This post is a continuation of my review of “ubiquitous learning” and the idea that Asimov’s dream of computer-facilitated learning for all has been achieved by the ways that the internet has transformed learning. In my last blog post I discussed a critique of ubiquitous learning by Caroline Haythornthwaite in which she expressed concerns about online learning environments where peers and other learners become information sources and teachers.
In Ubiquitous Learning: An Agenda for Educational Transformation by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope they wrote: “we need to guard against any reduction of the richness of person-to-person or hands-on activity,” and they insist on the importance of keeping the needs of learners in control of the computing technology that learners use.
Kalantzis and Cope list seven features of learning that takes place within a learning environment that is created by computing technology:
- collapse of the spatial and temporal boundaries that characterize traditional education institutions
- blurring distinctions between teachers and learners
- recognition of the diversity of learners who each are empowered to follow a unique learning path
- increasingly diverse, cheap and accessible modes of information transmission such as digital video
- a requirement that learners understand and can navigate the digital information environment
- knowing where to go for needed facts is more important than keeping those facts in the learner’s mind
- a need to create and utilize collaborative learning communities that empower learners
That final emphasis on, “skills in building learning communities to ensure inclusivity and that all learners reach their potential,” seems like a keystone for the entire online learning phenomenon if it is truly a revolution in education. “The journey of ubiquitous learning is only just beginning. Along that journey we need to develop breakthrough practices and technologies that allow us to reconceive and rebuild the content, procedures and human relationships of teaching and learning.”
If we conceptualize the “we” of that last statement to mean everyone who is engaged in creating the learning communities of the internet then we can ask: what form do those communities currently take and can we imagine improvements to our online learning communities?
In Ubiquitous learning, ubiquitous computing, and lived experience by Bertram C. Bruce, he wrote about ubiquitous learning as what happens when we live our lives: “learning becomes part of doing”. Bruce argues that given the current ubiquity of computing technology, “Dewey’s dream of schooling that links the mind and the body, theory and action, or disciplines and ordinary experience seems more realizable than ever.”
“We feel that ubiquitous computing technologies help us solve problems, create/access knowledge, and build community. We feel that they do it in a way that links work, family and friends, learning, and life. “
I think the perspective provided by Bertram Bruce is useful. Rather than view online learning communities as “virtual communities” that are distinct and detached from the “real world” we can instead view online communities as technology-enabled extensions of our off-line lives. We learn by doing in all parts of our daily lives and internet technology simply allows us to continue our natural social learning in the virtual online world.
Every time we upload internet content (email, blog post, a video, a comment in a discussion forum, etc) we can function in the role of “teacher”, every time we seek out and explore online resources we can function in the role of learner. The online people who we link ourselves to through networked blogs, shared wiki editing projects and all other social internet tools become parts of our personal learning community. Our success as an online learner depends on our skills in using internet technology to search out and connect with like-minded people who share our interests and who can propel us along our individual learning paths.
Online learners will naturally gravitate towards online social interactions that facilitate learning. Are educators leading the way in the creation of new online learning tools or simply looking on in awe as the internet expands and learners adopt the tools that they find useful? Can we concisely describe and summarize the current best online learning tools or is the pace of change so rapid, the options and individual learning paths so diverse that codification is futile?
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.