Enabling Distributed Learning Communities Via Emerging Technologies - Part One


Emerging devices, tools, media and virtual environments offer opportunities for creating new types of learning communities for students and teachers. Examples of learning communities include a national mix of kids working together to create an online encyclopedia about Harry Potter’s fictional world, or groups of mentor and novice teachers in Milwaukee sharing ideas about effective instruction.

According to Bielaczyc and Collins (1999): “The defining quality of a learning community is that there is a culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding. There are four characteristics that such a culture must have: (1) diversity of expertise among its members who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop, (2) a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills, (3) an emphasis on learning how to learn, and (4) mechanisms for sharing what is learned. ... This is a radical departure from the traditional view of schooling, with its emphasis on individual knowledge and performance, and the expectation that students will acquire the same body of knowledge at the same time.”

Both opportunities and challenges arise in applying this model of learning communities to the instruction of students and to the preparation, induction and professional development of teachers. Before discussing these issues, delineating my perspective on educational improvement is necessary for understanding the assumptions underlying this two-part article, which will conclude in the October issue.

Six Assumptions About Educational Improvement

1. The most important challenge the U.S. education system faces is not preparing students to do well on high-stakes tests, but rather fostering 21st century skills and knowledge in learners so that they are prepared to participate in our global, knowledge-based civilization. This challenge requires that teachers understand what types of knowledge and skills are required in leading-edge workplaces (e.g., decision-making under uncertainty, just-in-time learning, information filtering). It also requires that teachers themselves are adept in generic higher-order cognitive, affective and social skills such as systems thinking, creativity and collaboration (Dede 2000; Dede 2003; Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2003).

2. Current professional development that focuses on how to optimize teachers’ knowledge and skills within the current high-stakes testing environment is tactically useful but strategically inadequate. To fully prepare students for 21st century work and citizenship, the U.S. education system must transform to provide support for inquiry-based learning in classrooms, in homes and in communities since this is how complex skills such as systems thinking, creativity and collaboration are acquired. Therefore, teacher professional development should include methods to improve the effectiveness of schools as they are, as well as focus on transformational strategies for developing deeper forms of content, new models of pedagogy, and organizational partnerships for learning with parents, businesses and community institutions (Dede 1998).

3. A major challenge in professional development is helping teachers unlearn the beliefs, values, assumptions and cultures underlying schools’ standard operating practices. Altering deeply ingrained and strongly reinforced rituals of schooling takes more than an informational interchange of the kind typical in conferences and in “make and take” professional development. Intellectual, emotional and social support is essential for unlearning and for transformational relearning that can lead to deeper behavioral changes which create next-generation educational practices (Dede 1999).

4. Learning communities are a model of classroom instruction and teacher professional development that enable a shift from the traditional transfer and assimilation of information to the creation, sharing and mastery of knowledge. As an illustration of this principle in educational improvement, learning communities involving active collaboration among researchers, teachers and policymakers to develop insights about educational innovation are more powerful than simply transferring data to educators about the outcomes of research and evaluation studies conducted elsewhere. Shifting from communicating information to collaborating on extending knowledge increases both the speed and the effectiveness of applying, refining and generalizing research and evaluation findings. Similarly, professional development processes based on learning communities mirror the types of shifts desired in educational practice - moving from passive assimilation of information to active construction of knowledge so that the innovation process is consistent with its content (Dede 2001).

5. “Distributed learning” is a term used to describe educational experiences that are distributed across a variety of geographic settings, across time and across various interactive media. Professional development via distributed learning involves an orchestrated mixture of face-to-face and virtual interactions, often centered on a “learning communities” model. Research shows that, in general, the integration of interactive media into student instruction or teacher professional development shapes the learning experiences of those involved (Dede, Whitehouse and Brown-L’Bahy 2002). Many participants in distributed learning situations report that the use of asynchronous learning environments (such as threaded online discussions, which do not rely on posting at the same time for interaction) positively affects their participation and individual cognitive processes for mastering knowledge and skills. In addition, participants indicate that synchronous virtual media (e.g., chat rooms and other interactive media requiring posting simultaneously) help them get to know members of the learning community with whom they might not otherwise individually interact, and also provide a clear advantage over asynchronous media in facilitating the online work of small groups.

6. Learning communities based on distributed learning strategies (i.e., “distributed learning communities”) are a powerful mechanism for this type of knowledge diffusion (Dede and Nelson, in press). Professional development initiatives should include all the information necessary for successful implementation of an exemplary practice, imparting a set of related innovations that mutually reinforce overall systemic change. Distributed learning communities provide a vehicle for this type of rich knowledge adaptation.

Thus, my vision for educational improvement is based on a multilayered model of distributed learning communities that aids educational practice, professional development and the transformation of schooling to foster 21st century knowledge and skills. In particular, emerging devices, tools, media and virtual environments provide novel ways to enable distributed learning models of teacher preparation, induction and professional development designed to achieve this vision for educational improvement.

Many groups have experimented with learning communities for teachers and for students confined to classroom settings and centered on the instructor and archival materials (in libraries and online) as the primary sources of knowledge. Transformational learning of 21st century skills, instead, requires a bolder strategy of infusing learning communities throughout students’ and teachers’ lives, orchestrating the contributions of many knowledge sources embedded in real-world settings outside of schools - but with teachers still in central roles as facilitators and interpreters. How might emerging information technologies enable such a vision?

A Vision of Distributed Learning Communities Based on Virtual Environments

The U.S. Department of Commerce (2003) recently published a volume on the evolution of learning technologies. The emerging capabilities this study delineates for computers and telecommunications have profound implications for the education of new and experienced teachers, as well as for the goals and processes of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Recognition and respect for teaching as a profession will depend, to a considerable extent, on whether the objectives, content, methods and assessment of teacher education, induction and professional development alter to take full advantage of these new technological capabilities. For example, over the next decade, three complementary interfaces will shape how people learn:

· The familiar “world to the desktop” interface, which provides access to distant experts and archives, as well as enables collaborations, mentoring relationships and virtual communities of practice. This interface is evolving through initiatives such as Internet2.

· Interfaces for “Alice-in-Wonderland” multi-user virtual environments in which participants’ avatars interact with computer-based agents and digital artifacts in virtual contexts. The initial stages of studies on shared virtual environments are characterized by advances in Internet games and work in virtual reality.

· “Ubiquitous computing” interfaces in which portable wireless devices infuse virtual resources as we move through the real world. The early stages of “augmented reality” interfaces are characterized by research on the role of “smart objects” and “intelligent contexts” in learning and doing.

Vignettes about teaching and learning in the future are a quick way to sketch how new information technologies based on these interfaces can enable distributed learning communities for students. These scenarios also implicitly indicate the types of content and skills professional development must include to aid teachers in achieving these visions. Further, the visions imply the types of 21st century distributed work environments for which we must prepare this generation of students. The following vignettes are drawn from and elaborate on my chapter in “2020 Visions” (U.S. Department of Commerce 2003). They are deliberately selected to emphasize informal learning in settings outside of school since this is potentially a substantial lever for educational improvement. My analysis after each vignette highlights four crucial dimensions of learning communities identified by Bielaczyc and Collins (1999): teacher roles and power relationships, shifts in discourse, shifts in centrality/peripherality and identity, and the changing role of knowledge.

The first vignette depicts the use of new devices, media and environments to involve families and social service professionals more deeply in students’ learning outside of school settings. Participants become members of distributed learning communities, which build student engagement and foundational knowledge so that, in classroom settings, teachers can conduct complex interpretive activities that develop higher-order cognitive, affective and social skills in a face-to-face learning community. Schools extend their typical hours of operation to become settings for collective community engagement and learning. (More information about the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s research on multi-user virtual environments is available at http://muve.gse.harvard.edu/muvees2003).

Immersion in Distributed Learning Communities

“Take a deep breath,” Maria told her mother, “then blow it out into the balloon.” Deftly, as soon as her mother had finished, Maria used a plastic clamp to pinch the neck of the special balloon, then measured its circumference. “All done, Mama!” she said, writing down the number in her notebook. Her mother sneezed and sank back on the couch with a smile of approval. Even though her sinuses ached, she enjoyed helping Maria with her daily homework. After all, participating in the allergy study project not only involved her child more deeply in school, but also subsidized the Web-TV box that provided the family access to sports and entertainment Web sites. Maria was logging her mother’s lung-capacity figure into the national database. Her little brother watched, fascinated by the colored visualizations displaying the ecological, meteorological and pollution factors that predicted today’s likely allergic responses in Maria’s region.

Maria’s teacher, Ms. Grosvenor, was also sighing out a deep breath at that moment, but not into a balloon. While eating a Ho Ho for breakfast, she was using her home computer to access a different part of the allergy study Web site - a section with guidance for teachers about how to cover today’s classroom lesson on regional flora. Her preservice education from a decade ago had provided some background in ecology; however, with fifth-graders now mastering material she had not learned until the end of high school, Ms. Grosvenor frequently used the site to update her knowledge about allergenic plants. Sometimes the sophisticated multilevel model that scientists and doctors were developing, which was made possible by microregional data supplied by learners nationwide, made her head ache for reasons other than sinuses. On the other hand, at least the students were quite involved in this set of science activities. Discussions in the Web site’s “Teachers’ Forum” reaffirmed her sense that most teachers would rather have the small hassle of keeping up with new ideas and instructional approaches than the constant struggle of trying to motivate pupils to learn boring lessons.

At the same time, in her elementary school’s computer lab, Consuela was threading her way through a complex maze. Of course, the maze was not in the lab, but in the “Narnia” MUVE (a text-based multi-user virtual environment developed around the stories by C.S. Lewis). Her classmates and fellow adventurers J'e and Fernando were with her utilizing Internet connections at their homes, as was her mentor - a small bear named Oliver (in reality, a businesswoman interested in mythology who assumed a Winnie the Pooh-like avatar in the virtual world of the MUVE). Mr. Curtis, the school principal, watched bemused from the doorway. How different things are in 2009, he thought, students and community members dispersed citywide, yet all together in a shared, fantasy-based learning environment a full hour before school even starts. (The school building opens early to enable lab-based Web use by learners like Consuela, whose family had no access at home.)

“The extra effort is worth it,” thought Mr. Curtis. Seven years into the technology initiative, student motivation was high (increased attendance, learners involved outside of school hours), and parents were impressed by the complex material and sophisticated skills their children were mastering. Even standardized test scores - which measured only a fraction of what was really happening - were rising. Most important, young girls such as Consuela were more involved with school. Because of their culture, Hispanic girls had been very reluctant to approach adult authority figures like teachers. But the MUVE altered this tradition by providing a “costume party” environment in which, wearing the “mask” of technology, children’s and teachers’ avatars could mingle without cultural constraints. “I wonder what this generation will be like in high school - or college,” mused Mr. Curtis.

Multiple Dimensions

For reasons of space, this article only focuses on two illustrative implications of such a distributed learning strategy for teacher education, induction and professional development. Bielaczyc and Collins (1999), however, discuss multiple dimensions of the skills teachers require to facilitate classroom-based learning communities. About teacher roles and power relationships, they write: “In a learning communities approach, the teacher takes on roles of organizing and facilitating student-directed activities, whereas in most classrooms the teacher tends to direct the activities. The power relationships shift as students become responsible for their own learning and the learning of others. Students also develop ways to assess their own progress and work with others to assess the community’s progress. In contrast, in most classrooms the teacher is the authority, determining what is studied and assessing the quality of students’ work.”

As the vignettes depict, in a distributed learning communities approach, teachers organize and facilitate not only student-directed activities, but also the involvement in learning of families and social service professionals. This requires professional development to build teacher capacity for greatly extended facilitative skills, as well as effective preparation for shifts in the power relationships of all involved in such an instructional process. An advantage of accomplishing such shared power and responsibility is that children are involved with many adults who share a commitment to their learning.

As a second important dimension, Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) delineate changes in discourse arising from the learning communities model: “In the learning communities approach, the language for describing ideas and practices in the community emerges through interaction with different knowledge sources and through co-construction and negotiation among the members of the community. Also, learning communities develop a common language for more than just content knowledge and skills. The community develops ways to articulate learning processes, plans, goals, assumptions, etc. In contrast, in most classrooms the teacher and texts tend to promulgate the formal language to be learned.”

Shifts in the nature of discourse also have implications for teacher education, induction and professional development. The spectrum of discourse when participants vary from parents to scientists is considerably broader than the narrow models of discourse usual in texts. For teachers to negotiate vocabulary and articulation processes common across this learning community is challenging, and requires preparation and apprenticeship. An advantage of surmounting this challenge is that students then will encounter richer, more uniform levels of discourse across the multiple adults involved in their learning outside of school. In particular, students’ exposure to complex oral and written language in family and community settings enhances the development of reading skills and literacy.

In October, the second part of this article will discuss another example of students in a distributed learning community - this time based on the emerging technologies of augmented reality and ubiquitous computing. The article also will describe the next steps for our society to realize this vision of educational improvement.

Acknowledgements: This article is modified from a study commissioned by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future and published in the proceedings of the 2004 Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education Conference.


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Partnership for 21st Century Skills. 2003. "Learning for the 21st Century." Washington, D.C. Online: www.21stcenturyskills.org.

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.