Teachers and students are largely driving the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in schools, but human and technological barriers are holding back the use of these as learning tools in many classrooms, according to a new study.
Commissioned by Lightspeed Systems and Thinkronize Inc., creator of the kid-friendly search engine netTrekker, the study reveals that Web 2.0 technologies are making inroads into schools–but some of these technologies are being adopted faster than others. Online communication tools for parents and students have caught on quickly, but online social networking for instruction has a long way to go.
According to Lightspeed Systems, there is a persistent gap between how today’s digital natives learn in schools and how they work and interact outside of school–a trend that underscores the need for districts to keep pace with technological advances and adapt to students’ learning needs.
"Education leaders are challenged with maintaining a high level of security and safety while allowing for creative and collaborative work in a 21st-century classroom," said Ileana Rowe, vice president of marketing for Lightspeed Systems. "To meet this challenge, [Lightspeed] and netTrekker developed Safe Schools in a Web 2.0 World, an ongoing initiative to help schools implement Web 2.0 technologies safely and effectively to improve teaching and learning."
During the initial phase of the initiative, Interactive Educational Systems Design Inc. (IESD), an independent educational research firm, conducted a national survey in February and March 2009 to examine the current status, future plans, and ongoing challenges of using Web 2.0 technologies in K-12 schools.
The survey organized Web 2.0 technologies into seven categories related to student instruction and learning environments:
1. Student-generated online content;
2. Teacher-generated online content;
3. Online social networking used as part of instruction;
4. Online learning games and simulations;
5. Student use of virtual learning environments;
6. Digital multimedia resources; and
7. Online communication tools for parents and students (outside of school hours).
According to the survey, which polled more than 500 district technology directors online, the top three reasons districts are adopting Web 2.0 technologies are to address students’ individual learning needs (54 percent), engage students’ interest (41 percent), and increase students’ options for access to teaching and learning (33 percent).
"It’s also important to note that districts are at many different stages of use and adoption of Web 2.0 technologies. This report is a broad look taken from a large sample," said Jay Sivin-Kachala, lead researcher for the study.
The Web 2.0 technologies that are most widely used in schools today are online communication tools for parents and students. Sixty-five percent of those polled said at least 75 percent of their teachers use online communications tools, and three-fourths of those polled said their district has a plan for adopting or promoting the use of these technologies.
Another widely used Web 2.0 technology was digital multimedia resources: 50 percent of those polled said about 75 percent of their teachers use these resources, and two-thirds of those polled said their district has a plan for adopting or promoting them.
A less frequently used Web 2.0 technology is teacher-generated online content. Two-thirds of participants said teachers use this technology, and 45 percent said their district has an adoption or promotion plan in place.
Very few teachers are using online social networking as part of their instruction, the survey revealed. Eighty-two percent of district technology directors said very few or no teachers in their district use this type of technology.
"We decided to take a closer look as to why this was happening and broke down the reasons for non-adoption into two categories: human barriers and technology barriers," said Sivin-Kachala.
The most frequently identified human-factor barriers were the need to monitor appropriate use of online social networks (55 percent), lack of teacher knowledge about how to use the technology effectively (51 percent), and teacher perceptions about its lack of instructional value or appropriateness (48 percent).
The most frequently identified technology barriers were concerns about student safety (76 percent), concerns about district network or data security (35 percent), and limited support systems, including technology personnel (27 percent).
Although a lack of teacher knowledge about how to use online social networking for instruction was listed as a significant factor in non-adoption, the report found that teachers generally are the most important group driving adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in K-12 schools.
Specifically, teachers were most frequently cited for driving the adoption of digital multimedia resources (78 percent), online learning games and simulations (65 percent), and teacher-generated online content (60 percent). They were also among the top three groups driving the use of student-generated online content (45 percent) and virtual learning environments (42 percent).
Students themselves were most frequently cited as driving the adoption of social networking and student-generated online content in schools.
"The research indicates that the movement toward [using] Web 2.0 [tools] to engage students and address individual learning needs is largely being driven in districts from the bottom up–starting with teachers and students," said Sivin-Kachala. "Furthermore, the results show that many districts are using or planning to use Web 2.0 tools in teacher professional development, which suggests that teachers will become increasingly comfortable with these technologies and better able to teach students how to use them safely and productively."
The gap between how students learn in schools and how they interact outside of school is reflected in another soon-to-be-released study by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which looks at district leaders’ attitudes toward Web 2.0 technologies as part of a McArthur Foundation project called Web 2.0 in Schools: Policy and Leadership.
The CoSN research reveals a disconnect between thought and action when it comes to using Web 2.0 technologies in schools. Although 77 percent of district administrators in CoSN’s study agreed with the statement "Web 2.0 has value for teaching and learning," most still ban online social networking (70 percent) and chat rooms (72 percent) in their classrooms.
Other key findings from CoSN’s report include:
– While there was broad agreement that Web 2.0 applications hold educational value, the use of these tools in American classrooms remains the province of individual pioneering classrooms.
– Though district administrators acknowledged the critical need to use Web 2.0 technologies, few have systemically begun to research, plan, or implement effective uses of Web 2.0 applications, nor have they restructured their schools to enable participatory reform.
Jim Bosco, principal investigator for the McArthur grant project, said CoSN is "using a series of other means, such as focus groups and Web 2.0 applications, … to investigate this situation. Our focus is on developing an action plan to assist school districts in responding in the best way to ensure that Web 2.0 resources really provide substantial benefits for the learning environments of our schools."
Safe, educational Web 2.0 tools
As the IESD and CoSN surveys reveal, many educators are hesitant to use social networking tools in the classroom, owing to safety concerns. For some technology vendors, these problems can be easily resolved.
"Teachers are on the front lines and indicating a dramatic student lack of interest in paper-based learning once they get introduced to an online environment that is more efficient and gives them immediate feedback and praise from their teacher and peers. There’s no going back," explained Tim DiScipio, founder of ePals.
ePals is one of many providers of secure, kid-friendly social networking and Web 2.0 applications designed specifically for classroom use. Others include Saywire, eChalk, and ConnectYard (see side story).
"So much of what we hear is that schools are not implementing social networking tools. This is because a lot of districts hear this and think Facebook or MySpace. It doesn’t have to be like that," said Paul Kuhne, vice president of marketing for eChalk.
"There can be monitoring; there can be customized online social-networking tools for districts; there can be password-protected environments for teachers and students. It can be just for the school, just for one class, or just for one specific group. There are solutions out there that are safe and manageable," Kuhne added.
According to Josh Hoover, chief technology officer for Saywire, there is no shortage of products on the market that offer blogs, wikis, and even social networks that can be used in the classroom.
"The problem is, while these products can and are being used in the classroom, very few, if any of them, were designed specifically for it," Hoover said. "Most of these off-the-shelf tools lack the necessary security features that would make them appropriate for use in education, because such features would all but dry up the general public’s desire to use them. The trick is to make these tools fun and engaging, mimic their real-world counterparts, and provide the permissions, membership management, public-access restrictions, and–in some cases–content filtering necessary for the classroom."
Note to readers:
Don’t forget to visit the Empowering Education Through Technology resource center. Integrating technology into the classroom can be a challenge without the right guidance. Go to: Empowering Education Through Technology