Институт «Открытое общество»
The contribution of network communities to education
Evgeny D. Patarakin. Abstract:
Network communities are becoming a basic form of community convergence. The increasing popularity of computer networks as an educational tool is related to ever-increasing changes within our society, which cause us to rethink basic educational principles. The current sphere of education and training appears to be much broader than the traditional framework of formal educational institutions. An association of all interested parties will contribute to the development of an up-to-date system of education. This global association could be carried out only on the basis of network communications. The principles of the foundation of an educational network were formulated in the early 1970's. Most of successful educational network communities are built on a convergence of educational resources and services that support skill exchange, peer-matching, and network evaluation of educational activity. Examples of such communities are the graduates of the IATP programs and a new community of non-governmental activists that was created in 2001.
The modern world is converging before our eyes. Technologies, fields of knowledge, political and national systems, media such as newspapers, radio and TV are merging together (1). It seems that in the near future the majority of communications between people will take place with the assistance of computers and computer networks. Thus, the study of network communities is the study of future forms of human communities. All over the world people undertake research programs and take practical steps to construct network communities based not only on the centres of education, science and culture, but also on whole cities (2,3,4). Future prospects of development of learning communities were discussed in Russia in 2001 within the framework of several network conferences. Most noteworthy, a teachers' council and forum, conducted over computer networks in August, was devoted to network communities, their contribution to Russian education and problems with the construction of on-line IATP communities (5,6).
Educational principles have been greatly affected by a rapidly changing world; thus, network forms of education are becoming increasingly popular. Schools previously functioned in an environment of limited information exchange, where children could access information only through books and teachers. In the middle of the 20th century, sources of information outside of school, such as radio and TV, took on an educational function. An information gap occurred between school and society (7,8).
Learning is often regarded as an active process of developing and testing personal hypotheses about the world. These adaptive strategies allow us to survive and successfully adapt to our rapidly changing world (9). From this point of view, the sphere of education and training appears much broader than that which is contained in a traditional framework of formal educational institutions (10,11). Training takes place in a variety of different situations - it is not limited to time spent in classrooms. This understanding allows us to see a huge potential for scientific and cultural centres that are not considered to be educational institutions. On the other hand, we recognize the great responsibility of providing education for all the inhabitants of our planet. Jan Visser uses the term "androgogics" to emphasize the necessity of training not only children but also adults. Aware of this new responsibility, schools and higher educational institutions can and should develop urban and regional centres of learning communities, and support training of not only young, but also older learners. It is obvious that access to the available educational resources for everyone, at any stage of life, cannot be provided by formal educational institutions in any country of the world. The solution is the unification of all people interested in development of education. Such a global association could only be carried out by the use of network communications. The development of network technologies was caused in many respects by the perception of a future ecological crisis. In our minds, as in our streets, too much unsorted refuse was accumulating, to the point where many intellectual processes became overwhelming. It is indicative, that the basic work of V. Bush on the principles of construction of hypertext was called As we may think (12). The title references John Dewey's book (13), How we think, in which thought was considered to be a linear, consecutive process.
Historically, our quest for more flexible (14) and "convivial" (15) methods of communication, particularly those which support both individual and collective reasoning, has been well-received by the public. The Internet is much more " convivial ", than TV and radio. It allows everyone to express his view on any subject and find partners to discuss any idea or question. Illich contrasted this kind of media, with sources of information that impose a total monopoly on a person's mental processes. For instance, the phone is a " convivial " means as everyone can use it to contact other people and communicate with them on any subjects they choose. The TV is an unfriendly means as the only thing that you can do with it is to switch channels that are broadcast. A community is a set of people communicating with each other. The Internet community is a set of people communicating with each other via the Internet.
People can be placed into groups on the basis of any common attribute. For example, groups can be in the same room, of the same age, are all fond of checkers, were born from one ancestor, watch TV, or use the phone. In contrast to a community, a group does not demand communication between its members. People who are watching the same soap opera do not become a community. The discussion of the pedagogical potential of network communities and their contribution to education began long before the appearance of the Internet. In his book, "Democracy and Education", John Dewey showed that dialogue has a determinative value in the formation of community. Any kind of human community is educational. Dewey did not limit his analysis to geographically close groups; he also considered the possibilities of virtual communities:
"Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. < > Persons do not become a society by living in physical proximity, any more than a man ceases to be socially influenced by being so many feet or miles removed from others. A book or a letter may institute a more intimate association between human beings separated thousands of miles from each other than exists between dwellers under the same roof. ." (16) The book "Deschooling Society" by Ivan Illich (17) was of great importance for network education. The author was interested in both purposes of education and contents of educational environment. Illich believed that people naturally and independently choose the best ways of training. To make the process of knowledge acquisition comfortable and effective it is necessary to define the components of educational environments. In the sixth chapter of his book, Learning Web, Illich enumerated and detailed the resources and services that are necessary for successful functioning of a learning network community. Later a number of authors (18), supplemented these components, but the general principles of construction of a learning network were determined in 1972. The principles are as follows:
- Reference Services to Educational Objects. Books, reference books, software, tests provided by digital libraries, museums, or city mediatechs
- Skill Exchanges . Services that support skill exchange. Section of a server or portal where everyone can present skills he could train.
- Peer-Matching--a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry Peer-matching service was considered by lllich as the most complex and necessary for the functioning of a community.
- Experts who can estimate the results of educational activity.
- Reference Services to Educators-at-Large.
Many important educational communities worked quite successfully, such as ThinkQuest (www.thinquest.com) and the Virtual Classroom which were constructed according to these principles and contained all necessary components. The Uchcom laboratory initiated the construction of several network communities. Some of them were directly connected to the educational centers, such as International Children's Computer Centre, University, elementary school of the Program systems institute of the Russian Academy of Science, Interschool Educational Centre. Others had no formal educational accessory, such as Gallery of modern Russian media art, Virtual Theatre Workshop, "RepWeb - modern environment for realization of network researches". The most of projects are at details described (19,20). They are available on the server of the laboratory (21).
Here are mentioned network communities founded in 2001, they were not connected with educational centers: network community in Nizhny Novgorod for the graduates of the programs given by the department of state of the USA (22) and an ecological community of non-governmental activists (23,24). These communities developed, in our opinion, according to the principles of construction of Learning Web offered by Illich. Educational resources accumulated in electronic libraries and mediatechs. Those resources were not only materials of Internet courses, but also separate texts, photos, video fragments and databases created by members of communities. It is necessary to note that all members can use contents of databases within the framework of ecologists' community for creation of both substantial and entertaining documents and lectures. At that, translation of the linear text of the lecture in multimedia form is made automatically.
Web sites of communities accumulated materials about lecturers and trainers who can give examples of skills mastering. First of all it concerns skills required for network activity, web design, Internet programming. A similar work is led by organizations working on development of Internet education and supporting classes of open access, such as Open Society Institute, British Council, and Federation of Internet Education. The organization of exchange of teaching materials and trainers would allow them not to waste their resources. Support services of partners search for joint activity developed for representing materials about all members of communities and organizing of joint seminars. As a rule, interdisciplinary seminars with indistinct wording caused the greatest interest. Within the framework of those seminars new educational microgroups originated. A successful attempt to automate the process of search for partners by means of a database was made during the seminar on use of RepWeb environment for realization of network researches. All participants of the seminar formulated their interests and inserted them into the base that could be used for association of participants in groups on interests.
The results of individual and collective works of members of educational communities were available in the web. They were discussed during the preparation for the accounting IATP conference that will take place in October 2001. Unfortunately, this year we did not manage to organize an on-line expert examination of the activity of communities' members though in earlier projects positive results were already received. For instance, the analysis of Sally Norman etudes submitted in the web in 1997 by students of the Theatre institute was the most impressing and detailed.
The work is financially supported by RHF, grant # 01-06-00166à
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Институт «Открытое общество»