How (online) learning could be knowledge building?

In the technology-enhanced learning field the year 2012 has been the year of MOOCs (massive open online courses). I definitely support the idea of opening possibilities for self-driven and self-motivated students to study and learn online. The high-profile projects and endeavors in the MOOCs-business are also looking for smart ways to initiate peer-to-peer activities, such as peer-support and peer-evaluation. This will make the MOOCs more collaborative and participatory than classical distance learning courses or courses using automated checking of exercises (e.g. in programming courses in computer sciences or math). When the MOOCs are moving more to the direction of collaborative learning it is possible that they will also include activities that could be called knowledge building. It doesn’t, however, happen automatically. To make it right it asks for some serious thinking and design.

In the following I’ll try to illustrate my thoughts on the matter with some late examples from my practice as a teacher.

Earlier this year I wrote an article to the Towards peer production 
in public services: cases from Finland book about p2p learning, media used in it and on the question who should we consider to be our peer. In it I define different kind of media for peer-to-peer learning and discuss their potential, different implication for learning. Different media enables different practices.

Online media, when used to distribute learning materials, to exchange ideas and links with blogs, micro-blogs, discussion forums, social bookmaking and social network services are powerful tools for learning. In the MOOC implementations I haven’t so far seen that students would have been guided to do research together in a small group with an aim to present their results for their peers. I am sure that with smart design one could implement this with the existing tools. However, it would require a lot of planning and coordination. The tools and services (blogs, wikis, microblogs) simply do not support very well small group collaboration.

In a university classroom I have tried to get students to do their own research. This autumn term, in the Media Lab Helsinki, I have been teaching the Introduction to Media Art and Culture course with Marita Liulia. It is an annual introductory course for all the students of the department. Our objective is to engage students to do self-driven collaborative knowledge building. The course is an introductory course, 3 study credits (3 x 27 hours study workload), three weeks of intensive studying. The time dedicated for this is scarce. This means that it is not possible to present or discuss all important media art and media culture phenomena in the course. Only lecturing on the themes of the course would actually be silly and would only give a poor overview of the topics.

Because of this we have organized the course a bit differently. In the course we have three sections and two major assignments. During the first week I concentrated on media culture and communication studies while in the second week, led by Marita, the focus is on Media Art. We aim to provide students with tips on where to grab on and to study interesting things independently more. Therefore, during the course students also study in small groups some media culture concepts and media artists. The results of the teams are presented in the third week. The aim is to guide students to find and evaluate information from existing sources.

When students are doing their assignments, the idea is to have activities that are close to those introduced as self-organizing learning environment (SOLE) by Sugata Mitra. The first assignment is to study a concept; theory or phenomena related to media studies. It can be something like transmedia storytelling, Jürgen Habermas public sphere or Google’e PageRank. In their research students may use whatever sources: web sites, Wikipedia, on- and offline libraries, articles, books etc. They are expected to find the sources themselves. The results of research are then presented for all.

Even though our students are highly motivated and interested in the topics of the course, it is difficult to design assignments so that there would be meaningful knowledge building. In groups there are always students who take the assignments more seriously and those who simply try to do as little as possible. I understand very well those students who do as little as possible when the assignment is not something he or she is internally interested in to study. Still I do not believe in extrinsic motivation. I believe, however, that we may help people to find their intrinsic motivation. To guide students to really deepen their understanding on the topics under study we give them the following guidelines:

(1) Make the assignment challenging for you
Set yourself and the group research question.
Ask what you want to know more about the concept.
Start from your own level.

(2) Make it personal
Think how do you feel about the topics you are studying.
Think are there any connections to your own work or life.

(3) Be critical
Check your sources: two sources are better than one. Primary is better than later.
Pay extra attention to criticism made by other.

(4) Make connections and references
Try to find connections to other concepts, disciplines, traditions and people.
Remember references.

Someone should do an experiment: an online course that would include in it some real study assignments, peer-to-peer learning and peer evaluation. It probably would not be massive but it would be interesting. I would like to see what kind of groupware / social software student groups would like to use in their study work? How would the groups preset their finding for others? How would they evaluate each other.

Maybe I’ll do the experiment. Let’s see.

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