The NetAcademy as a Medium for Learning Communities
Dr. Sabine Seufert
1. Motivation and Introduction
Information and communication technology influences society and hence the skills expected to be developed in education. The new platforms for communication provide wide-ranging access to information and through interactivity provide the means for structuring data, information, and the processes of communication. Education can benefit from those platforms - provided the platforms are designed to meet the requirements education poses.
In this paper, the NetAcademy platform is represented as a reference model for online learning communities, and gives guidelines on how to design a medium for learning.
We can think of learning as a process that takes place at the intersection of social and technological systems. Accordingly, the models that we provide take both social and technological perspectives into account. Moreover, we think of learning taking place collaboratively in a learning community. Therefore, the Online Learning Community is a general framework for modeling the participants involved in learning and also the medium for learning where a medium, as defined by Schmid (1997), comprises the carriers that transport information as well as the syntax and semantics of the information communicated. It also includes the organizational roles that are undertaken. However, the focus is concentrated on structuring knowledge and communication in learning and supporting meta-cognition, drawing on Schmid's (1997, 1999) approach to media in the context of business and higher education.
In Sect. 2, didactic goals in higher education and the role of communication platforms in seeking to achieve these goals are discussed, and the conceptional foundations of online learning communities are also explained. The NetAcademy concept as a platform for scientific and learning communities is introduced in Sect. 3, and Sect. 4 discusses the reference model for online learning communities leading to the conclusions noted in Sec. 5.
Learning paradigms have undergone changes triggered both by technology and by society, and have had to meet changing requirements in Higher Education. Several pedagogic models of interactive instructional design note different dimensions which should be considered; for example, the 14 dimensions of interactive learning supplied by Reeves (1992). This model proposes a multidimensional approach and provides method guidelines for interactive systems, and technological frameworks for online learning platforms have been established such as the E-Learning Architecture Model of Milius (2000). However, in these frameworks community and collaborative organizing dimensions are not considered.
The requirements for Higher Education consider learning as a process that takes place at the intersection of complex social and technological systems, and it is useful to distinguish between knowledge, learning methods and meta-cognition in designing learning platforms.
The goal in education is to teach knowledge inter-linked by means of questions arising from the context and guided by research. However, the quantity of information and the speed with which information gets outdated requires that formative knowledge be taught which enables learners to apply knowledge creatively to problem-solving, and also gives them the opportunity to create new knowledge.
Further, process-oriented learning methods are gaining more importance compared to subject-oriented or product-oriented methods. The reasons are twofold. First, actively processing and developing knowledge in learning facilitates future problem solving via similar modes of thinking and schemas which organise understanding. Second, objective knowledge which the learner is required to accept and store can no longer be assumed, particularly in business and in executive education. The role of learners as passive recipients is reformulated as a community of teachers and students sharing knowledge and following constructive and collaborative learning methods, and a curriculum of complex contexts and learning settings is used to foster these methods of learning.
An important aspect is the role of meta-cognition whichhas to be fostered for evaluating and guiding knowledge construction. Learners must develop meta-cognitive capabilities, to plan, supervise and judge their own learning processes, reflect upon their own achievements, and, in the event of failures, upon ways of remedying them. Seufert and Seufert (1999) proposes that such meta-cognitive capabilities are best fostered in complex learning situations.
These complex learning situations and contexts provide the linkage between disciplines, practical applications, and research, and also provide the basis for collaboration and a sharing of knowledge between students and teachers. Each participant in this learning community contributes her/his knowledge and its connections to previous experience.
The media provided by information and communication technology create facilities that set them apart from traditional media, e.g. books. They provide multimodal information, are designed to be interactive, and should provide various techniques for structuring knowledge. Hence, they can support a learning community in unprecedented ways, which can take place at a distance.
In order to design learning methods and platforms to satisfy these objectives, new approaches in Higher Education are required. Paloff and Pratt (1999) have analyzed the roles and procedures of learning communities and provide guidelines and strategies to build learning systems, but these have to be translated into the requirements for a community platform.
Learning and any other interaction takes place at the intersection of complex social and technological systems. Hence an open model that applies to communication in general and that relates to social and technological aspects is required and we employed the model of Schmid (1997).
Definitions of "virtual communities" are given by Rheingold (1993) and Armstrong and Hagel (1996). A community is defined as an ensemble of agents sharing a language and values, and pursuing common interests. The agents are connected via a medium in which they take on roles (Lechner and Schmid, 2000), and online communities use an electronic medium, e.g. the Internet as a means of communication.
We define media as information and communication spaces which, based on innovative information and communication technology (ICT), enable communication and coordination within a community consisting of human and artificial agents. Electronic markets and virtual communities are examples of such media. A platform is the physical implementation of a medium, and media are described in terms of:
For example, a medium is a course with roles, e.g. for teachers and students, and with protocols describing how teachers and students interact in adhering to a learning method. A collaborative learning environment, a shared application, e.g. NetMeeting or a classroom, can be used as a platform for this medium; and will implement the roles of teachers and students with the respective protocols for interaction by providing the interaction facilities. However, it does not restrict interaction to a specific learning method: the roles and protocols are part of the medium but not of the platform, i.e. not implemented on the platform. This is similar to a traditional classroom which provides the means for interaction (blackboard, whiteboard, air to communicate voice) - but not the protocols and not the support processes.
Note that in order to be able to initiate, support and foster online communities properly, a deep knowledge of their structure and components is required. Mynatt et al. (1997) stated that 'neither technology or sociality can supplant the need for the other, and the two are conceptually inseparable'. Between the two constitutional elements of an online community, the agents and the medium, Stanoevska-Slabeva and Schmid (2000) define the following division of tasks: The agents communicate through the electronic medium and thereby generate shared content and meaning. The electronic medium provides communication channels without time and space barriers and takes over the task to save and provide availability of content, i.e. provides the memory of the community. The enabling electronic medium connects, i.e., mediates between the members of the community, by providing a metaphor of a physical meeting place. Given its computational capability it is also capable of taking over tasks such as search, bundling and organizing of content as well as coordination of communication. In summary, the medium provides a metaphor of the community meeting place together with all the organizational structures to facilitate interaction.
To concretize and develop the concept of the online learning community, and to provide a Reference Model, the Community is inter-linked to the novel learning paradigm as Figure 1 illustrates.
Based on the generic definition for online communities we define them as associations of agents, who share a common language, world, and values in terms of a pedagogical approach and pursue a common learning goal by communicating and cooperating through electronic media during the learning process. The common interest in this type of community is the common interest in learning.
The NetAcademy Project was initiated by Schmid and colleagues (1997, 1998, 1999) at the MCM Institute to make use of the new, interactive and ubiquitous information medium. The background of the NetAcademy is the academic sector, and hence the primary target audiences are not only researchers and students but also practitioners all over the world. The NetAcademy (NA) (www.netacademy.org) is a platform for the world-wide knowledge exchange among the scientific community as a community; it is also an interactive handbook for various research fields. The access site of the NetAcademy provides a directory for the contents of the entire academy, including all of its research fields. This platform will be enhanced to several learning communities by integrating existing isolated solutions (i.e. databases for virtual courses) and the NA Resources (for example, the glossary and the online library). Furthermore, it is a personal network for students, lecturers of a class, alumni, and researchers in a specific domain.
A similar example is ISWorld Net (http://www.isworld.org) which provides information management scholars and practitioners with a single entry point to resources related to information systems technology and promotes the development of an international information infrastructure that will improve the world's ability to use information systems for creating, disseminating, and applying knowledge. ISWorld Net will become a knowledge repository providing access to information related to research, teaching, and professional activities. Furthermore, it aims to be a learning organization where learning can take place through immediate worldwide availability of examples, and summaries of phenomena, explanations, and discussions.
The difference of the NetAcademy concept is that as an open platform it hosts several kinds of communities and provides a component-based design so that a new community can be easily generated by selecting and using the different NA templates.
A first objective of the NetAcademy is the design and use of the new information medium as a storage and production medium for academic information and for scientific communities. A second objective is to design the information process in such a way that the NetAcademy medium gradually adjusts towards a consistent, non-contradictory organization of knowledge for a domain. In doing so the NetAcademy becomes a machine whose results form a valid handbook of the knowledge within the respective domain including coverage of ongoing research activities in that domain (Schmid, et al. (1998)). In the initial phase (started 1997) of the NetAcademy Project, the Institute for Media and Communications Management (MCM) aims at establishing different NetAcademies (Sub-NetAcademies) covering its main areas of research (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Example of a NA Scientific Community
The contents of the NetAcademy have been organized (and also been displayed in the website design) under two coordinates:
In the last few years the notion of a virtual university has gained much popularity as discussed in Harasim (1995)). In some respects this concept is closely related to the characteristics of a NetAcademy. Just like a virtual university a NetAcademy also aims at supporting and directing research and education. Unlike a virtual university, however, the NetAcademy concept combines "offline" (on campus) and "online" (virtual) elements in study programs and courses, but stresses the goal of building a virtual reference knowledge medium for a certain domain to which a large number of researchers contribute.
The NetAcademy as a knowledge medium is integrated in its educational processes. The online library manages course material (e.g. case studies, pamphlets) which is used for knowledge generation from an educational point of view. At present online courses using different templates (mostly based on the groupware platform Lotus Notes as well as the course authoring tool Lotus LearningSpace) are used as teaching modules (e.g. a template for online team work, especially for dispersed teams in collaboration with other universities, a template for project seminars, a template for lector-oriented courses). The teaching modules are currently processed as isolated solutions and only connected via weblink. The further integration into the NetAcademy and the enhancement of further online learning community services is planned for the end of the year 2000.
Usually, in online learning communities more than one community exists. For example, similar to academic or corporate universities, campus-wide activities and social life can be differentiated from the activities in a classroom. Therefore, one may distinguish between the sub-communities of learning communities:
the "Campus Community" includes course management activities (e.g., applying for courses, choosing electives, offers and demands for internships, etc.) as well as social life and knowledge exchange activities that happen informally and are not initiated by any course design or didactic approach.
the "Classroom Community" identifies the formalized community of a class in a study program. Here, the learning takes place following a designed didactic approach. More or less concretized learning goals are planned for the knowledge exchange and transfer among the students that takes place in a more formal setting and can combine different learning methods. In a classroom community there may be further kinds of sub-communities, for instance, study groups or project teams who have to work on case or team assignments.
The web interface of the NetAcademy for learning communities is structured in two dimensions, as Figure 3 shows in an example for a specific MBA learning community:
Figure 3. NA Learning Community: MBA Platform
The key issue discussed in the next section is how learning can be implemented in a structured way in online communities and their media by linking learning processes and approaches into the media reference model.
The media framework for collaborative learning environments provides a means for the design and management of learning communities as well as the ICT-infrastructure. The media reference model of Schmid and Lechner (1999) distinguishes four action types, phases, and views (see Figure 4). The layers or views relate to the platform and this reference model describes, in a structured way, how a community is implemented on a channel system and the generic components it has.
Figure 4. Reference Model for Online Learning Communities
4.2 Views of the Reference Model
4.2.1 Community View
The community view defines the "organizational model" and deals with relevant aspects for modeling the community, i.e. the organizational structure of its shared roles and protocols, the underpinning interests and values, as well as its languages. It first details the model through which learning takes place in the community and then the protocols and roles associated with that model.
The protocols contain guidelines for activities in online learning communities in general. Within a protocol is described which roles are involved, which processes take place and which rules and norms are to be considered for the processes in the learning community and its sub-communities. Examples of protocols that organize the campus community are the following:
The protocols for the classroom community are didactic guidelines which determine the method approach of the learning. We distinguish four main types of Online learning methods: Online Teaching (teacher-centered methods), Online Tutorials (teacher-/system-centered / learner-centered), Online Assignments (learner-centered methods), and Online Discussions (team-centered methods). The different interaction mode is the key variable for this categorization, and the learning methods together with their instances are depicted in Figure 5 and subsequently explained.
These learning methods can be grouped according to the maturity of the learners and to how far the learning goals have been achieved. We distinguish three study categories (see Figure 6):
Each learning community applies one specific combination of learning methods or several of them. The specific combinations define the required services and processes which should be made available by the medium.
Roles describe the different types of memberships, including their rights and duties, that the agents in a learning community can possess. The campus community is constituted by these roles which organize campus-wide activities and are not related to a specific course or study program. The following table shows some examples for roles and their descriptions.
Table 1. Roles in Campus Communities
The roles forming the classroom community are mostly determined by the learning method which is designed for the course delivery in an online environment. In the following table are listed examples for two selected learning methods.
Table 2. Roles in Classroom Communities
The implementation view characterizes the "scenario model" and delivers the interactions in compliance with the community view so that the different learning scenarios take place, i.e. the combinations of learning methods and study categories which the community considers are relevant and necessary. Furthermore, it implements the community view specifications (the roles and protocols of the community) on the channels offered by the service layer. Therefore, this view connects the community view with the service view and determines the learning scenarios, e.g., it determines the "stage", the learning setting and the workflows organizing the learning processes.
Figure 7 illustrates some examples for the campus and the classroom community. For instance, in the classroom community the learning method online assignments can be used for a self-study category. In this view, the sequence of the method results in a workflow that implements the whole "scenario". A variety of different workflows—structured and unstructured—can be implemented using the generic services for the different interaction phases. The basic services attaching to the interaction phases are explained in the next section.
The implementation of the learning processes occurs by using the generic services of the service view which constitutes the "interaction model" of the community. It includes several basic services, for example, services for content management, for task analysis and learning objectives, for the negotiation and management of learning tasks and for the evaluation of the learning results. The different services are explained in terms of the specific phase in the interactions of the different scenarios. Four types of interactions may be distinguished: the knowledge phase (exchange information), the intention phase (signaling intentions), the contracting phase (commitments), and the settlement phase (actions).
In the Knowledge Phase, knowledge about the community and its members, the medium, or the knowledge domains is provided and communicated. The community members (e.g. lecturers, students, or alumni) may obtain knowledge about the behavior expected from them, about the communication channels on which to exchange information, and about the protocols and guidelines to follow in communication.
In the Intention Phase, agents of the community signal their intentions, developed from the knowledge provided in the knowledge phase, and from their desires and goals. For example, market services in the campus community provide channels for offers and demands of internships, self-organized study groups, or topics for theses. In the classroom community instructors plan and signal their learning objectives intended for the course.
In the Contracting Phase agents negotiate contracts to obtain commitments from the agents participating in the learning community. In some cases, this phase is more formalized and ends - in the case of success - with a "contract" (e.g. details, negotiations about a thesis, mentoring contracts, task lists of a study group).
In the Settlement Phase, services are provided for instructors, students and students groups to fulfill the intended learning objectives and tasks. For example, the learning tasks are processed by the students or student groups and the results (e.g. project report, expertise) are evaluated by defined feedback processes (e.g. review process, grading process).
Examples of services provided by the campus community are shown in the following table.
Table 3. Services provided by the Campus Community
The specific shape of the offered basic services for the classroom community will be determined by the applied learning method. Table 4 illustrates some examples.
Table 4. Services provided by the Classroom Community
The infrastructure view designs the "technological model" and provides communication, coordination and collaboration components. The implementation of media are community supporting platforms, which consist of software components providing the above services.
Software components supporting the campus community are based on internet technologies, for example, databases (e.g., Lotus Notes databases for yellow pages, "product catalogue" listing all courses, and seminars), asynchronous and synchronous communication media (e.g., email, chat, newsgroups, threaded discussions, videoconferencing tools), community tools, or content management systems and user profiling. The campus components provide channels for "added value information" (e.g. access to libraries, knowledge directories) as well as for communication and collaboration channels (e.g. chat, whiteboard, discussion forums).
To design the online classroom supporting the classroom community, one may utilise course authoring tools such as WebCT, Learning Space, Top Class, or WebCourse in a Box. Additionally, a variety of specific tools exist to support learning scenarios in a classroom, for example, grading tools for assessment, case generators, or project management tools. These can be used to offer channels for the classroom members, e.g. study folders for students and work folders for teachers which can contain task lists, personal information, or an individualized "electronic school bag".
It is evident that the technological model of learning community platforms should provide a set of tools, and a "toolbox" to offer the different services for the campus and classroom communities. The NetAcademy concept follows such a "toolbox-oriented" approach because it offers a variety of different NA Templates (see Figure 8) which can be arranged in a community platform to support scientific or learning communities. The architecture of the NetAcademy is component-based and the design for the web interface can be stored in a separate repository.
Figure 8.Component-based Infrastructure Design of the NetAcademy
Learning is facing new challenges in the digital age, and online learning communities are one means of coping with those challenges. By exploiting online learning communities, students can acquire a wide range of knowledge through efficient learning methods using such sources as web-based tutorials and assignments from the online library. A significant additional benefit is that one learns to use modern tools for knowledge-acquisition. From a didactic point of view, electronic learning communities offer attractive opportunities for a method mix. For example, a gradual transition directed to self-directed and collaborative learning which fosters the ability to apply acquired knowledge and to engage in critical reflection. In the electronic platform, students are given tools which enable them to plan their learning processes, carry them out, and evaluate and improve them. Meta-cognitive strategies can be promoted and, in contrast to discussion and reflection in a real classroom, knowledge can easily be documented and given an external form and subsequently be readily retrievable.
In order to take advantage of the potential of online communities the appropriate medium has to be built. Methods and implementation guidelines are required, which consider in an integrated manner pedagogical requirements as well as social and technological aspects of learning communities. The objective of this paper was to illustrate a generic reference model for online learning community supporting platforms. The reference model structures a learning community supporting platform in four layers, and it became clear that the different views are interdependent enabling the learning community to perform in appropriate ways.
The presented reference model for online learning communities can be applied to:
In a next step we will validate the NetAcademy and its reference model for an online learning community with MBA students.