Explaining Web applications

Level crossing

The Web has become a universal interface to a range of applications. I’m trying to classify some Web applications that appear to provide very different things that teachers (and students) might want to use.

You can publish or store. Some applications shape or guide your interactions along certain lines, others provide affordances that can be used in many ways.

Shapes useCMS, Blogs, Moodle, stand alone forumse-portfolios that map evidence against standards: AAT, PaperFree. Flickr when marked private. Gmail is where I keep a lot of handouts & information.
Provides affordancesWikis, older VLEsFreeform e-portfolios like ELGG and PebblePad, Google Apps

By shapes use I mean a Web application that pushes the authors (gently) towards a certain style of use. Moodle, with the Activity and Resource blocks, and the news forum that appears by default on each course, sort of suggests to teachers that they add some interactivity. Blog scripts are date based with a category labelling system. Content management systems often force the use of an editing hierarchy. What colleagues of mine would refer to as ‘proper’ e-portfolios – the ones that map evidence against a set of assessment criteria or learning outcomes – have the structure of the qualification built into them.

I contrast shapes use with Web applications that provide a range (often a wide range) of affordances to use Donald Norman’s word. A classic wiki has no access control or editing rules or constraints as to who can put which content where. Rules emerge as the wiki is populated and are enforced socially. The e-portfolios based on personal storage of assets which the asset owner can allow others to see are ‘free-form’ and based on individual choice and control. Using this kind of application to allow students to build a portfolio implies some relinquishing of control by the tutors – you can provide a template and model but the student can depart or customise the model.

Applications that are mainly about publishing information can be contrasted with applications that are mainly about capturing feelings, experiences and storing files and ‘digital assets’ for later use and for sharing with a small and controlled number of people.

I think these distinctions are important when you are working out how to use Web applications to support learning.

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