Twelve years ago, when I was first approached to develop a FY Comp class for online delivery, I agreed on one condition: that it could be as interactive--between students and between instructor and students--as a f2f class. I was assured that such would be the case, and generally administration and techs have been cooperative, though our campus has been rather cool and even hostile at times toward the use of synchronous components, such as chat or MOOs.
The reason I was so adamant about interaction is because I could see with my very limited experience, that an online class could easily--and often is--a glorified correspondence course, where students read stuff on the web, take tests or write papers that they submit to instructors, and go on their merry way.
And a good number of students would like it that way. In one of my first online classes, a student wrote a paper on the social component of learning in online classes, defending its value. She interviewed several students, and most agreed. However, one did not. She said, that interaction is great, but it's time consuming, and if she had a choice, she'd rather avoid the interaction and simply write/turn in papers to the instructor.
I'm not knocking correspondence courses. For some students, they work fine. There are times in my educational experience where I would have rather gone the quick and dirty way of read/write--take a test/get a grade. But over the years I've found that interaction between engaged students and with the instructor makes for a much richer, memorable educational experience that allows one to learn more, but more importantly to learn more deeply, to develop the critical chops one needs to, in essence, become an expert.
I realize for many college profs, I'm proclaiming a blinding flash of the obvious. But the social nature of learning is paramount to the value of exploring Web 2.0 since as we looked at earlier, one of the foundational tenets of the shift is that of social networking.
There's an excellent article that summarizes effectively the social nature of learning on the web by John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, "Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0." One of the ways that they differentiate between Web 1.0 and 2.0 is that 1.0 was more conducive to the Cartesian view of education--transferring knowledge from teacher to learner--while 2.0 is more conducive to the social view of learning: gaining understanding through interaction with others. Here's a graphic the authors present to show the difference:
The authors present a clear, simple definition of social learning: "our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning." They also present some research done at Harvard done by Richard J. Light that concluded, "One of the strongest determinants of students' success in higher education--more important than the details of their instructors' teaching styles--was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better prepared for class, and learned significantly more than student who worked on their own."
Of course, the value of social constructivist learning has been part of composition theory for many years, especially noted in the seminal article by James Berlin, "Contemporary composition: The major pedagogical theories." And again, to suggest that social learning did not take place in web 1.0 is obviously untrue, as I noted above with my own experience.
However, the current development of web use, this "new" version, clearly has developed services and tools that make social learning richer and deeper.
At least, that's what I'm hoping to find as I continue to explore.