Can Whiteboards Be Used Effectively In Classrooms Education Essay

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The usage of Web 2.0 in education has given rise to an interesting set of theories around how effectively it can be used for learning purposes. This essay attempts to have a critical look at what Web 2.0 is and what educators think their affordances are in the sphere of education. It aims to critically analyse its role in formal educational settings and attempts to draw upon connectivist, constructivist, and social constructivist perspectives to explain the learning that happens using Web 2.0 in the classroom. The case of using a whiteboard in the classroom and making use of social software such as wiki is also discussed in the last part of this essay.

Introduction

There has been tremendous interest generated in the recent times around the usage of ICT in classroom education. The techno-utopian view of seeing technology solving the problems around education is quite prevalent. This can be seen from the fact that the schools and governments are spending heavily on deploying IT infrastructure in the educational settings. The use of digital tools such as whiteboard is perceived to somehow increase the effectiveness of classroom teaching. This mindset can be best described in Zhao's words (2005, p674), "a techno-centric, utopian and economic driven mindset towards elearning". However, many questions remain. How effective is this usage of Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom? And what is the role of a teacher in using ICT for teaching? What are the educational theories that can be applied to ensure an effective pedagogy? This essay attempts to address these questions and throw further light on what is going on inside a classroom where Web 2.0 technologies are used. This essay attempts to focus on the learning that can happen through the technology than the technology itself.

Overview of web 2.0 applications

The term Web 2.0 is associated with web applications that are centred around user participation and user generated content. The focus of Web 2.0 is more towards content generation, than content dissemination. The consumer is also a participant and the role of consumers is much more participatory. Web 2.0 enables collaboration and knowledge creation by facilitating communication among the participants.

Some examples of Web 2.0 applications are blogs, wikis, videos and image sharing sites and social networking sites. These sites are characterised by extensive user participation and the content is typically generated by more than one user. For example, followers of a blog comment on a blog post, thus generating a rich conversation around the posted topic. Video sharing sites enable users to post and learn from videos, whereas wikis can be used for collaborative activities like joint-authoring or co-constructing a piece of work.

Social networking sites such as facebook and twitter have been widely adopted by the users and they host a vast amount of content generated by an extensive participation by their users. The current generation of youngsters grow up among these social applications which are part of their everyday lives. According to a survey conducted by Pewinternet (Lenhart & Madden, 2007) 65% of teens use an online social networking site. Hence, it is only natural that the academic world wants to adopt this widespread use of Web 2.0 technologies by youngsters for educational purposes. While other social networking sites such as twitter and linked in have also been adopted extensively, their usage by younger population is limited (Ignite, 2011), as they are mostly used for professional networking purposes.

The usage of Web 2.0 in education is mainly centered around blogs and wikis, which serve to store content in text, image and in some cases, video format. The text tends to be linear in blogs, whereas in wikis, the text can be co-constructed. The use of wikis in schools, and in education more widely, is still infrequent (Crook 2008a; Luckin et al. 2008) and according to Grant (2009), the research literature available on the usage of wikis for educational purposes are predominantly focused on higher educational settings. The usage of social networking sites such as facebook for learning is yet unproven, more so in a classroom setting. While the classrooms predominantly tend to have a teacher-to-student discourse (with which discourse through blogging aligns well), social software are meant to promote peer interaction and collaboration, and hence there are tensions in implementing them in a classroom setting. (We will visit this issue later in this essay) The ever increasing usage of digital whiteboards in the classroom affords the teachers to use digital resources while teaching. Thus, video sharing websites like youtube prove to be valuable resources for education. For example, Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/) has an aggregation of educational content that can be used both in and out of the classroom, for self learning, peer learning and teacher led learning. However, the usage of youtube inside the classroom still remains a controversial issue, with schools resorting to banning youtube due to the availability of inappropriate videos. There are highly inappropriate videos available on the site; however, there are also priceless tools for education. Instead of eliminating this resource from the education community, administrators, teachers and students need to be taught how to use this valuable tool (Mullen and Wedwick, 2008).

Critiques of web 2.0

The proliferation of internet over the last few decades has changed the way information is accessed. The availability of information has become more and more abundant and knowledge is available for those who seek it. The internet has largely decentralised access to information and has succeeded in providing voice to more people than ever before. According to Ross & Nightingale (2003), the internet audience contribute to "diversity of views" by discussing and debating around issues that interest them.

However, the critics of Web 2.0 think otherwise. For example, Andrew Keen (BBC, 2009) feels internet is just a reflection of people's opposition to authority. He feels internet is "counter-culture" and admonishes it role in detesting authority and control. His argument stems from his belief that the internet undermines the voice of learned experts by voicing the opinions of everyone who has something to say. It is also interesting to note his cynic perspective towards young millionaires who made it big in internet. His view on Google, in particular, is worth noting. He thinks Google, monopolises print business and takes newspapers out of business. While there is some truth in it, that the broadcast media is growing less and less powerful and dominant, it can be argued that it is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the power of media to manipulate its audience is now substantially decreased, thanks to the proliferation of Web 2.0 and subsequent user engagement. Following the growing trend of interactive media and increasing engagement with media by the consumers, Ross and Nightingale (2003) argue that "dissatisfaction with the constraining 'molar' qualities of mainstream broadcasting is likely to increase". Hence, his argument of people being victims of false consciousness when talking about digital revolution seems to be biased by his own views on the internet and culture. Digital technology has played a definite role in revolutionising this world, not just in terms of work and pleasure, even in terms of politics and international relations. The unrest in the Middle East starting earlier this year with Tunisia that spilled over Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, spread mainly through social networking sites like facebook and twitter, stands testimony to the impact Web 2.0 can have in our daily lives. It is not an exaggeration to say that technology has and still continues to bring about significant changes in the ways the world has been functioning so far.

A rather better argued criticism of Web 2.0, specific to education, comes from Charles Crook (2008b). He argues that currently Web 2.0 in the classroom is more about co-ordination than collaboration - with emails and scheduling meetings happen to be the most used features of Web 2.0 than collaborating and co-constructing knowledge. He also talks about the role of a teacher when it comes to deploying Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom. Contrary to what many believe that the role of the teacher becomes a mentor or a guide with technology taking a lead role in educating children, he argues that the role of the teacher becomes all the more important in designing the learning as adoption of technology or any new way or form of learning requires great enthusiasm and patience from all stakeholders. Citing his own experience, Crook argues that "the spontaneous appetite of the digital native" is not enough to ensure that the learner will enthusiastically commit to the learning process, and the teacher plays a significant role in designing the learning situation.

While talking about the critiques of Web 2.0, it is also important to point out the positives Web 2.0 has brought out, specifically to education. Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org), which started as a project by Salman Khan to assist his cousin in understanding "unit conversion", is now a database of 53,292,486 lessons as on 09/05/2011. These lessons, in the form of videos with a voice over, not only serve as referencing and self learning material for students who wish to learn by themselves, but also have found their way into classroom settings, offering distinct advantages and value additions to classroom practice. Khan (TED, 2011) brings forward a model where the lectures that are hosted on Khan Academy can be watched at home by the students and the teachers could sit with the students during class hours working on their homework instead. This fundamental shift in the way homework is done enables the teachers and students to spend their time together in the classroom more meaningfully.

Moving out of classroom settings, Web 2.0 and the internet has potential to take education to the masses that are deprived of the opportunities that a well developed public education system provides. Consider the "Hole in the Wall Project" by Sugata Mitra (TED, 2011). A computer that was installed on a public space in a small village in India generated enough curiosity among the kids from that area, that they not only learned how to operate the computer, but also learned why the computer needs a faster processor and a better mouse. While it might not be apt to suggest that just an installation of a computer and letting kids fiddle around with it will ensure learning, it might help to notice here that the kids are very much capable of teaching themselves whatever they wished to learn. This has great educational implications in today's information rich world.

Wikipedia is a huge repository of knowledge that offers information on almost anything one needs to know about. More importantly, it is crowd-sourced. Crowd sourcing is the phenomenon of a group of people contributing towards creating a piece of work. In the case of Wikipedia, anyone can contribute to an article any time. There is also an approval process by experts, who are volunteers again. Such is the power of Web 2.0 that sites like Wikipedia act as a platform of crowd-sourced knowledge that could benefit everyone at large. Although there is a debate around the authenticity of the information found in Wikipedia over information found in peer-reviewed academic journals, no one can deny that the value Wikipedia provides to those who do not have access to such academic journals is invaluable.

Learning theories and Web 2.0

Behaviourism was the earliest learning theory proposed, which emphasises learning as behavioural outcomes with little consideration for cognitive science. Thorndike postulated that learning took place through the differential strengthening of bonds between situations and actions (Palincsar, 1998, p 346). This led to what was called "direct instruction teaching" where the teacher maintains control of the pace, sequence, and content of the lesson (Baumann 1988, p 714) and teaching was a matter of shaping the responses of the learner through using instructional procedures such as modelling, demonstration, and reinforcement of closer approximations to the targeted response (Palincsar, 1998, p 346). Although this could be an effective way of teaching factual content, the failure to account for cognitive actions meant this theory could not sufficiently address areas like reasoning and problem solving. This led to the rise of cognitive theories around education.

The Cognitive theories focused on what is happening inside the mind when learning occurs; Or in Bruner's (1990) words, cognitive theories promote a psychology that focused on 'meaning making'. The proponents of cognitive theories came up with cognitive structures to represent knowledge in memory. This also led to the formation of theories around concepts such as "Working memory', which denotes our ability to temporarily hold information arriving via our senses, or from a longer term memory store, in order to process it (Howard-Jones, 2009), and 'Cognitive load' which refers to the capacity of the working memory at any point of time. The cognitive theories borrow heavily from neuroscience and psychology to explain learning.

Constructivism focuses on reflection by an individual and the understanding he constructs of the world around him. It focuses on "rules" and "mental models" to make sense of the external world. Therefore, when we look at learning from a constructivist perspective, learning is the act of adjusting one's mental model to accommodate new meanings, thereby forming a new mental model. Thus, Constructivism was an extension of cognitive theories of learning.

According to Vygotsky, all hidden mental actions were first experienced within the external plane of joint activity (Crook, 2008b). We constantly interact with tools, artefacts and people around us in the external world, and constantly make meaning out of our social interactions. Learning happens when we internalise these external activities and make them part of our own mental structures. This perspective of looking at learning led to the rise of sociocultural theories of learning. Sociocultural theories lay emphasis on our social interactions and argues meaning making is, thus, situated. In terms of classroom settings, the role of peers or tutor becomes extremely relevant. Vygotsky introduced the term ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development) and 'Scaffolding' which refers to setting challenges to the learner to extend the learner's current level to the learner's potential level. The tutor, sitting in an external or 'social' plane, plays an active role in helping the learner make meaning or 'construct' knowledge inside his mind. Thus, the theories of constructivism and sociocultural theories extended to what is now called "social constructivism".

Social constructivism advocates that learning is constructed socially. It gives importance to collaboration and interaction among peers and with experts and argues that knowledge is co-constructed and is larger than the sum of its parts. For example, heterogeneous groups of children with diverse comprehension skills attained competence by using the learning dialogues more quickly than groups of more homogeneous ability (Palincsar & Brown, 1984). This learning through a social constructive perspective can be accounted through two perspectives - The sociocognitive conflict theory of Piaget and sociocultural theory of Vygotsky.

Sociocognitive conflict is described as follows: "Cognitive conflict created by social interaction is the locus at which the power driving intellectual development is generated" (Perret-Clermont 1980, p 12). What this essentially means it that any new knowledge challenges our existing understanding of the world, and creates a conflict in our mind, which spurs us to seek explanations to make meaning from these conflicts. In Piaget's (1985, p 10) words, "disequilibrium forces the subject to go beyond his current state and strike out in new directions". This theory proposes that the learning is maximum when the learner interacts with an expert in the area of study that the learner attempts to get better at. The expert's knowledge stimulates the learner to give up his current understanding to make a shift to a new understanding.

As discussed earlier, socio cultural theory argues that learning first happens in the external plane, via social interactions, and then gets internalised by the learner. To quote Vygotsky's 'genetic law of development' (Valsiner, 1987, p 67), "Every function in the cultural development of the child comes on the stage twice, in two respects: first in the social, later in the psychological, first in relations between people as an interpyschological category, afterwards within the child as an intrapyschological category… All higher psychological functions are internalized relationships of the social kind, and constitute the social structure of personality."

Vygotsky proposed that learning and development are interdependent on each other. "Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and with his peers… Learning is not development; however, properly organized learning results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning. Thus learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human, psychological functions." (Vygotsky, 1978, p 90) In support of this, Vygotsky came up with the term ZPD - Zone of Proximal Development where he argues for organising learning in a way that the learner reaches his potential level of knowledge from his current level of knowledge, under the guidance of an adult or interacting with peers. Vygotsky also emphasises the rule of tools and symbols in the external plane that play an important role in mediating the learning process of the learner. These tools and symbols, or semiotics, are essentially cultural symbols. They can be "language; various systems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so on" (Vygotsky, 1981, p 137)

This theory of Social constructivism is of particular relevance today, given the growing importance given to peer interactions in today's schools. Given the fact that schools are seen more and more as cultural institutions that foster accepted forms of practice to aid learning, the application of social constructivist principles and practices can have significant ramifications. A culture that fosters collaboration and encourages negotiation of meaning can lead to social constructing of knowledge that can be larger than the sum of its parts. Fostering of such a culture requires designing collaborations and attaining grounding between the participants and establishing a sense of mutual trust among them. Hence, the role of a teacher becomes extremely important in designing such collaborations, including using appropriate discourse to facilitate such communication.

While Social Constructivism can get played out inside a classroom, it can also be carried out in virtual spaces, where learners interact online and co-construct knowledge. This can be particularly seen in massive multiplayer online games, where the gamers interact within and outside the game to make meaning of their gameplay. Or in other words, the players form an 'affinity group' and play out 'situated meaning' inside a 'semiotic domain'. (Gee, 2003)

Connectivism is a more recent theory of learning evolved primarily around the increased availability of information as discussed in the early parts of this essay. It argues that "learning is framed as the ability to access and use distributed information on a 'just-in-time' basis." (Siemens 2004) Given the fact that the learners move over to various unrelated professions over time and learning is perceived as a life-long process, informal and self-learning practices have gained prominence than ever before. Thus, the skill to piece together relevant information as and when required and making sense of it is of vital importance in today's knowledge driven economy. According to Siemens (2004), the principles of Connectivism are:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions - Discussions and different view points by users in online forums and discussion groups. (Facebook pages and groups)

Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources - Referring academic journals, websites, magazines and any other relevant source.

Learning may reside in non-human appliances - Google (http://www.google.co.uk) and Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org).

Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known - The vast and almost unlimited availability of knowledge means knowing to know is more important than knowing.

Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning - Forming professional and interest groups online like linkedin (http://www.linkedin.com)

Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill - Mind mapping and brainstorming.

Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities - RSS feeds and email alerts

Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision. - Crowd sourcing, online opinion polls.

Use of whiteboard in classroom

This section of the essay is going to discuss about the usage of digital whiteboard in the classroom, discuss the advantages, disadvantages, and talk about some critical issues to be considered while using it in the classroom. To quote an internal ICT Development Plan of a school in UK, as cited by Goodison (2002), "The electronic whiteboard connected to a network means that the children have a world of resources at their finger tips read for discussion, to test hypotheses and research. The children do this as a large co-operative group. It ensures that learning becomes a much more collaborative and social process therefore a much more powerful way of learning across the curriculum. The 'theorists' such as Vygotsky and Bruner tells us that interaction with others is of crucial importance in learning. Teachers and pupils are able to discuss, modify and extend ideas in a shared arena." As we can see, the school sees the deploying of whiteboards as a way of improving social learning inside the classroom. However, the practical aspects of deploying a whiteboard to encourage collaboration and joint activity need to be carefully looked at.

Let us consider the case study of the Virtual Fish tank experiment (Sutherland et al, 2008) carried out in a primary science lesson. This experiment involved the teacher explaining a virtual fish tank game (http://www.virtualfishtank.com/) to her students (aged 10 - 11) through a whiteboard, and then assigning the students into groups to try out the game themselves. The objective of the game was for the students to design fishes in a way that they survive long, thereby linking their survival to their characteristics with which they were designed. However, what turned out was that the students played the game just to beat their competition with little reflection on the fish's traits and their links to survival. In one case, the fish survived for up to 35 minutes, which made any sort of investigation impractical. Taking a closer look, the teacher could have played the game herself more comprehensively, to understand and guide the students more appropriately. This could have perhaps helped her use the game as a learning tool for the students. Thus, the focus is not as much on the tool, as on the process. If the teacher knew what the affordances of the game were, and if she could have arranged the entire session in a way the students focused on specific learning objectives than just exploring themselves, the outcome of the session could have been much more effective.

When it comes to computer supported collaboration, this arranging of the learning is termed as "collaboration scripts" (O'Donnell & Dansereau, 1992). This is a pedagogic method in which the sequence of activities is defined beforehand and the individual learners are assigned specific roles. Micro-scripts (Weinberger, Ertl, Fischer, & Mandl, 2005), on the other hand, enable communication among the collaborators by having open ended questions like "Please explain why" to trigger interactions. Thus, a combination of such Micro and Macro scripts combined with careful guidance from the tutor will increase the chances of learning happening as intended in computer collaborated learning. In the case of the Virtual Fish tank experiment, had the teacher prepared micro and macro scripts, the session could have been much more productive. It is also important here to consider the notions of emotional affectivity and intersubjectivity when designing such scripts.

However, having a good script is alone is not going to be enough to ensure learning. Consider the case study of using wikis for collaborative work in a UK secondary school (Grant, 2009). This study aimed at exploring the collaborative activities that were possible by deploying a wiki in the classroom. The students were split into groups and were made to work collaboratively using wikis on a research topic suggested by the teachers and asked to present their findings. A lot of interesting observations emerged from the case study:

Asserting ownership: The students assigned individual pages to each group, and once assigned, the page owners laid a strong claim to the page, to the extent of putting up their name in the title of the page.

Resistance to editing: The students were quite hesitant to edit other's work, even if that would mean adding substantial value to what is already present.

Assessment of individual contribution: The students were careful that their work is shown in good light and their contribution is clearly seen in order to be in the good books of the teacher.

Thus, what we see that played out was simply a replica of what has already been happening in the classroom - where individual contribution is given more importance than group knowledge, and the students being very conscious about their work being graded by their tutor. Although the wiki was supposed to encourage collaboration and co-construction of knowledge, there was no evidence of such activities in the research. This points to a wider issue - the culture of the schools and existing school practices and how Web 2.0 technologies fit in.

One great advantage of having whiteboard in the classroom is the availability of unlimited resources for the students to learn from. The information is not just limited to their textbooks, but can be referred to from a variety of online resources. This fits in well with the principles of Connectivism, connecting various resources as and when required to accumulate knowledge.

While there are difficulties in bringing in computer supported collaborative learning into classroom using whiteboard, there are ways in which it can help in group cognition and meta-cognition. The pupil can be asked to come to the front and work with the whiteboard while the rest of the class can discuss and guide the pupil to access a resource, or solve a problem. Thus, the whiteboard can serve as a locus of interaction amongst the students, enabling collaborative knowledge creation. The teacher can take a back step and act as a facilitator, enabling such communications. Thus, the possibility of social constructivist principles playing out in the classroom can be obtained.

Conclusion

While technology brings into the classroom a very wide range of resources that the students can potentially benefit from, the way technology plays out in the classroom largely determines what kind of learning takes place. Students today are not alien to technologies. They are digital natives. In fact, in most cases, they are more proficient with using the technologies than the tutors. Hence, the introduction of technology in the classroom, although sounds innovative in conventional educational terms, looks quite routine and ordinary to today's children who grow up using such technologies. There is a continuing blurring of boundaries between learning inside and outside the school, thanks to the availability of information any time anywhere. This can be seen by the schools as an opportunity or a constraint. If the schools try to maintain their tight boundaries by resisting technology and communication and fail to acknowledge the vast amount of knowledge the children capable of acquiring themselves, they may end up acting as an obstacle for the students' knowledge generation. Or in Sir Ken Robinson's (TED, 2006) words, schools could kill creativity. On the other hand, if the schools welcome this change of trend that technology has brought in the lives of today's youngsters, it can serve as a platform to nurture the children's creativity and enable them reach their potential. When the tutors actively take up the role of mentors and guides, pointing the students to the right set of resources, and help them making sense of the vast amount of information available, they end up creating learned individuals powerful enough to seek information and make meaning in today's knowledge driven world. The traditional industrial model of education with mass schooling and routine evaluations become increasingly irrelevant in today's dynamic digital world. When schools can adapt to these changing trends, the synergy could be, and should be, revolutionary.

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