Read-write learning

Web 2.0 is often described as the ‘read-write web’. I use the term ‘read-write learning’ to characterise a form of constructivist learning which is not necessarily social but incorporates learning activities where learners generate knowledge in their own words.

My first real experience of read-write learning using computer software occurred in 1984. It was my second year of teaching, and I had a class of about 30 eight to nine year olds. One topic we were to study was the Solar System, a topic about which there were plenty of books for reference. I also set up a simple database which had a record for each planet, and entered some information about each planet. In those days, there were very few computers in school classrooms, so I used to take my Apple II computer in each day on the back seat of my car.

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I found the students enjoyed using the database to look up information – in those days it was quite a novelty to have a computer in the classroom. They were also able to enter information which was missing and add to what became a communal store of information. The database soon held information drawn from a number of sources, and there was a sense of shared ownership of the information.

As well as paging through the planets or searching for one by name, students could view a table of all the planets. This table could be sorted in various ways: for example, alphabetically by planet name, or numerically by distance from the sun. This allowed students to investigate relationships such as that between distance from the sun and surface temperature. The database software made it easy to re-arrange information and compare records. While some students were content to access the information, others clearly exhibited curiosity and a greater desire for active enquiry.

Several unexpected learning processes took place. The first of these was when a student complained that the database was incorrect – Saturn had more satellites than shown. When we investigated how the error had occurred, we realised that his book had been published several years after the one originally consulted. Clearly, more satellites had been discovered by astronomers in the time between the publication of the two sources. This led to interesting discussion on a number of key questions:

  • How do astronomers discover new satellites?
  • How do we know any of our information is current? (‘true’)

Another interesting learning process took place when a student discovered that planets close to the sun had few satellites, while those further out had more. On investigation, it turned out that those furthest out also had very few satellites. This led to discussion as to why this was so – none of our books could help, but we did come up with some fairly plausible explanations.

These days, it’s easy to use software such as Excel to make such relationships much more graphic:

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What did the students learn though the whole process? Clearly they gained some skills in using a database to access information that they could then use. They also acquired factual knowledge about the subject, and this seemed to be deep rather than superficial learning. Just as importantly, however, they learned that:

  • It was more important to know how and where to look for an answer than to memorise factual detail
  • It was important to evaluate information. For example, ‘scientific facts’ can be out of date
  • Science was a process of enquiry, not a collection of facts
  • Scientific enquiry wasn’t just for scientists

I was pleased that most of my students enjoyed browsing through and collaboratively updating the database. In addition, the process of enquiry in which some students became engaged emphasised for me the important role that software tools can play in promoting high-level learning.

3 thoughts on “Read-write learning

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