Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Building Community Online

I have been reading an book that has a clever title, Weisband, S. (2008). (Ed.). Leadership at a distance: Research in technologically-supported work. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

There are many interesting chapters, but one in particular that has some interesting results of a study of how online communities work and how to build community relationships.

Here are some of the key ideas in this article:

Although technological tools explain part of the answer to the question of how online groups are sustained, the authors note, "social behavior sustains these groups over time" (p. 173). In particular, they note that four types of behavior seem necessary to sustain groups. These four types of behavior are

1) maintaining the software interaction tools themselves so that they work for the group;

2) recruiting new members to the group to replace those who leave;

3) managing social dynamics or group process;

4) participating or contributing to the interaction.

The authors write, "Without these group maintenance activities, even sophisticated tools and infrastructure will not sustain viable online groups" (p. 173).

Perhaps the most important aspect is "partcipation." Butler et al. note, "... without participation, few of the beneficial characteristics of most online groups would not come about.... In online communities, participation means generating messages, responding to messages, organizing discussion, and offering other online activities of interest to members. If members do not create relevant content, other community building activities are largely irrelevant. Participation also means consuming content; if members do not regularly read the material that others provide, an online group will not remain viable. Group identity and personal relationships are constructed through the messages that members send and read. Attending to and reading messages are prerequisites for others to provide them. Thus, active participation by providing and consuming content play a crucial role in sustaining an online group" (p. 174-175).

"A major challenge in sustaining an online group is inducing people to devote the time and effort needed to perform these community maintenance activities" (p. 175). Butler and his colleagues suggest that online community members can gain four types of benefits from participating in groups-- informational, social, visibility and altruistic. Roughly, they suggest that group members obtain information from other members, this may be the initial reason that they participate. They can find out about things that are of interest to them that are shared by other group members. Social benefits may be that they are able to develop and maintain ties to other community members that have similar interests. Community members also may be motivated by the opportunity to gain recognition and attention within the community. This visibility within this community may be a powerful incentive to participate. Altruism also may be source of participation by members who see the value and importance of the activities of the group.

Butler and his colleagues surveyed listserv members in 1997 order to understand more about the activity and motivations of online community members. Importantly, they had list owners, active and silent contributors in their survey. There were a number of interesting findings. For example, owners of the list did not differ from either active or silent members in terms of the reported amounts of time spent in community-building work. Although owners spent more time on infrastructure maintenance and social control, they did not differ in terms of the amount of time spent reading messages and encouraging other members. However, owners spend more time doing active community-building activities such as contributing content and composing messages and less time in more passive tasks such as reading messages. Owners report more altruistic motives for their work than other group members.

Another interesting finding was that social benefits were a strong motivator. The measures of social benefit included meeting people and making friends, having fun, having others appreciate one's participation, gain a sense of accomplishment, become known to list members, and build relationships with list members. Additionally, the more list members that were known in the real world was associated with higher levels of infrastructure maintenance, social encouragement and content provision. This is a reminder that real world ties are likely to be stronger than online ties. Butler et al. conclude, "if leaders want to increase community-building work done by other members, they can focus on increasing the social benefits and relationships that members derive from the group" (p. 191).

Some other results suggest that those who valued altruistic benefits were more likely to encourage others and people who valued personal visibility were more likely to promote the group externally.

The complete paper is here:

Butler, B., Sproll, L., Kiesler, S., Kraut, R. (2008). Community Effort in Online Groups: Who Does the Work and Why. (pp. 171- 193). online address:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Creating Public Access to Information- A View form UK

In 2007, a report published by the United Kingdom recommended that the government begin to work directly with the public to re-use government information. In The Power of Information the authors review the ways in which user communities are able to use information to improve people's lives and explores strategies for how to work effectively with these communities.

Here is a slightly edited excerpt from the report:
"This is an unusual review in that it is a story of opportunities rather than problems. It takes a practical look at the use and development of citizen and state-generated information in the UK.

Public sector information underpins a growing part of the economy and the amount is increasing at a dramatic pace. The driver is the emergence of online tools that allow people to use, re-use and create information in new ways. ...This is the first review to explore the role of government in helping to maximise the benefits for citizens from this new pattern of information creation and use.

When enough people can collect, re-use and distribute public sector information, people organise around it in new ways, creating new enterprises and new communities. In each case, these are designed to offer new ways of solving old problems. In the past, only large companies, government or universities were able to re-use and recombine information. Now, the ability to mix and 'mash' data is far more widely available.

Since 1990, when the World Wide Web first made the internet usable by mass audiences, the number of users has risen from virtually none to 61% of the UK adult population. The impacts of this transformation are diverse and profound. TV consumption is falling and internet usage is rising fast, and as many prospective online shoppers now consider a search engine as important as talking to a trusted friend when making purchasing decisions.

The largest websites are now often those that bring together information created by the people who use them. The proportion of people using such sites to help themselves and others is now on a par with the friendly societies and mutuals of the nineteenth century.

This report argues that government could now grasp the opportunities that are emerging in terms of the creation, consumption and re-use of information. Current policy and action is not yet adequate to grasp these opportunities. To this end, the report recommends a strategy in which government:
  • welcomes and engages with users and operators of user-generated sites in pursuit of common social and economic objectives;
  • supplies innovators that are re-using government-held information with the information they need, when they need it, in a way that maximises the long-term benefits for all citizens; and
  • protects the public interest by preparing citizens for a world of plentiful (and sometimes unreliable) information, and helps excluded groups take advantage."
I think you could substitute "university" for government in many of these sentences and you would begin to get the idea of what is meant by open research, open education and open engagement.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Leadership at a Distance

I have just begun to read a book titled, "Leadership at a Distance" edited by Suzanne P. Weisband and published in 2008. I am also reading Clay Shirkey's book, Here Comes Everybody (2008). (also see Shirkey's blog)

Both books are interested in how people and organizations work in dispersed, often global environments. Shirky's view is that "forming groups has gotten alot easier. To put it in economic terms, the costs incurred by creating a new group or joining an existing one have fallen in recent years, and not just by a little bit. They have collapsed" (p. 18). In the opening chapter he describes a remarkable story of an individual who lost her cell phone and the way in which a lot of people worked together over the Internet to find and eventually retrieve this cell phone.

The Weisband book, on the other hand, focuses on the the various difficulties and failures of working and "leading" in a dispersed work environment. The scholars who write these chapters report on the variety of challenges and difficulties of managing work from a distance. They note that despite the availability of various communications tools (email, groupware, blogs, wikis, etc.) there are still many difficulties in using these effectively.

Two ideas come to mind in thinking about this. First, there may be many important experiential differences here. For the most part the authors who are studying organizations are mostly studying established organizations in which workers generally are used to working in more traditional hierarchical, F2F models of leadership and who are trying to adapt to a flattened, and networked world. Shirkey is looking at organizations and individuals who are developing activities within the new world.

But there are still reasons to be very cautious about some of the examples that Shirkey reports. He notes numerous successes in the networked world, but it would seem to me that the ease of creating new organizations also means that there is likely to be just as rapid an unraveling of organizations.

Two main thoughts come to me about this: 1) we need to understand more about how traditional organizations adapt to the new networked world and 2) we need to know more about not only networked collaborative worlds, but those that persist over time. It may be relatively easy to organize people to accomplish a purpose for a short-term goal, but much more difficult to sustain these organizational structures over time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Diminished Role for Academia in the Future of the Internet

In a recent interview in the Chronicle for Higher Education, Jonathon Zittrain, author, of The Future of the Internet--and How to Stop It, commented on higher education and the Internet.

Andrea Foster, interviewer for the Chronicle asked, "Higher education helped shape the Internet. What is its role now?

Zittrain, replied,
"Sadly, a diminished one. It's to academia's enduring disappointment that Wikipedia had to be invented by a [private entrepreneur] named Jimbo. So many projects by universities and libraries are about knowledge and information online, and they just couldn't get Wikipedia going, or anything like it. I don't see academia rising to the challenge and trying to figure out how this wonderful network can meet its goals of bringing information to the world."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Participatory Earthquate Science

In order to create more engaged and open science it is important to create ways for non-scientists to participate in that science. Here is an example for Earthquake Science.

Last week we had an earthquake in Illinois. Although relatively minor and causing little damage, this event has been the talk of many conversations over the past week.

The U. S. Geological Survey has a very interesting way for people to report the impact of earthquakes as a way to collect scientific data about the impact of earthquakes. They also provide background information about how community intensity maps are developed and how this contributes to our understanding of earthquakes. The public can understand more about earthquakes and contribute to advancing earthquake science.

You can also find maps, notes about the history of earthquakes in the area and the basic information about why earthquakes occur in your region.

This is a good example of using a newsworthy event to teach people about science and to engage the public in helping to provide data that will expand our scientific data.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Open Science--A Medical Research Example

This week the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. published an editorial criticizing the influence of the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries on research.

In an article this month, Catherine D. DeAngelis and Phil B. Fontanarosa write:

The profession of medicine, in every aspect—clinical, education, and research—has been inundated with profound influence from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. This has occurred because physicians have allowed it to happen, and it is time to stop.

Two articles in this issue of JAMA provide a glimpse of one company's apparent misrepresentation of research data and its manipulation of clinical research articles and clinical reviews; such information and articles influence the education and clinical practice of physicians and other health professionals.
This editorial and the specific research studies reported in the April 16, 2008 issue of JAMAfunders, scientists and perhaps scientific journal editors have worked together to report favorable scientific findings that distort the real scientific evidence for the effectiveness of drugs and other medical devices.

This is stunning and this practice harms all legitimate efforts at scientific understanding. The editors of JAMA go on to suggest 11 basic practices that would help to prevent this type of scientific fraud. What is amazing about these recommendations is that they are not currently in practice. Here a couple of their recommendations:
provide compelling evidence that indicates that corporate
All individuals named as authors on articles must fulfill authorship criteria. Journals should require each author to report his or her specific contributions to the article, and should consider publishing these contributions.

All individuals who were involved with the manuscript or study but who do not qualify for authorship (such as those who provided writing assistance) must be named in the acknowledgment section of the article, with reporting of their specific affiliations and contributions and whether they were compensated for those contributions.

All journals must disclose all pertinent relationships of all authors with any for-profit companies, and must publish all funding sources for each article.

To maintain a healthy distance from industry influence, professional organizations and providers of continuing medical education courses should not condone or tolerate for-profit companies having any input into the content of educational materials or providing funding or sponsorship for medical education programs. Individual physicians must be free of financial influences of pharmaceutical and medical device companies including serving on speaker's bureaus or accepting gifts.
These reports on scientific fraud make a strong case for the need to make scientific research more open. It is important to be able to have a better idea about the working process in science labs so that others can examine the methods and processes. Publications increasingly need to include the data, the technical details of the data analysis and other materials that provide the basis for scientific conclusions. These steps will make it more difficult for scientists to cover up faulty science.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Research Blog on Autism

The Autism Research Blog is a Web 2.o solution to translating scientific findings for the general public. The author describes himself as: "a clinical child psychologist and neuroscience researcher working at a large Midwest university-based child psychiatric institute" and gives the following purpose of the blog:

Translating Autism is an autism research blog intended to rapidly disseminate the latest scientific findings related to the nature, causes, & treatments of autism spectrum disorders. Only a minuscule portion of the autism research ever reach parents, educators and consumers, and this blog was created to help close that gap. In this blog I present scientific findings with some, but minimal, editorial content.
This recent post on the history of the controversy on the relationship between vaccines and autism.

As a scientist I find this a good summary and a thoughtful presentation of the evidence. But what does the public think in general? Is this convincing to parents? Is this a good way to present science?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lessons for Educating Parents from the Autism-Vaccine Debate

I have been following the debate about whether or not vaccines cause autism in the blogs and in the media. You can find current links to these topics in my list on the right hand side of the page.

My main interest is how this debate is unfolding in the discussions among the various interests in this debate. There are lessons here about how issues like this are played out in this new media environment and those who are interested in educating parents and providing scientific information on policy and practice issues may be able to learn how to effectively communicate in a Web 2.0 media world.

In this post I look at how various organizations and individuals are contributing to this discussion.

I began to get an idea about what people are doing by searching Google with the phrase "early warning signs of autism," a topic that I think would be of interest to parents who are concerned about the development of their children. I followed the first five links on the page and search the websites for "autism-vaccine" to see what they said, if anything, about this topic. Here is what I found:

Some Examples of Websites on Vaccines and Autism

Site # 1: Bridges4kids is an independent website that identifies professional educators as the sources of the material. They write, "Bridges4Kids was founded in 2002 by Deborah K. Canja and Jackie D. Igafo-Te'o after realizing the need for a comprehensive system of support on the web for ALL children."

This site had 67 links to articles on "autism-vaccines." In general this site does not seem to produce its own content, but provides links to news articles and other material about topics of interest to parents. The editors of the website provide no information about how they select information to include on the website. Here are some examples: The first article is a link to an organization that is organized to publicize the dangers of mercury used in vaccines. (This is one the suspected links to autism.)

The second link is to a news article from the Baltimore Sun in 2003 that summarizes a Danish study that provides evidence that vaccines (and mercury) are not linked to autism.

The 3rd link is to a news article from the Post-Dispatch in 2004 that reports on research from a non-university group that finds that there is a link between vaccines and autism.

The next link is the ABC News which I skipped and then the next link is Science Daily which is descibed by the editors as
one of the Internet's leading online magazines and Web portals devoted to science, technology, and medicine. The free, advertising-supported service brings you breaking news about the latest discoveries and hottest research projects in everything from astrophysics to zoology."

As you might guess this website returns many stories on the topic-- in fact 362 stories. A reminder about the media coverage this topic is receiving in the media.

The next link is to a YouTube video with the title of Early Sign of Autism-- Stacking Blocks.
There are over 200 comments mostly from parents and siblings of children of autism that note the similarities between the child on the video and their own experiences. The video is authored by aware4autism who describes herself as a parent who is committed to helping people understand autistic children.

The link on Google is which "was created in 1999 by the Rotary Club of Santa Monica with active participation by Rotarians Robert and Jeanne Segal following the tragic suicide of their daughter Morgan." The site covers many family and child related topics.

There is one link with the terms "autism vaccines. The article covers a variety of issues of concern to parents about autism including early warning signs, possible causes of autism and more. There is a section on the vaccine issue. Here is the first paragraph:

"When it comes to autism, no topic is more controversial than childhood vaccinations. At the center of this controversy is thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative once commonly used in vaccines to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination. The concern is that exposure to thimerosal may lead to mercury poisoning and autism. Scientific research, however, does not support the theory that childhood vaccinations cause autism."

The article goes on to note all the major government and scientific societies that have concluded that there is no link between vaccines and autism.


At least these first five websites generally do not report some of the more extreme views about vaccines causing autism. The Bridges4kids and Science Daily site just make links to many news articles and other information without any filtering or guidance. The reader must make his or her own judgments about the validity of the information.

The HelpGuide provides a thoughtful summary of the views of most scientists on the topic. It is written in a very readable form and has a feel of "professionalism."

The YouTube video is an interesting link for parents. Here is a chance to see several videos. This could be an interesting way to illustrate some of the characteristics of children with autism, but there is little to guide the viewer to see the specific characteristics.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

100th Blog Post-- Things I have learned

This is my 100th blog post. I began trying out blogging in 2006. The first year I posted 40 messages, in 2007, I posted only 11 messages.

This year I am energized again and have posted 38 messages so far this year.

The main reason for posting more this year is that I have some better ideas about what I want to contribute in this work. I have been trying to communicate a set of ideas that have formed over the past 10 years about the ways in which the web and the various communication tools can be used to create new learning opportunities.

Here are some of my core ideas:

1. Learning episodes should be created in small units. This is sometimes called "microlearning." I think the best example of a small learning unit is an answer to a frequently asked question. I think that creating many questions and answers could form the basis of a very flexible learning system. Small units can be combined into larger units for many different purposes.

2. Learning sequences should involve lots of interaction both between the learner and the content and between learners about the content. The more opportunities for interaction the more engaging the learning will be.

3. Learners should be linked across as many levels as possible such that more advanced learners are responsible for teaching learners at lower levels. The expectation is that everyone in the learning environment has responsibility for both being a student and being a teacher.

4. In higher education, there should be integration between outreach to the public, instruction of students and discovery and creative activities.

5. Science, art, education and outreach will benefit from being open to as many people as possible.

Despite my efforts to communicate these ideas, I have been unsuccessful at engaging others in talking with me on this blog. This is disappointing, but I will continue to work on these ideas and develop the ideas.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

National Institute of Health-- Public Access to Research

The public will have a new way of reading scientific information due to a new policy at the National Institutes of Health will now requires that all research funded by the agency must be made available to the public through PubMed Central.

For example, here the public can search for the latest research on the relationship between vaccines and autism.

This allows people to read more deeply about these issues and not rely on bloggers and celebrities to report on the research. This open access to research is an important step in gaining a deeper understanding of science.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Old-Fashioned Tables of Contents--Still Needed?

I am sure that in writing this I am going to look very old-fashioned and there will be plenty of people who will say that this is wrong, but I still like tables of contents, indexes, abstracts and other simple "trails" that guide me through the complex maze of information.

Although there are many wonderful aspects to tags, tag clouds, folksonomies, etc. that provide connections across and between ideas, blogs, knowledge, these tools work for serendipity and for readers who are immersed in the topic, but they are often too complex and diffuse for me as a novice coming to the conversation for the first time. I am always looking for a link on someone's blog that says, "Here is a good place to start that provides you with a brief summary of what I write about, the key concepts that are typical of my blog and some of the core ideas, principles, or contributions that you can expect if you read my work."

Of course, this would be updated over time and become more complex, but too often in my mind, the reader is thrust into the middle of a conversation that may be interesting and lead to new insights, but is hard to follow. Now maybe this is just laziness on my part, but I think it is just a good structure, effective presentation and good writing and good editing.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Global Campus at University of Illinois

The University of Illinois is trying to build an online learning platform that is called, "Global Campus." A recent report to the Board of Trustees indicated that the effort has had a slow start. (see commentary at Yahoo blogs on online learning and the global campus.)

The Illinois project is trying to deliver complete online programs at a level of quality and rigor that is similar to the campus-based experience. This is an appropriate goal and an important activity.

There are numerous challenges for mainstream educational institutions to overcome in creating robust online programs, but in many ways I think we have not been sufficiently bold in our approach to this work. The Global Campus is competing with the for-profit universities and community colleges that have an enormous head start in working with non-traditional students to create online programs (see this report on online education in the state of Illinois and my analysis) that fit these students. This just may not be the right niche for research intensive universities, but it seems to me that we do have different opportunities to engage in online learning activities that goes beyond the current online learning approaches.

Opportunities for Research Universities

There are a number of unique aspects to research universities that give us the opportunity to create a different kind of online learning presence.

Open our research laboratories to the world. Since we have active scientists who are discovering new knowledge and creating new ideas, art and so forth, we should think about ways to open these activities to people interested in learning. There are a variety of ways that we can open scientific lab, art studios and other similar activities. In some instances this can be done by making the tools available to people. For example, at the U of Illinois Beckman Institute, they have created the "Bugscope" that allows elementary school students use a scanning electron microscope. In addition to opening specialized tools to the public and students, we can open databases and other types of experimental processes in order to show this work. We can take the public inside our art museums, art and architecture studios. We can provide audio and video of music, dance, theater and many other other types of cultural experiences that get produced on our campus.

Open our classrooms to the world. There are various ways that we can open our classrooms to the world. We can adopt the "open course" idea that has been chosen by MIT in which the course material is available to the public. This may include podcasts of lectures by faculty, slides from lectures, lecture notes and a variety of other tools. We could also provide limited access to various classes as they are in progress where outside students could follow the progress of the course while it is taking place and perhaps have limited opportunities to interact with students in the classroom and/or the instructor.

Creating learning communities led by faculty. A bolder effort might involve the creation of online learning communities that would span graduate students, undergraduate students and public in ways to explore ideas and conduct learning activities. Rather than engage in educational activities in which graduate education is separate from undergraduate education and this is walled off from public participation, it is possible to create participatory learning environments in which there are various levels of learning that are integrated into a multilayer learning community. (My notes about possible roles in such a learning community and an example of levels of social participation at museums that can be adapted to other learning settings.)

Link our outreach activities to educational options. The University of Illinois and many other universities have a significant online presence in its outreach activities. For example, U of I Extension maintains many websites on a variety of topics of interest to the public. Among these websites there is a vast amount of information related to nutrition, horticulture, farming, family and so forth. From looking at the page views in the tracking of these pages, we know that millions of people are looking at these webpages, particularly the pages about horticulture.

Much of the material that appears in these websites is created by faculty and staff who work side by side with researchers and teachers and yet there is little or no online connection between the work available to the public and the teaching and research. Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this horticulture example.

As a gardener I can find out some useful things about the asparagus beetle. So let's say that I get very interested in all the various bugs that crawl around the garden and I would like to find out more about in general about garden pests. U of Illinois Extension provides an extensive array of helpful resources including newsletters for gardeners, printed materials, a calendar of F2F educational programs, and a chance to ask questions to Extension personnel. Behind this work is a department of faculty who teaches undergraduates and graduates about this work and a variety of research projects. Yet other than occasional links at the bottom of the pages, there are no links between the outreach/extension activities and knowledge and these other efforts. In short the public is very engaged in reading and interacting with these outreach resources has little or no chance to digging deeper into the other educational and research activities of the University of Illinois. Although there are some links from the research and educational parts of the unit to extension and outreach activities, these are also limited. As I noted earlier the outreach work gets lots of public attention, but if these people who find the outreach material were interested in looking more deeply into richer educational experiences such as taking courses or becoming a horticulturist, they would not easily make the connection between the outreach experiences and the educational courses. Likewise, if someone where interested in understanding more about the research behind the advice regarding fertilizers, weed control, and pesticide, they would have little idea how the outreach work is connected to the scientists who study this topic. By connecting this outreach work to the educational and research activities more directly there would be a natural way in which a person could be engaged in deeper learning opportunities.

Build a learning structure from the quick answer to the creative process

In short, what I am suggesting is that research universities have the opportunity to build an online learning infrastructure from the answers to "frequently asked questions" through intensive group experiences (e.g., classrooms) to the creative process (e.g., laboratories, studios, etc.). Although it may be possible for other types of learning organizations (for-profit universities, etc.) to build these structures, at present most of these other universities are focused on the "classroom" portion of the online learning process. Many of these organizations don't have a "research, discovery, creative process" to link to because this is not an expectation of their faculty. Likewise, few universities have a well-organized outreach program that can engage the public in general information.

Many Questions

There are many questions that remain to be answered about this idea. Is there a robust financial model that can sustain such a learning environment? Are there integrated software tools that would allow for this range of learning experiences? How do you engage faculty in participating in creating a structure like this? What types of support do you need to build such a structure? Are there particular science or humanity niches that the U of Illinois or other universities might fill in this structure and others that will go undeveloped or left to others to complete?

First Steps

As I mentioned at the beginning I think these times call for bold ideas. These ideas would mean creating online learning experiences that are more complex than most existing models. The first steps may be to inventory the various online activities that are currently taking place and try to put them into a larger framework. This means finding the laboratory and creative activities that already have an online presence. It means finding all the online outreach activities and continuing education courses, then building links between the outreach, courses and laboratories. These first steps would be an effort to put together this jigsaw puzzle of pieces into an overarching framework and then begin to fill in the missing pieces.

Levels of social participation-- a museum example

Here is a great explanation of the levels of social participation that are possible within teaching and learning environments. This example was based around the museum experience, but this works very well for lots of different environments.

These levels are similar to what I have described in terms of learning environments, but what they still focus on the the role of the museum participant in the role of "student." I am eager to elaborate the role of the student as active in the teaching as well as learning process. (See my roles of learners.

My point is that we want to foster not only increased engagement with the content and with peers around the learning, but we also want to foster increased engagement in "teaching participation." This means creating content for more novice learners, providing feedback and review of other's work, creating new learning experiences and so forth. In the museum experience this would mean being both museum participant and also museum curator.

addition-- Since the first post, Nina Simon has written some additional ideas about social participation. In this article she asks an important question about whether or not this is a hierarchy of social participation. She then tries to capture the essence of what a designer is trying to create at each level of participation. This results in the following outline:

  1. CONTENT (What is being discussed/shared/shown/explored?)
  2. INTERACTION (How does the user engage? What do they do?)
  3. NETWORK (How do users link to one another?)
  4. SOCIAL BENEFIT (How much value does one user get from the participation of other users?)
  5. COLLECTIVE ACTION (How much do people work together?)
I think this list points out a variety of problems-- one is the focus shifts between topic 3 and 4. "Social benefit" is an emergent property that is the result of particular types of "interaction" opportunities. The most common are reviews and ratings that allow other people to see what other think or are doing in regards to particular content. The main point of this level that some types of "user-generated content" gets added to the content that the museum created in level #1. I would call this level something like: "Participant Content" and maybe call the first level "Museum Content."

The Collective Action is even more problematic because this is a whole lot of stuff packed together and labeled as one type of activity or one aspect of design. I would suggest that there are many levels and activities embedded in this idea. Simon suggests that she has some type of social action or social justice. (Maybe I am reading too much into this.) Collective action could be a discussion about a special topic of interest, a gathering of additional information, links to websites, the creation of a unique wiki on a museum topic. An agreement to work together on Wikipedia on a topic of interest, to solicit donations for the museum, and on and on. Each of these "collective actions" requires a variety of design and interaction tools. This is worth museums thinking about and building, but I don't think it can be captured in one level.

Learning 2.0-- Brown and Adler

Here are some highlights of a useful article on Web 2.0 tools and learning from
Minds on Fire by John Seeley Brown and Richard P. Adler:

"The most profound impact of the Internet, an impact that has yet to be fully realized, is its ability to support and expand the various aspects of social learning.

What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this
concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding
of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content
and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems
or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are

The author suggest that learning is more about interaction and discussion rather than the content. They write :

"This perspective also helps to explain the effectiveness of study groups. Students in these groups can ask questions to clarify areas of uncertainty or confusion, can improve their grasp of the material by hearing the answers to questions from fellow students, and perhaps most powerfully, can take on the role of teacher to help other group members benefit from their understanding (one of the best ways to learn something is, after all, to teach it to others)."

The most profound change in these participatory learning environments is that students are expected to assume the role of "teachers." Although good F2F teaching includes opportunities for student to give peer feedback and work in small groups on problems, etc. online participatory communities extend these roles even further such that students can be linked across typical classroom boundaries and across semesters. These ideas have prompted my thinking about a model for learning communities and the types of roles that can be created which fosters more responsibility for teaching and increased amounts of interaction.

Another aspect of these "learning 2.0" environments is that students can be linked to the more sophisticated tools of scientific research. The common example is the ability of students to use telescopes and electron microscopes remotely. But this is really just the beginning is what is possible. Scientists can increasingly open up their laboratories to allow students to watch science in action and/or to gain access to databases and other tools to conduct at least some aspects of science on their own. I often tell this story about my son's involvement in the Folding@home work at Stanford.

Brown and Adler suggest that these "communities are harbingers of the emergence of a form of technology-enhanced learning-- Learning 2.0-- which goes beyond providing free access to traditional course materials and educational tools and creates a participatory architecture for supporting communities of learners." One of the key challenges is that the software platforms for managing these participatory learning communities is not there. At present there are powerful tools for participation (blogs, wikis, social networking, etc.), adequate instructional platforms (WebCT, Moodle, Sakai, etc.), but there is little support for building the laboratory and/or discovery side of things (OpenWetWare is one limited example) and no platforms that integrate all of these levels of activities into one seamless environment.

Again Brown and Adler emphasize "participation" as a central part of this development:

"But the Web 2.0, which has emerged in just the past few years, is sparking an even more far-reaching revolution. Tools such as blogs, wikis, social networks, tagging systems, mashups, and content-sharing sites are examples of a new user-centric information infrastructure that emphasizes participation (e.g., creating, re-mixing) over presentation, that encourages focused conversation and short briefs (often written in a less technical, public vernacular) rather than traditional publication, and that facilitates innovative explorations, experimentations, and purposeful tinkerings that often form the basis of a situated understanding emerging from action, not passivity."

Brown and Adler describe this approach to learning as a "demand-pull" approach which they describe this way:

"The demand-pull approach is based on providing students with access to rich (sometimes virtual) learning communities built around a practice. It is passion-based learning, motivated by the student either wanting to become a member of a particular community of practice or just wanting to learn about, make, or perform something. Often the learning that transpires is informal rather than formally conducted in a structured setting. Learning occurs in part through a form of reflective practicum, but in this case the reflection comes from being embedded in a community of practice that may be supported by both a physical and a virtual presence and by collaboration between newcomers and professional practitioners/scholars."

They conclude their article with this optimistic view:

"This new form of learning begins with the knowledge and practices acquired in school but is equally suited for continuous, lifelong learning that extends beyond formal schooling. Indeed, such an environment might encourage students to readily and happily pick up new knowledge and skills as the world shifts beneath them. If they do, we could be taking a major step toward creating a twenty-first-century, global culture of learning to meet Sir John Daniel’s challenge and the demands of our constantly changing world."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Roles of Learners in Learning Communities

In many successful online communities you find an organizational structure that provides various types of roles for participants-- administrators, moderators, editors, etc. I haven't seen this discussion in thinking about learning communities. So here are my thoughts on this.

The first challenge is defining the different layers of learners. We are all familiar with the usual groupings in schools-- elementary school, high school, college or groupings like freshman, sophomore, junior, etc. These could translate into layers of learners in online learning communities, but they are limited in part because they may confuse us into using "age" as a proxy for the level of a learner. For very young learners, "age" can be useful proxy for the level of a learner, but this breaks down dramatically as people get older. Even in elementary school teachers deal with a wide range of ability levels within a single age range. Not using age as a proxy for ability also helps to remind us that our levels of ability across a range of topics varies widely. I may learn at the expert level in developmental science, but my ability level in Spanish is at the novice level.

My suggestion is that we create a set of categories that emphasize ability levels and that we define the learner's role within the learning community as a way to begin structuring this new learning environment. When I started thinking about this model, I was thinking about levels of learners in the higher education environment and so I don't know how well this works at all levels of learning. These categories also need to be refined in particular learning communities.

In most educational settings there are two conditions for a participant--you were either enrolled or not enrolled. And if you participated in the community you had one of two roles, you were either the teacher or the student. This framework adopts Brown and Adler's ideas about social learning in which the emphasis is more on how people are learning through interactions. As people move through the levels of learning they are engaged in deeper and more extended interactions, they take on more responsibilities for leading interactions (being teachers) and they engage in more analysis and synthesis of knowledge and in more efforts to discover new knowledge.

In online learning communities, I am proposing a wider range of levels of participation. I think that most communities may work well with five general levels of participation in the learning community. The lowest levels of participation require the least involvement in both teaching and learning.

Novice. This person has access to a wide variety of information about the particular topics, however, this person would not be able to participate in discussion sections (chatrooms or blogs) or be able to interact with teachers (i.e, have their questions answered about topics). In short, this person is more or less auditing the course or in the language of the web, this person would be a "lurker." In discussions of open courseware, this person would have access to the lesson material in the course, perhaps including the exercises and test questions, but would not get feedback about any work that they might do on their own. It is also important to note that the novice would have no responsibilities for teaching.

Associate or Member. (still working on the right name for this level). At the next level of participation, an associate would be expected to register for the learning community so that they are identifiable, however, there would be no cost associated with level of participation. By registering a person would be eligible to receive updated and/or new information prior to it being available to novices and they could participate in some interactive arenas (e.g., chatrooms, blogs). By participating in some of the interactive arenas, associates would begin the process of having teaching responsibilities. This may seem like an odd statement, but the point is that the moment that an associate begins reacting to other learning communities members, either by asking questions and/or attempting to respond an other person's ideas/statements/questions, etc. that person is beginning to serve in a teaching capacity. This is very limited an very rudimentary, but this dialogue is the beginning of a teaching role.

Participant. At this level a person begins to have access to more types of learning environments and probably there would be some level of cost associated with this level. At this level there would be mini-courses or special skill/knowledge development opportunities. Partners and contributors (defined below) would be actively involved with this group of participants. In some cases the learning at this level might lead to continuing education credits for professionals and some types of credentials for others. A major difference between associates and participants is in regards to expectations for teaching. Participants would have specific teaching responsibilities within the learning community. Traditional activities such as class assignments and review of classmates paper's, class presentations, group activities would all be conducted with associates and other participants. These activities and any products associated with these activities would be expected to become part of the content and "intellectual capital" of the learning community. In contrast to most F2F classrooms, participants' products would be expected to be used by future learning community members. It is this idea that I think is particularly powerful in regards to advancing learning. By creating the expectation that "classroom" work has value beyond the student's practice or the life of a time-bounded course, students in learning communities contribute to a bigger intellectual enterprise. This raises the expectations for the quality of student work.

Contributor. The next level participation in an online learning community is "contributor." Contributors would be involved in more extended study and would be actively involved in creating some of the learning material for novices, associates and participants under the supervision and guidance of partners. At the contributor level, members of the learning community would be actively involved in creating learning materials, reviewing work generated by participants and providing feedback to participants. These members would be more involved in the design of new learning opportunities and would also be involved in the discovery of new scientific information.

Partner. Partners, as the name suggests, are involved in guided independent study. In general, I am thinking of these individuals as conducting work that we would traditionally assume were being carried out by faculty. Partners would be actively involved in creating learning activities for all of the other levels of participation. it is important to note that in these online learning communities there can be more than one partner. Partners would also be expected to be involved in the discovery of new knowledge for the learning community.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Linking Laboratories, classrooms and the public

The web and all the various tools that are increasingly part of the web provide an opportunity for higher education to build seamless bridges from laboratories to classrooms to the public.

In the face-to-face world it is mostly impossible to effectively bridge all these domains of higher education, but the Web provides us with a means to knit these activities together. In earlier posts, I have talked about open science, open education and engaging the public, but no w I want to focus on building an infrastructure that puts these all together.

At the moment I can only illustrate what I have in mind by giving an example:

I. Public Level

The public seeking information about the effects of divorce on children and engaging in discussions, sharing examples, and exploring ideas about the topic.

II. Classroom Level

Teachers and students working with texts, discussions, analysis, activities, tests, etc. about the scientific knowledge about the effects of divorce on children.

III. Laboratory Level

Scientists working with advanced students to discover new information about the effects of divorce on children.

I have used the word level because my thinking about this is that knowledge would be organized from the most simple level to the most complex. I have illustrated this with three levels, but there would be many sub-levels within each of these major levels. For example, within the classroom level there would be introductory material, advanced material, and so forth. I have also illustrated this as one narrow topic when, in fact, there are many streams of knowledge that would get integrated together at each level. Even in this example, there would be knowledge about child development, parenting, marriage, divorce and then there would be scientific methods, critical thinking and other tools of synthesis.

So why does all this matter. I want to create intellectual communities that bridge people across all these levels. I want someone to be able to find the public level of information and be able to explore issues at more complex levels. I want scientists and teachers to create windows in their classrooms and laboratories so that others can observe their thinking and their creation of knowledge.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Henry Jenkins on Why Academics should Blog

Henry Jenkins, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT offered these ideas in a recent keynote address to the Chronicle of Higher Education's Technology Forum. He gives examples of ways in which blogging impacts students, alumni, faculty, and the public. I find his ideas about the influence on the public particularly relevant to open education and open science. Here are some highlights:

"blogs offered a chance to witness the instructional process [at MIT]. Day by day the blogs unfold, offering a glimpse into the research culture and the ways we think about current issues in our field."

In this next comment I shifts from research to the public and back to undergraduates:

"The blog posts represent which might be called 'just-in-time scholarship," offering thoughtful responses to contemporary developments in the field. Because they are written for a general rather than a specialized readership, these short pieces prove useful for teaching undergraduate subjects."

Referring to the media, he notes:

"Historically, academics have been in a reactive position, responding to questions from reporters. Blogging places academics in a more proactive position, intervening more effectively in popular debates around the topics they research."

Finally he ends by noting that as scholars from many disciplines can adopt various blogging strategies as they make a

"greater commitment to circulate their findings more broadly and to respond to contemporary issues in a thoughtful and timely manner."

Is the Expert Making a Comeback?

A recent article in Newsweek suggests that the days of user-generated content are fading:

By any name, the current incarnation of the Internet is known for giving power to the people. Sites like YouTube and Wikipedia collect the creations of unpaid amateurs while kicking pros to the curb—or at least deflating their stature to that of the ordinary Netizen. But now some of the same entrepreneurs that funded the user-generated revolution are paying professionals to edit and produce online content.

In short, the expert is back. The revival comes amid mounting demand for a more reliable, bankable Web. "People are beginning to recognize that the world is too dangerous a place for faulty information," says Charlotte Beal, a consumer strategist for the Minneapolis-based research firm Iconoculture. Beal adds that choice fatigue and fear of bad advice are creating a "perfect storm of demand for expert information."

Perhaps there is a growing awareness that there is some need to pay attention to the credibility of sources. There are new software tools that sort on credibility and other factors, but I am not sure that we want software deciding what is credible.

The article goes on to suggest that the credibility of user-generated content has increasingly been criticized:

"The timing could be right for a new era in Silicon Valley, a Web 3.0. It comes, after all, during dark days for the ideal of a democratic Web. User-generated sites like Wikipedia, for all the stuff they get right, still find themselves in frequent dust-ups over inaccuracies...."

This section set the blogging world buzzing because there are plenty of examples of bloggers who have exposed inaccuracies in mainstream media and in the government and business, so it is not completely clear whose work is better. Bloggers and user-generated content proponents suggest that their work is open to review and correction where other work is less open and often less easily correctable. The real debate may be more about the openness of the process.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Opening science to the Media in a Web 2.0 world

How do we manage science in an age of information overload? How can the voices of scientists be heard when there are so many other voices? My first thought was that we need our own celebrity spokesperson who can do interviews and talk shows and communicate the message for scientists, but that does not seem like the right solution.

In order for science to compete in today's media rich environment I think we have to open up our scientific laboratories and scientific debates as we have never done before. I think we have to show the process of scientific thinking, experimentation, theory-building, and so forth in order to teach people how to think about ideas from a scientific perspective.

Too often scientific information is presented as facts or knowledge as if there were no debates, no mistakes, and no wrong assumptions. This gives the impression that science has settled the questions and that there is nothing left to learn or that this is the final statement of fact. Yet all scientists know that there are many questions and there is always new evidence or new perspectives that change our views on matters. When there is new information or there are changes in our understanding, this often gets communicated in the popular press as a demonstration that scientists don't really understand much about this at all. This is not usually the case.

Rather than try to compete in the war of words, scientists should change the conversation so that people become engaged in scientific thinking. This means returning to the basics of learning to state testable propositions and inviting people to think through rationales for various processes and activities, then accumulating and evaluating evidence in order to support or refute hypotheses. Rather than be sages or experts scientists need to be teachers and collaborative guides through the analysis. It may be more important to invite people to think more carefully about an issue or topic than to provide your own conclusions.

Let's take an example of what I have in mind. There is a current debate about the role of MMR (mumps, measles & rubella) vaccinations in causing autism. The National Institutes of Health has released a well-written document that provides a summary of the best scientific analysis of this issue. It presents summaries of some of the major studies on the topic, it notes the scientific panels that have looked at this issue. Additionally, the article reminds the reader that there are many types of risks besides the risk of autism and concludes with advice to parents and a list of the scientific studies. This is a good example of what we usually provide to the public regarding many scientific questions and it is good, but this summary does not give the public any idea about the scientific analysis that led to these conclusions and recommendations. We know that the evidence is never perfectly clear, there are always disputes about what weight to give various studies and various types of outcomes. It is rare for all scientists to completely agree on every conclusion and every recommendation. It is this process of sifting through the evidence and moving toward conclusions that needs to be more apparent. This is the scientific box that we need to open up.

At this point I am sure that the scientists reading this are going to object and remind us that it takes a lot of training to learn how to work through scientific research. This is not something that everyone can do or is done easily. This is true, but I am suggesting that scientific thinking can be more transparent in the way that it is presented. It can include statements about the limits of our knowledge, the questions that remain and the points of dispute between various scientists.

Now someone will probably say that this will be even more confusing to the public because it will make it appear as if scientists really don't know everything about everything.... which is of course true and has always been true. I think that by displaying scientific thinking we invite the public to examine their own assumptions and evidence in new ways and hopefully, it encourages them to think more critically about other's statements and judgments. More critical and scientific thinking about issues and more careful reading of reports seems like a positive outcome.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Autism and Vaccines--Science vs. Celebrity

In a previous post I talked about some of the potential dangers of managing information in a Web 2.0 world. A colleague suggested the controversy over whether childhood vaccinations cause autism as an example of how challenging it is to talk about these issues in a Web2.0 world.

In general the medical and scientific community maintains that there is no definite evidence that there is no connection between vaccinations and autism.

However, there are numerous websites and celebrities who have taken up this cause and continue to assert that the scientists and doctor's are wrong. Here is a sampling of the some recent news, blogs, etc:

Jenny McCarthy's view that diet helped her son recover from autism.

Alison Rose Levy in the autism dilemma writes,

The underlying fear and anger towards these parents suggests that it's somehow heretical to question any proffering of scientific "proof" even when it squares off with experience--in this case, parents' tragic and oft repeated experience of watching hundreds of thousands of children immediately deteriorate upon vaccination.

As these two different and valid kinds of evidence collide, the collision should awaken the spirit of scientific inquiry. Instead it's viewed as a threat.

David Kirby critiques the Center for Disease Control's studies regarding the safety of vaccines.
In the same article he also comments on his reaction to physicians and other scientists who have challenged some of his assertions in previous articles noting:

I get nasty emails from some pediatricians, and the number-one complaint I get from them is that, because of people like me, they must now "waste" (their word, not mine) precious billing hours talking to layperson parents about vaccine science.
This is a reminder that even when you join in the discussion you are going to get reactions from those whose views you may disagree with. The Web 2.0 is a two-way street and there will be give and take on both sides.

The CDC has also continued to try and get the message out about advice to parents regarding vaccines and its efforts to continue to study the issue.

One of the most complicated parts of this discussion is that the research in this area is not definitive and there are new questions. Terry Mauro comments on this issue in her review of the debate stating:

The research done thus far mostly indicates that more research needs to be done -- into the causes of autism, and into the possibilities of vaccine injury. As that research continues, so do the firefights between those who believe fervently that vaccinations damaged their children, and those who believe fervently that vaccinations are an important tool for public health that we dare not challenge. The result is a Holy War that is played out daily in medical circles and the media and the Internet and support groups and message boards and anywhere people with strong opinions gather to yell at each other. The stakes couldn't be higher, on either side -- which is what makes uncertainty so unbearable.
Most researchers and professionals are likely to look at this debate and come to the conclusion that they wouldn't want to be involved in this wide open discussion with no rules that is the hallmark of the Web2.0. It is unclear, if after all the words, that this discussion is moving towards useful outcomes for either parents who want this information and scientists and policy makers who want to inform the public and protect the public.

At least part of what we need to have is some new ways of deriving clarity from these discussions. Are these new "filtering" tools. Are they some types of integrative processes? This type of process is not going away. What we need are some better ways to manage it.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Opportunities vs. Risks of University Extension 2.0

In a previous post I talked about the need for universities with an interest in public engagement to embrace the Web 2.0 tools that invite participation and exchange of information. In this post I want to talk about what I see as the opportunities and risks of engaging the public with these tools.


Broadcasting incorrect or misleading information.
One of the major risks of using Web 2.0 tools is that wrong or incorrect information can easily be added or disseminated through a university-based website. People claiming to have information or expertise can use this as a place to spread misinformation and this may be some credence because it was found on a university-based website.

Lower quality presentation and production. Universities are concerned about their image and this is partly conveyed through the look and feel of their publications and websites. Creating more open ended websites, blogs, and other participatory formats will result in more typos, awkward sentences, and incomplete ideas. This may make the university look less professional and perhaps less authoritative.

Open access spaces can lead to vandalization. Anyone who has created a website is familiar with hackers and other vandals who try to find ways to add inappropriate content or disrupt the work or activities. Using Web 2.0 tools will create even more opportunities for disruptive online behaviors.

Liability due to inaccurate information. The university has concerns about being held liable for inaccurate information that may get posted on university servers that are open to the public.


Create a broader exchange of ideas and information.
By using Web 2.0 tools the university will open up a wider discussion about ideas and issues with the public than is possible through most other communication technologies. People who otherwise would have limited opportunities to engage in conversations about science, humanities and social issues would have a chance to interact with university faculty and students about these topics.

Address myths and inaccuracies. Although it is very possible that wrong or inaccurate information will be posted if universities adopt Web 2.0 tools for public engagement, this is actually a great way to address those issues and respond to ideas. This is an opportunity to teach and not a failure.

Making critical thinking public. To follow the idea above about dealing with inaccurate thinking, one of the best opportunities of Web 2.0 tool use by universities would be to make "critical thinking" about issues more public. Much of the web includes commentaries that are not thoughtful or don't illustrate reason, creating more thoughtful discussions online would enrich the web and foster more critical thinking and dialogue.


Overall, I think that the opportunities significantly outweigh the risks. Surely the work of faculty can deal with these challenges and our work will be enriched by our engagement with a broader public audience.