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Manchester Metropolitan University
John Smith Forum Trust,
Mike Hough Forum Trust,
(This paper was presented at the ECER conference, Crete, 2004)
This paper addresses the educational challenge of information technology in relation to education and democratic practice by drawing upon the experiences of the CIEL project funded by the Dept. for Education and Science (£200,000) under the national 'Cybrarian' programme (£35 million; http://www.dfes.gov.uk/cybrarianproject/ ). The CIEl project was carried out by researchers at the Forum Trust (www.theforumnorwich.co.uk) with Schostak of MMU as consultant.
The CIEL project is a study of the challenges involved in sharing practice across organisations, both within an educational sector and across sectors, to improve the use of e-learning. Research has been carried out at both strategic and practical levels through linked 'case studies' focussing on a range of 'study areas'. The outcomes are a series of e-learning developments and reports producing results which inform on key issues in preparation for roll out across the UK.
The CIEL project provides the context within which key issues concerning the democratization of schools and learning across communities can be explored at personal, professional, local and international levels. The CIEL project employs an open source collaborative content management system called TIKI. This is a secure environment providing on-line wordprocessing, e-mail, chat rooms, voting systems, the streaming of music, video and computer conferencing. This collaborative environment is highly flexible and open ended. It enables children to explore their own interests and collaborate in ways that are fluid, seemingly anarchic. Teachers have been amazed at the sophistication, the creativity, the co-operation to which this has given rise. Indeed, parents have been drawn into the project by the fascination that the environment seems to hold for their children. The traditional relationships between teachers and pupils have been suspended in the on-line collaborative environment.
The Tiki environment was used by a middle school where aim was not so much embedded in policy as in a philosophical approach to collaboration, community and creativity. This raised a number of questions. What are the educational purposes? What is at stake in defining the purpose of education in one way rather than another? What kinds of changes are being sought? Who is making the decisions about resource allocation, educational needs and forms of provision? And why? Focusing in on East Anglia, it could be asked, is the aim of education to make rural areas in, say, Norfolk a 'knowledge society' or would some prefer to see it remain as a traditional 'agricultural society'? Of course, this paper cannot hope to give answers to these questions, rather they are posed as a way of framing future research and development. In looking ahead at what kind of research might be undertaken for what purposes, some insight can be gained from the relatively recent past.
Many of the ideas that are now gaining currency in on-line education have been around several times before. Many countries, such as Finland saw very early that their survival as an economy in a globalising world was to be as a knowledge society (Framework Curriculum for the Comprehensive School 1994, Ministry of Education, Helsinki; Education, Training and Research in the Information Society: a national strategy 1995, Ministry of Education). Their strategy was to move away from a national curriculum in order to focus on the values and principles underpinning education in schools and communities (Norris et al 1995) and to integrate this across society through research (see also, Niemi 2003). Sadly, at the same time the UK was moving in the opposite direction! At the heart of the finnish innovation was the understanding that the range of contemporary knowledge was too great to be encapsulated in a common core curriculum and the demands for creativity, innovation and skills meant that people had to be able to be flexible problem solvers in order to work within complex, rapidly changing global environments. The old structures did not work, they believed, and thus new ones were sought.
Something of this was expressed by Schostak (1988) drawing upon his experiences in evaluating the Finnish National Curriculum as well as researching the impact of the new technologies in the UK throughout the 1980s:
The cultural richness of the world is immense. The computer, because of its networking capabilities, offers the curriculum developer gateways into an immense and open frontier of cultural experiences. Some will be fearful of this, wanting to close down possibilities in order to retain their own view of culture. Others will see it as an exciting change to explore and develop new ways of seeing and expressing experience in negotiation, or discussion, or dialogue, with their fellow explorers, both adults and children together.
(Schostak 1988 p. 25)
Information technology provides the opportunity for interesting new infrastructures and models for learning. In particular it offered the opportunity of:
breaking into the hidden, controlling structures of schooling. Its parallel in computing is that of 'hacking' into a system. Hacking is computer slang for the act of using one computer to break into the data banks of another. It is also used to describe the processes of breaking into software which is copyrighted and typically protected in various ways, often by entry codes. As such, hacking is illegal. However, by hacking into systems or programs, the hacker is then able to gain access to hidden information and program structures and can manipulate that information or those program structures. Hacking reveals the hidden. With access to knowledge the hacker then is in a position to act against, or act upon, the hidden structures.
(Schostak 1988 p. 4-5)
Hacking over time has become a respectable and important part of the process through which systems are tested and refined. The illegal breaking into systems is currently known as 'cracking' or simply as 'criminal'. Similarly, the notion of hacking into the curriculum and structures of schooling can be seen as positive process, indeed, as a metaphor for individual and community agency in order to transform the curriculum for personal and community purposes, to gain 'ownership', to enliven, to generate the conditions for creativity and change. In short, to innovate. This possibility has recently been re-echoed by Hargreaves (2003). There is thus an important question at the back of this renewed interest in information technology: why has there been so little impact on curriculum and school organisation over the last 20 years despite so much research and the recycling of enthusiasms and ideas concerning the importance of information technology?
For a range of answers to this, one can turn to the many sociological studies of the social functions of schooling that have been carried out and more particularly to the ways in which innovations have been implemented (c.f., Pawson and Tilley 1997). Drawing upon these approaches Schostak (2002) has described the design features appropriate to generate the conditions under which an innovation can be implemented. Crudely, and briefly this involves ensuring the following key dimensions are appropriately aligned and mutually supportive:
Innovations, if they fail, will fail because they have neglected one or more of these dimensions. Thus the following will sketch an approach that attempts to ensure that each of the dimensions for embedding innovations is taken into account.
In order to embed e-initiatives a complementary range of activities need to be facilitated. Based upon the insights gained from the CIEL project the following are suggested as necessary to understanding how to do this.
In the research and development work with Oldtown Middle School the notion of a community has been an important theme and issue. In contemporary multicultural, multiethnic, multi-faith, multilingual societies what counts as a community? Research that explores this in relation to the new possibilities for communication, 'virtual meetings', 'chat rooms', distributed networks of friends, people interested in similar topics and so on is needed in order to explore the new mechanisms, infrastructures, resources underpinning reconceptualisations of education and its delivery. One such focus on community and knowledge was put forward by Schostak in terms of 'intelligence communities':
Intelligence communities have always existed and are vital as tools for education and schooling. They are not the invention of the modern technologies. Nor are they idealistic deschooling conceptions. They are practical and already functioning groupings of enthusiasts and like-minded people. Individuals tend to seek out others, or associate with others having similar interests. In conversation (recall that one meaning of intelligence involves 'intercourse' or 'communication') they share views and criticise or explore the implications of certain views. In short, intelligence communities create intelligence, that is 'know-how', 'critical insight', 'informed opinion', 'intersubjectively validated facts', and other intelligent behaviours or products.
(Schostak 1988 p. 227)
This pre-figured the use by the children of the Tiki framework as briefly described above. They are also fundamental to the development of communities of practice appropriate for education as described in the final section of this paper. A community of practice requires access to information of all kinds. However, intelligence and knowledge are more than just 'information'. Information has to be processed in various ways, critiqued and evaluated in relation to purposes. Thus:
Simple access to information is not enough. The part that educationists can play is to provide resources for critical reflection and communicative action. This is where the deliberate recognition of, and function of, intelligence communities is required. Schools as they presently exist can be redefined as resource centres providing centralised meeting places for individuals wishing to be placed into face-to-face contact with others sharing similar interests and concerns.
(Schostak p. 237)
The role of educationists to support, facilitate, guide is critical but not sufficient. The new technologies cross the boundaries of time and place thus enabling the formation of communities not necessarily founded on or limited to face-to-face, temporally fixed, geographically defined spaces. What are the new practices that need to be developed in order to work in these new environments? How, in short, can we build communities of practice appropriate to the opportunities afforded by the new technologies?
As one example of what may be done, Stephen Heppel at Ultralab has sited a 'school' in a shopping mall shop unit in Christchurch, New Zealand, supported by on-line technologies. It transforms the notion of 'school spaces', enables them to be flexibly and cheaply sited to meet changing needs and circumstances as well as integrating learning into the institutions of everyday life rather than separating them in specialised places. Furthermore, the more flexible, virtual and time-free that on-line educational services become the less we will feel the need to send thousands of children to schools at the same time each morning hence reducing the travel and congestion costs that we see repeated in every city and town of the world. The research question then is, how can cities be utilised more creatively in order to support ubiquitous, experiential and contextualised learning and virtual collaborative learning communities? One such conceptual model was developed by Schostak (2002) in collaboration with Ken Fraser of City Networks
2. Children, teachers, creativity and the curriculum
Papert (1980:19) wanted children to be 'the active builders of their own intellectual structures'. He developed technology based educational approaches to support this. The philosophies and practices of educationists from, say Dewey (1938) through to Stenhouse (1975), and Rogers (1969) or Freire (1970) have with different emphases and purposes shifted the locus from teacher to learner. The developments that have led to the rapid development of globalised information technologies, the internet and its varieties of communities have in many ways echoed this shift. However, in order to study what is going on and in order to develop the appropriate curricular and educational structures and environments alternative approaches need to be considered and tested. Emergence theory (cf Johnson 2002) seems to provide an interesting approach to the understanding of and formation of on-line communities of practice. The implications for on-line curriculum development, teaching strategies and learning strategies are far reaching. How may curricula for diversity and the intelligence communities that emerge be supported through on-line communication infrastructures? What communities of practice need to be facilitated in order to produce and embed the conditions for the development of creativity?
3. infrastructures and resources in order to ensure sustainability
The kinds of qualitative change that are being promoted in this paper need to have the right level of technological infrastructure in order to support them. The current levels of connectivity are barely adequate, in many cases as we have seen they are seriously inadequate. In order to move to the next generation of educational environment requires connectivity levels of 5 gigs and above for a traditional school serving 1000 pupils and staff assuming all pupils and staff will be on-line employing multimedia communications both internal and external to the school. What other community configurations are needed or are possible that may reduce the need for 1000 plus individuals to be at school in the same place at the same time?
Infrastructure is critical. Without it nothing will happen. . At first sight, the aspiration is there, as a recent speech by Valerie Hannon, Director of the Innovation Unit has reported (2004). She identifies 3 potential strategies to move towards the vision. The first is 'leave it to individual schools'. However 'in many parts of the country we have gone past that and we shouldn't revert'. Secondly, 'forms of brokerage' which might involve 'school improvement partners' which might 'assist the creation of inclusive networks which continue to problem solve some of the issues networked communities are currently grasping with.' Thirdly,
Or, were we perhaps to be really bold and strategic, we would embrace networks wholeheartedly, with federated arrangements dedicated to realising the aspiration of a personalised learning system and one which is structured to be self-organising and profoundly innovative; involving not just children's services but also arts and creative organisations in flexible ways.
The aspiration is important. However, it again misses one vital point, that without the infrastructure supporting the network in ways that remove connection ceilings the educational leap into the new generation learning environments will not take place.
4. Continuous Professional Development as a way of embedding change
Information technology and its gradual integration into the fabric of schools implies progressive innovations at a variety of levels. At a physical, architectural, level school buildings are slowly being transformed. Yet, typically when teachers think about giving lessons across a number of schools their model is still that of the teacher at the front of the class leading a lesson, albeit by video conferencing. How can we break into or 'hack into' these traditional programmes in order to bring about new mechanisms, procedures and processes of schooling? There is now a wide acceptance among teachers that continuing professional development is required. Moreover, Action Research has been found by many schools to be a professionally acceptable way of encouraging teachers to think about and change their practices with regard to information technology. It would seem therefore that integrating CPD with whole school action research projects may be a way forward.
Action research has been employed as a vehicle for embedding and evaluating cultural change in many contexts and kinds of organisation. Somekh at MMU, for example, is currently being funded by the DfES (2003-06) to evaluate the ICT Test Bed Project. Its early results are to be published on the Becta website early in the 2004 academic year. Action research has been an important strand in this evaluation. In another project (The Pedagogy with E-Learning Resources Project) currently sponsored by the General Teaching Council for England involves intensive action research in collaboration with four schools in Manchester and Bolton during the first two years, and teacher-researchers and pupil-researchers from these schools will work with the university-based researchers to lead work in up to 100 further schools during the third year. These and other projects have already developed expertise at embedding action research into the implementation and evaluation of innovations in the context of e-initiatives. Such approaches need to be drawn more systematically into the whole project of bringing about the next generation of schooling integrated into on-line systems that have the kind of infrastructure described in 3 above (c.f. Niemi 2003. This level of innovation based on leading edge broadband infrastructures (where gigabits not megabits are the connection rates available) has still not yet been tried despite the technologies having been commercially available for several years
5. cultural paradigms
There are features of the internet and its on-line communities that indicate the emergence of new cultural paradigms that are based on horizontal networks of association, peer-to-peer, point-to-point flows of information and communication that are neither time nor place dependent. The emergent feature of these networks are that they are self-organising rather than hierarchically designed and controlled. The Oldtown paper described the impact of one such experiment in a school. However, the potential for use beyond the school gates was already signalled in this small experiment. It is at the stage when the infrastructure impacts across communities and includes organisations other than schools (in the private, public and voluntary sectors) that the innovative aspects of the new technologies are most likely to be felt. A key research question is how they are to be integrated and managed and what will be the impact on schooling? This question will become all the more urgent as the kinds of infrastructure described above are embedded in national and international life with cultures forming on the basis of the kinds of connectivity that they sustain across time and place.
6. the blurring of boundaries as between school, home and their communities
The blurring of boundaries has already been raised as between school, home and other institutions. However, boundaries geographically as well as time are erased. Time in traditional schools is regulated, chopped into sections, with people acting according to the sounding of bells. It is even used as a basis for reward and punishment where unruly pupils are deprived of 'their own time' (detention) and the 'good' rewarded with leisure time. How will time, work and leisure be managed in the new on-line universe?
The essential message that comes through the CIEL research is that for a change to be accepted a community of practice that embeds the change needs to evolve, otherwise prevailing cultural and organisational practices will undermine it. The Oldtown example is a good instance of the first steps in the emergence of a community of practice. By integrating the above ideas a model can be conceived that creates the conditions that enables change but does not impose a particular vision but creates a real place where visions can be expressed, negotiated and acted upon. However, the 'place' in question is both on-line and off-line. That is, it involves and connects real individuals, communities and educational providers (schools, colleges, libraries, creative and cultural organisations as well as businesses that have an interest in the provision of content, VLEs, MLEs and appropriate tools of various kinds). This place, for simplicity of terminology we will call an educational community of practice, an ECoP. This is not to say that an ECoP has a single homogeneous vision. Rather it provides the necessary material and practical underpinning to enable the communications through which educational visions appropriate for a given locality, region, nation or international collaboration (or any combination of these) can be formulated and where learning can take place at any time, anywhere for anyone.
Drawing upon the discussions in this and the previous papers a provisional outline of the features of an ECoP can be set out:
An ECoP is a 'place' and not a space
It has geography and time encapsulated into it. It is somewhere for people to 'hang out', like a 'park', a 'club', a 'neighbourhood'. It is all of these things and more besides. It should be sufficiently attractive to people, yet safe. It is open and flexible like a park, with things to do, with people to meet.
An ECoP is a newly emerging paradigm
It is essentially self organising, involves sharing, is inclusive, democratic and enables the building of trust throughout the community. Such communities already exist across the internet and the Oldtown experiment drew upon many of the features just outlined of these communities. The paradigm is cultural to the extent to which it involves people valuing and negotiating with each other how to behave within the environment. It is a 'logical paradigm' to the extent to which it is the product of the logic of information and communications structures and networks. It is newly emerging to the extent that its complexity means that no single individual can control and impose a particular logic upon it. Its logic is that of emergence and is the subject of theories of emergence.
The logic and functioning of the ECoP involves sharing in a much more extensive and sophisticated way than has hitherto been considered. Sharing is much more than a simplistic strategy of building interactivity into a given learning tool or environment. It involves individuals and groups (pupils, teachers, parents, policy makers and people from a wide range of organisations who have an interest in a given ECoP) engaging with each other, being productive and sharing the results in ways that contribute to personal, cultural and community development. This is to say that boundaries are blurred (as between school, home, government, workplace ….) and that creativity, innovation are as essential to the ECoP as are the ways in which members reflect upon the ways in which they should (ethically, justly, civilly) behave towards each other and what values to give to the products of the community based activities. Trust and the procedures necessary to the ECoP are therefore issues that require constant exploration and review by members. This seems to be the very definition of participative democracy and community itself. However, experience and research are required to explore these issues in practice. This research, however, is likely to have more in common with action research than with forms of disinterested research. Members themselves are involved in critical reflection with a view to influencing/improving the quality of action in the community.
An ECoP redefines the flows and effects of power and ownership
At its core, the ECoP enables person to person/point to point (P2P) relationships (n a much more extensive way than has hitherto been considered. What this means is that interrelationships are not constrained by hierarchical frameworks of control and organisation. For instance, one pupil in the case study school was chatting to his headteacher without knowing it. The relationship was friendly, informal and unconstrained by school formalities. Even when the headteacher made clear his formal role, this did not disturb the relationship. However, back in the school the usual formalities were again adopted. The ECoP thus offers the development of new relationships without thereby necessarily undermining relationships in other contexts. The value of this is to offer a different framework of opportunities for educational activities. It is a community where power resides in the network rather than a given individual. Similarly, hierarchies of knowledge give way to knowledge as part of the group 'commons'. This means that rather than there being hierarchies of ownership, ownership is also likely to be more distributed and that the flow of information is more fluid, open and thus accessible. At a simple level of project operation it was seen that a problem with the management of a project is that often there were the 'wrong people' at critical meetings. Given that all have access on an ECoP everyone can be present virtually (and asynchronously) and thus the full meeting content is available even to those who choose not to go. This means that transparency is embedded in the community structure. The dynamics of a community's (or projects') operation is thus radically different in an ECoP. The implications for education of these dynamics are yet to be adequately explored.
An ECoP transforms the role and status of the learner and the teacher
The ECoP is a safe place to explore citizenship. Schools, by their very nature, do not offer the opportunity to experience nor to explore citizenship as a practice where individuals are able to contribute to laws, form judgements, engage in decision making and implement actions that affect the community as a whole. An ECoP is founded upon such a practice. It is thus a test bed providing rapid feedback as to the consequences of action.
An ECoP cannot work without contribution and commitment by all members. Citizenship, and thus considerations of the meaning of 'good' citizenship, is critical. Each citizen is inevitably drawn into discussion and problem solving as the community evolves to meet the interests and demands of its various members. The recognition of contributions by members to the community becomes the basis for reputation, where recognised 'good' practice, 'good' contributions generates the basis for influence, leadership, status. Learning is thus a community business. It is expected that the role of the teacher in this will change according to how the community responds to contributions by the teacher. Indeed, who adopts the role of teacher and who adopts the role of learner is likely to change according to circumstance. The role of the professional educator is clearly open to discussion, research and experience.
An ECoP is a vehicle for productivity, production and dissemination
Since contribution is fundamental to the concept of the ECoP all members are expected to be productive and create products. How these are received by members generates the reputation of the productive contributor. Given the distributed, always on, always available, nature of the network then dissemination across the system is inherent and immediate. What may be more at issue is how products are incorporated into the lives of members as the basis for educational and cultural experience and development. It is here that the voice of professional educators may be critical. The circumstances evoke memories of Stenhouse's Humanities Curriculum Project (HCP, see Stenhouse 1975). Here the role of the educator faced with controversial issues was not to be the arbiter of taste, belief or knowledge but rather to maintain the principles and procedures of rational debate. It would be interesting to explore a fully functioning ECoP in relation to the experience and practice of HCP.
An ECoP requires a tolerance of risk
Innovation and creativity cannot be attained without a degree of risk. The schooling issue is how that degree of risk is to be managed in relationship to the delivery of a curriculum (whether 'core' or otherwise). Are a school and its policy driven functions antithetical to the ethos, pr