[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
We have moved from the most practical and direct applications of collaborative web publishing technologies as replacements for existing educational artifacts to an idealized vision of the blogosphere as a continuous collaborative large-scale conversation. A conversation entails a process of give-and-take, of co-learning. The technologies at hand provide tools for leveraging conversations over time, space, and scale. They are what Sebastian Fiedler (2003) has termed “reflective conversational learning tool[s],” encouraging a shift in emphasis from teaching to learning, from lecture to conversation. But more than this, collaborative web publishing provides a set of tools for citizens, a way for individuals to engage more fully in a democratic knowledge society.
Paolo Freire recognizes the power of dialogue, the power of naming and understanding the world. “Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education” (1993, p.73). Freire sees the process of learning how to communicate as coterminous with the ability to live justly in the world. To put this in a different way, there is a significant difference between training and learning; the latter implies that the subject maintains a stake in the process and the outcome. Democracy begins in the classroom and the community. Students who direct their own learning can do so only by engaging the community. Just as it is impossible to learn effectively without engaging in discussion, consensus, and collaboration, it is equally impossible to engage in democratic collective action without a learning community. As John Dewey (1916) notes, free interaction among social groups and an interest in mutual goals are integral to both good education and good democracy.
It is easy to ascribe power to new technologies. The current excitement surrounding collaborative web publishing, regardless of the ultimate place weblogs, wikis, and related technologies serve in education, appears at a certain moment. For now, the future form of these technologies is unclear and untethered. While it still remains to be seen whether the potential of collaborative web publishing will be realized, there is reason for hope. Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983) argues that certain communication technologies have more potential to be used in the service of freedom and self-government; particularly those technologies that encourage exchange and dialogue rather than amplify the voice of a small elite. One of the reasons that collaborative web publishing has received so much attention lately is because it has the potential of being a very powerful cultural tool, if appropriately wielded. Henry Jenkins sees it as the counterpart of, if not the antidote for, the concentrated broadcast media: “Broadcasting will place issues on the national agenda and define core values; bloggers will reframe those issues for different publics and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard” (2002).
Many have decried uncritical descriptions of new educational technologies, technologies that are often presented as educational panaceas. The description presented here remains optimistic about the possible application of these new learning tools. The claims made here are not that the application of these technologies will yield a better learning environment. As we have seen repeatedly in the past, new technologies do little on their own to improve schools. It is suggested, instead, that these socio-technologies of collaborative web publishing represent tools that can be a part of an effective change in pedagogy, a change that focuses on dialogue and participatory engagement. Such changes can be accomplished without information technologies — and they should remain an objective apart from questions of educational technology — but collaborative web publishing may prove to be a useful tool to use in this transformation. The only way it will be successful is if it is employed and critically evaluated within teaching environments. Over the next few years, we must pursue refinements in the use of these technologies, and we must be as acutely aware of the failures as we are of the successes.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.
Fiedler, S. (2003). Personal webpublishing as a reflective conversation tool for self-organized learning. Presented at BlogTalk, Vienna.
Jenkins, H. (1992). Digital renaissance. Technology Review. March.
Pool, I. de S. (1983). Technologies of freedom: On free speech in an electronic age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.