Creativity, Imagination and the World-Wide Web
There can be little doubt that, in the new Millennium, education will be more important than ever. The increasing rate of change in society, and the escalating penetration of, and dependence on, the products of advanced technology, all require more of us to learn more merely to cope. Those who wish to do more than cope soon discover the need not only for deeper knowledge but also for broader education across more subjects.
The increasing rate of change also puts a premium on creativity and imagination. The more quickly things change, the more creative and imaginative we have to be to keep up. The more things change, the harder it becomes to attain a position from which to cope with what we have, let alone to take the next step beyond what we have. Further progress requires increased creativity. As pointed out by the Economist (1999b), these are matters of especial concern for all those involved in high-technology activities.
The World-Wide Web is seen as one way of improving various aspects of education. The Web’s widespread availability allows for wider access than traditional structures. Its choice of entry points allows its users to bypass education’s traditional ‘owners’ and ‘gatekeepers’. The Web also has the capability to enliven the educational experience, although there is little sign of this at present. Much of what the Web offers with educational intent seems designed to program the learner with standard chunks of undifferentiated knowledge. Whatever benefits this may have, it seems unlikely to help in coping with a complex and sophisticated world and, more emphatically, it seems unlikely to encourage either creativity or imagination.
Starting from the position that the Web will be used for education (no matter what its quality), and that currently it is not used particularly effectively (either in delivering high quality education or in encouraging creativity and imagination), the paper seeks to show that:
1. The Web can be used to deliver high-quality education, and
2. That it can do so in a way that encourages creativity and imagination.
The approach taken is to show that there is at least one area of the Web where it is used effectively to deliver service of a high quality and in a way that encourages both creativity and imagination. This area is e-commerce. Next, e-commerce itself is examined to show that there are ideas and practices that can be taken from it to be transferred with benefit to education. Finally, the style of education that would result from this is described. In this way, the paper shows constructively that there are ways in which the Web can be used to deliver education in a style that is enhanced in desirable ways and not just to deliver it in a style that is both dull and dulling.
This way of using the Web for education differs from those previously adopted: it provides not only a new style of usage but also a way that is made better by taking advantage of the delivery medium. The approach has been described previously in a paper presented at the 7th ISSEI Conference by Marshall (2000), and this paper is an extended and modified version of that one. Its basis in the transfer of ideas from outside education to education is mirrored by the way in which creativity can be encouraged by the transfer of ideas within education, as described, for example, by Brna and Cooper (2000).
From E-commerce to Education
There are few areas of activity on the Web that are as vibrant and innovative as e-commerce. This section presents descriptions of a selection of e-commerce applications, all of which have been chosen because the ideas they embody can, with benefit, be transferred to education. At the level of the metaphor underlying the e-commerce applications, it is not hard to detect the potential for transference. The metaphor on which most of the applications are based is the ‘go-between’ or intermediary. The intermediary acts to introduce producers and consumers, or to provide services that are of value to both. Mediation of this type can be as helpful in the realm of education as in that of e-commerce.
A standard environment
Installing GuruNet (which can be found at www.guru.net) on a networked computer provides the user of that computer with an environment within which it is possible to click on any word in a document, no matter how it was created, to cause a window to appear containing information associated with the word. When clicking on a word, a special click is used (the ALT key is held down during the click) to distinguish a click intended for GuruNet from clicks with meanings specific to specific applications. The computer must be attached to the Internet, because the associated information, which appears in a pop-up window, is drawn from the network. The reference information provided in this way can have one of several sources which are: a dictionary, an encyclopaedia, a company directory, a computer encyclopaedia, a health directory and a link collection.
A dictionary definition is supplied by default, although if the selected word is, for example, a proper noun that could be the name of a company, GuruNet does its best to provide the appropriate information from its company directory which, in this case, includes the company’s description, share price and so on. GuruNet can be guided towards the provision of the appropriate reference information by first selecting a category from the choice of sources that it offers. In this way, it can deal with both computer jargon and specialist medical vocabulary. It also allows collections of links to be associated with a word, so that, within the GuruNet environment, users have the opportunity to create their own environments.
This system clearly has considerable educational value as it stands. It creates an information environment capable of providing all sorts of assistance to the learner. By allowing the addition of links, it also provides the capability to create further environments which can themselves be explored for educational purposes. In this way, GuruNet works at two levels. It can be seen as an environment for managing information, but it can also be used to create environments from the information that it is managing.
GuruNet needs little or no adjustment to become a valuable Web-based educational tool. It could be extended by the addition of further knowledge sources, but this would be no more than a minor change to the system as it stands.
The standard way of bringing some order to the huge amounts of essentially unstructured information available from the Web is to use a search engine such as Lycos (www.lycos.com) or Yahoo (www.yahoo.com). By indexing the Web, they allow it to be searched as if it were one large database, rather than a disparate collection of information held by many Web servers scattered across the Internet. Because search engines were so successful in simplifying the use of the Web, they became the first point of call for many people. For this reason, with the advent of e-commerce, the major search engines have also become ‘portals’, that is, the first point of call for consumers looking to make their purchases on the Web.
Even though search engines undoubtedly make it simpler to search the Web, a typical search engine enquiry, in much the same way as any enquiry put to a large database, is liable to produce unsatisfactory results in that it produces either no useful response at all or far too many responses to be helpful. This is just as true for those seeking to use the Web for educational purposes as it is for e-commerce’s customers. One way to improve this situation is to think not in terms of the hypertext held by the Web but, rather, to think in terms of the so-called hyperquestions of Banathy (1996). This change moves the emphasis from searching for answers in a maze of hypertext to, crucially, asking experts on a topic, or the originators of information on a topic, questions about that topic. Linking the information on a topic to experts on that topic is the vital step which makes possible a dialogue between those wishing to learn and those who already understand. Once communication is established, experts can respond to queries directly, or can suggest various ways in which a query might be reframed in order to elicit a more helpful response. What amounts to a hyperquestion capability has been implemented in the Abuzz facility of the on-line edition of the New York Times.
The general situation created by harnessing the educational potential of hyperquestions in these circumstances might best be described as a populated environment, that is, an environment populated by experts ready and able to respond to the kinds of queries that learners might have.
Looking after learners
E-commerce has established markets on the Web. It also supports techniques to make them effective and provides services to ensure that they run smoothly. Without necessarily appealing to the more commercial aspects, there are ideas of educational value that can be taken from this.
Chemdex (to be found at www.chemdex.com) can, rather tersely, be described as a go-between for buyers and sellers in the fragmented vertical market for life sciences research products (Economist, (1999a)) . A vertical market is a market that deals with a specific, narrow area, such as research products for the life sciences: a fragmented market is a market in which the buyers and sellers cannot easily make contact with each other. In these circumstances, all the members of the community involved in the vertical sector can benefit from the existence of a well-known go-between to link them, no matter whether they are buyers or sellers. Chemdex has managed to achieve this in its specific sector by using the Web to advertise its presence widely to interested parties, and then to link buyers and sellers. After collecting information about the members of the community involved in the sector, it can put buyers in touch with appropriate sellers and sellers in touch with interested buyers. The result is to introduce real competition to the sector, with all the benefits that brings.
It is not difficult to conceive of education on the Web as a fragmented vertical market. The producers and consumers of education are often poorly linked. It is hard for consumers to find exactly what they want. It is hard for producers to target the appropriate consumers. There is little competition to encourage the production of good quality products. A go-between performing a function corresponding to that of Chemdex could deal with all these shortcomings. Once such a service had converted a fragmented vertical market to an integrated vertical market, further services could be offered. To give one example, the infrastructure services available in a real-world study environment, including class lists (lists of people studying the same thing), tutorials (groups of people discussing the same thing), and ready access to expertise (via hyperquestions) could be made available to consumers of education on the Web.
On another topic, Ganesan (1999) has pointed out that, although transactions on the Web can proceed as expected, when things go wrong there is at present little help to be had. Inevitably things do go wrong, and services need to be available to deal with them when they do. He has coined the term ‘messyware’ for the software that would be available to deal with such problems.
Hewlett-Packard is one of the companies offering services to e-commerce (at www.hp.com/e-services). One of the services it offers is to act as a dynamic broker specialising in service aggregation for both consumers and producers. What this means is that anyone with a requirement that cannot be directly satisfied or a problem that cannot be directly solved can contact Hewlett-Packard’s e-services which will provide them with a broker. This broker will put together, from an existing pool, the services needed to satisfy the requirement or solve the problem. In this way, Hewlett-Packard has created its own ‘messyware’ capable of providing remedial services.
In an educational context, all sorts of things can go wrong, even at the level of individuals and their programmes of study. Messyware could provide a coherent way of dealing with the kind of problems that individual learners encounter, for example, when they need to change their programme of study, when they have academic difficulties and when they encounter administrative problems.
By transferring these ideas to the provision of education on the Web, it would be possible to support not just populated environments but populated environments in which individuals would experience personalised and caring attention.
The educational benefits that can be gained by transferring ideas taken from e-commerce can be summarised by saying that we can, progressively, create environments, populated environments, and individualised, supportive, populated environments.
GuruNet demonstrates the possibility of providing an all-embracing support for the learner by mobilising resources already available on the Web. Further, it shows that it is possible not only to manage this educational environment but also to create micro-environments within it, so that learners can construct their own environments or explore those created by others.
The hyperquestion idea and its implementation allow us to create populated environments by linking the creators of information to the information they have provided. Since the key idea in implementing a populated environment is the link, populated environments can be created at both the level of GuruNet and at the level of the environments created by it. In a populated environment, problems can be dealt with by addressing queries to relevant experts rather than by composing generalised database queries which seldom elicit a reasonably helpful response. An expert may return the answer, but can also respond with suggestions that can help with improving the question or reframing it in a more appropriate way. This shows that a populated environment can make available existing expertise and intelligence, and can do so in a way that is sensitive to the needs of each individual.
Environments that also contain intermediaries such as go-betweens and brokers can, in addition, provide supporting infrastructure and personalised problem-solving services. Infrastructure can be provided to the point that the Web, as a global, virtual university, could possess an academic infrastructure comparable to that of a real-world university. Problem solving services can be offered to the extent that the difficulties that any student could reasonably be expected to encounter could be dealt with. A combination of go-between and linked advisor could even provide each student with a personal tutor able to act in the traditional manner but also capable of pro-active intervention.
The means of providing education outlined in the previous section could encourage and support creativity. It draws on creative ways of doing things in one domain and, in a creative act, identifies useful aspects and transfers them to another domain. The result can also be used creatively.
It is creative both to construct and to explore environments. An environment needs to be constructed to a purpose, but there are no detailed instructions on how to do this: it has to be done in some creative way. Exploring environments, and their limits, are well-known as paths to creativity (Boden, 1993). The ability to create links in an existing environment, for example, to link previously unconnected concepts, provides opportunities both to practise and to experiment with creativity.
A populated environment provides similar opportunities, this time through dialogue and discussion with the occupants of the environment. A hyperquestion addressed to an expert may, rather than eliciting the answer (which may, indeed, not be known) produce a response such as: ‘Do you think that what you really need to know is . . .’, or ‘Do you know about . . .’. The opportunity to take part in a creative dialogue is a clear stimulus toward creativity. It is also possible to link together of a group suitable for the discussion or elaboration of an idea. This provides the learner with an opportunity to observe the creative process in action as well as to participate in it. Perhaps more than the opportunity to participate in a dialogue, this provides real inspiration for creativity. Opportunities of the kind described here are not so readily available in the real world. It is implicit that environments that can support hyperquestions possess accessible exemplars of creativity.
Large environments that can support intermediaries will, since they necessarily involve a large, diverse, connected community, almost certainly manifest the need for all kinds of services that can be provided by intermediaries. The discovery, realisation and provision of these services will also provide the stimulus for creativity as well as the opportunity to practise it.
We can summarise this by saying that the way of providing education that has been described in this paper uses methods that are creative and that will support creativity. It supplies tools that can be used creatively, contains patterns for creativity and is likely to contain stimuli to inspire creativity. Within an educational framework of this kind, individuals can create their own education, and can do so in a creative way: they can practise creativity in an environment that encourages its deployment.
E-commerce shows very clearly that the Web can be used creatively, and that the opportunities provided by the Web can encourage creativity. This paper shows that these possibilities can be harnessed for education quite as well as they have been for e-commerce.
The creation of environments for education is not new, but the opportunity to create them by linking items chosen from a global choice of existing material is new. Simply connecting to GuruNet provides a ready-made range of educational support environments. Populated environments are not new either, but it is new to be able to construct them, merely with the use of links, in a way that can, potentially, draw on all the expertise and experience in the world. Again, the hyperquestion idea is fully developed and ready for this use, and implementations are available to be inspected. This way of proceeding would seem to be not only more suitable but also more rewarding than one based on the use of, for example, artificial intelligence. Finally, the idea of ‘messyware’ provides a way of ensuring that the environments created are caring because it can ensure that each individuals’ particular needs and problems are recognised and addressed. This area is currently of great interest in e-commerce, as the importance of fulfilment becomes ever more apparent.
It is encouraging to find that the Web can be used to support education and creativity, even if the ideas need to be transferred from outside the domain of education. In the end, though, it is equally encouraging to find that it can be done in a way that is caring and humane.