Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years
Fifteen years after the first commercial web pages began to appear, the amount of content available on the web is staggering. Sifting through the sheer volume of material — good or bad, useful or otherwise — is a daunting task. It is even difficult to keep track of the media posted by a single person, or by oneself. On the other hand, adding to the mix is easier than ever before, thanks to easy-to-use publishing tools for every type and size of media. To cope with the problem, computer users are assembling collections of tools, widgets, and services that make it easy to develop and organize dynamic online content. Armed with tools for tagging, aggregating, updating, and keeping track of content, today’s learners create and navigate a web that is increasingly tailored to their own needs and interests: this is the personal web.
Part of a trend that began with simple innovations like personalized start pages, RSS aggregation, and customizable widgets, the personal web is a term coined to represent a collection of technologies that confer the ability to reorganize, configure and manage online content rather than just viewing it. Using a growing set of free and simple tools and applications, it is easy to create customized, personal web-based environments — a personal web — that explicitly supports one’s social, professional, learning and other activities via highly personalized windows to the networked world. Online material can be saved, tagged, categorized, and repurposed without difficulty and without any special knowledge of how web pages are put together. In fact, the underlying technology that supports the web has all but vanished for most users; all that is necessary is to know which tools to use, and any task — from creating and distributing content, to organizing one’s personal and professional time, to developing a library of resources that constantly refresh and update themselves — becomes point-and-click trivial.
As a result, people of all ages are creating customized, personal web-based environments to support their social, professional, and learning activities using whatever tools they prefer. Highly flexible and unique to each person, these personal web environments consist of collections of tools individually selected to suit the user’s style and preferences. Tools that foster personal and social forms of learning and expression, though technically unrelated, work together seamlessly without any need for complicated setup, thanks to open applications programming interfaces (APIs) and easily integrated web feeds. The vast collection of content that makes up the web can be tamed, filtered, and organized, and anyone can publish as much or as little as they wish: the web has become personal.
This transformation is gaining momentum. Blogging sites such as WordPress.com and EduBlogs, as well as tools like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr have become mainstream — certainly in terms of who reads work published with them, and more and more in terms of who publishes with them. Now we are beginning to see tools for online publishing pressed into service for education, whether the work comprises a few lines or is the length of an entire book. From course updates on Twitter to complete textbooks authored on collaborative networking sites, the content of education is increasingly published online by those most immediately involved with it. Nearly every social networking tool that has gained popularity in the past twelve to eighteen months has been appropriated for educational use in some form.
Collaborative work, too, is easier than ever before. Joint authoring of novels, comics, white papers, and even textbooks is supported by tools designed for that purpose. Some of these have a specifically educational focus, like Flat World Knowledge (http://www.flatworldknowledge.com), which aims to provide free, peer-reviewed textbooks online. Other online book publishing options, like WeBook (http://www.webook.com), are designed for the general public; WeBook includes everything from children’s books to cookbooks. Using tools like these, authors can create and market books on any topic, jointly or individually, and make them available online at low cost or no cost; many of the services also provide a print-on-demand option for buyers.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, Research, or Creative Expression
The tools that enable the personal web are also ideal toolsets for research and learning. The ability to tag, categorize, and publish work online, instantly, without the need to understand or even touch the underlying technologies provides a host of opportunities for faculty and students. By organizing online information with tags and web feeds, it is a simple matter to create richly personal resource collections that are easily searchable, annotated, and that support any interest.
Tools like Delicious (http://delicious.com) and Diigo (http://www.diigo.com) use tagging as a means of saving and organizing web links. While not at all a new concept, tagging online resources and tools is already a very common strategy among researchers. Widgets, small tools that extend the functions of a web browser, are beginning to gain acceptance as they become more robust and also easier to install and use. Zotero (http://www.zotero.org) is a full-featured reference tool that adds the equivalent of bibliographic note cards to a web browser; with Zotero, a viewer can easily save a link, notes, and bibliographic reference for a resource as it is discovered on the web. Resources like these gather information in one place by assembling a list of organized, annotated links to materials published by others: a personal online card catalog of sorts.
Online publishing tools are being employed in the process of education as a means for personal and professional reflection, collaborative work, research, and the development of a public voice. Microblogging — the practice of posting brief updates to services like Twitter, Facebook, or others — is starting to gain a foothold in education, while the longer format of traditional blogging is fairly well established already. A medium optimized for social connections, microblogging can also be used to continue a conversation outside of classroom walls or provide an easy way to update students on course logistics. Numerous widgets exist for cross-posting updates (a single statement entered on one service can appear on many others automatically) and for following the updates of others. The ease of online publishing, especially blogging, gives students a place to voice their opinions, ideas, and research.
Both providers and consumers of educational content are making use of a variety of web-based services to publish and host media: YouTube, Twitter, an array of blogging platforms, Flickr, Picasa, and many others. Tagging is one way to organize these scattered pieces of information, but another approach is to aggregate them — use web feeds to pull them together in a single place where updates appear automatically and others can add commentary. Tools like Swurl (http://www.swurl.com) or FriendFeed (http://www.friendfeed.com) pull all the material a person has published into an “activity stream.” Students can use these tools to gather their work together in a kind of online portfolio; whenever they add a tweet, blog post, or photo to any online service, it will appear in their timeline. A “user” shared by everyone in a course could combine resources found by students and professors, all added to a single feed and updated whenever new content is posted. Tools like these help students organize their own work as well as learn to manage online references and resources. Several education- specific tools for this purpose are in development, like the California State University system’s professional profile and reference tool, FRESCA (http://bssapps.sfsu.edu/fresca).
Online book publishing requires a greater investment of time and effort than micropublishing or blogging. Despite the work involved and the difficulties that arise around questions of copyright, ownership, and professional review, open content textbooks, open course notes, and collaboratively-authored textbooks are gradually appearing and gaining acceptance in some pockets of academia. Projects of this nature address the rising cost of college textbooks and the limits imposed on faculty who wish to customize the material used in their courses. Many online texts allow professors to edit, add to, or otherwise customize material for their own purposes, so that their students receive a tailored copy that exactly suits the style and pace of the course. In some courses, students and faculty create the textbook collaboratively in an online format as the course progresses, increasing students’ engagement with and understanding of the course material as they become authorities.
A sampling of applications of the personal web across disciplines includes the following:
- Library Research. Instead of purchasing textbooks, students in Advanced Library Research courses at Buffalo State College are required to buy a USB flash storage drive. They install the Firefox web browser and a set of portable applications on the drive, which becomes their research tool. The course website (http://sites.google.com/site/lib300site/) provides basic information about using social bookmarking tools and portable applications.
- Media Studies. The Open Publishing Lab at the Rochester Institute of Technology (http://opl.cias.rit.edu/projects) runs a series of projects on new media and publishing, including an online newspaper, a tool for aggregating and publishing web content in e-book form, a guide to online publishing, and a social networking game.
- Foreign Language. A research study at Montclair State University is investigating the potential for using PageFlakes, a customizable website tool that makes it easy to integrate multimedia and web feeds into a course website, as a means to provide a richer, more personalized learning experience for Italian language learners.
Examples of the Personal Web
The following links provide examples of educational applications of the personal web.
First-Year Composition at UWF
The University of West Florida employs between 70 and 90 instructors each semester to teach first-year composition. This website serves as a resource for teachers and students, ensuring that all classes are on the same schedule and working with up-to-date material. It also includes an online assessment rubric that instructors can use to evaluate and record student work.
Omeka is a free, open source, collections-based web publishing platform for scholars, librarians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and cultural enthusiasts. Built and maintained by the Center for New Media and History at George Mason University, Omeka is a robust publishing tool for creating online resources.
OpenSophie is open-source software for writing and reading rich media documents in a networked environment. Funded over its lifetime by the Mellon Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the University of California, Los Angeles, OpenSophie is now a project of the open source community.
Scholarly Community Blogs
http://umwblogs.org (UMWBlogs, The University of Mary Washington)
http://ucalgaryblogs.ca/ (UCalgaryBlogs, The University of Calgary)
http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu/ (Blogs@Baruch, Baruch College, City University of New York)
http://blogs.psu.edu/ (The Blogs at Penn State, The Pennsylvania State University)
http://blogs.ubc.ca/ (UBC Blogs, The University of British Columbia)
A growing number of campuses are providing blog services to faculty, staff, and students; a few examples are listed here. Campus blogs generally provide a single portal that aggregates all public blogs by the campus community, as well as a system for easily setting up a blog for a course, club, or individual.
SmARThistory is an edited online art history resource to augment or replace traditional art history texts. For a given artwork, smARThistory brings together podcasts, video clips, images, links to other resources, and commentary, providing a rich context for the work.
Stories that Fly
Stories that Fly is a citizen media project that features a growing collection of digital stories about general aviation. The stories are contributed by student journalists, aviators, and interested community members and cover regional airports, events, and people in the Ohio aviation community.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about the personal web.
Datagogies, Writing Spaces, and the Age of Peer Production
(Joseph Moxley, Computers and Composition, Vol. 25, Issue 2, 2008; pp. 182-202.) This article (PDF, 676k) describes the use of peer-to-peer technologies by groups of teachers to create and discuss pedagogy and resources, and suggests that a different kind of teaching and learning takes place in learning communities that use such approaches.
The Evolution of Personal Publishing
(Alex Iskold, ReadWriteWeb, December 2007.) This post traces different categories of personal publishing – blogs, social networks, and microblogs – and posits that each appeals to a different type of writer and fills a particular purpose in social publishing.
Free Digital Texts begin to Challenge Costly College Textbooks in California
(Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times, August 2008.) This article discusses how open-source and free digital textbook providers might fit into the overall textbook market.
Personal Learning Environment Diagrams
(Scott Leslie, EdTechPost, 2008.) The author has collected visual representations of various descriptions of personal learning environments, displaying them on a wiki page.
A Widget onto the Future
(Andy Guess, Inside Higher Ed, 8 December 2008.) This article describes widgets — tools for personalizing the information on a website — and provides examples of some developed expressly for education.
Delicious: The Personal Web
(Tagged by Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2008.) Follow this link to find resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report, including the ones listed here. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz09” and “personalweb” when you save them to Delicious.
Posted by NMC on January 18, 2009