Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

8 October 2008

Cyberlearning (ahem)

Clark @ 4:14 PM

A high-powered panel assembled by the NSF has reported on The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge.  With people like Christine Borgman (Chair), Ken Koedinger, Marcia Linn, and Roy Pea (to name just the ones I’ve met), you’d expect some pretty clear thinking.  (So where did they get the term ‘cyberlearning’?  Yuck!)

Defining cyberlearning as “the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning”, they’re obviously onto the right stuff.  I couldn’t agree more about the potential for these technologies to transform learning.  As I’ve mentioned before, the technology is no longer the barrier, it’s now our imagination and conviction.  And now that we can do anything we want, when we go back and look at most formal learning, we realize it’s based on an outdated model.

Without having read the full report, let alone reporting on it here, I did have some thoughts on their top-level recommendations, that I thought I’d recite:

1. Help build a vibrant cyberlearning field by promoting cross-disciplinary communites of cyberlearning researchers and practitioners

Regardless of label, working at this in an interdisciplinary way is absolutely the way to go.  The conceptual foundations for the categories/silos are crumbling, so too should the barriers.  I realize this is the NSF, but I hope that they’d also reach out to the Dept of Ed, corporations, NFPs, etc.  Maybe even independent consultants?  :)

2. Instill a “platform perspective” – shared interoperable designs of hardware, software, and services – into NSF’s cyberlearning activities

This is insightful.  Using their resources to facilitate, whether through grants or even requirements for projects, interoperability and (the other meaning of) web 2.0 ‘software as a service’ approach could pay off in a big way.  Society has a vested interest in an open playing field.

3. Emphasize the transformative power of information and communications technology for learning, from K to grey

I love the phrase “K to grey”; far better than ‘cradle to grave’, ‘womb to tomb’, or anything else I’ve heard.  And I like the emphasis on going beyond formal and institutional learning.  Make those skills part of the infrastructure!  I presume they mean those terms inclusively, that is it could start before K, (in some small ways only, not bashing kids onto computers, but allowing digital tech to be part of the environment), and continue after you’re grey (or I’m in big trouble!).

And it’s more.  They talk about interaction with visualizations and data, etc, but I want to also talk about bridging formal and informal, moving to an apprenticeship model with greater ways for people to interact around topics, and create communities.  They emphasize teachers, but I want to suggest that, increasingly, we’re all teachers, as well as learners.

4. Adopt programs and policies to promote open educational resources

This, to me, is really a revisitation of the ‘platform’ proposal as well.  Open API’s, open source, and open education.  We all stand to benefit, I reckon.  They’re talking about materials generated with NSF funds, but even materials used as part of NSF projects should err on the side of open materials.

5. Take responsibility for sustaining NSF-sponsored cyberlearning innovations

This last one seems like a ‘given’, but it’s really about saying that the output of NSF projects should have maintenance and extension beyond the project finish.  I like this; for NSF SBIR grants (I reviewed them a couple of times) you’re supposed to have a business plan; even pure research grants could have ‘put into action’ components in the proposal.

There are lots more specific recommendations, good ones, in the report.  It’s a bit biased towards formal education, but still is visionary.  This is a useful time to push initiatives like this, and I hope the report leads to the interdisciplinary efforts called for.

While I realize we’ve more pressing immediate concerns that might govern our near-term ‘man on the moon’ project, I still think a full K12 curriculum online would be a really cool project.  The only limits are now ‘between our ears’ as my friend Carl used to say.  If we can do anything, what will we do?


  1. I think they call it “Cyberlearning” because if you’re blowing $10 million of NSF grant money to develop a proposal for yet more consulting gigs, you better come up with something better than “eLearning” to talk about. I had great expectations after reading the Exec Summary but found the content of this report surprisingly shallow.

    What a waste, to have academics doing “research,” only to come up with sources like this one:

    Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Guys, it was a cool book in ’48, but its current relevance is questionable.

    Comment by Jay Cross — 11 October 2008 @ 8:02 AM

  2. Kia ora.

    It’s the 21st Century.

    Education, in its broadest sense, has covered a lot of ground and many ideas have been revisited since the first flint and tablet.

    The best way to appear to innovative when resurrecting an old idea (that people explored decades ago) is to give it a new name. Few people will remember when the old idea was discussed and explored. Many won’t necessarily be old enough to have known about it.

    Besides, postmodernism eschews the grand narrative. That’s to say, nobody wants to know the history of any past invention or idea any more. They don’t really want to know about the origins.

    So a new name is just the ticket.

    Pity about the name.

    Comment by Ken Allan — 18 October 2008 @ 2:26 PM

  3. Ken, a bit cynical, but probably too apt. Sometimes, though, it’s worth revisiting an idea. Do recall when it took 3 times to get my advisor interested in ‘explorability’ in interfaces.

    Comment by Clark — 24 October 2008 @ 10:48 AM

  4. I have been pushing for a centralized repository of truly well thought out and intelligently designed courses covering every aspect of high school and many aspects of college learning. Algebra is Algebra, Chemistry is Chemistry, and History is basically the same everywhere it is taught, yet every teacher needs to create their own syllabus, design their own tests, and basically reinvent the wheel. Yes, I know publishers create text books and provide tests and teacher guides, but consider if the country hired the likes of Ken Burns to create a US History course with video clips more appropriate to the classroom than the wonderful but lengthy 15 hour video series; what might he create? We might rearrange how we structured our classrooms and our class schedules to provide longer periods so such content can make sense. Chopping the day up into 45 minute segments with 30% of that time wasted on non-subject issues leaves little time for a more creative approach. If we tasked filmmakers and educators and computer scientists to collaboration creating truly innovative course content there is no doubt that the likes of George Lucas and our best educators and most innovative software talent could create content that would hold students riveted.

    The NSF initiative is a good start but since it is government and it is subject to political influences and of course the inevitable delays, it could very well be another decade before we start to see truly compelling content for the LMS and other systems the NSF is seeking. I’m less interested in “cyberlearning” than in just plain old learning. The country has spent billions on wiring classrooms and providing laptops and broadband service, yet our educational system is still broken and we still only graduate 70% of high school students and of those that do graduate, the majority are not prepared for college or the workforce. I am all for cyberlearning if it will help in plain old learning, but so far, there is little evidence that without decent content and decent teachers we will ever see the Internet or other technologies make our kids better educated. The fact that kids can remain riveted to their keyboard for hours and hours a day and can play video games for an equal amount of time tells us that it isn’t their attention span, it’s the content. I have known kids that can’t identify the vice-president of the United States or identify Wyoming as a state, yet they can rattle off batting statistics for every player in the National League. It’s not their ability to learn, it’s their motivation to learn and unless the “cyber-content” is compelling you’ll never get them to put down the video controller and take the time to explore the chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen that makes water.

    Comment by Russ Bradford — 17 February 2009 @ 12:50 PM

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