The social impact of disruptive technology

Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of Learning Technology at the University of Plymouth, will give a public keynote on February 2 at the LEARNTEC Bildungsforum, in Karlsruhe, Germany. Being a self-declared 'disruptive activist', the subject of his speech 'The Future of Web 2.0 Technologies in Learning' is very close to the core of his professional interests and endeavours. In the following interview he talks about the necessity of harnessing the potential of Web 2.0 for education and training.

Prof. Wheeler, which technologies do you consider "disruptive” and what has Web 2.0 to do with it?

Disruptive technologies are game-changers, they fundamentally change the manner in which things are done. Let me give you the example of digital photography: Today there are only a few places left where you can buy non-digital cameras. There is hardly any need for them. The same can be applied to Web 2.0. Just take Wikipedia: Technically it is a collaborative work space for creating content. In fact it has thoroughly overturned the idea that you need to consult a printed encyclopedia to get expert information. If you find a mistake, you can instantly correct it yourself, you do not have to wait for the publishing house to decide on an updated next version. The internet has literally changed our lives.

Why do you think it still necessary to push for further change and to pursue "disruptive activism”?

We have to realize that the way teaching is conducted in many schools and universities is actually outdated. It no longer applies to the current world of young people and does not answer to the needs of society anymore. But change does not happen by itself. I am very much interested in learning psychology, in the way people behave, how they perceive technology and how they use it in teaching and learning, and I have learnt from my research that there are and always will be many people who are resistant to change or reticent about it, because disruptive technologies challenge their social and professional roles. This is also my personal experience, from the very first time I used computers to train nurses in hospitals in 1986.

There are around 7.000 authors for the German Wikipedia edition. Do you think this has a big social impact?

The basic idea behind Wikipedia is that everybody can be an editor and a commentator. This idea sways the balance of power between experts and non-experts, between teachers and students everywhere, because it rejects the privileged role of former knowledge mediators and contradicts the traditional idea that knowledge can only be generated by certified experts. People who take an interest in a certain subject are able to generate knowledge about it - and consider themselves capable of doing so.

Are these changes mostly discernible for internet researchers like you or do you think the people involved - teachers and students - are also aware of them?

The reactions are different. There are many who embrace these changes, probably more in the educational and academic sector than in corporate training. But there are also ostriches that put their heads in the sand and don’t want to see what happens around them. Others don’t accept the idea that students have the same status as lecturers. They don’t like Wikipedia to be referenced (in academic assignments) because they don’t trust anything which has not been formally peer-reviewed. Of course, what I write on my blog is not institutionally checked, which is different to a publication in a scientific journal which may go through two blind peer reviews. But in fact my readership reviews and comments on what I write, and this in a way is more valuable to me than a formal review. There is more immediacy to it and there is a personal bond between me and my readers. Wikipedia and weblogs were two of the most important applications of Web 2.0, when Tim O’Reilly coined the term in 2004.

Today everybody talks about Facebook and Twitter. What do they offer for learners?

Facebook is very interesting as it attracts a wide variety of people from teenagers to older people. But we should not confuse Facebook with formal learning. Some people try to harness it for this purpose, but I think the potential is quite limited. Twitter is less distracting, it is more streamlined and has a more appropriate range of features that makes it a better teaching tool than Facebook. You can share conversations and knowledge, but you cannot play. You can use filtering tools, if you do not want to read everything written by all the people you follow. If I want to know something about a particular topic, I go to my Twitter account and put a short message on the screen, asking for information. Within minutes I get some very clear answers. I get information fast and I get in contact with people who are experts in this particular field. You have mentioned a lot of disruptive software applications.

Is there also hardware with similar effects?

Smartphones are disruptive. Of course they can be used inappropriately, e. g. for cyber bullying. But imagine 30 children in a classroom, every one with a mobile phone: Why not use it in a controlled way, for example as a voting instrument, as a tool for messaging, or in order to link up with media that you cannot normally access in the classroom? Cell phones seemed to be a tool for talking to anyone in any place. But today they are much more: You can send text, gain access to the net, use your camera, orientate yourself by using GPS systems, capture augmented reality. We would be very stupid to ignore these possibilities.

The future of learning is about the mobile phone?

Definitely. It will be a platform for many future developments, such as context-aware technology. You will see more virtual content around you: overlays on billboards, in airports, on sightseeing venues. If you take students into a museum, the virtual information about the artwork, the artist etc. will be embedded into the painting you are looking at. At the end of the day you go back to your classroom and you download the complete information about what you have seen and decide what you are going to do with it.

What is the future of Web 2.0?

Well, this is the subject of my LEARNTEC lecture. Let me just tell you that the transition into Web 3.0 will be very semantic, very meaning-based. It will lead to the classification of knowledge through folksonomies and to the extended web which combines social and information richness. The future is very exciting.

For further information on Steve Wheeler see his weblog. Presentations are available here at slideshare. Vorträge: Public Key Note: The Future of Web 2.0 Technologies in Learning (Messebereich) 02.02.2011 13:45-14:45

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The social impact of disruptive technology by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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