In my last blog post I mentioned the idea of a two-tiered educational system that includes both 1) conventional bricks-and-mortar education and 2) opportunity for individuals to pursue their personal learning goals by making use of learning resources that are available on the internet. If we accept this model then there should be an effort by educators to 1) teach students how to use the internet as a learning tool and 2) make sure that there are good learning resources on the internet.
What is the “state of the art” in using the internet as a tool for learning? I want to approach answers to this question from the perspective provided by Isaac Asimov when he imagined learners using computing resources in order to pursue their personal learning goals. So, I am leaving behind the use of computing and internet resources to complete mundane assignments for formal courses. Let us imagine the internet from the perspective of a learner who is exploring a personal learning goal outside of the machinery of conventional educational institutions.
Do our conventional educational institutions adequately prepare learners for the challenge of using the internet as a personal learning tool? What learning resources exist on the internet? How easy is it for learners to find and use those resources? To what extent do internet learning resources encourage the “Asimov ideal” of empowering individuals to discover and navigate their own learning paths? Does online learning work best as a personal search for useful learning resources and individualized consumption of information or as a creative social process of exploration and discovery within a community of like-minded learners?
In Ubiquitous Transformations by Caroline Haythornthwaite, she wrote about, “Internet-based trends that emphasize contribution, conversation, participation, and community,” and how those trends impact on learners. Is there much relevance to the über-scholar model of an Isaac Asimov, the lone learner who, feeding his own delight for knowledge, digests libraries full of information? Is that how most people are using the internet as a learning tool?
The “Asimov model” for online learning strikes me as a “web version 1.0” computer-amplified version of the kind of individualized library-based learning that he loved and practiced. Dr. Haythornthwaite’s article looks to “web 2.0” technologies that make possible “ubiquitous learning”: “a continuous anytime, anywhere, anyone contribution and retrieval of learning materials on and through the Internet and its technologies, communities, niches and social spaces.” I don’t think Asimov or anyone who lived in the pre-internet era could have anticipated the emergent properties of social internet spaces and communities that allow or even emphasize participation and contribution rather than simple resource consumption.
Exactly what kinds of learning resources exist on the internet and which ones are most popular and useful? Are most online learning resources simply transferred to digital files from conventional formats (print) or are there truly revolutionary and transformative learning resources online that could never have existed in the pre-internet era?
Dr. Haythornthwaite is concerned about, “the work that devolves to the learner for critical evaluation of retrieved information”: are independent learners adequately equipped to sift through the information (good and bad) that they can access on the internet? Asimov went through a long formal education process and obtained a PhD, he rightly enthused over a coming computer-powered infosphere where self-motivated learners could all be, as Haythornthwaite says, “his or her own teacher, journalist, librarian, writer, and publisher”. I suspect that Asimov could have thrived on web 2.0, but what fraction of online learners are able to pull this off?
Asimov extolled the virtue of leaving behind a written record of your learning path. What are the online equivalents of this kind of virtue? To what extent is it the obligation of an online learner to leave behind a written trail that can aid the learning efforts of others? Are blogs and wikis and discussion forums the epitome of technology for sharing the learning paths that we each blaze? Are the available internet tools for documenting and evaluating learning resources and learning paths adequate or are we currently experiencing the infancy of online learning communities that will evolve new strategies for guiding learners towards the best learning resources? Is the functional unit of online learning the individual or the learning community? Are communities of online learners up to the task of sorting through good and bad sources of online information? Do we need to invent and form and participate in new kinds of online learning communities?
An underlying theme in Dr. Haythornthwaite’s article is uneasiness. Trained experts who have historically served as the gate-keepers of libraries are now watching the internet transform the universe of learning paths. No longer do the learning paths we blaze need to follow the carefully curated gardens of schools and libraries. Are experts like Dr. Haythornthwaite reduced to the role of simple observers of an internet that is beyond control?
More about participatory learning: Learning in the Age of Web 2.0 by Caroline Haythornthwaite.
Next: Ubiquitous Learning: An Agenda for Educational Transformation by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope.