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Threading, Tagging, and Higher-Order Thinking

By Mary Burns / June 2009

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The use of Web 2.0—the so called "read/write" Web—has increasingly found a home in U.S. education as tools for both teachers and students. But in much of the developing world, Web 2.0 applications remain little known and are rarely used as formal educational tools. In Indonesia, Education Development Center's (EDC) use of Web 2.0 tools as part of an online course appears to be yielding initially positive, and unanticipated, results.

Indonesia, like many nations, is struggling to refashion its educational system from focusing on rote learning, lower-order thinking, and learning as a solo endeavor, to more "21st century" learning based on creativity, collaboration, higher-order thinking, and technology use that promotes these characteristics.

However, real impediments stand in the way of such ambitions. Traditional "stand and deliver" instruction is still the norm. Indonesia also has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Asia, with just 10 percent of the population online (Indonesia Internet Service Provider Association, 2007) and computers largely absent from schools. Since 2005, EDC's work has focused on how we can help teachers shift to innovative instructional practices that focus on higher-order thinking, collaboration, and creativity and use and integrate information and communications technologies to support these pedagogical shifts.

As with many bilaterally funded development projects, EDC employs a group of "master trainers" to help teachers learn new pedagogical and technology approaches. But the challenge with many of our master trainers is that they too struggle with higher-order thinking, collaboration, and creativity. Their technology use has often reinforced, rather than helped them transcend, "traditional" ways of thinking and working. Further, in a culture that places a premium on being polite and on accord, it's often difficult for teacher trainers to voice their own opinions.

To help teacher trainers shift their own practice, we have held several face-to-face sessions to model higher-order and more creative uses of technologies, such as spreadsheets, concept mapping software, etc. (By modeling we mean engaging learners in technology-based, exploratory, innovative activities as if they were students in a "learner-centered" classroom.)

This past year we launched a pilot program in which a group of master trainers work as school-based coaches. To support coaches in their work with teachers, we constructed a Moodle-based online course with coaching-related readings, videos, and a discussion forum. To facilitate communication and information sharing, we built in a number of Web 2.0 tools: Diigo, VoiceThread, Ning, Dimdim, Flickr, Word Press, TeacherTube, and Curriki. (The accompanying list at the end of the article provides a brief description of these tools.) Among other activities, participants use these tools to upload video examples of teachers' and coaches' own model teaching, and hold real-time discussions about video content; meet as a whole group and as small groups; collaborate and share lesson activities; identify good Web-based teaching resources; and develop and share a final electronic portfolio.

There's not a lot of research on the benefits of Web 2.0 technologies for teacher training, so we weren't able to predict whether and how those applications would impact coaches' learning. But initial observations (though they warrant further research) appear quite promising. Coaches' work and discussions reveal an increasing shift toward higher-order cognitive behaviors—a shift that will be discussed in the remainder of this article and one that we will continue to assess.

Bloom's Taxonomy
Most educators are familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Domain, which as Table 1 outlines, categorizes knowledge along a continuum from knowledge (recitation of information) to evaluation of information. As any teacher or professional development provider knows, it's quite difficult to design higher-order activities and discussion questions that probe participants to analyze and evaluate information, particularly in educational systems that have not emphasized these ways of thinking.


Table 1. Cognitive Domains of Bloom's Taxonomy
Lower-Level Learning Knowledge
  • observe and recall information
  • knowledge of dates, events, places
  • knowledge of major ideas
  • mastery of subject matter
  • Question cues: list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.
Comprehension
  • understand information
  • grasp meaning
  • translate knowledge into new context
  • interpret facts, compare, contrast
  • order, group, infer causes
  • predict consequences
  • Question cues: summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend
Application
  • use information
  • use methods, concepts, theories in new situations
  • solve problems using required skills or knowledge
  • mastery of subject matter
  • Question cues: apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover
Analysis
  • see patterns
  • organize parts
  • solve recognition of hidden meanings
  • identify components
  • Question cues: analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer
Higher-Order Thinking Skills Synthesis
  • use old ideas to create new ones
  • generalize from given facts
  • relate knowledge from several areas
  • predict, draw conclusions
  • Question cues: combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite
Evaluation
  • compare and discriminate between ideas
  • assess value of theories, presentations
  • make choices based on reasoned argument
  • verify value of evidence
  • recognize subjectivity
  • Question cues: assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize
See also Center for Learning and Teaching at Dalhousie University.


Using Web 2.0 Tools
One of the arguments for introducing and using technology in education has been that technology, ipso facto, leads to development of higher-order thinking. This has proved not to be true. But it does appear that the intentional design of certain Web 2.0 technologies, nested within larger cognitive tasks that deliberately capitalize on these design strengths, does lend itself to the development of higher-order skills with greater ease than other types of technology.

Table 2 outlines some of the ways that EDC's teacher coaches are using Web 2.0 applications, the activities associated with each, and the specific "cognitive level" of Bloom's Taxonomy that each addresses.


Table 2. Thinking Skills, Activities, and Web 2.0 Applications
Teacher coaches are… Through these activities…. Using these Web 2.0 applications…
evaluating information social bookmarking of resources for teachers Diigo
categorizing and classifying (analysis) tagging Web-based resources Diigo
soliciting and providing constructive feedback real-time feedback sessions on a "problem" coaches are facing Ning
summarizing and synthesizing audio summaries of weekly readings and assignments Wimba
communicating visually image compilation and tagging (of learner-centered classroom activities) Flickr
analyzing instructional practice real-time conversations around artifacts (images and videos of teaching practices) VoiceThread
creating local language content (application) collaborative lesson design Curriki
reflecting, self evaluating writing (journals as part of an e-portfolio) WordPress, Ning


To better flesh out the information in Table 2, we summarize two examples of coaches' assignments and how Web 2.0 applications figure in each.

One of their assignments is to use the social bookmarking site Diigo to gather approximately 10 Web-based resources to share with teachers. Each resource must be tagged and vetted with online colleagues. Coaches must identify resources, evaluate the worth of the site based on their own criteria, synthesize for their colleagues the main attributes of each, and justify their choice.

A quick glance at Table 1 reveals that such a process scales Bloom's cognitive continuum—from identifying potential resources, comprehending that information, thinking of ways teachers can apply that information, analyzing content, summarizing the content of a particular site for colleagues, and evaluating its worth.

In another activity, one coach is asked to co-teach a computer-based lesson with a teacher (coaches provide the laptop), while the second coach records it. The video is placed in VoiceThread, and coaches hold a virtual discussion in which they assess and provide feedback on one another's co-teaching episodes. They must analyze their colleagues' practice, distill their reactions into a concise verbal message, mentally compose the verbal message they wish to share with colleagues, and provide verbal feedback in ways that are constructive yet sensitive. Another brief glance at Table 1 indicates that in so doing, they are touching on Bloom's cognitive domains of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Why Web 2.0?
But can't all the above occur without Web 2.0 technologies? Can't the desired cognitive behaviors of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation occur via email, chat, and a traditional online course or through other uses of more robust software (spreadsheets, databases)?

Yes—but arguably with greater difficulty. Most Web 2.0 applications possess a number of inherent characteristics that make them more intuitive learning tools, more suited to the promotion of higher-order learning, and more appropriate to our particular audience of novice technology users, than stand-alone applications, such as word processing software, and older "1.0" uses of the Internet, such as Web sites and even email.

First, Web 2.0 tools are dynamic. Users can constantly update and refresh their own content as well as that of others. This "harnessing of individual and collective intelligence" (Cobo & Pardo, 2007) yields a variety of information in multiple formats with multiple inputs to create content that is iterative, relevant, and current. This is no small feat for countries like Indonesia, which lacks digital educational content in local languages.

Next—though this varies among particular applications—Web 2.0 tools possess some degree of interactivity. While "interactivity" is used so frequently vis-à-vis technology as to be almost meaningless, Richard Mayer's (2000) work on multimedia learning points out that interactivity is critical to long-term retention of information. Although the design and degree of interactivity may vary, Web 2.0 applications do allow users to interact (cognitively, manually, emotionally, and socially) with content, technology tools, experiences, and most importantly, with one another.

Third, Web 2.0 applications—unlike many traditional types of software that suffer from feature creep—are easy to use. (This isn't uniformly true. Arguably, a Web 2.0 application such as Google Earth is fairly complex.) For the most part, interfaces are simple so they're easy for technology novices to learn, thus obviating the need for a lot of skills training (we've been able to provide online training via the Web 2.0 application, Dimdim). This relative ease of use means that users are less daunted by an overabundance of menu choices. They don't get lost in a thicket of software features or excessive functionality. And the restrained design of many Web 2.0 applications means participants are able to focus on the core feature(s). For example, social bookmarking sites essentially allow for a few actions—annotating and sharing sites and communicating and collaborating around these sites. But the fundamental action of social bookmarking is tagging—developing metadata based on summations of the attributes of each site (keywords) so that information can be organized and retrieved by these keywords, a process that requires the cognitive skills of classification, categorization, and organization.

Fourth, we've seen some evidence that Web 2.0 tools can diversify and broaden traditional online structures of communication in ways that non-Web 2.0 applications may not. For example, the dominant pattern of communication in online learning discussion forums tends to be a hub-and-spoke structure of facilitator (hub) and participants (spokes), with much or most of the discussion emanating to and from the facilitator. The facilitator poses a question, participants respond, and the facilitator acknowledges responses.

An examination of the discourse of our online coaches reveals a less facilitator-centered and more networked structure. Participants communicate with one another more frequently. The facilitator is one of the voices in, but not the driver of, the discussion, as is the case in our learning management system (LMS) discussion forums. This shift may be in part due to the threaded, more hierarchical nature of an LMS such as Moodle and the "flatter" structure of Web 2.0 applications such as VoiceThread and Dimdim, which allow for simultaneous and multiple responses.

Finally, designed for purposes of communication and collaboration, Web 2.0 applications can connect individuals to and within a larger learning community. Utilization of applications such as Voice Thread, Dimdim, and Ning for sharing, dialogue, and discussion can facilitate the types of communities of learning and communities of practice that reduce isolation, make learning and experimentation less risky, and promote mutuality and reciprocity.

Interviews with teacher trainers suggest two distinct advantages of Web 2.0 versus 1.0 applications. The first is the duality of Web 2.0 tools—that they can serve as both authoring and communication tools—appears to help users feel more comfortable both creating information and communicating and collaborating around that information. Next, this duality erases what I call the "anonymity of the commons." The Web is a public space. Yet it is so vast and decentralized, and its audience so large and diffuse, that creative efforts, even when directed to publishing sites, may not be read, or even if read, may not be acknowledged.

At the very least, because our online participants are co-creating ideas, strategies—and insights with VoiceThread, Flickr, and Curriki, they have an immediate audience—one another. And the fact that the same Web 2.0 tools allow their larger community of peers to offer feedback affords participants a larger, secondary, targeted audience that acknowledges and honors the efforts of colleagues.

The observations presented here are not grounded in any formal evaluation or rigorous research methodology. (Indeed, there's little research on the effects of Web 2.0 tools on teacher learning.) Though evolving, these initial observations of coaches' learning via Web 2.0 tools suggest that the intentional design of many of these tools, combined with their use to carry out specific course-related objectives, can cultivate greater engagement, communication, creativity, and collegiality among users-all important ingredients in enhancing learning.

Comments

  • Tue, 12 Feb 2008
    Post by elisha

    i found this article very useful

  • Thu, 30 Aug 2007
    Post by Eleanor K. Brewer

    I''m interested. I teach computer graphics with 22 Dell cpu''s in an ART ROOM, two scanners, three microphones and an lcd projector for demonstrations. My daughter has a new baby in England--they can''t wait to get to America. This nearly 1 year old is going to be a US Senator or some such. She wants to do what Mommy & Daddy are doing all the time. We just said "she needs a computer of her own."

  • Mon, 12 Mar 2007
    Post by Ken Korman

    We''re not sure what you mean by "take this forward," but you can direct any OLPC-related inquiries to information@laptop.org. Thank you!

  • Fri, 09 Mar 2007
    Post by Bismillah Kader

    We are keeping a close eye on this project, not least because a bunch of these machines in the hands of school kids in developing countries (or anywhere) will require teachers who have been through our teacher training project which provides skills and content just right for enhancing learning. It''s an astonishingly close match, I believe. Please provide us with information on how to take this forward. Bismilla Kader

  • Tue, 06 Mar 2007
    Post by Jimbo

    Really? What every kid needs is a laptop with 100 books on it? Many of the kids in underdeveloped countries would certainly appreciate this and would very likely come up with a million uses that I could not even imagine for the thing. But how do we really know this is what they need? Maybe they need a good pair of runners, or a ball, or a hug everyday? I''m not convinced that computers are the answer to the world''s children. I always remember the cardboard box the toy came in was the best toy.

  • Thu, 22 Feb 2007
    Post by fbonzo

    Regarding both the OLPC and this writeup--truly brilliant and awesome.