Articles on Professional Development

The Internet: A Land To Settle Rather Than An Ocean To Surf
And A New "Place" For School Reform through Community Development

Margaret Riel

If it once took the whole village to raise a child, then can we expect a succession of isolated teachers to give students all the skills they need to productive members of society? Schools at present are more likely to exist on the outskirts rather than in the heart of communities. A "school" community is not rich enough to represent the skills and abilities of the "whole" village or villages of today.

In fact, very few of us live our lives in a place that we would characterize as a "village." Diverse economic and social patterns fragment our geographic communities and it is often technology that drives us apart. Many see the electronic "global village" as an overused clich of techno-romantics who promote technology as the modern solution to all problems, the source of linear progress towards a better world. These skeptics view electronic communities as a misguided and perhaps even dangerous escape from the problems of the "real" world-- a silicon snake oil. Computers, they argue, can only led to further alienation. The possibility remains, however, that the landscape of the Internet will provide different common spaces that will challenge us to reexamine the way we relate to one another.

In this paper, I want to bring the metaphorical talk about the Internet to the forefront and invite you think about cyberspace as physical place, as unsettled terrain that can provide the foundation for community building of very different kinds of villages. However, I do not want to equate the Internet location with the concept of village or community any more than a I would describe a valley as a village. I think that the Internet is best thought of as place, which is far more than a highway. It is a destination, a place where we can create new social designs. A community is a social construction among people who share common goals, values and practices.

Conceptions of the Internet

What are common conceptions of the Internet? At this point in time, I suspect that most people are focused on the rich resources to be brought back from the Internet. They see information age explorers, hunters, and miners return from cyberspace with bits of information to broker in a knowledge economy. The Internet Web is a rich mine or a vast wilderness to be exploited. These stories of great wealth create a sense of urgency--without connections to the Internet, you will miss the information gold rush of the 21st century.

These returning explorers bring back many different visions of what is possible in this new frontier. Most talk of the freely available valuable resources, but I think it is important to see past the resources to the land, to the social spaces. Conceptualizing the Internet as physical land on which you can build is very different from thinking about it as a web of resources, or superhighway to information, or waves to surf. The Internet is place without physical boundaries. A place where people can go to meet people with similar interests, to build new settlements, to share knowledge through teaching and learning, and to form communities around common practices. It is made possible by a move to digital information.

The digital age is changing the nature of our communication tools. One does not need to look past the daily newspaper to see descriptions of how household and business tools--the computer, television, phone, printer, fax, satellite dish and entertainment systems just to mention a few--are soon to be combined and transformed with highly competitive delivery services offered by phone, satellite, cable and computer networking companies. But it is the conceptual integration, not as widely discussed, that is the focus of this paper. Different forms of computer interaction--time-independent conversations, computer simulations, role playing fantasy games, and virtual reality--are being linked with communication tools such as email, text, audio & visual conferencing, and hypermedia communication in global contexts. This integration makes possible synchronous and asynchronous multi-person communication combined with collaboration. Role differentiation, issues of power, control and status are all aspects of the exchange. While some see computers as tele-democracies with increased sense of participation for all, this naive characterization ignores issue of access to the technology, the acquisition of the intellectual skills to use the technology and the social design of online environments.

But the central thesis of this paper is that the integration provides for new forms of interaction very different from reading a text, or watching a video or taking to a group. It is an evolving social construction. It is this blend of projected reality with communication that makes it possible to create a sense of shared place with the potential for different forms of social exchanges. This integration will have a profound effect on all aspects of our life from artistic expression to institutional practices encompassing, from our work to our play.

Currently on the Internet, students can interact with exhibits in a

A few brief descriptions will illustrate the notion of Internet as place, as virtual social contexts.

[remote]"Electronic field trips" to remote areas are designed by a number of different groups (see [remote]Jason's [remote]expeditions, [remote]Turner Adventure learning, and [remote] MECC's Interactive Explorer for examples.)

I will use the [remote]Live from Antarctica, students across the world were invited to join a research team and travel to Antarctica. An integrated use of live broadcasts, online environments, and classroom activities helped students experience the day to day preparations and work that is a part of a scientific adventure. Personal biographies, live dialog between students and researchers over broadcast television and Internet partnerships and activities helped the student share in doing science at the South Pole, dry valleys or on the ice shelf. In a demonstration of what is possible, students sitting in their classroom in Hawaii were able to direct an underwater robot with their classroom computers and live television to examine the ocean floor. They were able to converse with a diver while he was under the ice and water 6000 miles away! Students were virtually there, in a real educational context and without the need for wet suits.

But not all virtual spaces will be extensions of the real world. The sacred lands of Native Americans that no longer exist in reality can be reconstructed in a virtual context. Tribal leaders can take their children dislocated from one another to virtually constructed sacred places. Here they can learn the values that are central to their people. They can take part in tribal ceremonies that connect them across time and space to their past and forge new links to a collective future. This is a social construction that has value to a nation. (While this does not currently reside on the internet, there are many Native Americans working to create community with current web technology.)

A commerical service called ImagiNation(TM) creates an electronic neighborhood in cyberspace. In a primitive way, children design online images of themselves and provide self-assessments of game playing skills. ImagiNation(TM) is a social world, a place where children "see" each other and "invite" others to play games with them. Using computers linked by phone lines they can look for other kids to join them in board games like stratego and chess and action games like football or simulated air battles. Through play and talk they come to know peers from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

Finally there are number of text-based worlds--multi-user domains (MUDs) and [remote] Micromuse is one such world and it has an educational design. It is a city in a universe that combines science with fiction. You enter the world and can travel to a communication center, homes, science labs, museums or coffee houses. With some background in science you can be part of the team that blasts off on space crafts to study the universe. At present the collaborative construction of these worlds are text-based but this is soon to change as computer language systems like JAVA change the way we interact on networked computers.

It is only a matter of time before we will be able to project our travel through the corridors of the Internet, not as gophers, but as people looking, talking, and designing with those we encounter in these remote and reconstructed places.

Social Constructions

There will always be a sense of adventure and excitement associated with frontiers--they are wild and free. We can design these "places," within technical and social constraints, in ways that allow us to experiment with social reality. Freedom from time and space does not automatically lead to rewarding patterns of social discourse. Online communities face the same issues of freedom of speech vs. censorship, of security and control, of private and public spaces, of inclusion and exclusion, of unity and diversity, that exist in all social organizations. It takes intense and continual social negotiation to find the best balance between absolute freedom for citizens and collective control. There are net-based peace and freedom coalitions and government agencies that are actively debating issues of freedom and privacy, as the new rules or regulations for community security are designed. It takes a deep understanding of possible social worlds and reflection on how problems have been dealt with in many different pasts to understand and craft new conventions that fit a new world. People will find it necessary to weigh the benefits and costs of different social systems to find a way to create communities in the electronic frontier. Being a part of the process defines citizenship. And it is potentially open to learners of all ages.

The physical dimensions of a landscape offer distinct possibilities and establishes constraints to human interaction, but they do not constitute a village or community. Community building is a human, social activity. Villages are social entities not physical ones. So if we want to involve the whole village in the education of our children, we will need more much more than the land of the Internet--the physical spaces. We will need the social connections and constructions that form villages. Forming villages is social not technical engineering.

Design Issues for Creating Global Villages

It is not the case that if you build a space they will come. This truth is often discovered by those who think that transporting people to a common electronic location will result in intense and rewarding exchanges. If you involve people in building their own spaces, there is a better chance that they will stay but it will depend on the structure of the group. Even building together is not enough of a bond to create a community. An example might make this point more clear. As a university student I was part of a group that petitioned the university administration for a student meeting space. We were given an unused building that required serious repair. We spend months redesigning the space, painting, repairing, and furnishing, often spending our own resources. When it was completed we had our physical space, but we had no group purpose beyond designing the meeting space and a vague desire for community. The group dissolved shortly after the meeting space was finished.

Building physical space should not be confused with building community. A list serve, a conference or a web page, in and of itself, does not define community even if it is designed by a group of people working together, it is but a new dimension of physical space. It is the interactions and partnerships among and between the people who gather in these places that define a community. And these interactions will come to be perceived as "real" in the same way that we see talking on phones or listening to a president's adress on television is real. These experiences do not replace face to face contacts, any more than phone conversation replace meetings. They provide another form of social exchange that augment relationships and have real consequences.

There are many experts in building community in many different sectors of our social world. My personal experience and observations come from building online learning communities--Learning Circles--for well over a decade to promote learning and teaching in both students and teachers. I can see in this activity the seeds for large scale educational innovation. I think we may once again believe that it takes a whole village to raise a child, in fact, it takes many whole villages to give students the skills they will need to exist in a global economy.

The following four observations on the design of online communities are offered as a way of fostering dialogue on creating online communities. These communities don't form by having collections of people arrive in a place. They take social engineering and students and teachers can have active roles in building learning communities.

Communities of Practice: Online Learning Communities

1) Balance between Unity of Purpose and Diversity of Experiences

Communities of practice are people who share a collection of ideas, an activity, or a task. People are eager to find others with whom they share a passionate concern. Still, the value of community is more than affirmation, it involves a search for different ideas, new strategies or practices that might help members re-think their own ways. Successful communities building identify people who share an interest in a task or activity but approach it from different perspectives or with diverse experiences. In designing vibrant communities, unity of purpose needs to be balanced with rich diversity of experiences. This often necessitates communication across groups with different linguistic registers or conceptual ways of speaking, with different linguistic and cultural patterns or with different regional values. Learning how to respect and learn from differences is one of life's important lessons.

2) Size Of Group Is Related To The Purpose To Be Accomplished

The size of a community online has to be closely related to the task to be accomplished. Some tasks can best be accomplished in small work groups and other activities require large scale organizations. Community development often calls for small groups embedded in a larger organization. Similarly in networking scaling up can mean creating thousands of groups of 10 rather than one group with thousands of participants.

The size of a community online has to be closely related to the task to be accomplished. Some tasks can best be accomplished in small work groups and other activities require large scale organizations. Community development often calls for small groups embedded in a larger organization. Similarly in networking scaling up can mean creating thousands of groups of 10 rather than one group with thousands of participants.

The opportunities and obligations for participation are very different in a small group. There can be a shift from representational to participatory democracy. All participants can take an active and vocal role in "valuing" the exchange of information, ideas and plans.

Many successful efforts at designing online communities have found a way to balance small group affiliation with a larger sense of community (Classroom Clusters in National Geographic Kids Network, Learning Circles on the AT&T Learning Network, project-based conferences on I*EARN, serve as example). These online communities parallel the organization of groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts of America or the International Red Cross. In these national and international groups, there are troops or chapters that set their own goals and tasks but remain connected to those who work in other locations as part of a community with shared goals and values.

Size and structure of the online community are critical to long term success. Without careful planning, community growth leads to group fragmentation and failure.

3) Balance Between Defined Structure And Participant Creativity

For people to work in concert with one there needs to be some form of orchestration. However, some of the most exciting new developments in music have evolved from the creative process of [remote] Learning Circle Teacher's Guide.

4) Reflection And Evaluation Of Work

One of the most important part of any community is the valuing of their work and knowledge. The ideas and product must be in a format that can be shared, and others with access to this work need to determine its value. Every educational activity should be followed by a period of reflection. What did we learn? What do we think about what we learned? And, perhaps most importantly, what does our community think of what we have learned. Over the past decade, I have focused on involving students in "functional learning environments" or authentic tasks. Most often these tasks involve a publication phase. However, publishing implies an audience, a set of readers. A caution to online enthusiasm about publishing is that putting work on the web is not necessarily the same as publishing. Publishing implies a readership. The Internet could become a vast public storage system for information, but this is something quite different from having things published within a community of practice. The structure we evolve for "value-ing" information indexes community. We need to remember that writing is to an audience and there needs to be a relationship between writers and readers. They need to each be concerned about the other.

Inviting The Village Into The Classroom; Taking Students Out Into The Village

We send children to school to give them the opportunity to move beyond the constraints of family and friends to open to them a vast range of possible futures. However the classroom in today's society, by its very nature, is constraining. It isolates both students and teachers from many experiences that will help them to understand the past, develop skills for building a future, and to prepare for their role as citizens.

The best way to reform schools is to lessen the gap between the what is learned in school and what is needed in society. This is much wider than a school-to-work argument. It is not teaching students the skills of the workplace but rather teaching them how to participate in working relationships with others.

In our present society, no teacher can ever know enough to close that classroom door. A diploma or degree should be seen as an invitation to a community of learners, not a certificate of acquired knowledge. Life-long learning has to start with teachers. Past strategies of professional development, have taken the teacher out of the classroom, "filled them up" with "new" knowledge or skills and returning to the classroom with detailed recipes for filling students. Current models follow exactly the same process with one exception, the message is not to isolate student from society and not to passive "fill them up" with knowledge. To convey that message, the methods of professional development will have to change.

Life-long learning needs different models of professional development. Teachers need to be active and contributing members of communities of learners as a part of every school day and from within the classroom setting. It is the use of technology to create learning communities, a human intervention and not the technology itself, that may reform education. Learning takes place in the space between and among people. We need to dissolve and reconstruct the classroom in a connected world.

Active involvement of students in our communities has many positive benefits but is not without negative ones. Students actively involved in partnerships in online communities of intellectual practice will understand that knowledge is a social construction. They will understand at a deeper level how information is transformed into knowledge. They will understand that our social, political and economic institutions are of our construction, not beyond us. Virtual rather than physical presence makes it possible for them to be safe from the physical dangers in some working environments. However, there are many intellectual and social dangers in taking students out into the World. Students will need to learn different safety precautions. Collectively, we will have to take personal responsibility of protecting children if we give them more access to the adult world.

Students and teachers need to learn from many different mentors. But the inverse is also true. Community members need to reflect on what they value, what skills and abilities they feel need to be part of the next generation. If public education involves the whole village, we will be a different people. We would not blame teachers or schools for failing to solve society's problems. We collectively will be responsible for what takes place in schools. Schools will be a reflection of who we are as a people. All of us will be part of a national or international dialog with students and their teachers about what we value.

In the information age, factual knowledge is plentiful. What is scarce is the intellectual work of giving value to information, of transforming information into useful knowledge systems. This is the work of communities. We need to help students understand that communities work together to connect information into meaningful interpretations. Students need to be part of the process of evaluating information, not simple the passive recipient of valued knowledge.

In the end I return to the beginning, if it takes a whole village to raise a child, what are we collectively doing to prepare the next generation for their role in society? The electronic world offers a new terrain, a space for collaboration, but creating national and international community is the work of people, not wires, or interaction, not information.
(This paper will appear in the 1996 Winter issue of ISTE SIG/Tel Technology in Education (T.I.E.) Newsletter.)