A number of pioneers have begun to describe the Learning 2.0 and Science 2.0 that involve developing interactive and collaborative settings. Building on these ideas we can begin to think about the unique niche that the College of ACES has in regards to opening up the relationship between scientists in universities with interests in real world issues and the public who seeks answers (or at least our best thinking) on important issues.
Opportunities for Research Universities
There are a number of unique aspects to the College of ACES 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, 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 labs 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 begin to think about ways the public might be engaged in data collection. There are a growing range of collaborative tools that offer ways to engage other scientists and students in research. Openwetware is designed to encourage scientists to share biological and biological engineering information across laboratories.
The Journal of Visualized Experiments publishes video demonstrations of scientific experiments.
NSF just funded a major effort to bring together plant scientists to share data, work on common problems, etc. Here is a quote from iPlant about its mission:
"This is an exciting time for science education! A user-friendly cyberinfrastructure will mean that for the first time in history everyone can work with the same data using the same tools in the same timeframe as high-level researchers. The goal of our Education Outreach and Training (EOT) is to ensure that everyone – students, teachers and faculty, from middle school to graduate school – will have the access and training to use these data and participate in research in real time."
Our scientists are participating in these activities, but are we providing the leadership for creating the next generation of research laboratories?
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 web pages, 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.
There are some other examples in the College of ACES in which there are better connections between the outreach work and the educational and research missions. In Farmdoc there are specific links to the faculty authors and from there it is possible to view their teaching assignments and research publications. There are also some examples of links between reports and the data behind the reports so that an individual can find out more about the basis for the report's conclusions. Another example in which there is a better connection between research and outreach is the Illinois Livestock Trail. In the "papers" section there are often scientific research reports about the livestock topics.
There are many additional opportunities to provide connections between the outreach work and the teaching/research missions of the College.
Build a learning structure from the quick answer to the discovery/research process
In short, what I am suggesting is that the College of ACES has the opportunity to build an online learning infrastructure from the answers to "frequently asked questions" through intensive group experiences (e.g., classrooms) to the discovery process (e.g., laboratories, farms, 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.
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 niches that the College of ACES might fill?
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.