Tools or Toys?

Wheeler, S. (2009). Learning space mashups: Combining web 2.0 tools to
create collaborative and reflective learning spaces. Future Internet, 1(1), 3-13. Retrieved from the Internet on March 25, 2010 at

Lee, M., & McLoughlin, C., (2010). Beyond distance and time constraints:
applying social networking tools and Web 2.0 approaches in distance education. In Veletsianos, G. (Ed). Emerging Technologies in Distance Education. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press.

Webb E. (2009). Engaging students with engaging tools. Educause Quarterly, 32(4), 1-7. Retrieved from the Internet on March 25, 2010 at

Wheeler’s article suggests a discussion of mashups (data tools connected in real-time, such as Google maps informing Craig’s list to produce a map of cars for sale); instead, he offers only an anecdotal discussion of two classes: one using blogs and wikis, and one using blogs.  The use of blogs to promote learning through reflection has been thoroughly described in other articles. The statement that a growing body of literature supports the claim that wikis, “can be deployed successfully in a variety of educational contexts” seems correct but is not supported with references. The mashup theme seems contradicted by the statement that, “pedagogical uses for aggregation tools are not immediately apparent” and ignores an obvious implementation: an RSS feed can dynamically create daily topics for student analysis. However, Wheeler offers insight from Kanuka and Anderson: that “social interchange does not generally lead to new knowledge” while socially constructed meaning does through a change in attitude. The most interesting concept in the article was not fully developed: that the intersecting boundary between personal reflective spaces (blogs) and community collaborative spaces (wikis) is where meaning is negotiated. Wheeler argues that this overlap is notional, that students may be unaware when they traverse the two spaces and thus may not change their behavior according to the context; he then seems to contradict his position by arguing that the key pedagogical differences between the two spaces, “lies in the means by which users represent themselves within each space” but fails to explore this dichotomy.

Lee and McLoughlin consider the use of Web 2.0 tools in distance education courses and argue for their inclusion because the creation and maintenance of social presence in distance learning is such a critical factor in student success. The Venn diagram (from Boyd) of conversational interaction, feedback, and networked relationships is thoughtfully explored; particularly intriguing was the admitted struggle to define the links between learning and conversation. The claim that Facebook (and other SNSs) represent, “a trend from offline to online relationship building” ignores boyd’s work which instead suggests that SNSs are an online continuation of offline relationships; this oversight is due to the consideration of Facebook as a closed space in its early days at Harvard versus the open space that Facebook now offers. The affordances chart is a welcome respite from the ontological Web 2.0 tool litanies and provides practical and comprehensive suggestions for implementation. The exemplars chart should offer distance education instructors ample design ideas for increasing social presence in their courses.

While Webb’s article offers an anecdotal case rather than quantitative research, the narrative is compelling. While I wanted specifics on what he learned (especially on the limitations of connectivist theory and on the impact of design) from the CCK08 course that inspired his own course, his thorough description provided an inferential explanation.

Webb’s design offers several critical design components that connect with learning theory:

  • primary sources – authenticity
  • students’ own interests – prior learning and culture
  • connections beyond the classroom – a community of practice
  • producing contributions – constructive participation

Webb then describes the 5 primary tools he used in his course:

  1. Blogs: despite some initial reticence about being “out there,” most students took to blogging but as much to commenting on blogs.
  2. Wiki: most students seemed (understandably) hesitant to revise their instructor’s work; an interesting approach would be to use avatar-created content to overcome authority deference.
  3. Presentation: From the instructor’s view, Webb used SlideRocket, although the more familiar SlideShare provides the same functionality. The Prezi tool is unfamiliar to me but I intend to explore it.
  4. Diigo: Webb found that social bookmarking saw little use because he introduced it relatively late in the course. A potential design revision would be to start with Diigo and use the collaborative research as the basis for the wiki articles.
  5. Twitter: The micro-blogging SN tool is the most useful for Webb’s own PLN, but students generally preferred Facebook; this may signal the distinction students see between their social and academic lives. A possible implementation would be to use Twitter’s backchannel capability in the SlideRocket presentations.

Webb concludes with a dilemma that underlies any discussion of PLEs or self-directed learning: the need to provide more direction or scaffolding for students (for example, to require bookmarking) may come at the expense of less fun for students (and less personal engagement and investment). His idea to front-load the exposure to a variety of tools seems sound, especially if that approach is coupled with enabling  students to choose their own preferred tools.

And now an aside on fun in learning. Webb’s emphasis here (and in his blog post on the Pedagogy of Fun at is personally compelling. My own arguments in this area have elicited reactions ranging from doubt (a South by Southwest Interactive panel in 2008) to total disagreement (my current class). I wish I’d had Webb’s argument (or better, Webb himself) by my side as ammunition.

Several responses to Webb’s blog post point out that his example video doesn’t effectively support his argument that learning can involve an element of fun. However, I think the critics miss his point.I don’t believe Webb is arguing (necessarily) that fun always produces learning. Sometimes fun simply produces delight. But if we could design learning situations that are fun, that delight would create intrinsic motivation (see Bill Moggridge’s claim that, “play is fun and provides intrinsic motivation through pleasure” in his MIT Press book, Designing Interactions).

Mark Oehlert’s response is right on the money to direct us to the research in game design and to differentiate play from fun; see Henry Jenkins’ MacArthur paper on Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture:

Play is characterized by focused engagement and should not be confused with fun; although play is fun, it can also be hard work, and thus play does not necessarily equal relaxation. Play lowers the emotional stakes of failing and encourages trial and error.

This is evocative of Mikhail Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow; a few excerpts from his books on the topic are telling:

The obvious question is, Why are these things fun? Strangely enough, when we try to answer that question, it turns out that contrary to what one would have expected.

Contrary to expectation, “flow” usually happens not during relaxing moments of leisure and entertainment, but rather when we are actively involved in a difficult enterprise, in a task that stretches our mental and physical abilities.

It turns out that when challenges are high and personal skills are used to the utmost, we experience this rare state of consciousness.

So perhaps we should call it the pedagogy of flow. Or perhaps the pedagogy of play. Or following David Shaffer’s lead, perhaps the peadagogy of hard fun. But whatever label we devise, everything in my heart and mind says that Webb is right. If I could make algebra fun for my children, I would consider myself a good teacher.

I’m not certain how we build fun learning, but I think a few things are important:

  • clearly defined goal (shades of Bloom)
  • novelty (could also be called an adventure or VR)
  • rules (Zimmerman is right)
  • results (Shaffer expands the idea to encompass not only winning but also an environment where contributions matter)
  • self-efficacy (the best games are winnable–barely) which Bandura viewed as the most influential arbiter of learning
  • experimentation to solve problems that matter personally
  • feedback from the community that matters personally

Let’s have some fun.


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