This chapter marks the culmination of the user-generated approach that started with the web and was further explored through blogs and video. Whether the Web 2.0 boom signified its zenith or nadir will depend on your perspective, but certainly after the Web 2.0 bust, a sense of reality and caution pervaded it.
The “2.0” suffix, much like the “e-” prefix in the late 1990s, began to be appended to everything: university 2.0, libraries 2.0, IT services 2.0, and so on. As such it quickly became both meaningless and annoying. But it is worth revisiting why it caused such excitement, since many of the issues it raised for education are still relevant. The labelling of 2.0 was to make it distinct from Web 1.0 sites (not that anyone had referred to it that way prior to Web 2.0), which were characterized by being static, with the user in a passive role, the contention was that Web 2.0 sites were characterized by social interaction, user-generated content, and sharing. This oversimplified the distinction between the two; for example, as we have seen, bulletin board systems had been encouraging this sort of interaction since the 1990s. However, there had been a significant shift in the ease and amount of sharing online, so Web 2.0 provided a practical term to group together these user-generated content services, including YouTube, Flickr, and blogs. As well as user-generated content, these sites used tools such as folksonomies (user-generated categories), easy means of sharing, such as embed codes and RSS, and open data tools that allowed mash-ups mixing one or more tools. It can also be viewed as more than just a useful term for a set of technologies; though, it seemed to capture a new mindset in our relation to the Internet.
The Web 2.0 term gained popularity from Tim O’Reilly’s use of it in his influential 2005 essay, in which he set out the seven principles of Web 2.0. These included principles that were more targeted at developers but also some that had resonance for educators, including harnessing collective intelligence and realizing the significance of data. Around 2006 people began to consider the application of Web 2.0 in education, with Alexander (2006) being one of the first people to seriously explore the implications. For Alexander, it was the potential of techniques such as folksonomies that was significant (and, as we have seen, which overcame some of the problems with metadata). As he put it, “Popularly created metadata is a rarity. Yet as of February 2006, tag-centric Flickr hosts 100 million images” (para. 8). Similarly, social bookmarking through tools such as Delicious allowed those in education to share their valuable resources, find others with similar interests, and find new content. This dramatically aided students in their research by allowing them to gather valuable sets of resources in ways that would have previously been very labour intensive. He also highlighted the potential educational benefits of collaborative writing tools, and methods for searching and collating blogs and meta-services for combining different information sources. Looking at his list now, two things stand out. The first is that hardly any of the many tools he cited are still in operation, which suggests both that it is problematic to tie education into tools with short lifespans and that the ecosystem of tools is much diminished now. The second is that some of this potential has been addressed; for example, collaborative writing is now something of a commonplace practice through tools such as Google Docs, but much of it remains unfulfilled. Rather like the applications of wikis we saw earlier, it is not the case that we look back from our current vantage point and allow ourselves the complacency of having realized these innovative approaches and gone further. Rather, our pedagogical landscape looks more conservative if anything.
The Web 2.0 boom took off — followed by the inevitable bust, as it transpired that start-ups did require a feasible business plan after all. The collapse of the Web 2.0 boom and problems with some of the core concepts meant that by 2009 it was being declared dead (Techcrunch, 2009). Inherent in much of the Web 2.0 approach was the provision of a free service, which inevitably led to data being the key source for revenue, and gave rise to the oft-quoted line that “if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product.” As Web 2.0 morphed into the dominant social media platforms, the inherent issues around free speech and offensive behaviour came to the fore. In educational terms, this raises issues about duty of care for students, recognizing academic labour, and respecting marginalized groups. In the “anyone can make a Web 2.0 business” gold rush, the privileged male-developer culture of Silicon Valley was reinforced. The utopia of Web 2.0 turned out to be one with scant regard for employment laws, diversity, or social responsibility. A business approach that prioritized short-term acquisition of users (usually with the hope of being taken over by one of the large software companies) resulted in little emphasis on building long-term relationships with a community. Much of the Web 2.0 culture, then, was at odds with that of higher education, but to follow Alexander’s (2006) example, it is worth revisiting some of the more general principles, stripped of the hyperbole, and analyzing what these more general principles hold for higher education.
There are significant cultural differences between the practices that characterize education and Web 2.0 communities. For example, the latter tend to be democratic, based on a bottom-up approach and socially oriented. By contrast, higher education operates largely as a hierarchically arranged system, places a high priority on quality assurance of the content that is realized through a largely top-down process of review and formal assessment, and focuses on the performance of the individual.
As with the participatory culture of video sharing, it is not necessarily the case that higher education should adopt these cultural values, but rather it is worth exploring whether there is a benefit in blending them into existing practice. There are three such aspects derived from the Web 2.0 approach that could have an impact on higher education: unbundling, granularity, and quality. There are more possibilities, but these three illustrate the case for considering the more generic aspects of Web 2.0 beyond specific software.
Starting with the arrival of the first Internet boom, and then accelerated through Web 2.0, was the concept of unbundling. Web 2.0 and the Internet in general saw some of the bonds that held industries together weaken, with the consequence that their component parts became “unbundled” into separate web services. The idea of unbundling in higher education has attracted media attention and investment, although, in reality, the picture is mixed. Christensen, Horn, Caldera, and Soares (2011) have argued that the education system will inevitably be disrupted, because universities operate a “conflated business model,” wherein several means of revenue generation function simultaneously, which leads to inefficiencies compared to providers who specialize in just one of them. Staton (2012) confidently predicted that “there is no polite way to say it: the private sector is coming for education, and American society should embrace it. Entrepreneurs are one of a set of forces that will challenge the existing system of higher education as we know it” (p. 1).
The Unbundled University project (Czerniewicz, 2019) set out to examine these types of claims around unbundling, the degree to which it was happening, and what its implications were for learners, educators, and universities. The researchers reported on possibilities for unbundling in all aspects of higher education and stated in their conclusion that “the situation is dynamic, in flux, and highly contested; it is being negotiated and renegotiated right now” (Czerniewicz, 2018, conclusion, para. 1). While unbundling poses a threat to the notion of universities and privileges certain types of learners, it also “can be part of the solution and can offer opportunities for reasonable and affordable access and education for all. Unbundling and rebundling are opening spaces, relationships, and opportunities that did not exist even five years ago. These processes can be harnessed and utilized for the good” (conclusion, para. 2).
The second aspect that Web 2.0 raises for education is a consideration of the granularity of education. Sharing services allowed smaller chunks of content to be distributed: clips from movies, individual songs rather than albums, photos out of context, and so on. Higher education, as conventionally interpreted, is typified by the undergraduate degree program. This takes three to four years of continuous study, comprises several modules, and has regular exam and assessment sessions, with students being assessed in terms of the knowledge they demonstrate of the taught modules. There are, of course, variations to each of these elements — study can occur at a distance, it can be part time, assessment can be within a portfolio and continuous, there can be breaks in study, and so on. But each of these adaptations is usually mapped on to the existing standard model. They represent modifications to it, not replacements. However, it may be that many of these assumptions are bound up in economic models that have their roots in the physical aspects of education. For example, if students must come to a physical campus, then it makes sense to bundle all their modules into a short time span to minimize inconvenience and to manage staff time.
These restrictions have moulded what we deem to constitute a higher education experience, but perhaps this packaging is merely a product of the physical format and administrative and financial structures have been built up around it. Even when courses have moved online, they have usually followed similar conventions in terms of length and assessment. Several initiatives attempt to tweak this granularity. We shall look at digital badges later, but means of assessing different sized chunks of learning, taken in different settings, can be seen as a means of attempting to make this granularity more flexible. For example, in New Zealand, the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education (NZQA, 2018) launched a scheme to recognize micro-credentials, which were identified as “smaller than qualifications and focus on skill development opportunities not currently catered for in the tertiary education system” (para. 2). The OERu, a global cooperative of universities offering open courses as OER, offer the first year of study free, and students can then transition into formal education (Czerniewicz, 2019). The Open University provides a course that allows students to bring learning acquired through OER on any subject and gain credit for it. What these and countless other endeavours illustrate is experimentation around the edges of what constitutes higher education.
The last consideration Web 2.0 raises for higher education is that of quality. Weinberger (2007) summarized the change that Web 2.0 brought as “filtering on the way out” rather than filtering on the way in. Higher education processes are nearly always based on filtering on the way in — the journal review process, creation of learning content, selection of research proposals, student admission. This is one method of maintaining quality, but the Web 2.0 approach of allowing anyone to publish, and then filtering through rating and relevance, may also have a place; for example, the open repository for physics publications, arXiv, has become the main site for such publications, and applies only a light filter.
These examples illustrate that while everyone (including myself) is now rather embarrassed by the enthusiasm they felt for Web 2.0 at the time, it contained within it some significant challenges and opportunities for higher education. While the rejection of much of Web 2.0 is understandable given the excessive hype that accompanied it, and the more we’ve come to appreciate the associated problems, there are still some core issues in terms of practice that education could benefit from, and in ed tech we need to find a way of oscillating less between extremes of acceptance and rejection and instead examine the more fundamental issues that can be explored.