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Collaborative Web–Based Learning Community - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, Emergence of a New Learning Paradigm through CMC

knowledge communities based construction

Percy Kwok Lai-yin
Chinese University of Hong Hong, China

Christopher Tan Yew-Gee
University of South Australia, Australia

INTRODUCTION

Because of the ever-changing nature of work and society under the knowledge-based economy in the 21st century, students and teachers need to develop ways of dealing with complex issues and thorny problems that require new kinds of knowledge that they have never learned or taught (Drucker, 1999). Therefore, they need to work and collaborate with others. They also need to be able to learn new things from a variety of resources and people and investigate questions, then bring their learning back to their dynamic life communities. There have arisen in recent years learning-community approaches (Bereiter, 2002; Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999) and learning-ecology (Siemens, 2003) or information-ecology approaches (Capurro, 2003) to education. These approaches fit well with the growing emphasis on lifelong, life-wide learning and knowledge-building works.

Following this trend, Internet technologies have been translated into a number of strategies for teaching and learning (Jonassen, Howland, Moore, & Marra, 2003) with supportive development of one-to-one (e.g., e-mail posts), one-to-many (such as e-publications), and many-to-many communications (like videoconferencing). The technologies of computer-mediated communications (CMC) make online instruction possible and have the potential to bring enormous changes to student learning experiences in the real world (Rose & Winterfeldt, 1998). It is because individual members of learning communities or ecologies help synthesize learning products via deep information processing, mutual negotiation of working strategies, and deep engagement in critical thinking, accompanied by an ownership of team works in those communities or ecologies (Dillenbourg, 1999). In short, technology in communities is essentially a means of creating fluidity between knowledge segments and connecting people in learning communities. However, this Web-based collaborative learning culture is neither currently emphasized in local schools nor explicitly stated out in intended school-curriculum guidelines of formal educational systems in most societies. More than this, community ownership or knowledge construction in learning communities or ecologies may still be infeasible unless values in learning cultures are necessarily transformed after the technical establishment of Web-based learning communities.

BACKGROUND

Emergence of a New Learning Paradigm through CMC

Through a big advance in computer-mediated technology (CMT), there have been several paradigm shifts in Web-based learning tools (Adelsberger, Collis, & Pawlowski, 2002). The first shift moves from a content-oriented model (information containers) to a communication-based model (communication facilitators), and the second shift then elevates from a communication-based model to a knowledge-construction model (creation support). In the knowledge-construction model, students in a Web-based discussion forum mutually criticize each other, hypothesize pretheoretical constructs through empirical data confirmation or falsification, and with scaffolding supports, coconstruct new knowledge beyond their existing epistemological boundaries under the social-constructivism paradigm (Hung, 2001). Noteworthy is the fact that the knowledge-construction model can only nourish a learning community or ecology, and it is advocated by some cognitive scientists in education like Collins and Bielaczyc (1997) and Scardamalia and Bereiter (2002). Similarly, a Web-based learning ecology contains intrinsic features of a collection of overlap-ping communities of mutual interests, cross-pollinating with each other and constantly evolving with largely self-organizing members (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), in the knowledge-construction model.

Scaffolding Supports and Web-Based Applications

According to Vygotsky (1978), the history of the society in which a child is reared and the child’s personal history are crucial determinants of the way in which that individual will think. In this process of cognitive development, language is a crucial tool for determining how the child will learn how to think because advanced modes of thought are transmitted to the child by means of words (Schütz, 2002). One essential tenet in Vygotsky’s theory is the notion of the existence of what he calls the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The child in this scaffolding process of ZPD, providing nonintrusive intervention, can be an adult (parent, teacher, caretaker, language instructor) or another peer who has already mastered that particular function. Practically, the scaffolding teaching strategy provides individualized supports based on the learner’s ZPD. Notably, the scaffolds facilitate a student’s ability to build on prior knowledge and internalize new information. The activities provided in scaffolding instruction are just beyond the level of what the learner can do alone. The more capable peer will provide the scaffolds so that the learner can accomplish (with assistance) the tasks that he or she could otherwise not complete, thus fostering learning through the ZPD (Van Der Stuyf, 2002).

In Web-based situated and anchored learning contexts, students have to develop metacognition to learn how, what, when, and why to learn in genuine living contexts, besides problem-based learning contents and methods in realistic peer and group collaboration contexts of synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Empirical research databases illuminate that there are several levels of Web uses or knowledge-building discourses ranging from mere informational stages to coconstruction stages (Gilbert, & Driscoll, 2002; Harmon & Jones, 2001). To sum up, five disintegrating stages of Web-based learning communities or ecologies are necessarily involved in Table 1.

Noteworthy is that the students succeed in developing scaffold supports via ZPD only when they attain coconstruction levels of knowledge construction, at which student-centered generation of discussion themes, cognitive conflicts with others’ continuous critique, and ongoing commitments to the learning communities (by having constant attention and mutual contributions to discussion databases) are emerged. It should be noted that Web-based discussion or sharing in e-newsgroups over the Internet may not lead to communal ownership or knowledge construction.

Key Concepts of Communities of Practice

Unlike traditional static, lower order intelligence models of human activities in the Industrial Age, new higher order intelligence models for communities of practice have emerged. Such models are complex-adaptive systems, employing self-organized, free-initiative, and free-choice operating principles, and creating human ecology settings and stages for its acting out during the new Information Era. Under the technological facilitation of the Internet, this new emerging model is multicentered, complex adaptive, and self-organized, founded on the dynamic human relationships of equality, mutual respect, and deliberate volition. When such a model is applied to educational contexts, locally managed, decentralized marketplaces of lifelong and life-wide learning take place. In particular, teacher-student partnerships are created to pursue freely chosen and mutually agreed-upon learning projects (Moursund, 1999), and interstudent coconstruction of knowledge beyond individual epistemological boundaries are also involved (Lindberg, 2001). Working and learning are alienated from one another in formal working groups and project teams; however, communities of practice and informal networks (embracing the above term Web-based learning communities) both combine working and knowledge construction provided that their members have a commitment to the professional development of the communities and mutual contributions to generate knowledge during collaborations. In particular, their organization structures can retain sustainability even if they lose active members or coercive powers (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). It follows that students engaging in communities of practice can construct knowledge collaboratively when doing group work.

Main Focus of the Paper

In learning-community or -ecology models, there arise some potential membership and sustainability problems . Despite their technical establishments, some Web-based learning ecologies may fail to attain the communal or coconstruction stages (see Table 1), or fail to sustain after their formation.

Chan, Hue, Chou, and Tzeng (2001) depict four spaces of learning models, namely, the future classroom, the community-based, the structural-knowledge, and the complex-problem learning models, which are designed to integrate the Internet into education. Furthermore, Brown (1999, p. 19) points out that “the most promising use of Internet is where the buoyant partnership of people and technology creates powerful new online learning communities.” However, the concept of communal membership is an elusive one. According to Slevin (2000, p. 92), “It might be used to refer to the communal life of a sixteenth-century village—or to a team of individuals within a modern organization who rarely meet face to face but who are successfully engaged in online collaborative work.”

To realize cognitive models of learning communities, social communication is required since human effort is the crucial element. However, the development of a coercive learning community at the communal or coconstruction levels (Table 1) is different from the development of a social community at the communicative level, though “social communication is an essential component of educational activity” (Harasim, 1995). Learning communities are complex systems and networks that allow adaptation and change in learning and teaching practices (Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999). Collins and Bielaczyc (1997) also realize that knowledge-building communities require sophisticated elements of cultural transformation while Gilbert and Driscoll (2002) observe that learning quantity and quality
depend on the value beliefs, expectations, and learning attitudes of the community members. It follows that some necessary conditions for altering basic educational assumptions held by community learners and transforming the entire learning culture need to be found out for epistemological advancement. On evaluation, there are three intrinsic dimensions that can advance students’ learning experiences in Web-based learning communities. They are the degree of interactivity, potentials for knowledge construction, and assessment of e-learning.

For the systematic classification of Web-based learning communities, a three-dimensional conceptual framework is necessarily used to highlight the degree of interactivity (one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many communication modes), presence or absence of scaffolding or knowledge-advancement tools (coconstruction level in Table 1), and modes of learning assessments (no assessment, summative assessment for evaluating learning outcomes, or formative assessment for evaluating learning processes; Figure 1).

This paper provides some substantial knowledge-construction aspects of most collaborative Web-based learning communities or learning ecologies. Meantime, it conceptualizes the crucial sense of scaffolding supports and addresses underresearched sociocultural problems for communal membership and knowledge construction, especially in Asian school curricula.

FUTURE TRENDS

The three issues of cultural differences, curricular integration, and leadership transformation in Web-based learning communities are addressed here for forecasting their future directions. Such collaborative Web-based learning communities have encountered the sociocultural difficulties of not reaching group consensus necessarily when synthesizing group notes for drawing conclusions (Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Lamon, 1995). Other sociocultural discrepancies include the following (Collins & Bielaczyc, 1997; Krechevsky & Stork, 2000; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996).

  • discontinuous expert responses to students’ questions, thereby losing students’ interest
  • students’ overreliance on expert advice instead of their own constructions
  • value disparities in the nature of collaborative discourses between student construction and expertise construction of knowledge

The first issue is influenced by the heritage culture upon Web-based learning communities or ecologies. Educational psychologists (e.g., Watkins & Biggs, 2001) and sociologists (e.g., Lee, 1996) also speculate the considerable influence of the heritage of Chinese culture upon the roles of teachers and students in Asian learning cultures. When knowledge building is considered as a way of learning in Asian societies under the influence of the heritage of Chinese culture, attention ought to be paid to teachers’ as well as students’ conceptions, and Asian cultures of learning and teaching, especially in a CMC learning community.

The second issue is about curricular integration. There come some possible cases in which participating teachers and students are not so convinced by CMC or do not have a full conception of knowledge building when establishing collaborative learning communities. More integration problems may evolve when school curricula are conformed to the three pillars of conventional pedagogy, namely, reduction to subject matter, reduction to activities, and reduction to self-expression (Bereiter, 2002). Such problems become more acute in Asian learning cultures, in which there are heavy stresses on individually competitive learning activities, examination-oriented school assessments, and teacher-led didactical interactions (Cheng, 1997).

The third issue is about student and teacher leadership in cultivating collaborative learning cultures (Bottery, 2003). Some preliminary sociocultural research findings (e.g., Yuen, 2003) reveal that a high sense of membership and the necessary presence of proactive teacher and student leaders in inter- and intraschool domains are crucial for knowledge building in Web-based learning communities or ecologies.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, there are some drawbacks and sociocultural concerns toward communal membership, knowledge-construction establishment, and the continuation of learning ecologies (Siemens, 2003).

  • lack of internal structures for incorporating flexibility elements
  • inefficient provision of focused and developmental feedback during collaborative discussion
  • no directions for effective curricular integration for teachers’ facilitation roles
  • no basic mechanisms of pinpointing and eradicating misinformation or correcting errors in project works
  • lack of assessment for evaluating learning processes and outcomes of collaborative learning discourses

So there comes an urgent need to address new research agendas to investigate the shifting roles of students and teachers (e.g., at the primary and secondary levels) and their reflections on knowledge building, and to articulate possible integration models for project works in Asian school curricula with high student-teacher ratios and prevalent teacher-centered pedagogy when Web-based learning communities or ecologies are technically formed.

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