘Hive Mind’. ‘Collectives are characterised by software-mediated aggregation: they are not about connections, but instead are formed by grouping people and their largely independent activities into sets.’ Contemporary technologies typically associated with ‘Collectives’ are tag clouds (e.g. Folksonomies), search engines (e.g Google PageRank), recommendation systems (e.g. Ebay and Amazon) and reputation/ratings systems (e.g. YouTube). Dron and Anderson (2009) identify that the Internet uses such technology and software in an attempt to ‘combine the implicit or explicit behaviours and opinions of the many to offer an emergent structure which is not determined by a single designer and which cannot easily be predicted in advance’. Essentially, the information contained within the Internet is being constantly reviewed by the ‘Collective’ to ascertain its value and is continually being graded, ranked and having additional value added to it. This process allows users to discover resources, information, opinions or sources that the ‘Collective’ determines to be the most relevant at that particular moment in time. (Dron and Anderson 2009, n.p.)

The phenomena that Dron and Anderson (2009) outline are supported by the following key findings of the Life Support Report (Hulme, 2009: 6).

 Young people believe the Internet provides both more and better sources of information than was previously readily available.

 The Internet plays a key role in the full process of advice gathering, exploration and action and is consistently rated alongside family (in certain specific incidences it can take precedence) and friends as a source of advice in stressful situations.

 Some 82 per cent of young people surveyed said they had used the Internet to look for advice and information for themselves.

 The significance of the Internet as the single first-advice source is illustrated by it its ranking in the top three sources across all issues. When one takes search, online forums and online help-sites together the Internet is first source for a quarter of the sample in the case of each issue.

 Up to 71 per cent of young people cross-check any advice they receive online with advice from other sources.

 The Internet plays a greater role than merely providing information. It is seen as an opportunity to learn from/ engage with others in similar situations and as a direct source of expert support.

 As many as 84 per cent of 16-24 s said ‘the Internet brings communities of similar people closer together’.

Hulme (2009: 32) offers us some insight into the complicated picture we find when trying to understand how young people seek to have questions answered. For example, the report finds that 47 per cent would turn to friends in the first instance to seek advice about relationship issues, while only 4 per cent would seek professional advice. When it comes to health concerns, 27 per cent would seek professional advice, with only 8 per cent asking friends first.

An interesting phenomenon that Hulme (2009) outlines is that a participatory Internet has allowed people, particularly the young, to be more interactive in the way they learn and that they see online conversation and chat as learning opportunities. Hulme (2009) identifies that ‘there are those who directly solicit information, those who dispense and those who learn by watching peer-to-peer conversations with individuals probably adopting differing behaviours as appropriate to changing circumstances’ (Hulme, 2009: 39). A valuable consequence of casually browsing and engaging in social network sites, bulletin boards and chat is that they are opportunities for ‘incidental’ learning. Foley (2004: 5) describes incidental learning as learning that occurs while people perform other activities, and that this type of learning activity is ‘often unplanned, is often tacit, and may be constructive or destructive’. Foley also identifies that learning can be varied as ‘the content of learning may be technical (about how to do a particular task); or it may be social, cultural and political (about how people relate to each other in a particular situation, about what their actual core values are, or about who has power and how they use it)’ (2004: 5).

What is clear is that the Internet encourages learning through evoking a spirit of altruism or as a response to being merely participatory or interactive. This can almost be seen as the ‘holy grail’ to educators; is the Internet an environment that surreptitiously encourages people to engage in learning?

Knowing stuff: what we now do with information

One of the most interesting emergent features of the Web 2.0 era is that all users are now potentially ‘Prosumers’, meaning that they have the role of both consumers, producers and co-producers in the Internet. What this dual role has allowed is a cultural shift on the consumption and production of data, content, information and knowledge in the 21st century. Essentially, web users can either passively consume (e.g. lurking or browsing), create something new for the WWW (e.g. blogs and wikis) or be active consumers by being creative and ‘remixing’ third party outputs into new forms. In addition to this, the separation of content from design is a useful attribute of Web 2.0 as it allows users to re-purpose materials into new contexts through easy to use web tools and simple HTML. For example, online video hosting services offer embedding capabilities that allows the re-purposing of videos from one location into multiple web pages and new contexts (personal blogs, collaborative wikis and learning network sites). Hulme (2009: 18) fundamentally sees this as revolutionary for contemporary students as ‘the availability and their use of the new tools gives [sic] this group a range and depth of conversation not available to previous generations’.

The findings of the Life Support Report (Hulme, 2009) demonstrate that the Internet is a potentially important technology that could support the higher order skills of critical thinking, analysis and synthesis of ideas. This type of cognitive technology joins the list of other technologies that have improved the learning process by removing some mundane or routine tasks, for example word processors, spreadsheets and presentation tools. Crucially for educators, Anderson (2008: 16) highlights that in order to promote higher-order thinking on the Web, ‘online learning must create challenging activities that enable learners to link new information to old; acquire meaningful knowledge; and use their metacognitive abilities; hence, it is the instructional strategy, not the technology, that influences the quality of learning’.

The cult of the amateur and the rise of the informal learner and expert

Many commentators have identified the ‘Prosumer’ as being a disruptive phenomenon, having both a positive and negative impact on our modern world and our ability to construct knowledge. Popular critic of this phenomenon, Andrew Keen, released a book in 2006 entitled The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, Wikis, Social Networking, and the Digital World are Assaulting our Economy, Culture and Values (Newsnight, 2007). Keen asserts that if we are all amateurs then there are no experts, leading to a world in which culture, economy and values are degraded. In regard to education, learning and knowledge construction, Keen makes an important point about the threats to our understanding of the world. Keen identifies that if the line between fact and fiction is blurred by uninformed and anonymous sources online, our ability to construct valid and reliable knowledge is undermined. This tension was recently exemplified through the ‘ClimateGate’ scandal that involved the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Hulme and Ravetz, 2009). This event demonstrated that the Internet is now a politically influencing force in which citizen commentators, amateur or ‘informal’ scholars are challenging formal and world leading institutions. Benny Peiser (McKie & Peiser, 2010) commentated that this situation occurred, in part, because ‘the emergence of a powerful counter-culture on the blogosphere is no longer reliant on mainstream media. It is driven by new technologies and fed by independent bloggers and researchers who increasingly publish their research and investigations on interactive and autonomous media platforms.’ This event highlights an increasing and popular trend opined within the Internet and society in general over the last few years, a trend centred on increasing institutional openness and transparency. Much of this comes as a result of the change in attitudes towards the ‘Freedom of Information’, whistle-blowing and the willingness to disclosure once restricted information on the Internet (e.g. WikiLeaks, ClimateGate e-mails and ‘MPs’ Expenses’). Trust in governments and public institutions has been challenged and they have reacted by making many of their data sources and formal documentation publicly available.

As a response to this new era of openness, the Internet is seen as an important influence in increasing links between ‘Professionals’ and ‘Amateurs’ (Pro-Am), allowing participants to learn from each other and advance their discipline. These ‘Pro-Am’ collaborations are obviously nothing new, but the ways in which the relationship is conducted and supported is radically new, and both parties can now take advantage of the following:

 share the same data sources;

 use similar tools that were once too expensive or difficult to use; and

 communicate much more easily with each other through new media tools.

Lombardi (2007: 5) sees the new affordances of the Internet as being crucial in opening up learners to authentic environments that are encouraging formal and informal learning activities with online communities of practice:

In disciplines from ornithology to social history, students are becoming legitimate peripheral participants in virtual communities of practice, collecting data either first-hand or through remotely located smart sensors. In other cases, students use data collected by researchers (such as virtual sky data accessible through the National Science Digital Library Project) to conduct their own investigations. They are practicing higher-order analysis on real data sets while contributing to the common knowledge base.

Lombardi (2007: 2) sees these authentic learning experiences as very important as ‘learners are able to gain a deeper sense of a discipline as a special “culture” shaped by specific ways of seeing and interpreting the world’. It is this access to the formal and informal world of the ‘expert’ that makes authentic learning a valuable learning experience for a learner. Lombardi (2007: 2) describes this as the learner being exposed to the ‘subtle, interpersonal, and unwritten knowledge that members in a community of practice use (often unconsciously) on a daily basis’. This position within a community of practice fundamentally requires the learner to focus on being a subject specialist in addition to learning about the content of the subject. Formal and informal ‘Pro-Am’ collaborations are now a prolific feature of the Internet. Simple examples can be seen in the form of feedback and comments features on websites that allows a dialogue between a user and an institution or an expert. More complex examples are evident where formal projects invite users to sign up and take part in a formal project. Such projects can ask users to be a participant with their input adding to a growing pool of data. In other instances, the user may be asked to become an informal researcher that analyses data or running project related software that can be download from the project website, for example see The Perception Lab Project (

At the core of this new ‘Pro-Am’ phenomenon is the principle of open and free data. This principle has led to the development of open data organisations such as the ‘Open Knowledge Foundation’. Iconic figures such as Tim Berners- Lee and Tim O’Reilly have been advocates of the principles of open access to data and many governments have responded through the development of websites such as and

In this era of easy access to highly valuable machine readable datasets, there have been some innovative, creative and useful examples of what people are doing with them. One example is seen after the Haiti earthquake of 2010. In a response to a lack of up-to-date maps for the region, a call for help went out across the Internet using social networking services, for example the following link was posted on Twitter The rescue services were then able to collaborate with the global users of the ‘OpenStreetMap’ community to produce a current map of the main earthquake areas. Using the ‘OpenStreetMap’ platform and the most recent digital aerial photographs, volunteers re-drew and added useful data to the map of areas like Port-au-Prince to help aid volunteers on the ground move about the city and locate refugee centres. This was all possible as rescue services were able to access these maps via their mobile devices, all the more important in an area with very poor communications infrastructure.

Pedagogy 2.0? Opportunities and threats of contemporary social learning

Anderson (2008: 100) envisages that the Internet has the potential to change educational systems as ‘technologies are a catalyst of change, resulting in the need for educators and institutions to adapt and/or transform’. This assertion is also reflected by George Siemens who, in 2003, made the following statement:

Society is changing. Learners needs are changing. The course, as a model for learning, is being challenged by communities and networks, which are better able to attend to the varied characteristics of the learning process by using multiple approaches, orchestrated within a learning ecology.

Taken together, Anderson and Siemen are making the case that education and the learning process (praxis) needs to be re-appraised in light of an environment that is increasingly participatory and involves a wider learning environment that includes the WWW. Crucially, this contemporary learning environment is augmented by new technology and now involves external communities populated by experts, amateurs and other various ‘grey’ sources of information, data and knowledge. On a basic level, one could see this as a challenge to traditional learning environments to include new external sources of information, data and knowledge. However, it is clear that this is not just a content issue and that it is increasingly appropriate to see that contemporary technologies offer a valid alternative to traditional approaches through which the learning is achieved. For example, it is now possible to completely by-pass traditionally formal education systems and instead access quality sources through informal networks and groups. Obviously, this approach is a niche exercise and requires self-direction, self-discovery, self-motivation, peer learning and communities of practice. However, this situation does question the role of formal institutions in knowledge construction and is a challenging situation for traditional pedagogies used in education institutions. What this situation allows us to appreciate is that contemporary learning now involves the ‘Social Web’ which is giving rise to a ‘learning ecology’ that is best represented and possibly best served by adopting the Constructivist and Situative approaches to pedagogy. It is uncertain whether these pedagogic perspectives become the dominant or most favoured approaches to adopt. However, Goodfellow (2008: 32) sees ‘Constructivist’ and ‘Situative’ as ‘ecological’ perspectives and the ‘ecological perspective leans towards more social and anthropological framings, such as those that inform thinking about learning in “situated”, “community”, and “networked” learning’. Developing this further, Franklin (2008: 97) sees contemporary technology as offering something new to pedagogy and that ‘the pedagogical foundation for using Web 2.0 in the classroom is related to both changes in students (content creators, digital media enthusiasts) and changes in learning theories conceptualized as a bottom-up, collaborative, participatory process, as in student-centred, constructivism and active learning theories, coincides with the fundamental principles of Web 2.0: community, creativity, participation, and reflexivity’. In addition, Mayes and de Freitas (2004: 10) state that approaches that are participatory, conversational and involve the wider community require that ‘effort is made to make the learning activity authentic to the social context in which the skills or knowledge are normally embedded’. This identifies that making education applied and less abstract may be an important trend to consider as well.

Information literacy

In respect to opportunities and threats to education, it is clear that in order to adopt approaches that include information technology we must see information literacy as a key skill for students and educators. Without information literacy as a key skill, many users will be at a disadvantage. Many of the issues currently attributed to the use of technology in education relate to users not being;

 effective knowledge workers;

 aware of their changing role from media consumers to co-producers;

 aware that continued participation with learning will depend on their existing technical skills and how they develop them.

Participation in this new ‘social web’ occurs in an age of content ‘abundance’. Anderson (2008) states that ‘every abundance creates a new scarcity’ and within the context of education this can be seen as a reference to validity and reliability. Content, data and information is now freely available, therefore the skill to make sound academic judgements on abundant content are of paramount importance. In addition to this, Anderson (2008) sees that as facilitators of the learning process educators need now to operate and create learning experiences which have the following conditions in mind:

 an abundance of information can create a scarcity of context;

 an abundance of choice can create a scarcity of advice;

 an abundance of content can create a scarcity of time;

 an abundance of people competing for your attention can create a scarcity of reputational ways to choose among them.

As an opportunity for education, Lombardi (2007: 3) sees that information literate students which are immersed in new approaches to learning, namely authentic learning activities, have the potential to cultivate the kinds of ‘portable skills’ that newcomers to any discipline have the most difficulty acquiring on their own:

 the judgement to distinguish reliable from unreliable information;

 the patience to follow longer arguments;

 the synthetic ability to recognise relevant patterns in unfamiliar contexts;

 the flexibility to work across disciplinary and cultural boundaries to generate innovative solutions.

In a recent Nature article, Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University stated that ‘research without Google would be like life without electricity’ (Qiu, 2010: 1012), indicating that the inclusion of the Internet in education is without compromise. Without a concerted effort to tackle the challenges of information literacy and to appropriately frame learning and knowledge construction in partnership with the Internet, we run the risk of creating insurmountable challenges for the future. At worst we are in danger of creating and fostering cultural cul-de-sacs that ultimately damage knowledge construction and education. Researchers have argued that the Internet encourages the homophily in social learning networks and that by ‘interacting only with others who are like ourselves, anything that we experience as a result of our position gets reinforced’ (McPherson et al., 2001: 415). This is a troubling issue as ‘if there is education there is also miseducation. Educators like to distinguish between propaganda and education, seeing the one as closed, manipulative and oppressive, and the other as open, democratic and emancipatory’ (Foley, 2004: 5). What is most concerning here is the difficulty of distinguishing between valid, accurate and factual information on the Internet with mis-information, errors and the distortion of truth. As seen with other forms of media, the Internet does contain propaganda and has the potential to distort and in some instances is distorting education. Why this is occurring is manifold. However, Tim Berners-Lee has highlighted that the issue of validity and reliability is of key concern, stating that ‘on the web, the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable’ (Swaine, 2008). The blogosphere has the potential to therefore circumvent unbiased and multi-sourced mainstream information sources and therefore could be a key tool for propagandists. Foley (2004: 6) identifies that once established, sources of misinformation could be difficult to counteract as ‘propaganda works on simplification: it appeals to fear, hatred, anger and envy’. As former British Prime Minister James Callaghan said, ‘A lie can make its way around the world before the truth has the chance to put its boots on’ (Newsnight, 2007). However, in the case of the WWW, the lie can now persist through repetition and many experts have personal experience of coming across the phenomenon of ‘Zombie Facts’, as no matter how many times you shoot down the lie they always have a habit of coming back to life on the Internet.


As with the social and cultural shift that happened with the period of the coffeehouse, the Internet has brought about a paradigm shift to the way our society operates, thinks and organises itself. The recent development of the ‘Social Web’ is the current disruptive phase of the WWW phenomenon and is likely to see learning as a social practice having a greater influence on everyday communications networks, information gathering and knowledge construction. In this new phase, finding and accessing information is no longer a problem but trusting it and so constructing reliable and valid knowledge with it is of mandatory concern.

As a concluding thought or twist, the Internet may ultimately succumb to commercial or authoritarian forces that will try to impose control over it. Greater regulation and quality control may not be in the original spirit of the WWW, but if activities continue to have a negative impact on our everyday lives and the knowledge economy on which we all thrive, the more the likelihood that the Internet will be controlled. What this future control looks like is open to debate, but it is not impossible to think that ‘soft technologies’ like quality kite-marks, paywalls and copyright legislation will be enacted to control it. These may seem draconian but as with all ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ issues it is never wise to poison the well on which you draw your water.


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