As public information becomes more widely available and the capacity to generate new knowledge is increasingly distributed across greater numbers of individuals, so too does the growth of globalised networks and increasing competition for student placements that directly challenge institutionalised approaches to education and confront many of the assumptions that are held about the role and purpose of learning.
What is emerging is a new world of learning, a vast, complex global network of institutions, educational providers, online courses, competing products, and educational philosophies, all seeking to deliver learning solutions in varying forms and to distribute these offerings rapidly and widely. Alongside what in the past was largely the domain of public, not-for-profit activity has given ground to large and successful private competition. For Australia, the impending National Broadband Network (NBN) raises more questions than answers when attempting to resolve the impact of these pressures on the current education system.
Such unprecedented transitions present unfamiliar dilemmas for educational providers as accepted standards of prestige and authority, and the notion of universities and professors as gatekeepers of knowledge are increasingly called into question. The centrality of the teacher, the dominance of the lecture theatre, the paucity of valid evidence-based educational research, the relegation of online learning to a lower status relative to face-to-face learning, the unquestioned need for physical attendance on campus, and the policy questions that arise due to the pressures of generational and societal demands provide a minute sample of the growing number of issues that will need to be addressed much sooner than many imagine.
The synthesis of an effective, future-driven learning and teaching philosophy requires a detailed examination of the core planning and implementation strategies and the curriculum / learning design factors that afford learners genuine opportunities to engage in rewarding, productive learning experiences. To this end, several key themes provide direction on how the issues outlined above may be addressed:
- At present, many students are forced to use closed, centralised, server-oriented, and distribution-oriented online learning delivery systems. Instead of learning how to create knowledge, learners are still being confined to receiving information that is devoid of the richness of human discourse and interaction. What is needed are new curriculum and content design concepts that build on the social use of the web and extend this function into the realm of web-based, networked learning communities. ‘Version 2’ of the World Wide Web for example, has now evolved to include social, distributed, open, peer-to-peer, and contributive elements that permit multiple layers of communication among people who share similar interests to dynamically connect and exchange ideas using technologies such as sms, chat, weblogs, wikis, and email.
- The emerging challenges for all learners are to master new and complex information structures, and to apply the available interpretive technologies (semantic search engines) and the cognitive skills that are needed to participate in globally published and shared learning and knowledge generation paradigm. Collaborations among individuals and networks of individuals (groups) are fundamental to the sustained generation of new ideas and to the refinement of accepted ideas through the efficient dissemination and application of knowledge across networked communities. This implies the need for lecturers, teachers, and curriculum designers to not only to re-think the purpose of learning environments, but also to devise more adaptive and innovative teaching strategies that connect people to people – not people to machines.
- It should not be assumed that the provision of information (verbal or written) automatically results in a productive outcome – that is, learning and knowledge. Simply making large quantities of information and resources available online may in fact result in unstructured noise. What is required is akin to that which occurs in nature: coherent bits of information presented so that through human interaction, they are in effect ‘self-organised’ into clusters of new phenomena in the form of ideas, innovation, and creative clusters. The act of creativity is at one moment a process of internalising recognised order (meaningfull relationships), and in the next of passing the identified order onto the next person as a learned experience. It is in this sense that the connections between disparate ideas and the nuances of knowledge domains lead to the emergence of creative thinking and innovation. In a similar manner, the process of self-organisation also provides a useful strategy for evaluating (community judged) the depth and quality of the knowledge that is disseminated throughout the broader learning community.
- Of equal importance is the level of expertise and depth of understanding provided by experts and organisations that engage in learning communities. For example, consider the Web as comprising a vast number of ‘authors’ each of whom are members of separate interest groups, many of which embody a great deal of expertise accumulated in both written and tacit form. Given the vastness of the Web, it is relatively easy to find a niche community with the required expertise or a special interest group whose interests coincide with that of the learner. The diversity of input and comments provided by experts who are situated anywhere throughout the world adds texture to the area of knowledge under examination and thus presents an innovative example of how the Web can be used to enhance the learning process.
- The social element of active and sustainable engagement in online learning communities also poses significant challenges, in particular those environments in which the relationship between collaboration and learning is crucial. As many educators would agree, there are instances when learning naturally develops into a collaborative activity, involving continual interchange of ideas and views between individuals within a community and between communities, or among individuals and other communities. However, learners may experience confusion and difficulties in situations where communities confine their focus to the knowledge and skills of a specific discipline, or where others span several disciplines united by a common purpose (operating for example, as a multi-disciplinary networked partnership). Therefore, interactive support feedback systems and strategies for managing such encounters must be available as and when the need arises.
- A focus on networked learning communities extends the individual’s knowledge construction skills to embrace multi-level, interconnected, social learning systems that expose the learner to a diverse array of perspectives, practices, interests, and idiosyncrasies of established knowledge domains. In the vision outlined here, the learner is encouraged to negotiate pathways (either preset or self determined) through a multiplicity of contexts whilst simultaneously being ‘monitored’ by mentors and community consensus who analyse and contribute feedback on the derived interpretations and the strategies employed during the learning process. In this way, learning capability is significantly enhanced for both individuals and groups.