Learning Environments



The 20th century

During the 1990s schools were under pressure from almost all sectors of the community to purchase large amounts of computer technology to demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that students were computer literate and hence potentially employable in the 21st century. At several conferences during the late 90's we advised against wholesale purchase of this technology as, in our opinion it had not matured sufficiently, nor had it proved reliable enough to be regarded as a consumer based item. It had extremely limited educational value and, in the most cases, was used as a set of expensive electronic colouring pencils which enabled students to make their work look pretty. Rather than helping teachers to teach or learners to learn more effectively, it became in essence one of the greatest barriers to learning and teaching in the classroom.

However . . . . .

Over the past two years a whole plethora of new technologies has evolved, with the result that our understanding of thinking and learning, and the role of knowledge and technology systems within this process have matured dramatically. This paper addresses the transition from the 20th-century education paradigm into an entirely new education framework that promises to be the 21st century model for education. All the elements that make up this framework were in their infancy at the dawn of the year 2001, and in just three years almost all of them have matured to a point where we can start delivering a viable 21st century model today. Our prediction is that the year 2001 will be viewed by education historians as having been THE most important year in the history of education.

When we reflect on the education pedagogy of the 20th-century it becomes clear that we were severely limited in asking clever questions and encouraging the development of conceptual frameworks of understanding, by our lack of access to information rich resources that could assist us and our student to build/understand these frameworks. The information landscape of the 20th century school was encapsulated in the concept of "A library consisting of a collection of physical books which were nominally accorded the Dewey numbers to assist in their placement on a library shelf. In truth the library constituted a set of thematic collections on topics such as space, dinosaurs, volcanoes, famous people the Olympics----the list goes on but I'm sure you see the point.

How can you ask clever questions when the available resources are so limited? The answer surely lies in the dedication of teachers to producing their own resources. However the types of resources that teachers themselves could produce were quite limited and they often struggled to get across to their students the concepts which they themselves often misunderstood. The 90's information landscape set out to remedy the problem by introducing a vast, unwieldy information superhighway resembling a plate load of spaghetti which students tried to untangle by using tools such as Google. Both teachers and students knew that the information was there but the format in which it was presented was often inappropriate. The level of understanding expected was often far too high, the reading level was off the planet and students were reduced to an electronic version of what has happened for the past 200 years, with subtle changes being made via copying/cut and pasting, in the hope that this process alone would enable them to understand other peoples' work. Cutting and pasting from CDs such as Encarta and the use of hundreds of fonts and clipart libraries was the 90's technological "leap forward" and parents were mesmerised at the apparent improvement in learning, when in fact it was exactly what happened in the past but it looked far more pretty.

Thinking in the 21st century

So what is different about the 21st century? We have developed the capacity to no longer be dependent on "gross" tools such as Google to access information. It wasn't information that teachers or students actually required and this is one of the greatest misconceptions about the "information age". What we really wanted was a collection of resources that would assist students in building an understanding of concepts and ideas. In a nutshell we needed a subset of the Internet, coupled with a huge library of purposefully produced, Knowledge building items which could be brought together to produce pedagogically sound, scaffolded frameworks that students could work their way through to build understanding of ideas and concepts. Having established this model, the focus is then extended from knowledge building to an even more important human pursuit; that of building within our students the capacity for wisdom: the use of knowledge in a manner that benefits self and community. The ultimate mission of schools is not just knowledge, because knowledge can be used destructively just as it can constructively, but rather the ultimate pursuit of schools is wisdom, with the result that the knowledge which students gain is used to benefit every member of our society.

We have written papers in the past that proposed a model for thinking in an education framework. This model http://www.i-learnt.com/Thinking_What_is_2.html suggests that thinking takes place when our worldview is modified in some way. In order to modify our worldview, some event, discourse or interaction initiates a challenge to our present world view, and a cascading collection of processes takes place in our minds involving thinking processors, thinking skills processes, and through the use of thinking tools and our interaction through our information/sensory environment and complex and little understood process leads us to a new worldview which may or may not more accurately reflect reality.

Incorporated into this model must be an emphasis on the fact that as human beings we are not logical, rational and deductive by nature but rather we are silly, irrational and passionate and so even after modifying our worldview based on valid intellectual processes, we discount the logical outcome for one that defies all logic. You only have to question a car salesperson or any real estate salesperson and with some reflection they will acknowledge, at least anecdotally that this is true. A person approaching a real estate office will tell the real estate sales person in a very logical deductive fashion that they are looking for a small colonial cottage with a pretty garden and a picket fence. The real estate salesperson shows them a collection of such houses but no sale takes place. On seeing the client two months later they inquire as to whether the purchase was made, and without batting an eyelid the client replies that they had purchased an apartment unit on the 15th floor of a high-rise building. Likewise logic would say that purchasing expensive, red sports cars that can travel at a quinzillion kilometres an hour is a completely illogical and a silly thing to do but we would all just love one (well I would)! This is the nature of being human.

So knowing these things, and bearing in mind that one of our desires as educators is to ensure that our students have the capacity for "lifelong learning", how can we provide students with knowledge building environments which allow them to use their thinking skills and while acknowledging the inherent penchant for "silliness", build their own knowledge bases and conceptual frameworks? The implications of lifelong learning are a universe away from the glib use of the phrase in public and political forums. To become a lifelong learner it is necessary to understand the art of teaching, as you can only learn if you can teach yourself and you can only teach yourself if you understand what thinking is, what knowledge is, and how you access the most appropriate tools in order to build a framework of understanding.

Knowledge creation depends upon our ability to access appropriate knowledge building resources, and engage in a range of discourses with a wide variety of resource people, using a broad range of communication media. Over the past few years schools have been inundated with a range of tools that have given the impression that they are "knowledge networks" but in fact they mostly constitute tools that manage data, set tests, store grades, measure attendance and "push" content onto the desk of students. These are not knowledge networks.

A Revolution in Knowledge Sharing

A knowledge network is well described in one of the most talked about education articles of recent times entitled "A Revolution in Knowledge Sharing" http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0350.pdf . The paper is written by Donald Norris, John Mason, Robbie Robson, Paul Lefrere and Geoff Collier and was published in EduCause Review (September/October 2003). In this article the authors discuss what it means to know and to understand, in the context of learning.

There are many software products out there which deliver what this article describes as "know what". "Know what" includes knowledge management, knowledge management systems, information structure, semantics and "e-learning". However these software products still under-perform in six of the seven areas as defined in this article:

  • Know who: networks, authorities, individuals, practitioners, collaboration
  • Know how: networking, consulting, collaborating, sharing, researching, reflecting, developing, testing, maintaining, doing, learning, educating, training, innovating, managing, navigating
  • Know why: the context, business planning, strategy, reasons to learn
  • Know where: where to, where from, strategic positioning, planning, reflecting
  • Know when: timing, pacing, planning, scheduling, context, just-in-time
  • Know if: scenarios, scenario development, foresight, contingency, just in case

Being a Knowledge Networker

The article highlights the many key infrastructural requirements that are necessary if students are to be able to become knowledge networkers and innovators. Building knowledge and understanding is a complex process and in order to maximise the effectiveness of the process, availability of high-speed Internet connectivity is essential, along with software environments that are ambient, intuitive and allow knowledge elements to be moved around and manipulated simply and easily. This requires an entirely new pedagogy built on a framework that reflects the 21st century, incorporating the rich information landscapes which are now available. A futuristic version of this was captured in the movie "The Minority Report". In the movie Tom Cruise is seen to stand in front of a transparent large screen and manipulate large amounts of information in a whole variety of formats in order to ascertain whether or not a murder was about to happen. This process captured the potential of technology to deliver very rich information environments, and when placed in the hands of someone who is well versed in a particular skill set, the tools elicit very powerful possibilities of knowledge creation.

This does not mean that these tools are necessary for knowledge to be created, but rather that these tools maximise the possibility for knowledge creation across a much wider audience than is presently possible. In most of our socially construed "knowledge creation environments" (schools) information is captured and presented predominantly in text formats. The provision of these tools to learners empowers a far greater percentage of the populous to build knowledge and understanding much more effectively, by presenting information in a wide range of easily accessible and easily manipulated media formats. In an excellent article " Knowledge Creation" http://www.knetus.net/white/knowledge-networks-mapping.html Valdis Krebs argues for an interrelationship between the need for technology and the need for biological and social systems.

"The effective utilization of knowledge and learning requires both culture and technology. Explicit information and data can be easily codified, written down, and stored in a data base. For this type of business information we have the necessary skills and more than adequate tools. Yet, simple data is frequently not where competitive advantage is found. An organization's real edge in the marketplace is often found in complex, context-sensitive knowledge which is difficult, if not often impossible to codify and store in ones and zeroes. This core knowledge is found in individuals, communities of interest and their connections. An organization's data is found in its computer systems, but a company's intelligence is found in its biological and social systems. Computer networks must support the people networks in today's fluid and adaptive organizations -- not the other way around."

Learning Objects

Increasingly knowledge elements are being created in a web format and stored on databases that are being made available to educational institutions throughout the world. One of the first of the major institutions to provide free, high quality online courses was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT has available on a web site http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html hundreds of broad-range online courses that are free to access for anyone, anywhere. September 2003 was the official launch of several hundred courses and by 2007 virtually all of MIT's courses will be published online. The potential this offers "students" around the world is enormous. In the United Kingdom the Open Knowledge Initiative, a collaboration amongst the leading universities, is putting online an "open source extensible architecture" that specifies how components and educational software environments communicate with each other. Other "object repository management systems" are being offered such as Fedora http://www.fedora.info which can be used to create interoperable web based digital libraries, institutional repositories and information management systems.

Some of the most interesting work in creating learning objects is happening at the K-12 level. The initiative by the Australian and New Zealand governments under the auspices of the Learning Federation http://www.thelearningfederation.edu.au is backed by a $60 million budget to develop online interactive curriculum content specifically for Australian and New Zealand schools. To quote the web site the aim here is to ensure that

"The systems will also facilitate the breakdown of content into discrete 'objects' and the reassembly and repurposing of these to suit the particular needs of teachers and students."


The concept of learning objects involves the creation of discrete items that are described by metadata (an image of a fire engine would include the metadata: creation date, author's name, keywords, curriculum areas that this might be associated with, possible learning objectives of the learning object . . .There is obviously quite a range of descriptors that can be applied to each learning object, and so several standards have been developed and the one most institutions seem to be using is referred to as "Dublin Core" http://www.dublincore.org/ This project and many more like it around the world are setting standards that will be used in assisting the creation of huge repositories of web based learning objects that will be made available to teachers to create extensible learning opportunities.

But what is the point of all this?

The significance of this becomes more obvious when you consider that these software systems are being developed and some are available now. In these software systems you can simply cut and paste these elements from these repositories into a web/browser environment without having to be concerned with copyright issues and these environments allow you to mix, manage and arrange these elements so that you, your students or any community member can create teaching modules, units of work, and discrete elements that will assist the learner to understand the concept behind what is being taught . The first of these software systems is described at http://www.knowledgenetworks.co.nz and not surprisingly is known as a Knowledge NET. No longer need units of work/courses be predominantly paper-based. They can now be composed of multiple multimedia elements containing flexible options so that students can build understanding and engage in different learning strategies, allowing them to build understanding via rich information and communication tools which will be accessible from a wide range of teaching and learning resources from the virtual/physical institutions. To quote the "A Revolution in Knowledge Sharing" once again:

"At an accelerated, turbulent place, everything about the knowledge experience will change, including the places in which we can experience knowledge, the intensity of our engagement with knowledge sources, the time sequence for accessing knowledge, our expectations about knowledge timelines, our reliance on intelligent agents, our ability to multitask knowledge streams, and the amenity of the knowledge experience. These changes will accelerate the demand for e-knowledge and for reliance on knowledge networks in a variety of forms and formats."

The Changing Knowledge Ecology

School simply doesn't work for many students, they are tired of over assessment and being tested on every element, they do not see the relevance of much of what confronts them and much of the teaching that they experience is tired, lacking in leadership and/or inspiration. They are often presented with work that is inappropriate in content level, context and presentation (narrow media type, usually text). What is often referred to as the "knowledge ecology" of schools can now be much more appropriate, dynamic and media rich. With the advent of huge repositories of learning objects in a wide variety of media, and a range of options including reading age, context, and a multiplicity of combinations to suit individual student learning styles, the concept of school is about to experience a radical makeover. . . . . well at least that is the theory. Nevertheless a large number of potential barriers still need to be become porous before this new paradigm truly takes effect and becomes the norm in education learning and teaching practice.

What is very important here is that the shift to e-knowledge is not about putting courses online but rather it is about providing knowledge elements and a web based software interface to allow students to manipulate those web based elements, and in the process develop understanding based on core knowledge. It is without doubt that courses can be offered in a more cost-effective manner via "online courses", but more cost-effective will not mean better teaching and learning, or a greater understanding of the concept being communicated. And while it is true that having these learning elements available on databases will make lesson creation much more flexible and appropriate, it will happen only if teachers are able to use clever questioning and incorporate these new technologies effectively. When this happens we truly will see a more knowledgeable, thinking and innovative society. If the material that students trawl for their information resources are predominantly of one media type then the format in which they present their new-found knowledge should theoretically be of a different type. Manipulating one information type into another, forces knowledge acquisition, and better enhances the prospects for understanding concepts as well as content.

Knowledge Networks

When deciding on which of these software environments to implement teachers will need to look at whether the environment provides access to rich resources, whether students can create understanding, and more importantly whether students are able to "pull" information in as well as have information "pushed" at them. Many of the most expensive programs on the market today simply push information at students denying them the opportunity while ignoring their capacity, to gather information and create and demonstrate their own unique understanding based on their inquiries and their research. Groups of students should be able to communicate easily with other students in their own school as well as other students in their cluster of schools or schools in other countries.

They should be able to activate a wide range of tools from within the software environments at the push of a button. Parents should be able to be involved with this process and also have access to student material and progress. Schools that integrate a knowledge network into their teaching and learning practices must make sure that they are not just purchasing an assessment kit and a fat information pipe.

This is very simple technology. BUT

What schools need is sophisticated technology which is intuitive and provides students with a wide range of communication tools including KLogs (knowledge blogs) (http://radio.weblogs.com/0110772/stories/2002/10/03/
) ; chat, listServs, and discussion groups that facilitate a cascading set of discourses and dialogue (where the primary focus is on the tacit accumulation of knowledge), as well as access to predominantly explicit resource banks of learning elements, combined in a manner that facilitates individualised progression at an appropriate pace. In order to work in these environments students should not require numerous lessons on how the technology works but rather the focus will be on teaching associated skill sets that will include sifting, sorting and scanning (judgement), the ability to compare and contrast, the capacity to synthesise information presented in a wide variety of different media types, the tenacity to analyse and be critical of what is presented and the perception to make unique associations between dissimilar and sometimes discordant ideas and concepts (these are just some of the possible skill sets required). Once learners have learnt or understood something they need to be able to communicate their understanding to a third party. For this reason learners will be more involved in teaching their peers than they have been previously.

K-12 school systems therefore must be able to give students opportunity to develop sound language capacity. Micro-quests are just one of many tools which have the capacity to build these skill sets in today's traditional classroom structures http://www.i-learnt.com/Creating_MicroQuest.html
These new technological environments compress the knowledge building timeline and improves the quality of the experience and the depth of understanding but it also demands the capacity for multitasking multiple knowledge streams, a skill that will need to be taught (to both males and females!). It will also be important for students to be able to reflect metacognitively on their own nascent cultural/institutional norms. Learners must be able to recognise that their own knowledge building capacity will be limited by their vision of what can be and what should be. This will be coloured by the extent of previous experiences which will contribute to the learner's "learning culture". If students are unaware of the influence of their own learning culture on their learning processes then they will continue to perpetuate their own bias/culture through their thinking and decision making. The splinter in our enemy's eye is always so much easier to see than the log in our own! This capacity for understanding our own cultural myopia is critical if we are to teach/encourage students to be wise, as wisdom is dependent on understanding our own shortcomings first. When we understand these we are able to more truly reflect on both our own and others' needs.

Rich Teaching & Learning Environments

The other critical area for review is the amount of content that teachers expect to be delivered. By using rich information resources and asking "clever" questions (http://www.i-learnt.com/Thinking_Socratic_Questioning.html http://www.i-learnt.com/Paradigm_Questioning.html) the amount of "coverage" is about to be dramatically reduced and unfortunately many educators and well-intentioned community members will be very concerned that the sky is falling (standards are falling!) And while nothing could be further from the truth, when one considers that content has been the primary mechanism for measuring teaching/learning quality for the past several hundred years it is logical to assume that the community will take sometime to realise that the skill sets of the 21st century are demanding far more understanding of the application of processes and much less knowing of content. That is not to say that no content will be learnt, it simply means the point on the continuum that balances content with concept and process has shifted significantly, and in the process less time will be available to deliver absolute content.

As the community starts to realise that schools are not encompassed or bounded by walls they will begin to appreciate that lifelong learning is indeed a possibility and in fact that it is an absolute necessity if we're going to be fulfilled academically, creatively, socially and spiritually. The capacity for the majority to envisage new possibilities, engage in new interrelationships, to be innovative and to contribute to society, rather than just leaving it to the minority as is the case today, opens up huge possibilities for us as a global community.