[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
There is something inherently different between the “student” and the “newbie.” Even in the most democratic classroom, social roles introduce discontinuities between the student and teacher that remain static. The newbie is simply a less experienced person within a particular field, a neophyte, a temporary category that applies only while someone learns the ropes. The student, no matter how familiar she becomes with the material, is always a student. Weblogs allow for learners to engage a larger social network, and to participate actively within that network, and to become localized experts.
As noted above, to a greater or lesser extent, weblogs provide the opportunity to link to source information and ideas. But linking to ideas in the massively collective hypertext of the World Wide Web often means linking to individuals as well (see Nilsson, 2003). The brief, timely pieces of text that make up collaborative web publishing encourage engagement by neophytes. Collaborative web publishing allows those who research within a narrow academic specialty to more easily cross traditional disciplinary boundaries (Aïmeur, Brassard, & Paquet, 2003). Because it is so difficult to determine the audience for a particular short entry, the author must assume very little context. As a result, even the weblogs even of experts in the field provide links and explanations that might not appear, for example, in a scholarly journal within their own field. This ease of entry also encourages students to become involved as producers of knowledge from an early stage, and to make provisional statements of ideas and knowledge with the hope that these will be engaged, challenged, and worked out in dialogue. That is, the newbie makes knowledge, even when she only makes mistakes.
Apprenticeship, abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century in favor of mass schooling, emphasized learning by doing. The vision many associate with apprenticeship — in part because this is where apprenticeship remains strong — is craft skills like masonry or cabinet-making. Plato’s use of dialogue to teach, or to learn together, also represents a form of apprenticeship. This approach to learning was all but eliminated in the United States at the turn of the last century in favor of homogenized education for immigrants, standardized curricula, and credentialing, especially at the college level (Popkewitz, 1987). Large schools also came to reflect the bureaucratization and Fordism of mass industrialization. As part of this transformation, empty exercises have come to replace “authentic activities” that reflect the kinds of tasks found outside of the classroom. The process of reading about a skill and then taking a standardized test relating to that skill has replaced the process of exercising a skill and gaining proficiency.
There are a number of factors that make an activity “authentic”; here we examine three (Honebein, Duffy & Fishman, 1993). Authentic activities imply students’ ownership of their own tasks. The nature of many exercises in a school setting implies that the student is doing something for the teacher, who then signals her approval or disapproval. One of the ways in which collaborative web publishing provides students with ownership, ironically, is by making them answerable to a larger audience. When students put their name on an exercise for a teacher, they are identifying themselves, but when they post to a weblog, they own their words and are making a gift of their work to the community. Authentic activities are usually project-based, and the complexity of the activity represents the kinds of tasks that are often undertaken outside of the classroom. Rather than simply demonstrating that they are familiar with certain reified facts or operations, students must demonstrate mastery over a more global task, within a larger context. Collaborative web publishing allows for and encourages links between assignments within a class and items in the larger information environment. Finally, the work should embrace multiple alternative perspectives. The open nature of collaborative web publishing means that everyone’s assignments must not only be different, but must highlight how they are different and complementary to those of their peers. Not only is work marked by the personal voices of its authors, by hyperlinking to alternative perspectives, it situates itself within an ongoing conversation, representing a multiplicity of viewpoints.
The idealized vision of a student in the blogosphere is one in which the student moves from specialist to specialist, drawing from disparate sources to assemble their own base of knowledge. Achieving this ideal requires a period of practice within the classroom in order to become competent in sharing information. While this might seem to be something that is inherent — all students naturally know how to share information — the idea of knowledge transmission that is at the root of most schooling has trained students to expect knowledge to be fed to them by experts. They are not familiar with the idea of engaging in dialogue to co-construct understanding.
Partnering with those outside the classroom should be modeled with information sharing and peer mentoring within the classroom. The creation of environments that allow for information sharing requires coordination between assignments, the research process, and informational give-and-take among peers. The course assignments and the evaluative procedures should focus on the outcomes of these collaborations, but they should also be designed to encourage such collaboration. Working in a group is a learned skill, and since many students will have had unfortunate experiences in the past with group work, it is important to provide some process-related instruction. But even more important is setting clear proximate objectives for the groups to achieve (Brown & Campione, 1996).
Often, by presenting expectations and then establishing an environment in which peers feel free to discuss the issues, students will establish their own patterns of understanding. Jim Gibbons discovered this while teaching an engineering course at Stanford University (Brown & Duguid, 2000). When engineers from Hewlett-Packard found it difficult to come to campus to attend lectures, Gibbons had the lectures taped and the engineers watched the tapes together on the HP campus, stopping at various points to discuss the issues and come to consensus before moving on. The students who were afforded this discussion space were better acquainted with the material than those who had attended the lectures in person. Certainly, there are things that can be done to encourage discussion (particularly by modeling such discussion in other contexts), but it is often enough to simply provide what Erving Goffman called “open regions, where participants have a right not only to engage anyone present but also to initiate face-engagement with self-introductions …” (1963, p.135).
Once groups have become comfortable interacting with one another and doing collaborative research, they are much more likely to approach specialists. This became obvious to me while teaching an undergraduate course on communication theory. Without prompting (at the time, I had no expectation that our work would carry beyond the classroom), two of the student groups writing textbook chapters as their final assignments in the class contacted theorists associated with the theories they were explaining. They most likely would not have considered doing this if they were reading a textbook and had a question, but two factors made it easier for them to approach the subject experts. First, they were confident of the knowledge they had assembled on their own. Other members of the groups served as checks, validating one another’s understanding of the topic. They felt, if not equals to the researchers who had written on these theories, at least that they were well-informed acolytes. They could be confident in their knowledge because they had developed it interactively by questioning each other, the teacher, and the literature until they felt they had some fluency. Second, they knew that their product — a chapter for a textbook — had the potential at least of being read by others and aiding their understanding. As translators for other students like themselves, they felt that they were doing more than seeking knowledge selfishly, they were helping their community.
The ability to work in global teams becomes increasingly important in a global knowledge society, and the skills required for this kind of distributed collective work are best learned through practice (Knoll & Jarvenpaa, 1995). Moreover, the kind of grassroots politics and social ties that once could be assumed to be local are more and more played out in global networks (Castells, 2000; Garrido & Halavais, 2003). Knowing how to use these networks is, naturally, an important skill. But more important is for students to understand how they might affect institutions and social relations. The Deweys saw this as a vital part of educating students for industry: “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing” (1915, p. 246).
Brown, A., & Campione, J. (1996). Psychological theory and the design of innovative learning environments: On procedures, principles, and systems. In L. Schauble & R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Garrido, M. & Halavais, A. (2003). Mapping networks of support for the Zapatista movement. In M. McCaughey and M. Ayers (Eds), Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice. London: Routledge.
Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press.
Honebein, P.C., Duffy, T.M., & Fishman, B.J. (1993). Constructivism and the design of learning environments: Context and authentic activities for learning. In T.M. Duffy, J. Lowyck, and D.H. Jonassen (Eds.), Designing Environments for Constructive Learning. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Popkewitz, T.S. (1987). The formation of school subjects: The struggle for creating an American institution. New York: The Falmer Press.