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Dale Dougherty: Web 2.0 and the Social Context of Learning

Dale Dougherty, co-founder of O'Reilly Media, first coined the phrase "Web 2.0" in 2004. In this PIL interview, Dale discusses the impact of Web 2.0 capabilities on education, especially how information is shared, knowledge is created, and learning occurs and what it means to educators, students, and publishers. (Interview posted: November 1, 2010)

Even if you don't know who Dale Dougherty is, you've been affected by what he's done. Dale is a Web pioneer and a co-founder of O'Reilly Media, Inc., the gold standard publishing company about computer technology topics—far and wide.dale dougherty

Dale's "first-to-do-this" list includes developing the first commercial Web portal on the Internet—Global Network Navigator (GNN) in 1993. (GNN was sold to America Online in 1995.) Dale also first used the expression "Web 2.0" in 2004 to describe a paradigmatic Web-shift to Web applications facilitating interactivity, information sharing, and collective intelligence.

We interviewed Dale in late October and shared some of PIL's latest findings with him. In particular, we discussed the impact of Web 2.0 capabilities on education, especially how information is shared, knowledge is created, and learning occurs and what it means to educators, students, and publishers.

PIL: Since you came up with the phrase first, how do you define the term "Web 2.0"? How has the meaning of Web 2.0 changed from when you first coined it in 2004 to the way things turned out today?

Dale: Initially, the idea of Web 2.0 was really to put down a marker in time – without really understanding what the term meant. I recognized that there was a resurgence in the development of Web-based applications. There were a number of small startups trying to be smart by staying small. They were in many cases building on existing open-source infrastructure and not having to build everything themselves from scratch, as first generation Web applications did. It seemed to me that the market thought the Web was "done" and I realized it was just beginning to realize its potential.

Tim O'Reilly did the most to explain what Web 2.0 meant – in particular, seeing the Internet as an operating system and a platform for building applications. He talked about ways to take advantage of collective intelligence, made possible by the Internet. The phrase I like the best is that Web 2.0 applications get better the more people use them.

Of course, there's a period when a term like Web 2.0 struggles to gain currency and meaning but that's soon followed by a period when people use it because it is current and it becomes an empty buzzword. I remember the first time I was given a business card that described the cardholder as a "Web 2.0 consultant."

PIL: What does Web 2.0 mean to education? What would you say is the most significant impact Web 2.0 capabilities are having on education today, especially how students learn and exchange information?

Dale: Marie Bejerde wrote on O'Reilly Radar about education as a platform and she asked the question: "What would it mean to talk about a whole school system that improves the more students use it?"

Someone once asked me for a simple explanation of Web 2.0 and I said that Web 1.0 was largely about organizing information and Web 2.0 was about organizing participation. A lot of focus in education is still about using the Internet to provide information – in a narrow sense, putting textbooks online. But I claim that students aren't learning from textbooks and it doesn't matter whether they're in print or in digital form. Students learn from each other in a class as well as from a teacher. We have to understand the social context of learning and how to take advantage of it online. Some of the efforts to explore peer-to-peer learning such as P2P University are interesting. As I understand it, a group of students get together much like a study group and they decide on the materials that they will use but they share the experience of learning together.

PIL: In our ongoing research at Project Information Literacy, we recently conducted a survey about how college students find, evaluate, and use information. Our sample was over 8,300 students from 25 U.S. campuses. In one question, we asked respondents about their use of productivity tools (Web and Web 1.0 commercial software applications) for managing and supporting research tasks that come up when they are working on assignments—a research paper, an oral presentation, or a multimedia presentation. We were intrigued by what we found: Few respondents reported using Web 2.0 applications within the last six months. The most widely used Web 2.0 application was Google Docs (48%). A majority of students used commercial software packages for managing tasks, such as citation-making programs. But few respondents reported using tools like wikis (other than Wikipedia), online forums, photo sharing sites, and/or microblogs for supporting and managing how they collect and use information.

These findings suggest students may not be heavy users of some of the more popular Web 2.0 applications for collaborating and sharing resources and knowledge for course work. What do you make of this? Are Web 2.0 applications slow in coming to how students manage and use information for assignments in college and university settings?

Dale: It doesn't surprise me that students might not be early adopters of Web 2.0 applications. It's quite new and it requires a different mindset, which I would guess is not really discussed in most educational environments. I would say that the culture surrounding the school is changing faster than the school, and students are changing at a different rate as well, largely because of technologies like cell phones and iPods. Let's use music as an example. I'll bet that compared to previous generations, students are less likely to "own" their favorite music. Certainly, they're not buying physical packages like CDs and albums. Music is something they get from their peers, which is how peer-to-peer networking emerged. It's less about ownership and more about access.

Translate that to thinking about knowledge. It's less about having an impressive bookshelf and more about learning how to find information you need when you need it.

PIL: In a series of studies at PIL, we have found students (over 10,000 respondents) dial down the aperture of all the information that is available to them on college campuses. In our 2009 and 2010 student surveys, we found that students in both samples used the same small set of sources in the same order of preference for finding context and completing research assignments. Course readings, search engines, including Google, and scholarly research databases were used most often and by almost all of the students in the sample. Students appear to be intentionally using a small compass for traversing the ever-widening and complex information landscape they inhabit. You are a publisher, Dale. You are in the business of developing, creating, and disseminating information. As a publisher of print and online materials that often get used in academic settings, are you worried about this finding? Do you think this generation of young adults is different from the previous one when it comes to finding and using information?

Dale: The generally frustrating thing about education is that so many students follow the same well-beaten path. When you set out on your own to do something original, that's when you find all these unexplored places. At first, you have to understand how to deal with the strange instead of the familiar. But you begin to build your own map instead of relying on the maps of others. How do you describe the reward in doing what other people don't do, in discovering new information to understand a problem or finding a non-obvious solution? It's exciting.

A lot of our education is based on the idea that we'd all get the same "right" answer and you're done once you get it. But learning, which is something you must do all your life, is a lot more about the exploration and trying to make sense of what you find along the way. I have thought that we should spend more time in school talking about what we don't know and less about what we do know.

You mention that I'm a publisher. Tim and I started publishing technical information in books – not because we had special training in technology. We didn't. What we did understand is that people were confused in learning to use new technologies and we thought we could help reduce the learning curve. We might not have understood the opportunity if we didn't pay attention to our own confusion and think that we could improve how others came to learn after us. We tried to create new maps for this world.

When I came up the World Wide Web in 1991, I saw that we were also opening up a whole new world. O'Reilly had published the Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. I took the catalog for that book and created Web pages with links to showcase what was available on the Internet in 1992. This eventually became GNN – the Global Network Navigator, which was the first commercial website, launched in 1993. The initial thought was to build a directory for people coming to the Internet for the first time. I was later to discover that one of the first books published in the American West, when the West was Pittsburgh, was called "The Navigator." It was written for people who were about to explore and settle the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. I thought we were doing a similar thing.

PIL: You are a Web pioneer in your own right. You are also fascinated with "indie innovators," new ideas, new technology, and how people create, connect, and share. Much of this has led you to publish MAKE, an online magazine for O'Reilly that gets over 2 million hits a month and organize MAKER Faires, where inventors, old and young, showcase their latest inventions. Tell us about one or two innovations for use in education settings that you are excited about and why you see them as possible game changers for how students learn and discover in the 21st century.

Dale: Let's start with 3D printers such as the Makerbot. The Makerbot kit, which sells for under $700, allows you to build your own 3D printer so that you can "print" 3D objects. Now industrial 3D printers have existed for some time but they cost more than $15,000. The Makerbot kit is priced so that hobbyists can afford to have one. They might not know what they'll do with it but they are excited to explore and see what's possible. This is what I love about makers: they are learning about the capabilities of a new technology at the same time they are discovering what they themselves can do with it. So, now, you have thousands of people pushing at the edge of new technology to see what it can do. One of the things that amazed me about Makerbot is that an "update" might come as a new part file to be printed out and the new part, which might be a redesigned bracket, replaces the old part.

The Makerbot is one example of new technologies that can be used to learn about the process of "design and build," which can also be called rapid prototyping. You can start with an idea, design it on a computer, and build a physical prototype that you can share with others. Then you can iterate over the design and improve the product. What's great is how much feedback you can get along the way. You can see what's working and you can interact with others to learn from them. It's exciting to see people start with an idea and make something real that they can share with others. It allow us to focus on the design and development process, which is a lot more important than the final product. I'd like to see students become more aware that there's a process behind everything they encounter. If they want to change the world around them, they must participate in creating a process to make that change real. I think that's the big idea behind DIY (do-it-yourself).

Dale Dougherty co-founded O'Reilly Media, Inc. with Tim O'Reilly and was instrumental in developing the company's online publishing business. At O'Reilly, Dale founded and developed Global Network Navigator, Web Review, an online magazine for Web developers, and the Hack book series.

Dale is the editor and publisher of O'Reilly's MAKE online magazine and organizer of the MAKER Faire, which showcases do-it-yourself arts, crafts, and engineering of "indie innovators" of all ages. Dale was a Lecturer in U.C. Berkeley's School of Information Management from 1996 to 2000.

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of finding and using information and conducting research in the digital age.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing research study, based in the University of Washington's Information School and supported with contributing funds from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Smart Talks are open-access; no permission for its use is required from PIL, though we ask that this source be cited as: Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 4, Dale Dougherty, "Web 2.0 and the Social Context of Learning," November 1, 2010.