Project Definition and Description

Improving student outcomes using Web 2.0 concepts and a knowledge-networking approach

Project Definition and Background

Summary

The Learning in Networks of Knowledge (LINK) Project will develop, trial and assess new methods of learning via the Internet. It assists the re-invigoration of university-level online learning by updating techniques and underlying pedagogic approaches to take account of the changing nature of the Internet in society today. Education has, largely, failed to take account of the fact that the Internet’s capability to host networks of knowledge is the real foundation for its capacity to make learning more effective. To successfully exploit the Internet’s capacity for enhanced student learning, the project focuses on the pedagogic challenges of creating a student experience that is centred on knowledge production in a networked environment, with an emphasis on assessing students’ learning through ongoing participation, while providing effective cognitive scaffolding within which their learning occurs. Founded in experience gained over several years with existing online learning approaches, LINK aims to help Australian universities adjust to the new possibilities for Internet education in the late 2000s. LINK involves a sophisticated trialling of new ideas about learning via the Internet, utilising the most recent forms of online knowledge activity. Its primary outcomes will be broadly applicable pedagogic methods, confirmed and corrected on the basis of the trial, and expressed as examples and guidance material for other academics across the university sector.

Underpinning Educational Issues

The key educational issue being addressed in this project is the challenge of moving beyond existing uses of the Internet, which are largely content-driven and reflect a transfer of techniques from existing approaches to the Internet, and into the usage of the Internet by universities in a manner that reflects the foundational capabilities of networked information technologies for active knowledge production and analysis.

In addressing this issue, LINK addresses the specific problems of:

  • how to create learning environments that make effective knowledge work by students the central learning activity;
  • how to assess their participation in these environments so that learning can itself be assessed; and
  • how to utilise new forms of Internet delivery for motivating and scaffolding students’ learning in this environment.

Crucially, the project takes seriously the changing nature of the Internet, both socially and technologically, and attempts to address the disparity between current, limited uses of the Internet for education and emerging needs and possibilities. In essence, the project moves online learning into the era of Web 2.0, to catch up with the Internet’s own development.

Problems which the project outcomes may help resolve

  1. Learning management systems are now less relevant. Learning management systems, that conveniently collect Internet functions within a walled-garden of content and communication to ease the administrative and cognitive burdens for teachers and learners utilising the Internet, are now declining in relevance as more users and academics are long-term Internet users with their own expectations of how to use the Internet in knowledge work and as they fall behind current Internet applications.
  2. Web 2.0 means knowledge networking. Web 2.0 allows more functional and open engagement with knowledge, through such applications as wikis, blogs, link directories, audio-visual content sharing systems, and collaborative tools. Web 2.0 also means the ‘programmable web’ in which data sources are automatically collated into new forms (‘mash-ups’) without the need for ‘from scratch’ system or content development. Collectively, educational possibilities now must focus on the networks of knowledge that can develop and the networking of learners beyond the traditional ‘virtual community’ paradigm.
  3. Online learning must be economically sustainable. Extensive innovative utilisation of the Internet in future has to be sustainable and cost-effective and should not involve either expensive development and maintenance of software and web infrastructure or the creation of content methods that are dependent on extraordinary funding over and above recurrent employment of teaching staff.

Specific Issues being addressed

  1. Making online knowledge production the central activity in student learning. The project will explore how to make online learning activities realistic for the Internet, drawing from and contributing to the Internet as a whole. Many university approaches currently emphasise content delivery, with learning primarily occurring through completion of assessment tasks that are relatively artificial, via assignments addressed to teachers /examiners and removed from the contexts of real-world production. Since the Internet is the most significant recent advance in the cost-effective production and dissemination of knowledge, it is of key educational importance to understand the manner in which students’ work can be a realistic contribution to the expanding store of online knowledge while not losing sight of the unique nature of ‘learning by doing’ as opposed to simply doing. The project will develop effective tasks and methods for student learning within a more open curricular approach suitable to this situation.
  2. Defining and understanding assessment of participation in online learning. The project will also address the issue of how we effectively assess students’ ongoing participation in the tasks of networked knowledge acquisition, production and circulation that are the main online learning activities, for both external and on-campus students. There is, in some people’s minds, doubt as to whether this knowledge acquisition can be successfully assessed. These doubts need to be recognised and overcome, via more sophisticated mechanisms by which students can gather, reflect on, and review their individual activities. The project will develop and implement new protocols for the assessment of learning which involve careful, guided and rigorous reflection and re-presentation of the results of continuous knowledge-based activities.
  3. Creating new forms of didactic presentation. In an era of small-scale, quickly consumed media products, available at any time online, the traditional lecture has less relevance and utility as a mode of didactic content delivery. The lecture appears to remain important mainly as a device for the efficient management of student time on crowded campuses or, when recorded and presented online, as a kind of affective substitute for actual on-campus attendance. Lectures are, in most cases, unlikely to produce effective engagement with learning when used solely for content delivery. Thus, a key educational issue is how to find ways to both change the nature of the ‘long lecture’ to suit the contemporary media-intensive era, and also focus on the fundamental role of the lecture as a mode of address allowing teachers to motivate, direct and promote students’ own learning. This project will develop ways of using shorter Internet-delivered audio and audio-visual recordings that re-invent the lecture to emphasise cognitive scaffolding, motivation, and guidance rather than content transfer.

Approach

The broad form of the activities to be undertaken involves:

  1. applied research and development of available Web 2.0 technologies for knowledge networking and their selection and harnessing to the specific context of university education;
  2. development of ideas and approaches for effective pedagogy focusing on determining student knowledge tasks and correct methods of assessment that best embed learning within the knowledge networking approach; and
  3. creation of new forms of didactic presentation, relevant to the approach being undertaken, that emphasise scaffolding and motivation for this new approach.

Key Activities

I - Making online knowledge production the central activity in student learning

This activity involves limiting the extent of content provided to students and increasing the degree of active learning and cognitive scaffolding through which students can create their own content and revise it appropriately. The key activities to address this educational need are as follows.

  • Identify and select appropriate existing Internet applications which are freely available and run publicly within the Internet for students to use (e.g. wikis, blogs, and knowledge collaboration tools).
  • Create appropriate web-based linkages between those applications and existing teaching and learning web infrastructure, with an emphasis on moving students ‘into’ the Internet and away from the traditional LMS.
  • Create supporting documentation for the use of these applications in a learning context so that students are clear about how to use them.
  • Discuss and develop protocols to understand how content created in previous iterations of a unit of study can and should be available to and re-used by students in future.
  • Embed learning tasks, based around the use of these applications for knowledge networking, within selected units of study in a manner that promotes achievement of the key learning outcomes for those units, providing clear guidance to students about when, what and why they are using them.

II – Defining and understanding assessment of participation in online learning

This activity is primarily intellectual; while being implemented in a manner involving online submission of materials, it can be applied in many other formats. The key task is to judge the nature of ‘participation’ as an expression of learning and to then link that understanding to the particular techniques for assessing actual participation via studying online. To meet this specific educational issue will involve the following.

  • Discussion and development of an overall approach to assessment which focuses on the actual learning activities being performed by students in the creation and networking of knowledge which constitute ‘online participation’.
  • Creation of specific protocols for assessment, including materials that will allow all staff teaching in a unit of study to understand and apply the approach, as well as guidance to students. These protocols will be designed in various forms to cover multiple kinds of participation and production.
  • Emphasis will be placed on student reflection and re-presentation as the basis for assessment. It is likely that the form of this ‘assignment’ in the units chosen for the trial will involve a student-produced review of an online portfolio of work, reflecting on their activities through the unit. It is expected that assessment will be made of the ‘final’ state of a student’s knowledge, but based on the way they provide evidence for changes over time (in the course of participating) and the reflective process by which they understand that change.

III – Creating new forms of didactic presentation

The direction taken within this project is towards increased student utilisation of knowledge production applications (discussed in (I) above) and reflection and re-presentation of their participation in the activities of knowledge production (see (II) above). However, a significant complement to this approach will come from new forms of didactic presentation, deliberately created to meet the requirements and expectations of contemporary learners and avoiding the pitfall of simply transferring a traditional lecture to the Internet via recording technology. As a result, this activity will involve the following.

  • Creation of short audio and audio-visual files (such as pod-casts or, for example, as found on YouTube.com) that take the place of traditional lectures.
  • Weaving these presentations together with the tasks and activities of the trial units of study, along with other didactic written material, in a manner that emphasises their use for motivating and guiding learners.
  • Rethinking how the content normally provided for in either 12 weeks of lectures, some alternative written form or a combination of the two, might be reorganised and re-arranged into a series of many more, but smaller presentations that exist ‘outside’ of the normal narrative sequence of weekly teaching.
  • Making sure these materials cohere with the students’ own knowledge producing activities (which may themselves include audio and video work) and work as a one component within the collective knowledge network, rather than as distinct and ‘teacherly’. Thus while the activities here will involve the normal business of audio-visual production, the key innovative work will be in rethinking what didactic presentations do within teaching and learning, when the latter is reconceptualised as a network knowledge endeavour.

Context: Internet Studies 2009

The context for much of this project is provided by the teaching of units of study in the internet studies program at Curtin University of Technology. Units of study are being redesigned during 2009 and in that process, new assessment methods from LINK will be deployed and tested. Moreover, Internet Studies is developing a web presence which students can use, in part, for online knowledge production.

Context within Net Studies for this project.

The final outcomes of the project will, of course, be general and applicable across many different contexts.

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