Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Learning Community Instructional Designs

Creating online learning communities has been on my mind this past week. I continue to think that creating robust learning communities will become an increasingly important part of education so I began to reflect on several recent experiments in teaching and learning and try to see what they suggest:

Here are the three interesting experiments:

Work Literacy

This course was an effort to introduce a variety of Web 2.0 skills to people.

Role playing & Simulations of Open Education (OpenEdSim)

This is a planned course to create a role playing simulation of Open Education in order to help students acquire a variety of skills that are essential to the creation of open educational enterprises.

Engaging the Students in Writing the Text (Wikitextbook)

This course is an example of engaging a group of undergraduates in writing the textbook for the course in which they are enrolled.

Analysis-- some general questions about these efforts.

The questions I found myself asking about all these efforts were the following:

1. How is course content created?

In the Work Literacy course, the basic content was provided by the authors who wrote a brief overview of the technology and linked students to additional, more in-depth resources. In OpenSim, Wiley seems to primarily be linking students to other resources for the basic core content of the program (still in development, this may be wrong). In Wikitextbook, the authors start with the material in the course that was written by students in previous classes.

2. What are the basic learning activities?

In Work Literacy in addition to reading the content, students are invited to ask questions, engage in various activities and post their insights into discussion forums. In OpenSim, students are invited to select one of several roles in the course (e.g., artisan, bard) and prompted to complete a series of quests (active learning activities that require the participants to critically think about a topic and produce a product). In the Wikitextbook course, we don't know a lot about the overall course, but for the contributions to the textbook, we know that students are invited to write about a topic for the course.

3. How are discussions conducted?

Work Literacy includes wide use of social networking technologies and forums in which participants are invited to post their thoughts and reactions to the topics. The forums are moderated by the course instructors. This is not clear with OpenEd or Wikitextbook.

4. What roles do students play in the class?

In Work Literacy the authors make a special point of creating some optional roles that correspond to how engaged the participants want to be. They adopt the Groundswell categories of spectator, joiner and creator and develop specific assignments for participants who want various levels of engagement. In OpenEd, Wiley has defined fun medieval titles for roles-- bard, monk, etc., but these roles don't reflect different levels of participation, they reflect a focus on a different type of content. Wikitextbook doesn't explicitly discuss roles, but nonetheless, invites students to participate in creating the textbook for the class. In contrast, the student is immediately expected not just to be an active participant, but given a specific role as content creator. It appears that students don't have the option of being a spectator or joiner, they must be a creator and will be held accountable for being a creator.

5. How is feedback provided?

This may be the most important difference in these efforts. Work Literacy was designed as a professional development experience. Feedback is happenstance as a result of participation in discussion groups in which there may or may not be feedback about one's ideas. In OpenEd Sim the feedback looks like it is done by the instructor. In Wikitextbooks there is much emphasis and explicit guidance given about students providing feedback to each other. There is a clear expectation that students will learn not only how to create a resource, but they will also be engaged in learning how to evaluate other's work and provide good feedback. (See rating the articles. )

So where is this taking us?

Content creation.
The Wikitext book model holds the most promise in terms of creating a sustainable content for a learning community, but this model doesn't provide any particular bridge from one group of students to the next. In short, the students who created the content for the course move on and the next group of students benefits from their creations, but not from any "insights" or ability to provides guidance, instruction and/or direction to the next group of students. Likewise, if the content that is left behind is improved, the original student does not get the any benefit in terms of the new material since they have "moved" to the next course. In Work Literacy, there is a lot of content, but it is not assembled in any particular order that would be very useful to someone entering the site after the discussion. (See Tony Karrer's personal reflections on Work Literacy, Michelle Martin's deconstructions, and Harold Jache for additional insights about the strengths and weaknesses of this work.)

Sustainable learning communities. Work Literacy and maybe OpenEdSim offer the most promise in terms of creating a sustainable community because they have created a platform for interaction about a variety of topics. In Work Literacy it is unclear what the authors hope to do with the course-- do they close now since it is over? Do they have plans for continues to provide oversight and facilitation of the discussions and topics? Will they add new topics over time? Perhaps they never intended to create a sustainable learning community, but since they had over 700 people assembled an interested, what could they have done (or still do) to foster ongoing interaction and learning? What about designing "teaching apprentice" roles to foster ongoing work? Isn't one of the best ways to foster learning, getting a chance to teach others?


Harold Jarche said...

Good questions. At WorkLiteracy we didn't really know what to expect, as the main idea was to start some conversations prior to the DevLearn conference. I didn't attend DevLearn but I'm told that the online community was well-received.

As we were facilitating the group we discussed how we could keep some aspects for longer than the life of the "course". My idea was to use the wikis (available off the main site) to synthesize what hat been discussed and learned over the 6 weeks. There wasn't much participation in the wikis and I suspect that was due to people being tired after 6 weeks. However, the Ning community remains open though I personally do not go there very often.

I don't think that the ephemeral nature of these online spaces is a problem though. They afford some intensity of participation and experience during a finite period but I'm not sure how they could be sustained by volunteers. The discussions were more intense than what you see on most blogs, so I think that the Ning site served a learning purpose. Keeping it going would take a lot of volunteer time or it would have to become commercial and then would lose some of its grassroots idealism.

Like a conference, it served a purpose, but the various communities and networks continue and there are many other venues online to continue the conversations that were started at WL.

Robert Hughes Jr, PhD said...

Good point Harold. I agree with your point learning communities have different purposes and therefore may have different lifetimes.

My comments about the life course of this effort reflects my interest in how we develop longer-term learning communities and how "educational efforts" can be translated into longer-term learning projects. Obviously, every educational effort does not need this purpose. Thanks for reminding me of this.