Tag Archives: read-write learning

Conceptual learning and the Diffen wiki

I was recently asked to provide usability feedback on Diffen.com, which uses an extended implementation of Mediawiki to provide a customised form of wiki. As the name suggests, Diffen is built around the idea of differences and each of the site’s articles provides a comparison between two key concepts.

Diffen logo

For example, I created a simple page comparing compare and contrast, two terms which often cause problems in ‘old world’ assessment. In the true wiki tradition, my brief article has been edited and substantially modified by others!

Each Diffen article has a comparison table which is a useful feature, although this is not available when you first create a new article. You can search for two different terms and create the page if it doesn’t exist. Users can rate the two terms and also hide or show similarities between them. The site does have Google ads but overall has a simple design. A few features are not always clear for the new user but it’s quick to learn how to use the site.

In the past I’ve found activities based around two apparently polarised opposites very useful as professional development activity. So I can see opportunities for interesting read-write learning activities based around exploring concepts such as Behaviourism vs Constructivism. It’s a pity that each article is limited to comparing just two concepts, but a nice feature is that characteristics are inherited – ie if you create a new article, the comparison table is automatically populated if one or both of the concepts are compared elsewhere.

Overall, Diffen is a great idea and I can see useful applications in my professional development workshops and elsewhere in education where conceptual learning is important.

Educators need better models for the use of Web 2.0 tools

Educators getting started with using wikis and blogs and other Web 2.0 software as tools for learning need to develop a structural understanding of the different potential forms of collaboration and interaction. But some of the models used as references for such educational use come from other contexts, and are unlikely to be sufficient as models for designing effective learning and teaching.

For example, an Open University blog refers to the ladder of participation, a model developed by Forrester Research. The participation ladder categorises consumers according to their level of active participation with online social networking tools.

I don’t find the ladder metaphor and the categorisation particularly helpful for educators, because:

  • The ladder metaphor suggests both a hierarchy of behaviours and progression up the ladder, whereas in a learning context such behaviours are complementary and equally important.
  • Categorising learners in the same way marketers categorise consumers is not productive: learners are not a market to reach and exploit but autonomous individuals who dynamically use a range of behaviours depending on the context

I’m not intending to suggest that the ladder is not a really valuable tool for marketers, or that education cannot learn from and apply models developed in a business context. Indeed, the ladder does provide a valuable insight into the diversity of learners in terms of the use of such tools.

But to help educators develop effective strategies for applying Web 2.0 tools, we need models which build on models such as the ladder and better reflect the educational context. In particular, we need models which:

  • Reflect the values and ethos of the education sector, with learners as autonomous individuals
  • Provide a means to analyse the dynamic and diverse nature of learning and teaching interactions

Until we develop such models, the application of Web 2.0 tools for learning is likely to be hit and miss.

Related posts:

The read-write matrix of web 2.0 tools for learning

Wikis in Moodle and the read-write matrix

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.


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:


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.

Read-write learning in professional development

In an earlier post, I described the concept of read-write learning in which learners generate knowledge in their own words. Web 2.0 software such as blogs and wikis are ideal for such activities. Engaging learners in collaboratively developing resources provides an opportunity to make prior experience and knowledge explicit, and develop a shared understanding of key concepts. It also helps establish a relationship based on equality and learning from each other. Working in a professional development context often entails a more applied focus than a purely academic programme. The emphasis is on ‘changing practice’ rather than ‘imparting a body of knowledge’. So the potential for deeper and more contextualised learning enabled by read-write learning processes is highly appropriate.

In my experience in professional development in education, read-write learning processes using blogs and wikis can help lead to a shared body of knowledge which is broader, deeper and better contextualised to participants’ needs and interests than any individual ‘expert’ is able to provide.

Possible drawbacks include:

  • participants may contribute ‘faulty knowledge’
  • participants may be reluctant to contribute – ‘give me the answers’
  • the problematic role of the ‘expert’ – how and when does the facilitator intervene?

But I believe these should be seen as opportunities for further development rather than reasons to avoid collaborative authoring. Simple web-based tools such as wikis and glossaries can provide useful environments for building resources collaboratively.