Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World

Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World


Supported by the principal bodies and agencies in UK post-compulsory education, the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX) was set up in February 2008 to conduct an independent inquiry into the strategic and policy implications for higher education of the experience and expectations of learners in the light of their increasing use of the newest technologies.

Essentially, these are Web 2.0 or Social Web technologies, technologies that enable communication, collaboration, participation and sharing.

Web 2.0 – the Social Web:
‘Software that supports group interaction’

Shirky C, 2003

As we began our work, the online lifestyle of young people going into higher education was inescapable, and those working in it had sensed a clear change in their students’ pre-entry experience. The time was ripe for an informed, impartial assessment of this and what it might herald for higher education policy and strategy. This was our remit. Since they represent the future, we took young learners as our baseline. We have, however, been concerned with learners of all ages.

We reviewed the findings of completed and, where they were available, ongoing studies related to our remit; took oral evidence from a range of practising academics and researchers; and commissioned briefings and studies, including one substantial piece of work on current and developing international practice in the use of Web 2.0 in higher education. We met six times in full session and held one event dedicated to hearing evidence.

We structured our Inquiry into a consideration of the prior experience of higher education learners, their expectations, and international practice in the use of Web 2.0 in higher education. From our findings in these three areas, we identified a number of critical issues, the exploration of which then informed our conclusions and recommendations.

Key findings

Prior experience of higher education learners

Today’s learners exist in a digital age. This implies access to, and use of, a range of Social Web tools and software that provide gateways to a multiplicity of interactive resources for information, entertainment and, not least, communication. We looked at access to digital technologies and their use from the point of view of level and pattern, purpose, approach and consequences. Our key findings were that:

  • The digital divide, the division between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, has not been entirely overcome and persists in several dimensions: in access to, and engagement with, technology; the capability of the technology; and in individual competence
  • Use of Web 2.0 technologies is nevertheless high and pervasive across all age groups from 11 to 15 upwards
  • Using Web 2.0 technologies leads to development of a new sense of communities of interest and networks, and also of a clear notion of boundaries in web space – for example personal space (messages), group space (social networking sites such as Facebook) and publishing space (blogs and social media sites such as
  • There is an area within the boundaries of the so-called group space that could be developed to support learning and teaching
  • The processes of engaging with Web 2.0 technologies develop a skill set that matches both to views on 21st-century learning skills and to those on 21st-century employability skills – communication, collaboration, creativity, leadership and technology proficiency
  • Information literacies, including searching, retrieving, critically evaluating information from a range of appropriate sources and also attributing it – represent a significant and growing deficit area
Learner expectation

We looked at expectation from the perspectives of nature and level prior to entry to higher education and then response to the actuality on course. Our key findings were that:

  • Present-day students are heavily influenced by school methods of delivery so that shifts in educational practice there can be expected to impact on expectations of approaches in higher education
  • Face to face contact with staff – the personal element in study – matters to students
  • Imagining technology used for social purposes in a study context presents conceptual difficulties to learners as well as a challenge to their notions of space. They need demonstration, persuasion and room to experiment in this context
  • Staff capability with ICT is a further dimension of the digital divide, and effective use of technology, ie to enhance learning, is as much of an issue as practical operation, ie getting it to work
  • Students’ practical skills with ICT can be harnessed by staff to good effect in both domains – operation and effective use in delivery
Web 2.0 use in higher education now

We looked at the nature and extent of current deployment of Web 2.0 technologies in higher education and sought, in the process, to gauge the UK’s position relative to that of other countries. Here we found that institutions of higher education in the UK are presently as advanced as any internationally in their developing adoption of Web
2.0, and that the UK is generally well served at present in the infrastructure – specifically broadband width – that is necessary to support Web 2.0 technologies. Other key findings were:

  • Web 2.0 technologies are being deployed across a broad spectrum of university activities and in similar ways in the UK and overseas
  • Deployment is in no way systematic and the drive is principally bottom up, coming from the professional interest and enthusiasm of individual members of staff
  • In learning and teaching, usage is patchy but a considerable working base exists, as it does in other areas of university business, including administration, student support and advertising and marketing
  • On the basis of the strength and reach of its broadband infrastructure at least, the UK is presently well placed to be at the forefront of future development
  • Advice and guidance is available to institutions, but there is no blueprint for implementation of Web 2.0 technologies, and each is currently deciding its own path

Critical issues

The critical issues we have identified fall into three groups: immediate and fundamental; ongoing drivers to change; and fundamental over time. We believe addressing those in the first group to be key to capitalising on the momentum that exists in those in the second and realising the significant opportunity that lies in that in the third.

Immediate and fundamental

The issues here concern the digital divide and information literacies, and they are relevant to both staff and students.

The digital divide

Addressing the digital divide from the student perspective means ensuring access to technology for all and the development of practical skills in its use. This is a basic entitlement. For staff it means ensuring technical proficiency, reflection on approaches to learning and teaching, and the development of practice, and skills in practice, of e-pedagogy – learning with and/or through technology – so that when they choose to use technology, they can do so effectively.

Information literacies

Tackling information literacies from the student point of view means ensuring they possess the skills and understanding
to search, authenticate and critically evaluate material from the range of appropriate sources, and attribute it as necessary. Allied to this is providing for the development of web-awareness so that students operate as informed users of web-based services, able to avoid unintended consequences. For staff, the requirement is to maintain the currency of skills in the face of the development of web-based information sources.

Ongoing drivers to change

This group comprises issues with ongoing momentum.


Students are looking for traditional approaches, notably personal contact, in a modern setting, ie web-supported. The bridge between Web 2.0 in social use and in learning is as yet only dimly perceived by students, and only a little more clearly by staff. The fact that it is perceived, however, is likely to act as a spur to its construction.

Environmental factors

These are digitisation of learning materials, a receptive audience of learners and a cadre of teaching staff connecting the two through their interest in experimentation and innovation in approaches to learning and teaching.

Diversity in the learner population

e-Learning incorporating Web 2.0 offers the sense of being a contributing member of a learning community, which is one of the hallmarks of higher education. For learners unable to participate in an actual community for some, or even all, of the time – notably part-time, distance and, increasingly, work-based – Web 2.0 may be a reasonable

A richer educational experience

Learning that is active – by doing – undertaken within a community and based on individual’s interests, is widely considered to be the most effective. Driven by process rather than content, such an approach helps students become self-directed and independent learners. Web 2.0 is well suited to serving and supporting this type of learning.

Practice in schools

Practice is variable, but the type of approach to learning outlined above – project- and group-based supported by technology – appears to be in the ascendancy and so likely to condition expectation in higher education.

Open source materials and online universities

The growth in both open source materials and online universities increases the choice available to students of all ages and in all locations. Adoption of approaches to learning and teaching that take account of the disposition and attitudes of the student population are more likely to ensure UK higher education remains an attractive choice.

Skills development

There is a match between what are seen as 21st-century learning skills, 21st-century employability skills and those engendered by engagement with Web 2.0 – communication, participation, networking, sharing. Employability skills, already high on higher education’s agenda, are also being pursued vigorously through the changes to the 14 to 19 curriculum underway in all parts of the country.

Fundamental over time

The single issue here is the role of the tutor. Tutors are central to development of approaches to learning and teaching in higher education. They have much to keep up with, their subject for example, and developments in their craft – learning and teaching or pedagogy. To practise effectively, they have also to stay attuned to the disposition of their students. This is being changed demonstrably by the nature of the experience of growing up in a digital world. The time would seem to be right seriously and systematically to begin the process of renegotiating the relationship between tutor and student to bring about a situation where each recognises and values the other’s expertise and capability and works together to capitalise on it. This implies drawing students into the development of approaches to teaching and learning.


Web 2.0, the Social Web, has had a profound effect on behaviours, particularly those of young people whose medium and metier it is. They inhabit it with ease and it has led them to a strong sense of communities of interest linked in their own web spaces, and to a disposition to share and participate. It has also led them to impatience – a
preference for quick answers – and to a casual approach to evaluating information and attributing it and also to copyright and legal constraints.

The world they encounter in higher education has been constructed on a wholly different set of norms. Characterised broadly, it is hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured. The two worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change. They aren’t demanding different approaches; rather they are making such adaptations as are necessary for the time it takes to gain their qualifications. Effectively, they are managing a disjuncture, and the situation is feeding the natural inertia of any established system. It is, however, unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating and some rapprochement will be necessary if higher education is to continue to provide a learning experience that is recognised as stimulating, challenging and relevant.

The impetus for change will come from students themselves as the behaviours and approaches apparent now become more deeply embedded in subsequent cohorts of entrants and the most positive of them – the experimentation, networking and collaboration, for example – are encouraged and reinforced through a school system seeking, in a reformed curriculum, to place greater emphasis on such dispositions. It will also come from policy imperatives in relation to skills development, specifically development of employability skills. These are backed by employer demands and include a range of ‘soft skills’ such as networking, teamwork, collaboration and self-direction, which are among those fostered by students’ engagement with Social Web technologies.

Higher education has a key role in helping students refine, extend and articulate the diverse range of skills they have developed through their experience of Web 2.0 technologies. It not only can, but should, fulfil this role, and it should do so through a partnership with students to develop approaches to learning and teaching. This does not necessarily mean wholesale incorporation of ICT into teaching and learning. Rather it means adapting to and capitalising on evolving and intensifying behaviours that are being shaped by the experience of the newest technologies. In practice it means building on and steering the positive aspects of those behaviours such as experimentation, collaboration and teamwork, while addressing the negatives such as a casual and insufficiently critical attitude to information. The means to these ends should be the best tools for the job, whatever they may be. The role of institutions of higher education is to enable informed choice in the matter of those tools, and to support them and their effective deployment.

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